Tuesday, November 15, 2016

It Gets Worse

When thinking back to what the political climate was like in the early years of Obama's presidency, one gets a sense of deja vu. Amid the Great Recession, most felt betrayed by the political and economic establishment and strongly desired to change it, but in a lot of cases, this populist energy was going in the wrong direction; a political vacuum had appeared, and as often happens with political vacuums, demagoguery filled much of the empty space.

That era, as you remember, involved a surge in support for movements like the Tea Party, the rise of divisive media figures like Glenn Beck, and (somewhat below the surface) a growth of membership in far-right groups. The country had seen phenomenon like that before in recent decades, but in this instance, one person had reason to believe that such events reflected a far deeper and darker societal trend than usual.

In 2010, reports Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky gave a disquieting assessment of the state of the nation, saying that the current situation "Is very similar to late Weimar Germany," the regime which preceded the Third Reich. As was the case in early 1930's Germany, he explains, faith in established institutions and the ideological center was eroding due to widespread economic inopportunity, and that opened up the door for political monstrosities to arise.

"The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen," he said. "Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says 'I have got an answer, we have an enemy'? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election."

Such an event failed to transpire in the the election immediately following Chomsky's prediction, but ominous signs indeed began to appear. In the early stages of the 2012 Republican primaries, some abnormally extreme candidates like Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain were close to being the favorites at one point. It was only after then, of course, that things really started to get crazy.

Donald Trump, who may have become president in 2012 had he not put off running, is regarded by many as just the type of person Chomsky warned about. "Be very afraid," warned James Kunstler late last year. "Donald Trump isn’t funny anymore. He’s Hitler without the brains and the charm." Chomsky's reaction to Trump's victory is similarly dire: "For many years, I have been writing and speaking about the danger of the rise of an honest and charismatic ideologue in the United States, someone who could exploit the fear and anger that has long been boiling in much of the society, and who could direct it away from the actual agents of malaise to vulnerable targets. That could indeed lead to what sociologist Bertram Gross called 'friendly fascism' in a perceptive study 35 years ago. But that requires an honest ideologue, a Hitler type, not someone whose only detectable ideology is Me. The dangers, however, have been real for many years, perhaps even more so in the light of the forces that Trump has unleashed."

This may sound ludicrous, but I do not believe Trump is the person he's talking about.

Chomsky's assessment of the factors behind Trump's rise is entirely accurate; exit polls in both the primaries and the general election show that Trump voters are generally resentful towards the political (though not quite so much economic) establishment, and the promise of change was for the most part what lead to Trump winning.

In this piece, I'm going to explain why I think that Trump, awful as he is, is just the prelude to a larger horror that's looming on the horizon. And first on my list of reasons for this is the fact that Trump's intentions have more do to with satisfying his own ego than changing the country. As Michael Moore very plausibly claimed in August, Trump's decision to run for president was originally more of a publicity stunt than a scheme to usher in an era of tyranny:
Trump was unhappy with his deal as host and star of his hit NBC show, “The Apprentice” (and “The Celebrity Apprentice”). Simply put, he wanted more money. He had floated the idea before of possibly running for president in the hopes that the attention from that would make his negotiating position stronger. But he knew, as the self-proclaimed king of the dealmakers, that saying you’re going to do something is bupkus — DOING it is what makes the bastards sit up and pay attention.
Trump had begun talking to other networks about moving his show. This was another way to get leverage — the fear of losing him to someone else — and when he "quietly" met with the head of one of those networks, and word got around, his hand was strengthened. He knew then that it was time to play his Big Card.
He decided to run for president.
Of course he wouldn’t really have to RUN for president — just make the announcement, hold a few mega-rallies that would be packed with tens of thousands of fans, and wait for the first opinion polls to come in showing him — what else! — in first place! And then he would get whatever deal he wanted, worth millions more than what he was currently being paid.
And though this cynical tactic to exploit the political process has evidently morphed since then into a genuine effort from Trump to become president, given the information above I have little reason to believe that he intends to commit to the job-or to his campaign promises.

Firstly is the issue of trade. One of the few legitimate problems that Trump has promised to address, the injustice of having corporations abandon American workers for higher profits is something that has famously made Trump win over many people who feel it hurts the economy. And yet Trump's actions so far have not matched his words; his VP pick of staunch neoliberal trade advocate Mike Pence was the first sign that he can't be trusted to confront this issue, along with the fact that all of his economic advisors seek to serve the interests of the corporations that benefit from the current trade system.

And then comes Trump's promise to "drain the swamp" of political corruption. In addition to how Trump is the most corrupt presidential candidate in history, this claim is made very hard to believe by the cabinet picks he's made so far, which include numerous lobbyists and former corporate donors to his campaign.

Other things that Trump has vowed to accomplish but likely won't is deport all undocumented immigrants, which he's decided not to attempt since being elected, and impose a ban on Muslims from entering the country, which the system won't allow him to do whether wants to or not. None of this is to say that he'll be unwilling or unable enact the other sinister policies that he and his aides have embraced-a return of waterboarding, a strengthened police state-but for the most part, it seems the authoritarian strongman that Trump supporters are looking for will not turn out to be Trump.

But if these failures of Trump's principle and integrity don't turn off his fans, who are extremely committed to remaining loyal to him, his handling of the economy will likely be what does in his initial support. Those in the bottom 99.9% of the income bracket, who are already very much feeling the financial consequences of forty years of neoliberal policies, will predictably become even poorer under the economic policies of Trump and the Republicans in the House and the Senate. And finally, the most dramatic way that Trump will betray his promises to improve the quality of life of Americans is by failing to adequately regulate the financial sector, which is sure to cause a new financial crisis that's likely to hit sometime within the first half of his term.

In short, though whether Donald Trump is charismatic is a matter of opinion, he is certainly not honest in his intentions. He may be a tyrant-in-the-making, but his inexperience, poor judgement, and lack of core values all make him destined for political failure. I can easily imagine that in time for the next election cycle, a great deal of Trump's former supporters will no longer view him as the appealing outsider who gave them hope in 2016, but as exactly what he is: another establishment politician. As Chomsky said, most demagogues and deceivers ultimately defeat themselves, and Trump will be no exception.

Unfortunately, this is where the opportunity will appear for the rise of something far worse than Trump.

While the extreme unpopularity of Trump circa the 2020 election cycle will of course make it easy for the left to win against him, the same will be true for the extreme right. It's a real possibility that after Trump has politically destroyed himself, a new demagogue who possesses far more skill and principle will beat him in the 2020 Republican primaries (or even upstage him while running third party) and become the next face of the ever more sinister American fascist movement.

If this sounds implausible, think of what author Umair Haque wrote last year regarding the direction that the political environment has been headed in for the past several years: "If I’d told you last Christmas that the leading contender for President of the richest and most powerful country on the globe had openly said that he was OK with armbands, internment camps, extra-judicial bans, and blood rights, unless you were a card-carrying member of Conspiracy Theorists International, you probably would have laughed at me."

And we may well see such an upset again, except this time it will represent something that genuinely resembles the Third Reich. No one illustrates my point better than John Feffer in his piece The Most Important Election Of Your Life Is Not This Year, the following quote from which, though I've used it before, is entirely appropriate for this article:
The real change will come when a more sophisticated politician, with an authentic political machine, sets out to woo America B [conservative America]. Perhaps the Democratic Party will decide to return to its more populist, mid-century roots. Perhaps the Republican Party will abandon its commitment to entitlement programs for the 1%.
More likely, a much more ominous political force will emerge from the shadows. If and when that new, neo-fascist party fields its charismatic presidential candidate, that will be the most important election of our lives.
As long as America B is left in the lurch by what passes for modernity, it will inevitably try to pull the entire country back to some imagined golden age of the past before all those "others" hijacked the red, white, and blue. Donald Trump has hitched his presidential wagon to America B. The real nightmare, however, is likely to emerge in 2020 or thereafter, if a far more capable politician who embraces similar retrograde positions rides America B into Washington.
While I used to think such an event would only materialize if Hillary Clinton had won, I now realize that the dark political energy capable of producing it has the ability to manifest itself regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is in charge. Either way, the factors which are causing these fascist, reactionary sentiments will continue to antagonize the public, inching the nation ever closer to tyranny.

And when it gets to that point, we'll no doubt look back fondly on Glenn Beck and the teabaggers.

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