Trump, Trumpism and the Nevada primary

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Trump, Paul Ryan and Dean Heller in December. (Image: White House YouTube channel)

Early voting ended Friday and Election Day is Tuesday. But the most momentous day of Nevada’s 2018 primary campaign came and went in March, when Trump ordered one of his gushing sycophants to step aside and make way for another.

Could Danny Tarkanian have beaten Dean Heller? Had Trump stayed out of it, absolutely. After Trump’s directive? Maybe.

We’ll never know. Tarkanian’s acquiescence effectively allowed Trump to cast the sole and deciding vote in the primary, depriving Nevada Republicans of a choice. Heller will sail on to face Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen in the general.

Tarkanian, campaigning for the same congressional seat he lost two years ago, will likely sail to the general as well. One of his opponents, school privatization zealot Scott Hammond, initially borrowed the centerpiece of the Heller campaign’s anti-Tarkanian strategy. Tarkanian is a “perennial loser,” Hammond warned GOP voters. Hammond and other opponents have since dialed down their campaigns to today’s Republican default settings: Loving Trump, unconditionally, and more than any other living being possibly could.

The problem with that approach, politically (rational and moral problems with the proposition are too voluminous to note in this space), is that when everyone’s special, no one is. Except maybe that one guy whose dad was famous.

Meantime, token opponents have filed against the comedy duo of Michael Roberson and Adam Laxalt. The bungling but bullying Roberson should have enough institutional (i.e., Adelsonian) oomph to win his primary for lieutenant governor, while the usually puzzled but doe-eyed and happy-go-lucky Laxalt has been lovingly wrapped by his (Adelsonian) handlers in a hermetically sealed package of lavishly financed inevitability.

Like Heller and Tarkanian, Roberson and Laxalt have fully embraced Trump and Trumpism, and cynically appealed to white identity politics, particularly via scaremongering over so-called sanctuary cities.

Roberson has been the designated politics of white grievance attack dog. His calculation, evidently shared by campaign professionals guiding all the Republican campaigns, is that Nevada Democrats won’t show up for midterm elections. Roberson & Co. may be right.

I confess I’ve a perverse wish to see Roberson win, not just Tuesday, but in November – provided Laxalt loses in November.

Nevada lieutenant governor is a part-time position with no in-box. It’s the most pointless, irrelevant elected office in this or any other country. If Roberson wins and Laxalt loses, Roberson would effectively be saddled with zero responsibilities beyond the constitutional duties of the office (break a tie in a state senate that already has an odd number of members, and become governor if the real governor gets hit by a meteoroid). Roberson would likely spend 4 years cutting ribbons at new smoke shops and nail salons in strip malls, perhaps finally accomplishing what even Lonnie Hammargen’s desire to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a stuntman more than 20 years ago could not: convince Nevadans once and for all that the position of lieutenant governor should be stripped from the constitution. But even more importantly, strip mall ribbon-cutting is the public and policy arena the Trump-imitating Roberson has rightfully earned and richly deserves.

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In Nevada’s Democratic primary, Trump and Trumpism have played a far smaller role. In a way, that’s unfortunate.

Clark County district attorney candidate Robert Langford has introduced the concept of criminal justice reform to the race for an office traditionally known for cop and casino coddling and garden variety law & order rhetoric. In the fourth congressional district, Amy Vilela, unlike other candidates in the race, was championing sweeping economic progressivism well before everyone knew that Rep. Ruben Kihuen had met a problem he couldn’t smile his way out of.

But Langford and Vilela are exceptions.

As a rule, political campaigns mark neither the time nor the place to bring up issues that actually matter. The utmost priority of a political campaign, after all, is to win.

And so apart from Harry Reid on TV assuring everyone that Steve Sisolak can stand up to bullies, it’s difficult to see how the gubernatorial primary between Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani would be much different if the president were, say, Hillary Clinton, or Marco Rubio.

The indecency and inhumanity unleashed by Trumpism has inflicted damage that will take generations to heal, if it ever does. Meantime, Giunchigliani and Sisolak have either sniped at each other over banal micro-scandals, or faithfully tried to convince anyone who will listen that they’re “for” education.

In other words, business as usual.

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After Tuesday’s primary, Trump will be the issue for the rest of the election – no matter what the campaign consultants have their clients say or do. For Republicans, no tax cut, no wall, no policy could ever be as richly satisfying as the gratification derived from irritating those who disdain Trump. Republicans won’t go to the polls in November because Dean Heller gave their grandchild’s boss a tax cut or because Adam Laxalt hates California. Republicans will go to the polls because they want to stick it to Democrats.

And Democrats will go to the polls because Trump is demonstrably and dangerously unfit for public office and Republicans know it but refuse to do anything about it.

Economic inequality, affordable housing, wages and working conditions, public transportation, affordable and accountable financial services, student debt relief, criminal justice reform, child and senior care and a number of other problems have been ignored for far too long. Had the long-term catastrophic consequences of Trump been more openly acknowledged, perhaps the Democratic primary would have focused more urgently on problems that make life harder than it needs to be. Instead, the primary has featured poll-tested, strategist-approved noise of the sort heard in any typical election cycle.

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Trump is happy to tell Heller, Tarkanian and their fellow Republicans what to do. And they do what he says.

Trump isn’t going to tell them to overturn structural inequities. And even if Democrats win control of Congress, unless their majorities are veto-proof, the best-case scenario in Washington D.C. for the remainder of Trump’s term is stalemate.

Nevada and Nevadans must tackle systemic social and economic injustices on their own, at the local and state level. There was scant indication of any such effort on the horizon during the primary. If the general election campaign proves more substantive, well, better late than later.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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