The Right-Wing Lumpen-Intelligenstia: How the “Free Speech” Myth Serves the Ruling Class

Marx once wrote about the “lumpenproletariat,” the unthinking portion of the working class that could never attain class consciousness and were thus worthless to workers’ revolution. Today, we might describe the plethora of right-wing commentators inexplicably paid to share their toxic views constitute a lumpen-intelligentsia: “thought leaders” and “influencers” whose “work” tends to provoke more hostility than thought.

business_insider_logoRecently, right-wing opinion columnist Daniella Greenbaum resigned in a public huff after her employer at the time, Business Insider, yanked a piece she had penned defending the casting of a straight cisgender actor as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life transgender man who owned several Pittsburgh massage parlors in the 1970s and 1980s that served as fronts for prostitution. Ignoring the justified and complex arguments of transgender activists who have long complained about the underrepresentation in Hollywood of transgender performers, Greenbaum lazily argued from a “common sense” perspective that actors are meant to portray people other than themselves. It should be noted that the 24-year-old Greenbaum herself is not only straight and cisgender as too also but grew up in the lap of luxury in Manhattan, first attending a private Jewish day school and then Columbia University, before an internship at AIPAC plugged her into conservative pundit cottage industry. It boggles the mind why the editors at Business Insider decided the world needed to know the opinions of such a person on transgender representation but given David Brooks’ own lecturing to African-American youth not too long ago, perhaps the discerning reader should not be too surprised the piece went live.

dh7fajfxkaegzfvIt did not remain live for long. Business Insider pulled the piece after the inevitable backlash. As has become vogue for conservative commentators, Greenbaum cried censorship and sent out her resignation letter. Also, a litany of her ilk attended her self-pity party, with the usual cast of characters – Bret Stephens, Christina Hoff Sommers, John Podhoretz, Bethany Mandel, Jamie Kirchik, et al – rallying to her cause. Of course, rather than being blacklisted by the “liberal media,” Greenbaum found a new home at the Washington Post, where her first piece– you guessed it – bemoaned the death of “free speech” and the inclination by people to give in to the tyranny of the “mob.”

185px-free_speech_doesnt_mean_careless_talk_-_nara_-_535383Much has already been made about the hypocrisy of the right-wing media and its members when they cry “free speech.” Obviously, conservatives opine when individuals who share their beliefs are sanctioned in some way for expressing themselves, but conveniently look the other way when academics who criticize Israel lose their jobs or when NFL players take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. By claiming “free speech,” however, conservative pundits can ensure their reactionary, increasingly antiquated views and values are treated with respect and civility. Moderate liberals will – and have – tripped over themselves to demonstrate their own dedication to freedom of thought, ignorant or indifferent to the fact they are enabling conservative social control to be broadcast to the millions of Americans who consume the mass media.

I do not want to deconstruct this “crisis of free speech” mythology because I believe most people can see through the lie for what it is. What I do want to do is examine who exactly benefits from this strategy and how it is rooted in a long tradition of using the media as a propaganda tool to promote the status quo while attacking the forces of progress. Studying history reveals that the liberal cry of “free speech” has far more to do with protecting perspectives favorable to the powerful than safeguarding dissent.

burkereflectionsUniformly white and privileged, the right-wing chattering class prone to complaining about “censorship” reflect the genteel face of middle- and upper-class of the Caucasian U.S. that is both uncomfortable with the populism of Trump and the progressivism of the political left. Like the Trumpists, though, they despise “political correctness” – that is, the shifting norms and ideas around everything from class to race to gender – and the abandonment of “common sense” – that is, the prejudices and beliefs socialized into their heads as objective truth. Going back to the French Revolution, conservative forebear Edmund Burke argued that the “natural order” of society, embodied in the countryside, was under assault by a destructive working-class movement. Of course, we know now there is no “natural order” of society, that liberalism and capitalism are no more our natural condition than feudalism or slavery was. In the conservative mind, however, the past is something sacred, the “correct” arrangement, even if – as is now widely recognized – such an arrangement depends on the exclusion and suffering of certain groups. Perhaps the most fundamental rejoinder to conservative diatribes like Burke’s is that his idyllic England was no paradise to anyone who was not a straight cisgender property-owning white man. When Burke sought to expose the looting of the Indian subcontinent in the 1780s, it was not to denounce the brutality of imperialism, but to criticize its effect of creating boorish parvenus who threatened to disrupt business as usual with their new wealth. Burke succeeded in turning British imperialism into a national project, enriching and ennobling Britain off the plunder and subjugation of conquered peoples. Implied in Burke’s conservatism is a white supremacy, an ethnic nationalism that views English culture as innately superior to all others. U.S. culture imported this feature from Britain and used it to inspire “Manifest Destiny” and then “American Exceptionalism,” the crafting of a North American empire and then a global one as the self-styled champion of democracy and individual liberty, also ruled by a privileged class of mostly straight cisgender Caucasian men. When right-wing pundits today deplore the “disappearance of common sense,” what they mean is they lament the eroding of age-old ideological constructs that legitimate a status quo predicated on the exploitation of others.

158px-praemonitus_praemunitus_-_the_protocols_of_the_wise_men_of_zion_-_the_beckwith_company_28192029Greenbaum, a Jew and a Zionist, may not be aware that by following in Burke’s footsteps she is walking a path historically littered with anti-Semitism. The mirror image of the conservative utopia (white, tied to the land, patriotic) is the rootless, unscrupulous, and stateless subversive – in other words, for much of Western culture, the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew. For Burke, the cause of the French Revolution’s degeneration into bloodshed was an unholy alliance between the working-class “rabble” and the “Old Jewry.” It may be more apt to say Greenbaum follows in the tradition of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disiraeli, a Jew, who argued Jews were inherently conservative because of their racial self-consciousness and “accumulated wealth.” During the 1848 revolutions, however, he decried “the once loyal Hebrew” among the ranks of “the Leveller,” seeking the destruction of Christianity and the abrogation of private property (see Domenico Losurdo’s excellent Liberalism: A Counter-History for more). Later, this anti-Semitic canard would be recycled as the Nazi belief in “Judeo-Bolshevism,” with Jews behind the popular revolutionary movement of the time, communism. Today, the “cultural Marxism” in conservative writing hides its anti-Semitism but remains essentially the idea that a “secret group” is trying to destroy Christianity, abrogate private property, and otherwise destroy Western civilization and the “common sense” that made the West the undisputed masters of the world (of course, anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel knows that the West benefitted from absorbing non-Western technology, favorable geographic conditions, and other structural variables totally divorced from the agency of human beings).

191px-ronald_reagan_testifying_at_house_un-american_activities_committee_huac_in_washington_dcJust as “cultural Marxism” is rooted in the anti-communist “Red Scare” rhetoric of the recent past, so too is the right-wing pundits’ appeals to free speech. During the Cold War, the conservative media regularly accused leftists of being pro-Soviet Union or not anti-Soviet Union enough. The ideological effect of this was to keep liberals on the defensive, to behave like reactionaries to show their anti-communist credentials. Under McCarthyism, liberals lined up to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ruin the lives of friends and relatives just to illustrate their fidelity to the national religion. Today, conservative commentators demand liberals do the same or otherwise be guilty by association with the “loony left.” Best of all for conservatives, they do not even need expertise or even experience; hence, why they will line up behind the appropriateness of a 24-year-old woman to speak about something she knows absolutely nothing about. Instead, the only question that matters is directed at the reader, a challenge to stand up for “common sense” and “our side” in the Manichean conservative understanding of “good guys” and “bad guys,” us versus them, so that any issue (such as equal rights for transgender people) becomes one not of logic and fairness but emotion.

The qualifications of people like Greenbaum and the validity of their ideas should be thoroughly interrogated and explored, because as we can see, a little investigation and context reveals that the “common sense” they seek to sell us is anything but. Their work is for and serves the ruling class. We can and should ask why newspapers and magazines are hiring writers like Greenbaum or Jesse Singal to write about things they should not be writing about with any genuine authority or knowledge. We should also question the claims of conservative oppression in the media when writers like Greenbaum are contributing to the political discourse under the mastheads of prestigious U.S. publications whereas major left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, and others only seem to appear on foreign networks like Al-Jazeera or Russia Today. (I am not endorsing their views, by the way, but making a point.) By hiring “dissenters” from the right-wing of the spectrum, the establishment-friendly mass media sets the contours for political discourse in this country so that it does not channel anger against the status quo, which is already highly precarious in this time of general disillusionment, alienation, and unrest. We are presented either with the views of inoffensive milquetoast centrists or out-of-touch conservative nostalgia. The left-wing perspective, despite its clear growing popularity, is generally not given a platform. (For more on this, see Chomsky’s work on concision and the mass media.)

It therefore behooves those of us on the radical left to use the Internet and especially social media to spread the ideas that are truly dangerous to the status quo, to construct a counter-hegemonic discourse completely separate from the controlled and filtered perspectives coming out of the mass media. The phenomenon of the conservative lumpen-intelligentsia is not a fleeting one but a core part of the modern superstructure that retards the development of human consciousness and building a better world.

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A Socialist Call to Action

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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, begins: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus similarly observed: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The universe is fluid, perpetually shifting and evolving, an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, creation and entropy. Just as things come into being, things fall apart. Not since 1930 have people had so little trust in central institutions, so little faith in their leaders, and so little optimism for the future.

For  many of us it is easier to imagine Armageddon than an alternative to liberal capitalism. Most of us under forty years of age have only ever known the neoliberalism that became Western orthodoxy in the 1980s. Our imagination is feeble. But a different world is possible, and indeed wants to be born; masses of people, increasingly alienated and angry, are greedy for new ideas, for an alternative fashion of living. Such a future, however, cannot be realized in the absence of salient critiques of the failing regime or an unqualified normative commitment to the care and liberation of all peoples. More specifically, agents of change must cease to define themselves by their protest, their opposition to what is, and instead rally behind a clear, comprehensive re-imagining of state and society according to principles of radical egalitarianism.

The signs of decline are apparent to those who care to look. Around the world, income inequality is growing as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent “Great Recession” revealed not only that this unaccountable economic elite was irresponsible, but that it was a protected class. Despite popular outrage, none of the institutions responsible for the crisis suffered, and any attempts to curb such behavior have proved fruitless. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the now dominant neoliberal consensus, young people in the West can no longer expect the high standard of living their parents once took for granted. Instead, many now look forward to incurring crushing debt (as a substitute for wages, long stagnant in Western economies) and insecurity in housing and employment — whereas Mom and Dad could depend on the white picket fence and the Plymouth in the garage. Moreover, in the short-term, those born with the millennium must pay the price in many countries of austerity measures adopted post-2008 in response to the crisis caused by those same culpable but unpunished oligarchs. Fear and frustration at this bleak present and grimmer future has led to global unrest. In 2010, popular revolts broke out across North Africa and the Middle East. In each case, it was the working classes who challenged the preexisting settlement. Although some of these revolts failed, the grievances of economic anxiety and powerlessness are finding expression from the underdeveloped world to the developed world, from the periphery of the global economy to its very core.

As the injustice of economic inequality becomes more acute, so too do societies become more cognizant and receptive to the expressions of social inequalities too often ignored. The constant institutional racism African-Americans experience daily only entered popular consciousness via the Black Lives Matter and the moral outrage over the killings by police of unarmed African-American children. The ongoing Me Too Movement has created awareness to the harmful effects of patriarchal male culture on women, who face discrimination and harassment regularly. A historically overlooked part of the LGBT community, transgendered people, are becoming more culturally prominent. There is a pattern of recognition that our present way of life not only enriches a few at the expense of the many beyond economic life, but our social life as well, and that these lives intersect in myriad ways constantly. In other words, from top to bottom, modern life is garbage — politically, economically, culturally. The liberal default position — to believe in reform over revolution, tinkering around the edges in avoidance of clean breaks — remains the consensus, but this begs the question of how long people will “trust the process” when the status quo is so plainly and painfully corrupt and broken. In a cruel turn of tragic comedy, it has actually been the extreme right who have been the most successful in launching (and legitimating) their revolutionary demands, ludicrously predicated on the persecution of”the white race” — an imagined community suffering an imaginary genocide. As the empire rots from within, the emperor blames the barbarians. Just as the equally mythological “Judeo-Bolshevik” once rallied the disenchanted petit bourgeoisie to fascism, today the specter of the MS-13 member or Arab jihadist serves as a useful distraction for the dissenting masses (along with the usual Illuminati cliches or anti-Semitic canards). Just as the status quo weakens, the people allow themselves to be divided, until we are left with the present political condition: a weary cynicism content to constitute itself as a negation, but unwilling to embrace revolution.

Revolution is now necessary. The time of bourgeois liberal capitalism is over; its death is heralded everywhere. By “revolution,” what is meant is the social sort characterized by the two most meaningful revolutions in the Western world: the 1789 French Revolution and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The former was the fatal blow against feudalism, absolute monarchy, and the influence of the church in secular affairs. Even those absolute monarchies that sought to destroy the French Republic eventually had to undertake liberalizing reforms. Its ideas sparked revolutions in Latin America and sowed the seeds for national liberation in the inchoate colonies. Over a century later, Red October was no less influential as a challenge to the hegemony of bourgeois liberal capitalism, even if in the end it was less successful. However, the fact that socialism endures as the most popular critique of liberal capitalism speaks to how the battle of ideas is still being waged. Socialism and all deviations of radical egalitarianism (which includes anarchism) share a commitment to removing the disparities and dispossession upon which capitalism depend.  Late capitalism can no more be saved than the economist Turgot could have implemented his modernizing reforms in 1775 that would have forestalled the 1789 revolution i the environment of absolute monarchy was infertile to the change required. Reform in such times is a dead end, a cul-de-sac.

Calls to action (which the contemporary extreme right is exceedingly good at, and radical egalitarians woeful) are bound to unnerve some, but this is not a call to violence. Violence is a tactic, not a strategy, and arguably one not not to be employed until the state is at its weakest. Rather, it is a call for affirmative activity, for constituting radical egalitarian politics as providing care for all humanity, of fostering a culture of inclusiveness, kindness, and mutual respect. We must not only be skeptical of reformist measures to create a more “humane capitalism” while showing commitment to a new society, a new culture, a socialist alternative. Increasingly, liberal capitalism is steering toward providing material assurances, such as a guaranteed basic income for everyone. This will only safeguard the astronomical privilege of the elite by raising the lowest strata a little higher from the bottom. Such a basic income would only provide the “freedom” to work most of your life away so that someone else might profit from your own labor. Similarly, equipping police officers with body cameras will only provide shootings of unarmed African-Americans from new angles. Paying women actors as much as their male counterparts raises the paychecks of ordinary women not one cent.

There was a time when the West used a fraction of its lucre to mollify the masses: the welfare state, providing care from cradle to grave. The “Golden Age of Capitalism” this produced from the 1950s to the 1970s died with the rise of neoliberalism, and never will it rise again. Neoliberalism (that ideology so insidious its most stalwart defenders deny it exists) squashed this deviation, restoring that cardinal pillar of every liberal since the 18th century: guarantees for private enterprise, the supremacy of profit over public needs. Liberalism and capitalism are ideologically joined at the hip; the “liberty” of liberalism has always been an individual liberty to exercise “natural” skills and talents (along with an expensive bourgeois education). The institutions of liberalism, from Constitution to Congress, are designed to protect the property-owning class because it was their ancestors who designed them. The last significant political “revolution” in U.S. history was that of Jefferson and his anti-federalist republicans in 1801; ever since, interests have become so increasingly narrow and vested that even undoing the far-reaching and controversial legislation of a predecessor is no easy feat. Additionally, the state has retreated so much in the age of globalization that its ability to even control the economy has shrank. Precisely because unrest is spreading and alienation is becoming more pervasive more and more power is moving from the public sphere into the private sphere. This power will not be surrendered willingly; it will be defended tooth and nail.

Once the nature of the struggle is realized, it is evident that the marches and rallies that have come to dominate the expression of political expression — the Occupy Movement, the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives — are no longer sufficient. These actions draw awareness to societal ills, but that is all they do. Their problem is not the absence of concrete policies, as critics often claim, but an absence of vision. There were no ideas of what would constitute the alternative to the one-percent-versus-99-percent inequality. The Women’s March avoided tough questions about bourgeois feminism and the problem of trans-exclusive radical feminists. The broad anti-NRA campaign after the Parkland High School shooting often ignored the reality that the toughest gun laws already in place are targeted at and enforced against poor people of color. New political parties and manifestos would not have helped these movements, as that would be playing into a political system arrayed against them anyway. Instead, there needed to be an active counter-culture continually interrogating these problems while also crafting ideas, values, and concepts around these issues that could be applied in a more ideal egalitarian society. This counter-culture can still exist — and indeed it must if liberal capitalism is not to be “the end of history,” as Fukuyama famously proclaimed. Instead, like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 1930s, they believed in either a better, more joyful future or no future at all. It was, after all, socialism or barbarism.

Relative to most of the world, the West enjoys a level of material comfort that hinders the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Yet, even if the sons and daughters of the middle class are not yet starving in the street, most people in the West are feel a sort of alienation, what the sociologist Durheim called anomie: a sense of disconnect or wrongness about the norms and values of society and those of the individual. When a person becomes aware of current events — the staggering income inequality, class immobility, the exemption from punishment of corrupt oligarchs, the institutional violence and repression women and people of color face, the breaking up and deportation of families, mass shootings with no political consequences — there is a registration of a mismatch, of a social illness, that we cannot be satisfied or fulfilled under these conditions. It falls to those who believe in revolution to seize upon this frustrated outrage and perpetual nausea and from these symptoms diagnose the disease: neoliberal capitalism as perpetrated by and for the enrichment and luxury of straight white men. Finally, it falls to us to design and promote the cure, as a collaborative project: What would a socialist economy in the 21st century developed world look like? How do we ensure a truly democratic form of government that is both demographically and substantively representative of all social groups? How might we socialize future generations to the principles of radical egalitarianism in order to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture? How do we construct not just a more just and equal order domestically in Western countries, but globally, so those countries constrained to the periphery might finally escape underdevelopment by Western states and corporations?

While the time for revolution in the West may be far off, the time is ripe for the emergence of a counter-hegemonic vision heavily based on socialism, anarchism, and other radical egalitarian movements. Liberalism is impoverished and can offer nothing new; neoliberalism was a reversion to classical liberalism, not forward progress. Fascism, as ever, remains the irrational romanticism of the “angry white men” of the petit bourgeois, and despite the privilege of this class, the crimes of fascism still linger in the popular mentality (albeit not as strongly as they perhaps should). Radical egalitarianism alone has the moral advantage, the ability to speak to the what the discontented think a fairer and more humane world would look like. Unfortunately, this potential will be wasted if we try to work within a system beyond redemption, or if counter-hegemonic activity is limited to sign-carrying and sneering satire. We have a world to win, but to begin with, we must imagine what such a world will be like.

Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.

Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

The Necessity of Violence

“Was it a coincidence that the apostles of the wildest theories of violence – Nietzsche, Barrès, Sorel – were unable to perform twenty knee-bends?” – Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Smoke

Last Friday night, organized protesters in Chicago shut down a Donald Trump rally. In the aftermath, there was a lot of agitation and hand-wringing over Trump being made “the victim,”that the demonstrators used violence to violate Trump’s right to free speech. However, many acknowledged that the disruption followed logically from the violence witnessed at previous Trump rallies, where journalists and protesters had been manhandled and assaulted by security agents and supporters alike. (Presently, Trump’s campaign manager is in hot water for allegedly harming a female reporter.) While not getting his hands dirty himself, Trump has certainly fueled the fire, encouraging that people who interrupt his events be “roughed up.” He has also publicly considered paying the fees of his supporters if they get into legal trouble for their behavior (although this should be treated with skepticism, as with all his other campaign promises).

That Trump employs a discourse of violence should not be shocking, since he is playing upon the fear and resentment many Americans feel over economic and social issues (as I have written about before). The rank-and-file of his support are not effete policy wonks, but average Americans who want to lash out because of their economic deprivation and the rapidly changing facets of their social lives. They yearn for the “good old days,” when people deemed “un-American” could be persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for being non-conformist with “traditional” American ideas, values and demographics. Contrary to what some pundits claim, there has never been an elevated discourse in U.S. politics, where regular people were riled up about intricate legislation, statistical data or convoluted policy plans. Quite understandably, political rhetoric is most effective when it manipulates emotions, be it hope and optimism — or anxiety, stress and wrath.

According to the Constitution, Trump supporters have a right to assemble and hear his polemics against immigrants and Muslims — and those who disagree with him have a right to assemble against him. The First Amendment protects people from having their opinions suppressed by the government; it does not promise you acceptance or even tolerance of your views. Protesters can (and should) organize to express their discontent, and most importantly, such protests should be allowed to be disorderly. The notion that people should be herded into “free speech zones” or “freedom cages”is far more damaging to the concept of a free society than interfering with a staged political event or engaging in forms of civil disobedience. What point is there in protesting if your protests have to be approved and organized by the very people you are protesting against?

The view that the protesters who shut down the Trump rally had a right to do so is not that controversial. A far more interesting question, in my view, is whether people should (legally or not) participate in actual violence against those deemed a danger to the public welfare. While this may seem an extreme position to some, we already see it quite a bit. In late February, anti-racist activists clashed with Ku Klux Klan members in Anaheim, California, to stop the white supremacists from marching against “illegal immigrants and Muslims” (two scapegoats of the Trump campaign as well). In January, neo-Nazis and anti-fascists fought in Dover in the United Kingdom ahead of far-right demonstrations against the acceptance of refugees. This carries on a tradition in Britain dating back to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when left-wingers battled British fascists in the streets, and on to the present day. Although not common lingo in mainstream U.S. political culture, “anti-fascism” or “antifa” movements have strong presences in Europe. The idea is that fascists, racists and other extreme right-wingers be denied a platform to espouse their vitriolic bile and to spread their poisonous ethos, so that past crimes will not be repeated.

It is difficult for me to advocate violence, as I am not by nature a violent person. However, I come down on the side of those who would sooner smash a fascist than defend one. Violence can be a destructive force, yes, but it can also be a creative one. From the battlefield of class conflict emerges the potentiality to reshape our world along the lines of progressive principles. To think that we will manifest a more free and just society through reasonable arguments and gradual reforms is to throw in with adherents of utopian socialism. Confrontation between the polarizing groups that define every state — the ruling and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploited — is both unpleasant and unavoidable. We must remember that it was by revolutionary force, from the French Revolution to the liberation movements of the colonized world, that oppressed peoples have constantly and bitterly emancipated themselves. The bourgeois Jacobins are quite different from the modern PKK, of course, but in every instance revolutionary liberation has been, at least to the repressive state, unauthorized and illegal. That does not make such struggles any less just or necessary; they were fought according to a higher law, a natural law, that permits the shedding of blood in the name of stopping tyranny.

We must remember that, in 1920s or 1930s Berlin, a brown-clad Nazi stormtrooper was not considered a hateful relic of a bygone historical period, but rather a contemporary phenomenon: an angry and confused young man, roused by an economic downturn and an unfamiliar social environment, allured by the bravado of a bold and unapologetic leader. This is not to say that history will repeat itself exactly, and that the same atrocities will be committed. However, we are — just as then — living in unsettled times, where the status quo is in flux, and reactionary populism has the capacity to do even greater damage to marginalized and vulnerable groups, from poor whites to the ethnic minorities the right-wing blames for their ills. Shutting down Trump rallies and kicking in the teeth of KKK members has less to do with silencing them, violating their free speech, rather than demonstrating to the world — and to posterity, if we fail — that not all of us were on the sidelines with the bloggers, pundits and the rest of the chattering classes when these events were unfolding. Only God knows what is around the corner, and it may be vain to think we can stop what is coming, but we still have an obligation to show (not just state) our defiance to it. To paraphrase that old pacifist Gandhi, our forceful rejection of Trump and his politics of hate may be insignificant, but it is very important that we do it.

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.