Flouting The Establishment

February 18, 2020 Category: Domestic Politics

If those who are not ideologically-committed to the ultra-right-wing want a desirable outcome in the 2020 presidential election, it is important they understand why NON-ultra-right-wing endeavors (encompassing Progressives and corporatist Democrats alike) imploded four years earlier.  It was not because the Democratic candidate was too far to the “Left”.  And it certainly was not because she was too populist…let alone too Progressive.  It was because Hillary Clinton–the only alternative to Donald Trump–was off-putting to many swing voters.  There were two main reasons for this:

  • She countenanced some of the daft pieties of political correct-ness, which many swing-voters found off-putting.
  • As a corporatist Democrat, she was effectively the vicar of the very thing that on-the-fence voters were so set against: the “Establishment”.

There were, of course, a confluence of factors that led to the disastrous outcome in 2016–among them: the glaring inauthenticity of Trump’s adversary (not to mention the DNC’s now-exposed machinations to prevent Bernie Sanders from receiving the Democratic nomination). {1}

As I hope to show here, these two factors explain Clinton’s loss.  Indeed, they represented things for which the rank and file had–and continues to have–contempt; and for very good reason.  (The fact that Clinton ran what Barack Obama described as a “scripted, soul-less campaign” didn’t help either.)  There are effectual and ineffectual ways to promote Progressive ideals; and the 2016 election illustrated–more than anything else–what NOT to do.

But, comes a common response, what of misogyny and racism?  These are certainly valid concerns; and serious problems in need of addressing.  Yet to chalk Clinton’s loss up to bigotry–which is, indeed, very real in some segments of the polis–is to miss the point of WHY what happened happened as it did.  For those who are right-leaning enough to be bigoted were never going to vote for a Democrat anyway.

Incessantly chastising the most odious sectors of the electorate helps nobody.  Courting such voters is pointless; as they are–with very few exceptions–a lost cause.  It is pointless to focus (what is already very limited) time and energy on those who are already too far-gone, and cannot be reasoned with.  Reason is not what determines the worldview of such people.  And it is just as foolhardy to castigate denizens of these “lost” precincts as it is to pander to them.  (As has been demonstrated in every election since 1980, fundamentalist Christians will ALWAYS vote for whoever the G.O.P. candidate might be, even if he is obviously not a Christian.)

Meanwhile, pretending that anyone who fails to toe the party line is ipso facto PART OF that reprehensible segment of the polis only succeeds in turning off almost everyone else (i.e. those who may be on the fence, and persuadable when reasoned with).  Roughly 10% of voters (that is: between 9 and 10 million people) who had voted for Obama four years earlier ended up pulling the lever for Trump in 2016.  Many of them had voted for Obama twice.  Those people were not racist.  There was clearly something else driving their choices.  The fact is that many voters who got swept up in Trump fervor did so for lack of a credible alternative.  Such people may well have been otherwise inclined to back a genuinely Progressive candidate (who spoke to them in the way they needed to be spoken to); and opted for Trump by default.  In some ways, this says more about the options open to them than anything else.

Before proceeding, a word on logistics is necessary.  Here in the U.S., presidential elections are decided not by the vast majority of the electorate; or even by just the “swing voters”.  Due to America’s skewed electoral calculus, elections are decided exclusively by THE SWING VOTERS IN THE SWING STATES.  That is: Irrespective of political party, a candidate prevails only by securing the swing-states’ points in the electoral college, which is often on a knife’s edge, ready to teeter one way or the other, depending on which kind of perturbation happens to sway them at the time.  (See Appendix 2.)

For better or worse, it’s the swing-voters that make the pivotal difference in the electoral college.  Consequently, it is incorrect to suppose that Trump triumphed due to factors that were NOT salient with that particular segment of the electorate.   To fixate on things that define hidebound ideologues (that is: those who would never vote for anyone other than the G.O.P. candidate) is to squander vital resources.

It is imperative that Progressives understand why the Democratic candidate lost in 2016…lest the same mistake be repeated, leading to a second victory for Trump.  This entails focusing on the motivations of swing-voters; not on trying to convert True Believers.

Once we understand this, it becomes clear that over the course of 2016, anti-Trump PR was poorly orchestrated.  During that pivotal time, the strategy employed by non-Trump supporters was to attack Trump supporters for being bigots.  By labeling Trump’s advocates racists and/or sexists, gas was thrown on an already blazing conflagration. {14}

When it has come to any presidential race, those who actually were bigots were never going to be persuaded to switch their support to the Democratic nominee–especially after being castigated for being bigoted.  Meanwhile, once tentative Trump-supporters (i.e. NON-bigots who may have fancied Trump) heard their perceived political adversaries lumping them in with ACTUAL bigots, they were pushed even further into Trump’s camp.  Throwing in their lot for a bumbling demagogue was essentially a “Go fuck yourself” to all those who considered them deplorable.  (In other words, their urge to pull the lever for Trump was not so much out of support for right-wing political positions; it was an act of defiance.)

To reiterate:  When it comes to campaigns, focused as they are on the near-term, die-hard ideologues are NOT the target audience when it comes to persuasion. {15}

Meanwhile, in relevant segments of the polis, support for Trump was often more out of spite than out of a well-thought-out assessment of Trump’s (comically vague) policy proposals.  The ham-fisted strategy of the Clinton campaign–alienating large swaths of the American electorate–simply gave POTENTIAL Trump supporters more to be spiteful about.

This brings us to the present assessment.  My singular aim is to proffer an explication of why SWING VOTERS (particularly those in swing-states) opted to either stay home or–out of some virulent combination of spite and frustration–pull the lever for Trump in 2016.  This fickle part of the electorate was–understandably–seething with resentment; and seeking to vent in whatever way presented itself.  As it happened, such people ended up channeling their ire against the figure who seemed to most embody the despised Washington Machine (Clinton); opting instead for a wild-card who railed against the status quo and spouted bold promises (Trump).

This was not (necessarily) because such voters were misogynistic and/or racist.  Rather, it was because they were fed up; and–consequently–highly susceptible to the wiles of a demagogue who “spoke their language” in the most accessible (read: simplistic) manner.  In short: These swing-voters were credulous and disoriented; so easily hoodwinked.  Their vote for Trump was not the result of some meticulous process of critical deliberation; it was a strident rebuke.

And so it went: A tough-talking, tell-it-like-it-is “outsider” seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.  Perceptions are EVERYTHING; so it didn’t matter that–in reality–he NEVER told it like it really was; or that he was just as much an insider as anyone who’d ever sought the Oval Office.  The irrefutable fact is that almost all of Trump’s policy positions were–and continue to be–indistinguishable from those of any ultra-right-wing politician of the past generation: from abortion and guns to taxes and corporate welfare.  (If anything, he went FARTHER rightward–as with accelerated support for Israel’s fascist regime.)

Here, I will refrain from addressing the many reasons to vote for the only viable Progressive candidate in the 2020 race (who also happened to be the only viable candidate in the 2016 race): Bernie Sanders.  The present essay is not a disquisition on policy.  In any case, Sanders’ positions are already well-known:

  • His recognition of healthcare as a human right (that is: treating it as a public service rather than a consumer product)
  • His support for a “green New Deal” (transitioning the country to clean energy)
  • His endeavor to end the Warfare economy (curbing the obscenely-bloated military-industrial complex)
  • His determination to reverse the massive tax-breaks / subsidies for large corporations and the ultra-wealthy (thereby ending corporate socialism)
  • His long, consistent track-record on supporting civil rights.

Of course, those are all very good reasons to support Sanders.  But it wasn’t his endeavor to reign in the for-profit sick-ness treatment industry…or his mission to get all money out of politics…that drove people into Trump’s arms in 2016.  And it wouldn’t be a reason for any sane person to opt for Trump in 2020 either.

Rather than litigate the merit of specific policy proposals, the purpose of this essay is to ensure the explanation for Trump’s triumph in 2016 is crystal clear.  My hope is that the American electorate does not make the same mistakes in the 2020 election that it made four years earlier.

So the thesis here is relatively simple: Trump was victorious in the 2016 presidential election because so many people (particularly swing voters in swing states) were repelled by p.c. culture; and craved ANYONE who seemed to rage against “the Machine”.

Hence it is to the motivation of SWING VOTERS that we turn.  Predictably, we are presently (in 2020) seeing a reprise of 2016, with the corporatist Democrats (who are sure to lose again to Trump) pitted against Progressives (who’s standard-bearer continues to be Bernie Sanders).  To repeat: Sanders–we now know–would have won THEN, and will surely win if given a chance NOW.

Alas.  As with last time, the Establishment–along with mainstream media–is gunning for the former.  CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have shown unabashed, unrelenting contempt for Progressives-in-general, and for Sanders in particular; as has the DNC, DLC, CAP, and every other corporatist arm of the Democratic party.  The contention that such “mainstream” operations are even remotely concerned with Progressive ideals is risible.

The fact of the matter is that the apparatchiks of corporatism–in both its Republican and Democratic incarnations–despise Progressives and everything they stand for.  But swing-voters are not doomed to sycophancy.  They can be won over by a genuinely Progressive option, should it present itself cogently.

Meanwhile, corporatist Democrats despise Sanders (too far left) as much as they despise Trump (too far right).  Put another way: They don’t like Trump because he’s even farther to the right than THEY are; and they don’t like Sanders because he isn’t far enough to the right. (See Appendix 4.)

The question, then, is: Have NON-right-wing voters finally learned their lesson?  Or will we have a repeat of the 2016 election in store for us?  Should a 2016 redux occur in 2020 (entailing a second term for Trump), it will be for roughly the same reason: Espousing an Establishmentarian (i.e. corporatist) candidate who flies the “Democrat” banner; and who abides political correctness in a fumbling attempt at moral preening.

We will look at each of these problems in turn.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS:

Let’s start with political correctness–replete with all the absurdities of identity politics and the cloying pageant of faux outrage over the latest frivolity du jour.  The dismaying results of the 2016 election served as a deafening repudiation of the p.c. approach to social justice–an approach that animated the campaign of Clinton and her (ersatz-Progressive) acolytes.

The results of the election (especially in the Rust Belt) was a reminder that–far from helping to promote social justice–p.c. tends to just annoy a lot of people; turning them away from (Progressive) causes that they may have otherwise supported.

Too often, p.c.-mongers exhort us to sacrifice candor on the altar of propriety.  As Progressives who have the merit of our convictions to offer, we need to stop doing that.  The 2016 election made all-too-clear that p.c. alienates potential allies; driving crucial parts of the electorate (spec. swing voters) away from Progressive policy choices–the merit of which does not depend on divisive argumentation.  Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential race served as a demonstration of this phenomenon.

For anyone familiar with right-wing commentary, it should be quite clear: By incorporating p.c. into their repertoire, those on the “Left” only furnish Reactionaries with anti-liberal fodder, thereby emboldening those who may have nascent right-wing proclivities.  Put another way: The repercussion of countenancing p.c. is the provision of rhetorical ammunition to right-wing rabble-rousers. {2}  To wit: Progressivism does not require p.c.; rather, it is positively hamstrung by it.

Indeed, p.c. is the ultimate saboteur of the Progressive cause, as it is invariably associated with the “Left”…and thus, erroneously, with Progressives.  Being as it is authoritarian and puritanical, p.c. is antithetical to Progressive ideals.  In their sanctimonious posturing and censorious attitude, p.c.-mongers are manifestly illiberal–just another version of any other sermonizers who are obsessed with etiquette (call it: semantic prudery).  It passes propriety off as a prosthesis for probity; and so abjures us to castigate anyone who deviates from the latest puritanical catechism.

In the end, p.c. is little more than a discursive poultice laced with sugar-coated toxins.  It is a regimen of blasphemy laws operating under the auspices of social-justice reform.  To be an aficionado of p.c. is to be anti-Progressive; and to ensure that swing voters are alienated by the “Left”.

Yet rejecting p.c. is not enough.  After all, TRUMP flouted p.c. to staggering aplomb.  Just as any idiot can be politically correct, any idiot can be politically incorrect.  On November 8, 2016, it was made clear that neither the protocols of p.c. NOR the mere repudiation of it is the ultimate solution to the problems that afflict America’s disoriented, perpetually-distracted polis.

That it is not enough to eschew p.c. is illustrated by the fact that the majority of anti-p.c. sentiment comes from nefarious quarters of the American agora (that is: from the ultra-right of the political spectrum).  Indeed, being politically incorrect is no guarantee of honesty–as has been demonstrated throughout history by brazen demagogues who employ a brusque tell-it-like-it-is schtick.

In the U.S. presidential primaries of 1968, white-supremacist George Wallace amassed a large following.  His appeal (beyond the usual paeans to Christian Dominionism, “states’ rights”, and “law and order”) was his refusal to mince words.  In a world where mealy-mouthed rhetoric is de rigueur, this was rather refreshing–even if the SUBSTANCE of his politics was risible.  After all, in politics the world over, it’s all about OPTICS rather than the merit of the content.  Wallace’s ardent supporters were not merely the standard assortment of Reactionaries (racists, super-patriots, and theocrats); they included those who told reporters that they admired him because “he says what he thinks.”  One encounters the same appeal with Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s stage-managed performance came off as pandering.  It’s not that Clinton seemed kinda phony; it’s that she really was phony.  Indeed, everything about her radiated phoniness–from each feigned look-of-concern to each gratingly fake laugh.  She exuded disingenuousness with virtually every word, every gesture.  Most people found such a put-on intolerable for the same reason they find p.c. intolerable: they can’t stand those who put on airs.

To reiterate: Those who propound p.c. confuse propriety with probity.  While p.c. serves as a noetic anesthetic, a robust public discourse–in America or anywhere else–requires something entirely different: a hefty infusion of critical reflection and brute candor.  It is not a dearth of sensitivity that plagues us; it is a dearth of rectitude.  When we are already afflicted with ubiquitous epistemic sedation, an endless sea of ingratiating affectation is not going to solve any problems.

We fail to see that much of the electorate cares far more about straight-talk than about the nuts and bolts of any particular policy proposal.  One is much more likely to say, “I may not agree with him on everything, but he’s brutally honest; ya gotta give ‘em that” than “Whether or not he’s sincere is tough to say, but he says all the things I want him to say; so let’s roll the dice.”  Reciting pieties from an assigned script doesn’t cut it; one must be AUDACIOUS.

The prodigious appeal Trump commanded vis a vis his credulous flock was roughly as follows: “Wow!  This guy’s not afraid to say ANYTHING.”  This unprecedented gall felt like a breath of fresh air to those who were sick and tired of the same old pablum being churned out by an establishment that only seemed to be conversant in boilerplate.

Gall seems impressive irrespective of the merit of what is actually being said.  So rather than being off-put by Trump’s bluster and callowness, America’s dim-witted are bewitched by it.  His (contrived) patina of “outsider” status (regarding the despised political establishment) was compelling, even if it was balderdash.  For those hoodwinked by Trump’s bluster, the penthouse suites of Trump Tower were a sign of gaudy ostentation were unproblematic; for his gilded life was located outside the vile swamp that lay within the Beltway.

The consummate showman, Trump convinced his audience that he was being CANDID.  He read his audience, then played them like a fiddle.  Had he REALLY BEEN honest and forthcoming, or had he been an even remotely eloquent speaker, he would have utterly failed.  Instead of worrying about polish; he lobbed grenades. 

Of course, one would normally think that people would be repelled by Trump’s crude bluster; in that it resembled the puerile fanfaronade of a petulant child on methamphetamines.  Yet being unseemly was a moot point; Trump wore his gall like a badge of honor.  Restive blue-collar workers weren’t off-put by this; they found it REFRESHING.

When one is struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, fixating on frivolities of p.c. seems silly–even offensive.  Finally, at long last, here was a man who didn’t bother with decorum; he spoke THEIR language.

In other words: Trump may have been completely full of shit with every word out of his mouth, but he SEEMED to be a straight-talker.  Consequently, he had an almost irresistible appeal amongst those who were untroubled by the fact that he obviously had no idea what he was talking about.

No matter.  The more proprieties Trump flouted, the more appealing he became to those seeking to buck the reviled Establishment.  He offered a breath of fresh air to the disenchanted swing-voter; even though it was all HOT air.  Thus Trump’s LACK OF eloquence had the effect of making him more relatable.  Rather than attest to his illiteracy, his crass perorations made him seem more in communion with the unprepossessing everyman.

Trump’s garishly uncouth comportment was proof of his anti-Establishment bona fides.  The more he seemed to break the rules, the more galvanized his support became.  That many on the “Left” were niggling sticklers for inane proprieties made this juxtaposition even more stark.

By contrast, Trump’s overly-rehearsed opponent was the epitome of “more of the same shit”.  Hence his brusque “fuck the system” attitude–reckless and utterly vacuous as it may have been–made him appear to be just what the doctor ordered.  Unfortunately, in contemporary American politics, appearances (read: image) is all that matters.  That Trump was just another out-of-touch, self-important oligarch who would be a shill for the same ol’ corporate interests was–tragically–a moot point to those who were swept up in the fervor of his puerile ramblings.

Trump’s feigned contempt for the Beltway oligarchy was encapsulated in his obdurate flouting of political correctness–an ad hoc feint that made him seem honest and valiant to those who fell for his antics.  His brazen irreverence–crude yet compelling–was thereby perceived as a badge of his anti-Establishment bona fides.  That he simply transplanted one oligarchy with another was lost on his ardent supporters.  They sought to “drain the swamp” by–unwittingly–flooding it with MORE toxins.

Rather than “draining the swamp”, Trump filled it with an even more noxious brew…and called it progress.  (Even worse than a contaminated quagmire of corrupt bureaucrats, Trump ensured it would become a toxic bog of plutocrats and theocrats.)  Instead of “draining the swamp” as he promised; he made the swamp even more toxic than it had already been: teeming with Wall Street goons, avaricious corporate executives, and ultra-right-wing ideologues.

In an intellectually blighted society like America’s, we should have seen this coming.

And so WHAT OF structural inequality and (actual) bigotry?  These are serious issues.  Yet aficionados of p.c. are far more concerned with catering to the tetchiest members of the populace–who are encouraged to claim “offense” whenever others use idioms that they deem to be unseemly.  There is a peculiar obsession with etiquette on the so-called “Left”, of which many of its denizens are seen as the embodiment.  This is a huge problem.  After all, puritanism is a RIGHT-wing phenomenon; as is an authoritarian mindset.

Suffice to say, p.c. is deleterious to the integrity of public discourse.  And the weaponization of etiquette by a horde of ornery schoolmarms doesn’t help matters.  Indeed, it is a foolproof way to make people run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.  That they end up running headlong into the arms of a demagogue should not come as any surprise.

Progressivism will only appeal to a wide audience once it expunges p.c. from its repertoire.  In the meantime, the so-called “Left” espousing p.c. only serves to galvanize the ultra-right–furnishing them with an endless supply of fodder against which to inveigh, and thereby rationalize misguided antipathy toward Progressivism.

In sum: p.c. hurts the Progressive cause.  Want a surefire way to ensure Progressivism loses all credibility with the rank and file?  Tout p.c. and then call yourself a “Progressive”.  This doesn’t merely hurt the Progressive cause; it dooms it.

Being as it is entirely about coddling our sensibilities, being politically correct not only requires no critical thinking; it actively discourages it.  All the pearl-clutching–mixed with intermittent spurts of contrived indignation–makes level-headed people wince.  Such histrionics reminds us that virtue-signaling requires no actual virtue.

Most people recoil at all the sanctimonious finger-wagging by puritanical nit-pickers; as most those in the working class have far more important things to worry about than the imaginary hazards of untoward phraseology.  In an already-bewildering world, demands that everyone be indiscriminately “respectful” can be downright exasperating.  It’s no wonder, then, that so many Americans are so off-put by the notion of “social justice”–negatively stigmatized as it has become, thanks to p.c.-mongering.

Predictably, masses of disenchanted working-class people gravitated toward a buffoonish demagogue NOT because they were conscientiously fascistic, but because he seemed to be the only alternative to the namby-pamby balderdash coming from the “Left”.  Trump’s buffoonery was passed off as straight-talk; his empty bluster as resolve; his contrived swagger as confidence; his irreverence as sincerity; his arrogance as strength; his pomposity as panache; and his lofty self-regard as a flashing neon sign that he had the courage of his convictions.

The charade–tacky and obnoxious as it was–proved irresistible to self-styled super-patriots who commanded no understanding of public policy (yet harbored an insatiable urge to lash out at an imagined nemesis).  To make matters worse: When people get most of their information from social media outlets, the bar for erudition is set abysmally low.  Consequently, it is commonplace for celebrity-charlatans to be perceived as geniuses. {7}

The problem was that–in all his buffoonery–Trump was juxtaposed against Clinton, who was ALSO phony.  Of course, in reality, she was no Progressive.  (In terms of both economic and foreign policy, she was a right-wing ideologue paying lip-service to Progressive ideals, as I discuss in Appendix 1.)  Trump’s striking departure from convention was music to the ears of those who felt slighted by the (self-satisfied) powers-that-be.  The more vulgar his bombast, the more FRANK Trump seemed to be.  In a bizarre twist of irony, his caustic impropriety was seen as a mark of his authenticity.  His juvenile swagger was seen as a sign of swashbuckling grit.

Such posturing appealed to those who were drenched in testosterone and steeped in the heady marinade of super-patriotism.  This is to be contrasted with the OBVIOUS posturing of Clinton, who was pretending to be quasi-Progressive when she was clearly nothing of the sort.  So it comes as no surprise that so many were bamboozled by (what can only be described as) Trump’s phony authenticity. {13}

So why did right-wing (faux) populism triumph over the Democrats’ vapid agenda to be politically correct and anoint an Establishmentarian as their standard-bearer?  The restive everyman was not looking for a soothing psychical balm; he was looking for a swashbuckling hero who talked tough.

When seeking to articulate inchoate anger, one doesn’t need it to be done in an ELOQUENT manner; one simply wants it to be COMPELLING.  As any evangelist knows, so long as things are expressed in a way that captivates the target audience, the credence of what’s being said is beside the point.  The idea is to inspire, not to edify.

Trump was willing to say things that “you’re not supposed to say”; and that looked courageous.  He posed as a warrior for “The People”; while Clinton merely mouthed tired platitudes–which came off as pandering.  When people wanted straight-talk, she only had candy-coated banalities from the same old script. 

Instead of coming clean about the moral rot in Washington, Clinton offered supercilious talking points.  Instead of inspiring, she was cloying.

What the country needed was not an analgesic to palliate a temperamental electorate; it needed an un-scripted fighter who refused to play by the rules–a swaggering paladin that it could believe in.  In other words: someone who was not the normal “politician”. 

The grandstanding Trump employed was an intoxicating fusion of braggadocio and executive-board-room gravitas that many found alluring.  It was a bizarre blend of abilities to “fire” villains and “fire up” true patriots (whatever that might be conceived to be).  His self-righteous bluster was construed as brute candor…which is all that many people were looking for.

The more those in power were galled by Trump’s cringe-inducing improprieties, the more his appeal grew.  The LESS eloquent he spoke, the MORE relatable he became.  It was all about thumbing his nose at the vexingly Pharisaic establishmentarians.  He was offering something new and exciting: just what his fawning crowds were hankering for.  And so, in a Kafka-esque twist, an arrogant plutocrat was able to garner enthusiastic support from an indignant electorate that was tired of plutocracy.

As it so happened, this corresponded with the large swath of the polis that had become utterly fed-up with p.c.-run-amok.  For many disaffected voters, p.c. was an emblem of the derided Establishment.  It should have been unsurprising that–exasperated by an alluvion of bullshit–tens of millions were duped into endorsing a proto-fascist alternative.

Bottom line: p.c. has nothing whatsoever to do with genuine Progressivism.  So countenancing p.c. is an act of self-sabotage by anyone on the “Left”.

ANTI-ESTABLISHMENTARIANISM:

A repudiation of p.c. was only part of the story; the defiance fueling  Trump’s support was more a matter of lashing out at menacing abstractions than it was a matter of standing up to real insiders.  Only by understanding this misguided vitriol can the reasons for the 2016 outcome be adduced.

For the agitated masses, Trump SEEMED to be an “outsider” who finally–at long last–was going to stick it to “the man”.  In actuality, he represented an even more insidious kind of politician than the Establishment–of which Clinton was an icon.  The fraudulence of Trump’s schtick proved to be entirely beside the point.  For he captured Middle America’s anti-Establishment acrimony in an enticingly straight-forward manner; and did so without requiring anyone to actually know anything about policy details.  If the curtain is dazzling enough, nobody bothers to look behind it.

Trump struck a chord with those who were sick and tired of “business as usual”, yet had no apprehension of what that business might actually be.  As it happened, his only viable challenger in the main election personified the loathed Washington elites: the cadre of self-important lackeys with which many–conservatives and liberals alike–had grown disenchanted, even disgusted.  Accurately or not, Clinton was stigmatized by tens of millions of voters as the epitome of all that ailed them (that is: just another vehicle for the same ol’ Beltway rigamarole).  As it turned out, the putative maverick, Trump, was the singular alternative to this unpalatable option.

Clinton’s corporatist version of “at least it’s not as bad as the Republicans” taught us that one does not prevail over fascism by offering “fascism-lite”.  (After all, corporatist Democrats support the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, and right-wing Zionism just as much as Republicans.)  If X is held to be opprobrious; then hawking a diluted version of X holds very little appeal.  A genuinely Progressive candidate would have offered a worthwhile alternative to the corporatism of BOTH Trump and Clinton.  Alas.

Meanwhile, Trump taught us that, when people are convinced the ship might be sinking, they are liable–in the midst of their flailing–to grasp onto anything to stay afloat; and cling to it once they find it.  Milquetoast asseverations are futile; and the lesser-of-two-evils dilemma is pathetically un-inspiring.  People wanted pizzaz, not sagacity.

The question remains: What begat this simmering stew of disenchantment and frustration?  The nagging feeling that the regular Joe had been short-changed, disrespected, by condescending popinjays who always seemed to talk down to them (read: corporate Democrats).  The real blame, of course, was a rigged system–which made the super-rich even more obscenely wealthy; and did so at the expense of everyone else.  Yet instead of blame the ACTUAL culprits (the plutocrats), the ire was channeled toward a nebulous bogeyman: the Establishment.  The more Democrats espoused p.c. the more they seemed to be completely out of touch with the VERY REAL concerns of the hoi polloi.

Instead of eschewing the plutocracy, support amongst this disaffected segment of the electorate mobilized behind a man who–though the EPITOME OF that very plutocracy–had branded himself the ultimate anti-Establishment crusader. 

The everyman rightly saw the egregious inequalities (and mass disenfranchisement); and so recognized that he was not getting a fair shake.  But he saw the beguilingly irascible Trump as his savior because he didn’t come off as heedless.  The fact that Trump was a man who was completely out of touch with the everyman was entirely beside the point.  He CREATED THE PERCEPTION that he was on the same side as the “regular Joe”.  While Clinton’s scripted perorations came off as patronizing, Trump–by speaking their language–successfully posed as the everyman’s dauntless hero.  So–on an inspired whim–many swing-voters backed a plutocrat just to thumb their nose at the “the system”.

Across Middle America, support for Trump soared irrespective of the fact that he embodied everything that was wrong with that very system.  As had happened under Reagan, the working class in the Rust Belt swallowed the “morning in America” gimmick (replete with promised “trickle-down” effects) hook, line, and sinker…because there was no plausible alternative being offered.  That Trump would support the very (right-wing) policies that had CAUSED their woe was immaterial.  He was the fuck-the-system poster-boy.

It did not occur to these flailing voters that this bogus paladin was every bit as much a shill for the plutocracy as was Clinton; perhaps even more-so.  In the end, BOTH candidates were as pro-Wall Street as Wall Street could have dreamed.  So, as far as corporate power was concerned, EITHER candidate would have been acceptable.

A sweet-heart of the Establishment, Clinton promised some superficial change.  Well-informed Progressives AND Know-Nothings alike were–understandably–not buying it.  The former had hoped for the genuine Progressive, Sanders.  The latter, opted for the bombastic TV star who knew how to kick ass and take names.  In other words, the wayward swing-voter rejected the embodiment of the USUAL bullshit (Clinton) in favor of a mouth-breathing demagogue who peddled a NEW KIND of bullshit.  They were attracted to a sales-pitch that seemed–if nothing else–bold.

Juxtaposed against Hillary’s blatant artificiality, Trump’s brand of fulminating blather seemed to be positively rectitudinous.  Put another way: Though utterly fatuous, Trump’s off-the-cuff bloviation projected strength.  By embodying indignation in star-spangled splendor, the dashing, New York real-estate mogul captured the seething resentments of the disaffected hard-working-men who fashioned themselves as the vanguard of American patriotism.

It is telling that, by the end of Obama’s tenure, anti-Establishment fervor was at such a fever pitch that some of the most blinkered voters had difficulty choosing between an unabashed plutocrat (Trump) and the democratic socialist running on the other major party’s ticket (Bernie Sanders); as if–preposterously–these men were roughly two versions of the same thing.  For the most aggrieved denizens of the American agora, that these two candidates represented opposite ends of the political spectrum was–astonishingly–irrelevant.  After all, both figures were seen as anti-Establishment (each in his own distinct fashion); and THAT–irrespective of the nuts-and-bolds of drastically divergent specific policy proposals–was the bottom line.

It became clear just how duplicitous Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was when he began appointing his cabinet-members shortly after the election.  Predictably, he assembled a cadre of plutocrats (unsurprisingly, largely from Goldman Sachs), corporate shills, and fanatical anti-government ideologues.  (To be fair: It was already quite noxious: Obama appointments were ALSO a roster of Goldman Sachs execs.)  In other words, Trump made the swamp EVEN MORE toxic than it already was.  Nobody who noticed this was surprised by it; and most who didn’t notice would not have cared.

In any case, Hillary was–in reality–much farther to the right than she was pretending to be; whereas Trump was perfectly content to ACTUALLY BE as far to the right as he needed to be.  Hence: The ultra-right was (unsurprisingly) galvanized whilst Progressives were (unsurprisingly) tepid.  The numbers bear this out (see Appendix 2).

The point can’t be emphasized enough: That Trump, with his raucous theatrics, served as a prime anger-channeling-conduit made him especially appealing to those with lots of pent-up frustration.  This was the case even as said mechanism directed enmity away from the ACTUAL culprits (plutocrats masquerading as stalwarts of entrepreneurial zest) and toward chimerical menaces (those darned spineless Progressives wining about being politically correct and begging for a nanny-state to coddle them).

Ill-informed, disaffected, rural voters (esp. parochial-minded, white men) sought to effect a reckoning via an ornery, superficially successful–yet oft-bankrupted–casino magnate.  Disoriented as so many were, brand-Trump was specially-designed to proffer a longed-for savior-figure.  (It helps to bear in mind that “Trump” is more a brand than a person.)  For such voters, Trump was the incarnation of the fantastical American Dream…waiting for each of us, just over a perpetually-receding horizon.

And so it went that Trump posed as the quintessential anti-Establishment option; and thus an answer to an unacceptable status quo.  This is a bait-and-switch that works because it appeals to our baser instincts.  Demagogy is the oldest trick on the book: Rally people around a dubious cause by stirring up mass-mania and/or mass-hysteria.  (People are more prone to groupthink and militancy when they’re riled up.)  In the modern era, this often leads to veiled oligarchy–what Sheldon Wolin called, “inverted totalitarianism”.

The populist rhetoric employed by right-wing movements is invariably a sham.  What passes as “populist” in a right-wing context is–invariably–anti-democratic.  Another name for “right-wing populism” is “authoritarian populism”; for it thrives off of the sort of populist fervor that can’t help but lead to fascism…as has been amply demonstrated so many times in the past; and in recent years by Trump-ism.  (See Appendix 3.)

When well-packaged, ersatz populism appeals to the everyman; as it includes oblique paeans to the common good.  Yet it only ends up serving centers of highly-concentrated power.  Rather than abetting the commonweal by CHALLENGING centers of power, it is an excuse to FURTHER AGGREGATE power; and–here’s the nutty part–to do so with everyone’s tacit consent.  (This alluring pretext is what Chomsky called “manufactured consent”.)

The moral of the story should be loud and clear: Right-wing populism is faux populism.  This point is further illustrated by the converging policies of right-wing “libertarians” (who purport to be out for the individual, and so ostensibly have the interests of the everyman at heart) and unreconstructed corporatists (shills for corporate power, who strive to maximize corporate socialism).  For both of these ideologies–superficially different yet fundamentally the same–make use of the alluring “it’s for your own good” bromide…even as they are will to undermine democracy at the bat of an eyelash.  Such ideologues cajole the rabble into going along with policies that only SEEM to benefit them, but in reality benefit only the well-positioned few.

Thus right-wing populism is a political swindle–an “every man for himself” approach that defies everything we know about macro-economics; and a “devil take the hindmost” attitude that defies even the most fundamental moral principles.  Yet the proposition SOUNDS good if one imagines coming out on top at the end of the day.  (Never mind the fact that it should matter to me whether or not the family down the street has quality healthcare; and we are all affected by whether or not the kid from the other side of town is being educated well.)

This is the boondoggle known as supply-side economics–geared as it is for a dog-eat-dog world in which material “success” is conceptualized as the primarily economic phenomenon.  The policy is nothing more than an excuse for the well-positioned few to further consolidate wealth and power…at everyone else’s expense.  Consequently, the misguided “regular Joe” is hoodwinked into eagerly fucking himself.

The grotesque right-wing instantiation of “libertarianism”, then, if FAUX libertarianism; in contrast to GENUINE libertarianism–in the tradition of, say, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill.  For it is a (veiled) prescription for authoritarianism (in the form of plutocracy).  It effectively eschews STATE tyranny in favor of PRIVATE tyranny…then calls that liberty.  It justifies systems of domination / exploitation in the name of freedom…then tells everyone: “If you’re not living the dream, you have no one to blame but yourself.”  Here, affluence is a function of merit–in keeping with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel”.

Trump played his feckless supporters for fools by invoking the usual shibboleths of right-wing populism.  This scam (be it in “conservative” or in right-wing “libertarian” garb) is perpetrated by fostering what might be called “political Stockholm Syndrome”–whereby the electorate is duped into supporting its own oppressors, thinking they are somehow empowering themselves.  This is typical; as cult activity of ANY kind is animated by a quasi-populist credo.  It makes suckers of a credulous audience just as has any cult movement in history. {8}

The story has been the same for thousands of years; and has played itself out in every society on the planet.  Using agit-prop, impresarios of the Establishment play off the quotidian insecurities of common-folk.  They accomplish this task by stoking fear.  Neuroses are engendered in such way that the impresarios of the illusion can then claim to offer PROTECTION FROM the (imagined) nemesis.  Create the terms of the predicament, then offer a way out of it.  The magical “fix” is proffered as the ultimate solution to everyone’s woes.  The gimmick is as old as time: Create the (perception of) sickness, then offer the (alleged) cure.  This is how demand is drummed up for certain cockamamy consumer products–from alternative medicine and car alarms to religious creeds and semi-automatic rifles.

Whether it is Faith or firearms being peddled, the swindle is enabled by a mass appeal that has been strategically engineered.  Right-wing populism works only insofar as artificial demand for its nostrums can be drummed up.  It’s an analogue of the opioid epidemic.

For many who felt aggrieved, Trump’s haughty put-on was–though extremely crass–rather refreshing.  It was plain to see that Hillary–the quintessential insider–was a shill for the disdained power-brokers on the Potomac.  And so, the thinking went, her political adversary must (ipso facto) represent the panacea of integrity that they were so ardently seeking.

That Trump was HIMSELF a power-elite ended up being entirely beside the point.  His brand of avarice was seen as the mark of unbridled American entrepreneurship.  Rather than an out-of-touch plutocrat, Trump sold himself as the embodiment of the American Dream.  He may have been a modern-day Caligula, but–as a celebrity–he represented what his fawning constituents all longed to be: a super-star business tycoon.  They were convinced that he would soon pave the way for them realizing their highest aspirations…if only he was let loose to work his made-for-TV magic.

Now, here we are in 2020.  Once again, the Progressive candidate is the GENUINELY populist candidate; and has grass-roots–instead of corporate–support.  Bernie Sanders continues to promote Progressive policies…with the Establishment scoffing at him every step of the way.

It is imperative that we realize: The results of the 2016 election were no aberration; they were a confirmation of what has already been shown time and time again.  We needn’t be dumfounded by Trump’s victory four years ago; for in then end, the paradox that is right-wing populism prevailed.  The good news is that we know how to prevent that from happening again.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 - masonscott.org
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.

 

Download as PDF
x