A Racket in Rio: Brazil’s Political Crisis

In the previous decade, Brazil was an emerging market success story. It weathered the 2008 financial crisis very well, boasting strong foreign reserves and relatively high 240px-brazil-luladasilva-02domestic ownership over bank assets. A high demand for commodities also ensured that the Brazilian economy was booming. Brazil’s president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, enjoyed incredible support both at home and abroad, the warm and cuddly face of South American social democracy. A trade union official, Lula founded the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980 to promote progressive policies during a time of military dictatorship. Lula won the presidency in 2002 and oversaw the implementation of the “Zero Hunger” plan, which offers financial aid and subsidies to low-income working class people. The keystone of this plan is the Bolsa Familia cash transfer system that provides welfare assistance to impoverished families. According to one statistic, over a quarter of the poverty reduction recently seen in Brazil can be credited to Bolsa Familia. On the global stage, Brazil was one of the “BRIC” countries, heralded by Wall Street investment firms as the most accomplished of developing countries.

What went wrong? A few days ago Lula was detained for questioning in a massive corruption scandal that has rocked Brazil. The investigation, called “Car Wash” in English, 320px-manifestac3a7c3a3o_no_rio_de_janeiro_contra_corrupc3a7c3a3o_e_o_governo_dilma_em_13_de_marc3a7o_de_2016_28229is focused on the illegal use of funds connected to Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Lula’s hand-chosen successor to the presidency, fellow PT politician Dilma Rousseff, has sought to give him a ministerial position, presumably to protect him from investigation. A judge has blocked this move, and to make matters worse, anti-government protesters have been gathering in huge numbers to call for the resignations of accused politicians and especially the impeachment of Rousseff for wrongdoing. Indeed, a case of impeachment is being shepherded through Congress while, at the same time, she is accused of funding her 2014 electoral campaign with dirty money. If found guilty, not only would Rousseff fall from office, but so would her vice president, who represents the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a centrist party in coalition with the PT. Being non-ideological with a “catch-all” approach to coalitions, the PMDB has wheeling-and-dealing down to an art-form, so it is perhaps no surprise that they would prefer private advance to political principles. Indeed, several high-ranking PMDB partners in alliance with the PT have already been accused of corruption and involvement in the Petrobras embezzlement. For many hardcore devotees of Lula and the PT, however, the allegations leveled at their hero and his heir spark outrage and paranoia over a possible coup. On the other side of the spectrum, the majority of anti-government protesters calling for the ouster of Lula and Dilma have always been rate over the expansion of the Brazilian welfare state and “job-killing” economic regulation.

Patrick de Oliveira at Jacobin wrote last year about the conservative cottage industry that has taken root in Brazil, with their own right-wing celebrities in the style of Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. Criticism against the Lula and Rouseff governments have traditionally come from Brazilian conservatives, and with the “Car Wash” scandal, they may have not just the means to bring down the PT, but also to send its most well-known leaders to jail. The problem for them, however, is that there is no “good” right-wing party to fill the vacuum. The president of the largest conservative party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), is Aécio Neves, and he has been cited in several of the plea bargains already being settled as consequence of the corruption investigation. At the very least, PSDB leaders like Neves will have to be replaced with more “squeaky-clean” leaders if it wants to portray itself as the less venal alternative to the governance of the PT.

More than that, regular Brazilians need financial hope. Once a titan of the developing world, the Brazilian economy has become moribund; inflation is on the rise and getting higher. The country’s debt has been labeled “junk” by credit agencies. Industrial and 320px-petrobrc3a1s-cavalo-mecc3a2nico-3financial capital will not tolerate higher taxes on business and the wealthy, so even the PT briefly flirted with imposing harsh austerity measures on the country in order to reassure investors. Austerity, however, clashes with working class populism, which is what the PT has relied on as its soundest voting bloc. To their supporters, the PT has to at least keep up the appearance of being “for the worker,” even though in government they have governed as technocratic socially-conscious capitalists. It does seem doubtful, however, given their adroitness at playing the political game, that they will survive the “Car Wash” case.

This is not so much because of a specific scandal but how anti-PT forces in Brazil have come together to ensure “Car Wash” is fatal for Lula and Rouseff. As The Intercept reports, the right-wing media has been casting the spotlight fully on the anti-government protests, setting the narrative that order will only be restored when the PT leaves power. The main investigator behind the “Car Wash” case, who is supposed to be impartial, has been leaking illegal phone calls between Lula and Rouseff mere hours after they were recorded without a warrant. It would be incorrect and simplistic to render the images we see on television to an explosion of grassroots furor over poor leadership and betrayal of public trust, as nice as that story sounds. The truth is that, whatever the crimes of the PT, there is a real and organized campaign to force democratically-elected leaders from office because their center-left agenda has been detrimental for local business interests.

What next for Brazil? It is doubtful that Rouseff and the PT will recover from current events, and even if they could, no one should envy their limited options in attempting to adjust an economy in deep recession. Unless commodity prices rise to past levels and Petrobras is once again cleared of the cloud hanging over it, Brazil can do little else than seek revenue — most likely by spreading the pain around, as elites loathe to make their own sacrifices. This could very well mean that the poorest of the poor in Brazil could take the hit, after years of being lifted slightly higher under the PT policies. As ever, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Welcome to the desert of inequality.

Fear Itself: Trouble in Turkey

Every semester, I help oversee a general education course on democratization. Out of all 228px-recep_tayyip_erdoc49fan2c_polandthe misconceptions that inevitably arise, one of the most common (and frustrating) for me is the belief many students have that Islam is inherently hostile to democracy. Of course, this is not the fault of uncritical freshmen; the notion that liberalism is incompatible with Muslim beliefs has been articulated by luminary scholars ranging from Samuel P. Huntington to Slavoj Zizek. This is utter nonsense, of course. Religion in virtually every culture is utilized as an instrument of social control by traditionalists who want to maintain or restore autocratic forms of governance. Conservatives in the West often cite Christian reasoning in the imposition of restrictions on abortion, for example, but rarely do we hear the argument that Christianity is fundamentally inimical to democratic values. Granted, two of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Iran — feature a strong overlap of clerical and political power, but these countries are not indicative of the region (much less the entire Muslim world) anymore than the state politics of Kansas or Oklahoma are of national politics in the U.S.

(Israel also likes to claim it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a dubious claim given the poor political inclusion characteristic of parties that represent Palestinians, several of which are often banned or faced threats of being banned.)

20080104204454general_mustafa_kemalI usually pointed to Turkey as an example of a country with a majority Islamic population that has made great strides in embracing a multiparty democratic system. If anything, the main obstacle to Turkish democracy has not been radical Islam, but rather repeated interventions by the military, which has sought to preserve the secular nature of the state envisioned by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. In his desire to bring his country into a position of development relative to the West, Ataturk adopted a number of reforms, including the abolition of the caliphate and the separation of religion of politics. This principle has prompted generals to overthrow democratically elected governments and to ban political parties if it was believed they had an overly religious orientation.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put a stop to this tendency. A social conservative party, the AKP has long resisted being described as “Islamic.” It represents the interests of the Sunni Muslim majority, and so in that sense, its ideology conforms to a traditionalist Sunni worldview. In terms of an actual agenda, however, the AKP has focused on the provision of public goods, encouraging economic growth, and good relations with Europe and the United States — not the imposition of sharia law, the restoration of the caliphate, or any such goals of Islamic State of al-Qaeda. When voters drifted away from the party last year, the AKP acknowledged its loss in the national legislature, going from the majority party in power to forming a minority government.

If these were positive signs for Turkish democracy, recent months indicate we should be 320px-s7000218far more pessimistic. The AKP-led government, back in a majority position, has detained journalists and academics critical of official policies. The President of Turkey and long-time AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that freedom and democracy have “no value” in the country. A four-term prime minister, Erdogan has stated his intention to expand the executive power of his new office, creating a “super-presidency” not dissimilar to Putin-era Russia. Why this sudden shift away from democratic politics and the erosion of civil rights and personal freedoms? Where is the opposition to all this?

The answer is that Turks are trading their liberty for greater security. The country has rocked by a series of terrorist attacks, including several this weekend, in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The violence is spilling over from nearby Syria, where the chaotic civil war there has fueled two groups sharply opposed to the Turkish government: the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels seeking their own state. Despite the pervasive anxiety in the West over ISIS, it is actually the latter group that Erdogan and the AKP are most eager to confront.

The Kurds are an ethnic group found in Armenia, northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan achieved a sort of semi-autonomous existence within the federal Iraqi state. Turkish Kurds, however, have tasted little fruit in their struggle for self-determination. A militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has used violent tactics against the Turkish government since the 1980s; Ankara has relied on state-sponsored violence to quell the PKK, and prior to the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan and the splintering of Syria, the pendulum was swinging in Turkey’s favor. Turkey benefited from being a strategic ally of the U.S. in the Near East, and Washington saw little benefit in aligning with the PKK “terrorists.”

The rise of the Islamic State and its exploitation of the Syrian civil war has changed the 320px-ypg_tall_abyad_juin_201528429status quo dramatically. After wasting a considerable amount of money funding “moderate rebels,” the U.S. has come to recognize that Kurds in Syria have been the most effective at stemming the tide of ISIS expansion. Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have managed to set up a region called Rojava in northern Syria. Not only does the YPG find itself fighting ISIS soldiers, but it also has to deal with bombings launched by Turkey. Yes, Turkey is bombing its ally in the fight against ISIS, because the YPG and the PKK share a common goal: the foundation of an independent Kurdish state that encompasses all territory where the Kurds have sizable populations. The slew of recent suicide bombings linked to Kurdish independence groups has incensed most Turks to the point where they are willing to permit Erdogan his dream of a “super-presidency,” provided that he keeps them safe from the Kurdish “threat.”

Unfortunately, in addition to undermining Turkish democracy, this new war between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists also does damage to the significant inroads made by non-violent pro-Kurdish parties like the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the party that mainly benefited from the AKP’s electoral losses last year. The HDP, with its platform of social democratic economic policies and promises to seek better deals for ethnic minorities in Turkey (including the Kurds), reached a breakthrough by appealing to non-Kurdish voters. Sadly, events largely outside of the control of the HDP have sent it into retreat; much as all Muslims were (and continue to be) in the United States post-9/11, the Kurds are the scapegoat for the fear and resentment paralyzing Turkish politics.

The Arab Spring of a few years ago flourished in countries that were internally troubled but still relatively peaceful; protests died on the vine, however, in countries beset by external and domestic violence, as people preferred placid dictatorship to the whirlwind of a changing society. It is an ongoing tragedy that the Kurds have failed to realize the full dream of their self-determination, made all the more regretful but the setbacks of the HDP and the political calculus that has turned Turkish munitions against the YPG and not fully against ISIS. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s “super-presidency” has not yet been realized; hopefully the autocratic encroachment can be reversed rather than consolidated.

Choosing the Lesser Evil: The Candidates

For political junkies like myself, this election year has been like passing a 42-car pile-up 320px-uspe16-svgon the highway. We feel repulsed, scared, worried for ourselves — and yet we cannot turn away. Nothing about this election makes sense. A bombastic billionaire who commits gaffes that would typically kill a major campaign is doing incredibly well. A self-described socialist has garnered a wide coalition of support in a country known for intense hostility to anything remotely anti-capitalist or radically left-wing. We were promised “Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush: Dawn of Justice,” a mundane showdown between two political dynasties, and instead we are getting something totally wild and unexpected.

The lazy answer to all this is that “people are angry!” No kidding. But why are people angry? Why are establishment candidates doing especially poorly this year? Why does fear and intolerance seem to be playing so effectively this year, when just two elections ago, a candidate who ran on hope and unity performed so well? These are all questions that should be considered, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where we are as a country. It is pretty much common knowledge that we’re a deeply polarized and jaded electorate, but studying the current field of candidates illustrates just where we’re at.

Donald Trump166px-donald_trump_march_2015

Advantages: Not an establishment politician

Disadvantages: Is Donald Trump

Cinematic Equivalent: Birth of a Nation (1915)

Typical Supporter: A working class white man whose job was just outsourced to Mexico, who loves racist jokes and aspires to soon own a flamethrower

I am not being mean. The data really does indicate that most Trump supporters never went to college and come from parts of the country known for racial resentment. The most telling feature about Trump voters, however, is how impotent and vulnerable they feel. These are the American reactionaries who worry about white genocide and believe “anti-racist” is code for “anti-white.” They worry that sharia law will soon be used to decide U.S. court cases. They fear that there is a “war on Christmas,” which is just the first battle in a covert campaign to wipe out Christianity entirely. They scoff at “political correctness” as repressive and tyrannical, when in actuality it just promotes sensitivity to traditional victims of discrimination. Their anxiety stems from the idea they are losing the “culture war” against “cultural Marxism,” and that their primary source of power — the white Christian patriarchy — is under attack from phantom “feminazis” and “Islamo-Leftists.” On the cultural front, Trump promises to go after these enemies: he will ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he will stop the “flood” of Mexican immigrants, etc.

It is on the economic front that Trump supporters have grievances grounded in reality. The truth is, less-educated American men have hard it rough in terms of work and wages. According to a 2014 poll, 85% of unemployed men lack bachelor’s degrees, while 34% identified as former felons, making it hard to find any work. Thanks to globalization and technological innovations, it is more difficult than ever for unskilled laborers to find work. Due to union-busting and the loss of collective bargaining power, less-educated workers find it impossible to unionize or take industrial action that could help them increase their wages and fight income inequality. Unlike the “culture war” that exists only in the minds of reactionaries, the war on the working class in the United States is very real. Trump offers them an economic nationalism, promising (without specifics) to get the U.S. better trade deals. In contrast to the typical Republican line, Trump does not advocate laissez-faire economics or tax breaks for “job creators.” Instead, he promotes a sort of autarkic vision that could be best summarized as “American jobs for American workers.”

(For all the Republican whines that Trump is betraying the Ronald Reagan legacy on free trade, let’s not forget that Reagan implemented protectionist policies to safeguard the U.S. steel industry from those “market forces” Republicans love to celebrate.)

You might wonder why these irate working class Americans do not rally to progressive causes, like raising the minimum wage or creating a federal jobs program. To paraphrase a disputed quote by John Steinbeck, this is because working class Americans do not see themselves as exploited proletarians, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They still hold on to the American Dream, which states that success comes from hard work, and the main enemy is not the ruling class, but bureaucratic red tape. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: a millionaire who is never embarrassed, who never apologizes no matter how racist, sexist or inappropriate he is. He is not a populist, because populists possess the common touch; there is nothing “common” about Trump.

178px-ted_cruz_february_2015Ted Cruz

Advantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says

Disadvantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says (possible serial killer)

Cinematic Equivalent: God’s Not Dead (2014) or Zodiac (2007)

Typical Supporter: A church-going, Longmire-watching grandmother who could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel

Ted Cruz is a jerk. No one really disputes this. Everyone hates him. He is smug and condescending. He loves to lecture people, especially other U.S. senators. He has no qualms attacking other Republicans, including the Republican leader in the Senate (in violation of Reagan’s 11th Commandment). People who knew him in college hated him. Those who trusted his lead in bringing about the short-lived government shutdown felt betrayed by him. Yet, his in-your-face style of doing things is exactly what many Republicans want from a party they see as having been too passive in resisting the Obama administration and assorted progressive triumphs over the last eight years. Remember when House Republican leader John Boehner stood on the House floor in 2010 and shouted, “Hell no, you can’t!” in response to the passing of the Affordable Care Act? Many Republicans want more of that. Ted Cruz is just the sort of right-wing ideologue who will give them that breed of impassioned, unwavering, Goldwater-style traditionalism.

If there is one voting bloc Cruz is relying on, it’s evangelical Protestants. The Cruz campaign believes there is a silent majority of deeply religious voters who failed to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012 because the former Massachusetts governor was not tough enough on issues like abortion and “the defense of marriage.” Consequently, Cruz has taken pains to point out that he is the son of a pastor, to highlight his faith and to contrast himself against the “New York values” of Donald Trump.

His strategy hasn’t worked. As Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, evangelicals are not the monolithic entity the Cruz campaign counted on. Cruz does well among deeply religious Protestants who attend church regularly, but among those who are perhaps patriots first and Christians second, Donald Trump does better. In other words, for some evangelicals, with Trump they can have their Christian cultural war and their jingoistic nationalism, too. There’s also the fact that the Religious Right has grown disenchanted with the lack of progress on its more grandiose goals: Roe v. Wade is still standing, Planned Parenthood hasn’t folded, the “gay agenda” marches on, and so forth. In fact, in recent years, there has been a libertarian current in the Republican Party that opposes the blurring of the line between church and state. Many zealous evangelicals seem demoralized, and those that aren’t are focusing on restricting abortion access at the state level, where (unfortunately) they have had incredible success.

Plus, to return to my original point, Ted Cruz is a jerk. His win in Iowa was tainted by claims he had engaged in dirty tricks to steal votes from Ben Carson voters. More recently, Cruz had to fire a staff member for spreading lies about Marco Rubio. Typically, “good Christians” are known for at least the appearance of integrity and honesty. Cruz, however, is better known for being shrewd and conniving, with a take-no-prisoners mentality that is not troubled by moral qualms. Unfortunately for him, Christian martyrs are defined by losing honorable fights rather than winning dishonorable ones.

202px-marco_rubio_by_gage_skidmore_9Marco Rubio

Advantages: Programmed to be hip, young and Latino

Disadvantages: The Republican establishment doesn’t elect presidents

Cinematic Equivalent: I Am Number Four (2011)

Typical Supporter: A wealthy Republican donor

Marco Rubio is like a film adaptation of a popular young adult book series that flopped. In 2012, after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party published a report — an “autopsy” — that called for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities and increased outreach to young people. Like most young adult novels, the idea of Rubio did very well, as only a fantasy could. However, as sometimes happens, something got lost in the transition from conceptual framework to the live-action version. Some fans refuse to stop believing, and Rubio’s tendency to give victory speeches when he loses indicate that he hasn’t given up on his cult following of rich patrons and the conservative cocktails-and-cigars set.

Rubio sometimes seems to have been designed in a Republican lab, and not because of his infamous robotic debate performance. In 2010, he was one of the rising stars of the Tea Party movement, endearing him to the radical right, but has since shown his ability to cross the aisle on issues like immigration, winning over moderates frustrated by the GOP becoming the “party of no.” He’s proudly Cuban-American and bilingual in a party stereotyped as being full of racist whites. He’s young and purports to like dance music. The cherry on top: he comes from Florida, a swing state known for deciding presidential elections. He’s the perfect answer to the 2012 Republican autopsy: sellable to historically alienated demographics, but still firmly grounded in conservative principles.

The problem? He hasn’t won a single caucus or primary. Not one.

The reason is that the Republican rank-and-file doesn’t want to coalesce around the marketable, moderate candidate. They did that in 2008 and 2012, and what did it get them? Substantial losses to Barack Obama. They don’t want to concede to multiculturalism and embrace diversity; they want to fight it tooth and nail. They do not want a “path to citizenship” on immigration; they want “their” (white) country back. From a personage standpoint, Rubio’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. John McCain, as a war hero and foreign policy expert, had the capacity to be a statesman. Romney, with his business background, was seen as America’s potential CEO. Rubio is a parvenu, an inexperienced baby-face whose mere presence does not inspire confidence. In ideas, he is out of touch with the Republican base; in image, he is the broad-minded and cosmopolitan candidate of a party that is, for the most part, neither of those things.

169px-hrc_in_iowa_apr_2015Hillary Clinton

Advantages: Not Donald Trump

Disadvantages: Is Hillary Clinton

Cinematic Equivalent: The Iron Lady (2011)

Typical Supporter: A white Prius-driving, Good Wife-watching professional woman

You cannot talk about the Clinton campaign without acknowledging the long-standing and completely understandable desire to elect our first woman president. As a man, I’ll never be able to completely understand the immense frustration generations of American women must have felt about being underrepresented in politics, and to have issues that impact them decided almost exclusively by men. Hillary has long been the best path to the realization of the dream of a woman POTUS, and more than that, she has been successful in a number of prominent political roles: First Lady, a U.S. senator, and most recently Secretary of State. It is hard to think of a more qualified candidate (much less an actual president) in recent memory. Just in terms of name recognition alone, she has a massive advantage that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, would be envious of.

The downside of being a household name since 1992 is that she has accumulated a lot of baggage along the way. Republicans, for the most part, loathe her, for everything from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, criticize her (and her husband) for joining forces with Newt Gingrich in 1996 to advance welfare reform, her support for Hosni Mubarak, her practically unconditional support for Netanyahu’s Israel, and her support for the 2003 Iraq War. With the Occupy Wall Street movement still fresh in peoples’ minds, Hillary’s cozy relationship with the financial industry is a big liability. These are more than just accidental handicaps; Hillary has a record of intentionally aligning herself with military adventurism and Big Business. In an election where class stratification and race relations are big issues, Hillary does not possess much credibility when it comes to pontificating about income inequality or institutional racism.

In response, Hillary and her supporters have sought to downplay her Wall Street connections. She has sought to portray her rival, Bernie Sanders, as a one-issue economic populist, telling a crowd that “breaking up the banks” would not end racism or sexism. The problem with this, as eloquently argued by Roqayah Chamseddine, is that it falsely separates gender discrimination from exploitation under capitalism when the two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are often related. It does, unfortunately, fit into modern liberal feminism, with its emphasis on “leaning in” and “breaking the glass ceiling” — which, as Nancy Fraser argues, is only about enabling women to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes to achieving true social equality for women, white liberal feminists have been notoriously silent on feminist issues that do not impact women of color, such as police violence against women of color (be it Sandra Bland or the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw). By buying into the Clinton’s campaign partition of gender identity politics from anti-capitalist arguments, Clinton supporters are endorsing a form of feminist “equality” where women are “free” to be as overworked and underpaid as men, and where women of color remain regular victims of economic violence (such as the draconian welfare-to-work programs Hillary herself signed off on in the 1990s).

While Hillary has taken some punches from Bernie Sanders, 2016 does seem to be “her turn.” Once she secures the nomination, her next major hurdle will be her Republican opponent, who is likely to be Trump. Can she beat him? The very fact that this is even a question demonstrates how bizarre this election is. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer. Warts and all, at the very least she’s not a lewd narcissist who caters to racist reactionaries. On the other hand, there may be more Americans who actively dislike her than Americans who passionately want her to be president. It may be that the greatest thing working in Hillary’s favor is the two-party system and voters’ limited options.

192px-senator_of_vermont_bernie_sanders_at_derry_town_hall2c_pinkerton_academy_nh_october_30th2c_2015_b_by_michael_vadon_01_28cropped29Bernie Sanders

Advantages: Integrity

Disadvantages: Bernie who?

Cinematic Equivalent: La Chinoise (1967)

Typical Supporter: A Jacobin-reading, Democracy Now-watching college socialist

Bernie Sanders has been a failure.

I do not refer to his seeming failure to win the nomination. That was never in the cards, although no shortage of optimistic progressives seemed to believe he would, like Barack Obama in 2008, prevent Hillary from cruising to the nomination. For all his uprightness and intensity, however, Bernie never had the charisma or the appeal to minority voters that Obama used to such effect when he defeated Hillary. In fact, Bernie has a reputation for being, like Ted Cruz, a caustic jerk — as shown by his “side eye” at Hillary during one debate, his shouting, his finger-wagging, and so on. Bernie Sanders is a firebrand, an attack dog for the progressive left; he does not have the gravitas and poise one normally associates with a head of state or a head of government. I think he suspects this.

I call Bernie a failure because I think the point of his campaign was purely to challenge Hillary from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and, subsequently, push her to adopt more left-wing positions on a living wage, socialized medicine, education costs, and so on. This theory makes sense, because Bernie himself talked in 2011 about how Obama had moved so far to the right of the political spectrum because no one was attacking him from the left. If this was Bernie’s goal, it didn’t work. Hillary may have added her support for a health care public option to her campaign Web site, but that is not inconsistent with what she already supported in 2008. For the most part, she considers health care reform settled for now. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15. She has mocked Bernie’s plan for free college tuition. As noted above, rather than cave to this challenge from her left, Hillary and her campaign has used the language of feminism and social justice to dodge and evade any attacks from Bernie, keeping her platform more or less intact as it was when she first entered the race: in favor of the status quo and business-friendly.

The Bernie bandwagon was always doomed, but it’s total deflation on Super Tuesday was its death knell. Why did Bernie perform so badly in Southern states? Many pundits have pointed to black voters as “Hillary’s firewall,” crediting the “engagement” of the Clintons with black communities in the past. In my opinion, there is a much simpler explanation: no one besides progressives, political junkies and Vermonters knew who Bernie Sanders was before 2015, and most people today probably think he’s Larry David. Where has he done well? New Hampshire and Vermont, which are literally his backyard and his home state, respectively. He also did well in Iowa and Oklahoma, no doubt because of his appeal to poor working class whites. He’s done poorly generally, however, not because of some ambiguous solidarity between black voters and the Clintons, but because Hillary has been a national political icon since Yugoslavia still existed on maps. I get really frustrated when Sanders supports whine that “black voters voted against their own interests” on Super Tuesday. Newsflash: people vote against their own interests all the time. In fact, I do it in most elections myself. I vote for the Democrat, even though the Democratic Party has not come close to representing my principles in my lifetime. However, like many people who vote Democratic, Republican politicians are even further divorced from what I care about. It does not surprise me — at all — that Democrats, whatever their age or race or gender, vote for a candidate whose name they recognize and who they believe will win in a national election, if for no other reason than to keep a Republican out of office.

To his credit, Bernie hasn’t smeared Hillary, only calling her out on her record and her policies. He didn’t use any dirty tricks against her, and quite appropriately called out the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails a Republican-orchestrated circus. He won’t make an independent run for the White House, which would only split the Democratic vote. This whole episode will likely mean Bernie going out of politics in a blaze of glory, his one last contribution to the progressive moment. It is just too bad it will have been unsuccessful.

Still, there is hope in the fact that a self-declared socialist ran for the Democratic nomination this year and had some success. It just goes to show that, while the status quo may triumph in the end (with a Hillary victory in November), we still live in an unsettled world. As long as that remains true, there is still hope that we can, from the ruins of the old one, create a better and more equitable world for ourselves and future generations.


Trump: More a Feeling Than an Ideology

“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

320px-donald_trump_muralI have been thinking about this quote from The Big Lebowski a lot lately as I’ve tried to imagine what the policies of a possible Trump administration would look like. Although he has been consistently labeled a fascist, a subject I have discussed here before, the problem is that Trump is essentially an opportunist, first and foremost. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He endorsed Democrats before he became a Republican. Just on the campaign trail alone, he’s done 180 degrees on a number of issues, from Afghanistan to Planned Parenthood to military spending. When he makes campaign promises, he never supplies much in the way of specifics. How is he going to get Mexico to build a wall across our border? How is he going to hunt down and kill the family members of ISIS fighters? None of that matters; it is all red meat to his followers, who eat it all up happily.

Why? If Americans are so fed up with gridlock in Washington, D.C., why would so many of them throw their support behind a candidate whose entire agenda is a non-starter, whose stances on the issues are so blatantly nothing but smoke and mirrors?

At the risk of sounding cynical, image matters more than substance. Trump exudes an aggressive, enthusiastic energy that conveys the idea he is “winning” at life and that, under his leadership, the United States will be “winning” as well. We live in a culture of personality, where personal magnetism and risk-taking matter more than honor and integrity. He is the quintessential extrovert in a society that caters to extroversion. Whatever his record in business, Trump is a salesman — and a celebrity salesman at that, more than experienced at selling himself as the product.

This is why Trump was so fatal to the Jeb Bush campaign. Bush was the frontrunner before160px-governor_of_florida_jeb_bush2c_announcement_tour_and_town_hall2c_adams_opera_house2c_derry2c_new_hampshire_by_michael_vadon_17 he ever entered the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the establishment choice with the elite political pedigree. Moreover, he was a candidate with a good character — eager to talk about the issues, reticent to engage in dirty political attacks. However, Trump’s entrance into the race meant that personality mattered more than character. Whatever his positives, Bush came across as colorless and mundane, much as the constantly awkward Mitt Romney did in 2012. Whether we like it or not, most people are attracted to dynamic people, not people who are “low-energy” — no matter how intelligent or qualified they might be.

I am not the first person to make this comparison, but to understand the appeal of Trump, it is helpful to look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who became the Italian prime minister several times between 1994 and 2011. Like Trump, Berlusconi enjoyed great political success despite making vulgar and controversial remarks, such as by calling Muslims “inferior” and asserting right-wing female politicians are more attractive than left-wing ones. (This is to say nothing of the sex parties he hosted with underage prostitutes, which — to my knowledge — Trump has not done.) Yet the most interesting overlap is in the circumstances of their respective rises to power.

silvio_berlusconi_29-01-2008Italian society is notoriously corrupt. But in 1992, an exceptionally massive scandal erupted known as tangentopoli” (translated “bribesville”) that brought down the entire political order of Italy that had existed since World War II, effectively destroying the major parties of the left and right. Berlusconi’s political benefactor fled into exile in Tunisia to avoid a prison sentence. Consequently, Berlusconi entered politics as an “outsider,” someone untainted by the corruption permeating government (despite his having participated in it). With his charisma and media savvy, he made his competition appear stale and impersonal as well as venal and untrustworthy. He turned Italian politics into a form of entertainment, drawing in an electorate who wanted this larger-than-life maverick to succeed against the odds of unimaginative bureaucrats.

We haven’t experienced anything on the scale of “bribesville” in the United States, but dissatisfaction with the status quo has never been higher. Economically, Americans are worried about their retirement and their children being less well off, and continue to fear that globalization and free trade carry more risks than rewards (for example, the loss of American jobs to China.). Culturally, many conservative Americans are alarmed by numerous issues: African-American discontent over police brutality, America’s changing demographics, the “war” on Christianity, same-sex marriage, the resurgence of political correctness, to say nothing of Islamic terrorism, the government banning firearms, and so on. For many Americans, the country — and the world — is changing in ways they just do not like. Trump, with his can-do attitude, promises that he will reverse it all — no matter what it takes, however unrealistic it may seem, no matter who he offends. In fact, the more offensive and over-the-top he is, the more appealing he is, because he draws such a distinction between himself and the dispassionate, pragmatic Powers That Be.

In many ways, Trump’s base parallels the people in European countries flocking to far-320px-nvu-ede-dsc_0036right, anti-immigration parties like the Sweden Democrats, Jobbik in Hungary, France’s xenophobic National Front, Britain’s UKIP, and so on. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde points out, Trump is unlike the leaders of these parties, because they tend to downplay their extreme positions and appear more like “acceptable” politicians, whereas Trump eagerly breaks the mold, much like Berlusconi did. But in terms of the voters who support these European parties and Americans who support Trump, there are a lot of similarities. Both sets of voters feel threatened by immigration and the “loss” of a traditional national identity. Both sets feel voiceless, unrepresented by parties that embrace diversity and reject old fashioned nativism and chauvinism. Both sets reject tax-and-spend socialism, but favor economic nationalism that only increases the wealth and prosperity of their own country (through subsidies and tariffs, if necessary). Both sets want to protect benefits and entitlements, but only for hard-working members of the national majority, and not for “welfare frauds” and “shirkers” (and this is almost always a dog-whistle referring to poor ethnic minorities, especially immigrants).

Trump’s main opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, do not fit with these demands. Cruz 320px-marco_rubio_with_supportersis a big-time social conservative, and he does well among some evangelicals, but he’s a right-wing ideologue who a promotes laissez-faire economic vision that conflicts with the anti-free trade, anti-globalization Trump viewpoint, to say nothing of the fact that he’s an abrasive figure known for dirty tricks. (One of the more amusing running jokes to come out of this election so far is that Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.) Rubio is even less appealing, with his history of moderation on immigration and Hillary-esque pandering to young people. Grudgingly, the Republican Party has attempted to move away from its image of “rich white old guys,” and Rubio is the embodiment of that effort to appeal to young, non-white voters who are nevertheless still conservative. In a normal election year, he would probably be doing very well. Unfortunately for Republicans, this year is not a normal one.

I remain optimistic that, if Trump does win the Republican nomination, a moderate Republican will nevertheless triumph in the general election: Hillary Clinton. As much as I dislike her record and her policies, they are still more palatable than the thought of having our own American Berlusconi.