Chilling as it may seem, the frothing uber-narcissistic hate-machine and tabloid-feeding media freak Donald Trump leads the polls in the early campaign for the presidential nomination of one of the United States’ two dominant political parties. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, sites for the nation’s earliest presidential caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire), the blustering and odious Donald is outpacing Jeb Bush and the rest of the ugly ten-personal Republican pack, heading to its first televised debate tonight. He is far ahead of all candidates in both parties when it comes to media focus and to political conversation at picnics and dinner parties. “The Donald” is in narcissist’s heaven. He’s a leading center of attention, good and bad.
More and Worse Than Entertainment
What’s it all about? Beyond Trump’s billions of dollars and endless hunger for attention, the national political columnist Matt Bai sees the Trump phenomenon as an epitome of the liberal social and media critic Neal Postman’s Aldous Huxley-inspired warnings on the totalitarian merging of politics and entertainment. By Bai’s account:
“Trump’s juggernaut isn’t an actual campaign, with an agenda or a strategy. It’s great programming. And this is exactly — I mean, exactly —what the social critic Neil Postman warned of when he wrote a phenomenal little book called Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. …Postman’s essential point (as I’ve written before, both in this column and in All the Truth is Out, my own book on the subject of trivial political coverage) was that our news and politics were veering ever closer to the dark vision of Aldus Huxley in Brave New World. He warned that the line between TV entertainment and real events would become so porous that the nation would soon be unable to distinguish between them, and as a result our public discourse would become a series of meaningless story arcs rather than an informed debate over the consequential business of government…” (M. Bai, “Donald Trump Amuses Us to Death,” Yahoo Politics, July 30, 2015)
It’s hard, of course, to deny, that the Trump phenomenon seems very much like something out of Postman’s analysis. Still, Bai makes a critical mistake, when he suggests that the Trump phenomenon reduces merely to trivial amusement and infantilizing diversion – to twaddle and entertainment. As in U.S. corporate entertainment culture more broadly – and this was something that Postman failed to fully understand – the Huxleyan surface is loaded with richly ideological and Orwellian political content. Trump’s “story arcs” are far from ideologically random. They carry a strong whiff of fascism. As Conor Lynch recently noted at Salon, picking up on the observations of Newsweek’s Jeffrey Tucker:
“Donald Trump, whether he knows it or not, is a fascist (or is at least acting like one). Much like Mussolini and Hitler, Trump is a demagogue dedicated to riling up the people (particularly conservatives) with race baiting, traditionalism and strongman tough talk – and, according to polls, it’s working — for now. Tucker writes: ‘Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand.’ No doubt about it, Donald Trump has decided to stir the pot, and, as Tucker says, he seems to be running for a CEO position, rather than president of a nation. Trump discusses Iran and Mexico as if they were competing corporations, and says that, as president, or CEO, he will drive them into the ground, make them file for bankruptcy — something Trump legitimately knows a thing or two about.”
As Lynch further notes, Trump has no monopoly on proto-fascistic sentiments wither among the vile GOP presidential candidate roster and the more rabid parts of the GOP base:
“The thing is, his ‘style’ — full of race baiting, xenophobia and belligerent nationalism — is not unique to Trump; he is simply the most blatant and vocal about it. There’s a reason he’s leading in the GOP polls: the party’s base likes what he’s saying. The people are angry about illegal immigrants murdering white women (anyone who has followed Bill O’Reilly over the past week knows what I’m talking about), homosexuals destroying the tradition of marriage, and so on. Much like fascism reacted to modernity and social progress in the early 20th century, right-wingers are reacting angrily to social progress of the new century” (C. Lynch, “Donald Trump is an Actual Fascist,” Salon, July 25, 2015)
Reading Lynch’s essay the other day, I was reminded of something that the longtime Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren wrote five years ago, after resigning from his position in Washington. “The Republican Party,” Lofgren observed, “is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” (M. Lofgren, “Goodbye to All That,” Truthout, September 3, 2011)
Resentment Abhors a Vacuum
Lynch makes a very important point beyond the question of ideology, however. It is that Trump and other vicious, far-right Republicans have a real social basis among (though Lynch does not specify race, gender, or class) white male lower-middle and working class whites who are loaded with anger at gays, feminism, immigrants, and (Lynch might have added) at Blacks, welfare recipients, gang-bangers, tree-huggers, and (…fill in the blank).
Where Lynch, too, goes wrong is by rooting this right-wing anger simply in reaction to “social progress.” It would be more accurate, I think, to call it a desperate and misdirected reaction to socioeconomic regression and insecurity in America’s neoliberal New Gilded Age. Listen to the reflections of left activist and essayist Vincent Emmanuelle on why his older white working class neighbors in deindustrialized Gary, Indiana back Trump:
“Beyond racist platitudes and xenophobic rants, what’s Trump’s appeal? To me, it’s obvious: he says whatever he wants…Trump’s unscripted tirades leave no establishment political figure or cultural icon untouched. In many ways, he’s channeling decades of white working class anger and disillusionment with the American political-economic system (a system Trump has greatly benefited from, no doubt).”
“In the teleprompter-age, people rarely witness even a glimpse of authenticity. …The other day, I was speaking with my father about politics when he informed me that many of his childhood friends support Trump. Most of these guys are current or former union members and absolutely dependent on the benefits they’ve earned via contracts negotiated by organized labor. Yet, they hate unions. And they loathe immigrants, even though they come from immigrant families. In short, they’re ideologically confused….They, like most people, go to work, watch sports, party with friends and raise their children. They’re not bankers, or hedge fund managers, nor are they military big-shots or political lackeys. They’ve never been members of white supremacist organizations or extreme-right political parties. In short, they’re not part of the so-called establishment.”
“…From the perspective of class, Trump’s supporters should be socialists or at the very least liberals. The white working class, like their Latino and black counterparts, but to a lesser extent, has endured decades of savage neoliberal economic programs. Their jobs have been shipped overseas. And their retirements have been plundered. As a result, their neighborhoods and childhood communities have crumbled and fallen prey to drug addiction and gang violence. They’re frustrated and upset, and for good reason, but at all the wrong people and institutions.” (V. Emmanuel, “Donald Trump, Working Class Whites, and the Left,” ZNet, August 4, 2015)
A critical piece to add here – and Emmanuel does – is that leftists and progressives have done an exceedingly piss-poor job of connecting to, organizing, and directing that anger at the right people and institutions – that is, at the corporate and financial aristocracy and the military empire that props up the decadent, planet-murdering-death-by-amusement-and -propaganda profits system at home and abroad.
Anger and resentment abhor a vacuum. If the right has one great virtue to angry and insecure white working and lower middle class people, it is that it sounds furiously angry at evil Others who are giving The American Working Man the shaft.
It’s not just an American problem. And it’s hardly new. A left vacuum in Weimar Germany helped recruit millions of German workers to Hitler’s Nazi Party. French workers who used to vote Socialist and Communist end up backing the Le Pens for this reason. European “social democracy” and British “Labour’s” tepid subordination to the neoliberal agenda concedes considerable working and lower middle class “populist rage” to European neo-fascism. Golden Dawn threatens to capitalize on Syriza’s humiliation by Europe’s dictatorship of unelected financial institutions.
We on the “radical Left” can call it all “false consciousness” (accurate to no small degree) and even perhaps “pathetic” and run away in horror or we (as Emmanuel advocates) can try to engage with the nation’s angry white workers (and working class retirees) and try to overcome ruling class divide-and-conquer by helping those “ordinary Americans” (a curious phrase) direct their rage at the nation’s actual economic, political, and military power elites – not at comparatively powerless scapegoats.
Yes, but what about Bernie Sanders? A different but related question beyond the problem of what and who Trump represents is why the U.S. media has run so strongly with the “authentic” and angry Trump story as the quadrennial presidential extravaganza heats up. There are two key answers I think. The first is that the proto-fascistic Trump provides a useful focus for corporate media to divert citizens from focusing on what ought to be the most important news story in the presidential primary season so far: the big crowds and support that the populist and nominally socialist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is getting with his forthright denunciations of the nation’s extreme economic inequalities and corporate plutocracy. I’m no great fan of Sanders, as is clear from my recent publication record (which includes numerous criticisms of the not-so “independent” Vermont Senator from the “radical left” and most particularly from an anti-imperial, anti-Democratic Party standpoint). Still, I am fully aware that Sanders is tapping and articulating widespread popular and progressive anger over the mind-boggling over-concentration of wealth and power that has taken place in the U.S. over the last four decades. He is also advancing domestic social programs that have widespread public support: seriously progressive taxation, the re-legalization of union organizing, major federal jobs and infrastructure programs, single-payer health insurance, and more. And Sanders is doing all this with a passable measure of authenticity – something for which he is often praised in comparison to the forced and fake-populism of Hillary Clinton (who is such a flawed candidate and poor campaigner that establishment talk is now surfacing of a Joe Biden bid).
The U.S. corporate media is not fascist but it has predictably demonstrated a far greater willingness to cover an authentic neo-Mussolini like Donald Trump than to give exposure to an authentic wannabe Mitterand like Bernie Sanders. Trump’s advantage over Sanders in media attention is about more than Trump’s billions and his status as a notorious “entertainment” personality. It also reflects the fact that his spiteful far-right world view matches up with the malicious authoritarian ideological imperatives of the wealth-concentrating, mass-incarcerating, permanent war-waging, privatizing, and victim-blaming neoliberal-capitalist era. Sanders’ “Scandinavian” and social-democratic progressivism – notwithstanding its tepid nature and its captivity within the corporate-managed Democratic Party – does not pass the authoritarian smell-test of a corporate media that seeks to maintain a political vacuum even to the mild portside of corporate Democrats like Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.
Making Jeb and Hill Look Reasonable
The second answer and the second political and ideological function of Trump is that his ugly and vicious madness, buffoonery, narcissism, and revanchism (and that of other GOP proto-fascists like Ted Cruz and the rest) help make the “mainstream” Big Money candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton look reasonable, responsible, respectable, mature, and trustworthy by comparison. Never mind that both of those candidates are deeply captive and loyal to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire that have turned the United States into a grotesquely unequal plaything of the rich. Never mind they will both act to further the United States’ wretched devolution into a decadent rentier society in which (as Sanders notes again and again) the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% – a “world’s richest nation” where more than 45 million people (roughly 15 percent of the population) live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, where overall life expectancy has actually dropped for the first time in history, and where female life expectancy has fall from fourteenth to forty first in the world since 1985 (and where …the list of terrible national New Gilded Age indicators goes on and on). Never mind that Jeb Bush now advocates the arch-reactionary “phasing out of Medicare” or that the militantly corporatist Hillary promises to be one the most cold-blooded imperialists on record. Compared to a Trump, a Ted Cruz, a Ben Carson, or a Rick Santorum (spiteful proto-fascists all), or to a Rand Paul (a libertarian flake) or, I suppose, to the dominant media’s preposterous portrayal of Bernie Sanders as a “far out radical leftist,” Jeb and Hill (they of the dynastic corporate Bush and Clinton machines) look relatively sane and trustworthy.
Trump’s absurdity and clownish behavior make him a distant long-shot for the Republican nomination. “The Donald” is not a viable politician. Still, Trump has become “a thing,” so to speak, for the reasons discussed above. We would do well to make a serious and genuinely progressive effort to address and more properly channel the legitimate lower-middle and working class white anger that a malevolent and sociopathic billionaire bully like Donald Trump is able to exploit, with no small help from a media system owned by a ruling class that will always prefer an authoritarian fascist to even a milquetoast and nominal democratic socialist.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).