The Meaning of Trump
I have to say this. People outside of the United States do not understand what’s going on in this election, they really don’t.
President Obama said this in his speech at the Democratic National Convention while extolling Hillary Clinton’s respected position across the world as a capable representative of America, exporting “freedom and dignity and human rights” to Burma and the Baltics. He reassured the Democrats that the world was incredulous along with them at the rise of Trump as a serious contender for the position of the leader of the free world. Now I am no Burmese farmer but Trump isn’t an ‘outlier’ as much as the result of shedding off “freedom and human rights” like used clothes that America finds restrictive and outmoded, giving them away for the benefit of poorer countries.
Democrats see Trump and his followers as dangerously stupid at best and fascists at worst, compared to Hillary who is a whip-smart operator. Her league of qualified technocrats will facilitate innovation and entrepreneurship that has made America the engine of the world. IMO, overt stupidity isn’t so dangerous since it can be checked (I look forward to the impeachment of Trump if elected. We might even get to see a military coup in US!) but covert intelligence, the sort of smug knower-than-thou attitude with which Democrats go about disregarding rules and then ask us to “grow up” and accept the cost of realpolitik, all the while feeding us mealy-mouthed corporatese or plain old fear, that is a cartoonish imitation of supervillainy.
All this became quite clear over the two weeks of conventions. The Republican convention had amateurish optics. The party machine didn’t know what to do with Trump or his supporters. After some early attempts at disqualifying him, they let him operate his campaign although he was kept at an arm’s length from the establishment and received no support from regular Republican donors.
The Democratic convention though was an unmitigated shitshow. The primaries leading up to the convention were already tainted with stories of voter disenfranchisement through re-registration, closing polling booths or simple erasure. Similar measures have been taken by the Labour party in England to stem the tide of discontent that appointed Corbyn as the challenger to the Neoliberal consensus that has dominated Labour for decades. None of this implies a conspiracy of electoral fraud perpetrated by the Democrats. It does, however, point to a broken and baroque electoral process (more a popularity contest now) that has been ably gamed for pushback against popular demand or scrutiny.
But if it’s (incompetent) conspiracy you wanted, you got it on the opening day of DNC. Wikileaks dropped a database of unredacted emails between the Democratic party and Hillary campaign revealing what everyone suspected anyway — that Sanders was not only being sidelined by the establishment but that they discussed sabotaging his campaign. Money laundering, espionage, comically tone-deaf marketing statements on brand loyalty of hispanics — the party machine untiring in its efforts to set a new low.
The Democratic party responded to the leaks by throwing Debbie under the bus and then straight away launched into time-tested red-baiting, saying the leaks were an attempt by Russia to manipulate American elections. Obama at the DNC implied similarly when he said “That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.” The truth is that the leaks can be attached at best to hacking techniques and software associated with Russian hacking crews.
After Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton (triggering walkouts by some delegations), the convention pivoted right so hard that some Republicans were in tears by the end of the DNC, bawling at the sight of American pageantry. An apt moment that captured Democrats being no less jingoistic and gung-ho about the American future than past Republicans came when protesters chanting “stop the war” were drowned out by counter-chants of “U-S-A!” and their section was literally thrown into darkness.
Why do I recite a series of bubbles being popped that the populace would rather forget or never heard in the first place? Because it reveals that the Democratic party machine put in much more effort than Republicans to deny, attack and downplay discontent. Ironically, the Republicans seem more ‘democratic’ because of their inept handling of Trump, who represents popular political will of the right, while the Democrats threw everything at the insurgency from the left to suppress it successfully. After some lip-service to the vanquished, they redoubled their efforts to bring centrists together on a bipartisan message upholding the status-quo.
The Liberal Commentariat
Hillary’s campaign could do without all this nuisance from below. Various parodies attest to the indifference of her campaign to campaigning. Her message is naked neoliberalism — We are in permanent economic emergency and America requires a crisis manager to steward it ever forward on the path of techno-militancy. For her supporters, her presidency is just her destiny. Who would grudge the rise of a fated heroine to her rightful place?
But she must deign to democratic compulsions and so we are treated to the message-free messaging of technocratese that dominates the speakers’ circuit. This is the legacy of Obama’s presidency that Hillary will continue— to reduce the office to optics while expanding and exercising executive powers beyond the pale of democratic accountability. Obama will be remembered for inaugurating the first presidential instagram account, replacing political engagement with a 24/7 behind-the-scenes photoshoot. This focus on optics is justified by their supporters as politics already — Just the presence of a black dude or a white woman in the presidential chair is historical enough, much like Jay-Z could say that his presence was charity already.
The optics of patriotism was not the only thing to rival Republicans at the DNC — the Democrats finished on that note but began every speech re-affirming family values. As Jill Lepore said in her New Yorker article, “the love of children [is] an all-purpose proxy for each fraying bond, each abandoned civic obligation, the last, lingering devotion”. The optics of Democratic family values take on an erotic charge from the supporters who relate to their leaders as fans. So we get commentary on the nominees from the ‘fuck me daddy’ crowd — is this a candidate you could have a beer with? How about a blow job? The same crowd loses no opportunity to point out the creepiness of Trump’s acceptance (and even pride) of his daughter’s sexuality, unexpected considering the chastity and repression usually associated with Republicans.
The unseemly triumphalism of liberals quickly turns to naked terror and smarmy sentimentalism in moments of uncertainty— suddenly we are asked to consider the minorities, who take the place of the children of the future in the now. While Republican invocation of fear is a regular opening ritual, on the Democratic side it serves as a last resort. In any case, we end up with people across the political spectrum reasoning from fear, from the place of a victim. Curiously, whichever side gains power continues to think like a victim — expecting the worst to re-occur, it lashes out pre-emptively. Thus we get the strange spectacle of a trembling superpower before a paralyzed victim, like all those cops overkilling all those black guys, Iraq, etc.
Apart from paranoia about Russian interference, other cold war anxieties are re-activated — imagine buffoons like Trump and Kim Jong with the nuclear option. Dangerous indeed but not crazy. What is crazy, much like recreational assault rifles, is that nuclear holocaust remains part of foreign policy.
The Meaning of Trump
Liberals find it hard to accept Trump as a leader because he is too American; For the same reason, the rest of the world sees Trump as a selfie of America. He is a product of thirty years of neoliberalism (from the city where the program was first enacted) embodying it’s worst aspects — a vacuous rapacity in the pursuit of money and attention. He is the cultural outcome of MBA degrees, Home Shopping networks and reality tv — a culture of bullshit. He represents the zeitgeist today as much as Fred Durst at the turn of the millennium (although Fred was against bullshit, specially of the he-says-she-says variety). New Yorkers blame hipsters from Williamsburg for gentrifying the city these days but there is a long tradition of lamenting the decline in city culture. Alex Cockburn marked the beginning of neoliberal regime with Trump, “He [Alex] loved the density and flamboyant energy of New York, but moved on when he felt the quicksand of ’80s vulgarity, “Trumpismo,” flowing close.” Needless to say, Hillary is also from the same milieu.
We can find political parallels to Trump’s campaign for comparison. Two years ago another ‘fascist’ was running for Prime Ministers of India, Modi, but then he turned out to be more neoliberal and corporatist than the liberal establishment. This is the best outcome liberals can hope for — that Trump continues with the status quo. Sadly, there is a difference between Trump and Modi — Trump (aka Mr. Brexit) is part of a wave of isolationism in the heart of Anglo empire, a new development in the first world. Liberals are justifiably scared of their future under Trump, but the world is scared of Hillary — Trump’s talk of reducing American military presence and engagement, the sprawl of empire, is welcome although a coup is far more likely than a radical shift in foreign policy under him.
Trump signifies a shift, a re-alignment along the political axis of the major American parties. The Democrats have moved so far center-right that the extreme right was pushed off the screen and re-appeared on the other side, like aliens in space invaders, imbibing elements of the left. Thomas Frank explains it best,
The party of free trade and free markets now says it wants to break up Wall Street banks and toss Nafta to the winds. The party of family values has nominated a thrice-married vulgarian who doesn’t seem threatened by gay people or concerned about the war over bathrooms. The party of empire wants to withdraw from foreign entanglements.
…it was only possible for our liberal leaders to be what they are — a tribe of sunny believers in globalization and its favored classes — as long as the Republicans held down their left flank for them. Democrats could only celebrate globalization’s winners and scold its uneducated losers so long as there was no possibility that they might face a serious challenge on the matter from the other party in the system.
Well, today all that has changed. The free-trade consensus lies in shards on the floor. The old Republican party has been smashed by this man Trump. It is a new political world out there… So far, Democrats are acting as though nothing has really changed. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.
This particular faceoff is better understood in the context of alternative outcomes of the primaries. If the establishment was in tune with the public (imagine ideal democracy), then we would have Sanders Vs Trump — the real conflict for the soul of America played out in electoral politics. If the establishment wasn’t bothered by the public (imagine ideal kleptocracy), then we would have Clinton Vs Cruz — a battle between drones in a Game-of-Thrones style showdown. But the choice that is facing American voters is Clinton Vs Trump — not much of a choice since Clinton and Trump both are neoliberals. Yet, Trump is bullshitting that he is anti-establishment and the risk is that even if he is not serious (or coherent) about his bullshit, the people supporting him are numerous and seriously pissed off.
The left is defined by its antagonism to the state. If the left becomes part of the establishment, it remembers to keep a distance to the state which is only an instrument for emancipation. To identify with the state as a patriot, that is what liberals do and why they are not the left. They believe in the American mission, to wipe out the left wherever it emerges, and they have been quite successful too. This success has caught up with them domestically. By wiping out the popular insurgency on the Democratic side and denying an existential crisis in the neoliberal programme, imploring us to ‘Keep America Great’, they have ceded ground to the anti-establishment Republican candidate, who, however cartoonish and phony, is now the only representative of actual popular discontent. The Democrats have turned this election into a referendum on the American dream giving the warped imagination of the right a real chance.
Socialism in a single country, like Trump promises, national socialism, is the definition of fascism. Internationalism without socialism, well that’s that neoliberal crap America has been feeding the world for decades now. So can we imagine a politics beyond status quo and fear mongering? Well of course. Hillary Clinton could, if she wanted, channel her appetite for militarism towards the environment, putting the reversal of climate change and shift from fossil fuel economy on a war footing. Saving the planet should be an ambitious enough goal for her.
The depressing reality is that whoever comes to power can hijack the American state’s turn towards fascism, the shadow process accompanying neoliberalism. It began with militarization of police during the war on drugs, expanding the incarceration complex and disbanding welfare programs, and then gained steam after 9/11 turning into a surveillance state. The innovation of Obama was to take war away from popular consciousness and hide it at the edge of perception, normalizing the state of perpetual war with secret courts, a ‘legal’ shadow state and personally signing off on drone murders. Superhero movies do their part in re-orienting the cultural matrix on such lines with zero calorie ruminations on the cost of life.
Democracy is a nuisance for neoliberal technocrats and funny fascists. Please resume your regular programming of fear & money now. Here’s my candidate.