On the eve of the 2016 election I wrote and didn’t publish a couple of essays on the campaign. I wrote this the week before the election:
As I’ve said and written over and over for the last year, Trump’s candidacy is an ongoing media phenomenon manifesting as a political event rather than a primarily political phenomenon, and the most worrying thing about his candidacy isn’t the old problem of ‘white nationalism’ but rather the more recent catastrophic devaluation of democracy and political participation. Bernie Sanders ran against politics-as-usual, but Trump has harnessed Americans’ disgust with politics of any sort — which is why Hillary Clinton, who was handed a Senate seat by the DNC (who promised that she would face no primary challenge in 2000) and is perceived by many to’ve been given the Secretary of State job as a résumé-booster, is in a sense the best possible opponent from Trump’s point of view, the living embodiment of D.C. insider political scheming. The straightforward corruption of the Democrats’ 2016 primary process is catnip not only for Republicans but for any voter who loathes what Trump refers to as a ‘rigged system,’ and confirms their sense that voting can’t fundamentally change anything. The fact that Trump is a pig-ignorant TV game-show host rather than a person with any knowledge of government or policy isn’t a weakness in his supporters’ minds; the whole point of voting for Trump is to reject the rapidly transforming cultural mainstream. The best possible inoculation against the dangerous ignorance of Trump and his hardcore supporters is more robust community ties and more open communication between individuals and groups across cultural/political/identitarian lines. But while fulfilling and healthy, that’s not as satisfying as the tribal combat which has powered the Trumpist movement.
From the same essay:
Though I saw clearly the threat Trump posed to the conventional (not necessarily to say ‘mainstream’) candidates — who were forbidden by systemic norms from responding in kind to Trump’s stinging criticisms of their various hypocrisies and inadequacies, and who in any case were and remain every bit as corrupt and/or feckless as Trump said — I wrongly assumed that the GOP continued to have decisive influence over its own nomination process, and didn’t realize that the massive field of GOP wannabes would work so strongly in Trump’s favour, or that the loser candidates would commit so many unforced errors. Still, I think I got the big points right: Trump’s candidacy will shape not only the content but the form of future campaigns, and (as has been clear for a decade) the GOP’s tenuous political arrangement of kowtowing to multinational corporations while buying working-class votes with culture-warfare is no longer sustainable.
Partly correct. I’m ashamed to have fallen for the ‘Party decides’ determinist stuff that — what a coincidence — Nate Silver explicitly cited as the latest, and therefore most important, thing he’d read.
My last claim, about the GOP coalition no longer holding, might be wrong — it doesn’t take into account demographic/cultural realignment, and probably overestimates Democratic seriousness. And it failed to take into account the creeping authoritarian ideology of an ascendant hypercapitalist ‘Left’ that hates democratic compromise as much as the protofascists do. In other words: the post-Trump GOP coalition might itself be big enough without the GOP ceasing to be, as a national Party, straightforwardly evil. (I believe a sane conservatism is possible and indeed desirable, essential; the Republican Party simply isn’t that.)
From the same essay:
A lot’s been written since 2004 about the end of middle-class white Christian hegemony. The election of a black president and the full integration of women into the workforce have only sped up the transformation, as has the immiseration of millions by two decades of deepening corporatization and a decade of economic crisis, not to mention the rapid (and closely related) decline of Christianity as a political force after its last gasp under Bush. ‘White nationalism’ is in no small measure a rear-guard action against this transformation — and I use that violent/military metaphor quite deliberately, as people will die from what will be a generation-long conflict between cultural dead-enders and the rest of America. But the outcome is foreordained: an ideology that leaves its adherents less able to survive and thrive in the world as it merely is, must adapt or collapse, and the immovability of fundamentalists ends up rendering them immobile. Which, by the way, is why radical theocratic Islam is doomed in the long run: isolationism, which is baked into such stupid reactionary religious fundamentalisms, is unsustainable in the world as it is.
We’ll see. I’m unsure about that last sentence, indeed I wonder if I haven’t gotten it precisely backward: reactionary isolationism is more appealing than ever in This Of All Stupid Worlds. My guess, or bet, was that deepening interconnection would make fundamentalist isolation impossible despite its obvious attractiveness. The trouble is, I won’t know whether I’ve gotten that claim right for several decades. Let’s hope so — though there’ll be loads of bad news to come, either way.
Unfortunately, I also wrote this:
Clinton will win; I’ve assumed this since 2008 and have never doubted it.
The bothersome thing about this claim is that the first bit’s wrong but the self-reinforcing second bit’s true: I didn’t doubt Clinton would win, in no small part because I’d assumed it for so long. I believed the polls, and the poll-aggregators and ‘analysts,’ and massively overestimated the Clinton campaign’s competence even as I was appropriate distrustful of her/its motives and outlook.
Excerpt from an unpublished first-draft essay about Trump as a participatory media phenomenon
I wrote the following in April 2016. The third paragraph is missing a logical step: the Trump campaign was an effective critique of the political system, and supporting him was partly about hitting back at that system, analogous to (but also different from) supporting Sanders. Well, it is what it is.
Donald Trump is easy to make fun of: he’s a friendless gated-community xenophobe of George W Bush levels of rodentine intelligence, who looks to the ‘little guy’ for validation when none of his peers will take him seriously. He babbles like an aphasic TV pitchman, is fetishistically obsessed with his receding hairline, and (for flavour!) is running for president of the United States despite lacking even the most basic qualifications for the position. He’s such a bad candidate that even the dainty authoritarians at National Review had to repudiate him, not that there were any readers left to notice — so bad, so witless, so obviously without principle or percipience, that the priced-to-sell uplifted tortoise Mitch McConnell can’t imagine a way to work with him.
He will lose the general election. Serious People will act as if virtue has prevailed (though our new Madame President, waiting impatiently for Her Turn since 2008, will be a neoliberal wolf in bourgeois pseudoprogressive clothing with a dangerous sociopath for a First Lad). And On January 20th, hundreds of millions of voters will go right back to where they are now, with no prospect of economic betterment and no major party willing to take even the slightest risk to help them.
The popularity of Trump’s candidacy is easy to explain: in a time of massive and rapidly growing inequality, at an unstable moment of profitable secularization and viscerally exciting fundamentalist reaction, with the passing of simple white male hegemony (Obama’s presidency, Hamilton‘s Pulitzer), as gay couples marry and transgender Americans queue distressingly for the bathroom and Prince is celebrated as the modern Ellington, while mere human empathy is phased out through a mix of predatory corporatism and the extraordinary communications technologies those corporate predators sell us — in a world, by the way, where the first of hundreds of millions of victims of anthropogenic climate change have already begun dying, fortunately far from the TV cameras, and only a vanishingly small number of people have even the faintest idea why their ability to read this essay online has actual existing armageddon as its cost — it’s no surprise that a billionaire TV gameshow host with a private jet and a trophy wife and absolutely no scruples would do well. Trump candidly points out what’s wrong with Washington (money) and lets his supporters know they’re not alone in feeling like the country is moving away from them.
[‘…lets his supporters know’ should’ve been ‘makes his supporters feel.’ –wa.]
It is. Has been for ages. This is only news if you’ve deliberately insulated yourself from very obvious long-term trends, by (for instance) watching the costume dramedy called ‘TV news,’ in which actors portraying journalists nod ‘sagely’ while paid operatives yell non sequiturs and everyone involved pretends the boot on America’s throat isn’t theirs. Trump is running as a Republican because that’s where he’ll do well, but there’s nothing ‘conservative’ or indeed particularly Republican about his appeal to voters. Trump’s vibe, a mix of self-pitying authoritarianism and careful image control, is aimed at the gossip pages, which is to say ‘TV journalists’; he doesn’t talk policy because his campaign isn’t about policy at any level. He doesn’t need to ‘play politics’ to win the nomination because Americans don’t particularly care about politics (and care even less about governance) — we understand ‘Washington’ as a distant, abstract villain who pops up periodically on TV to twirl its moustache, deliver monologues about its big world-changing plans, and occasionally wage war on the darkies. (This is true even of ‘sophisticated’ types who only ever talk to a Trump supporter when he’s writing them a speeding ticket.) Trump’s appeal isn’t about governance, and it’s not really about politics. He’s the media figure, the character actor, that his media-obsessed supporters (and their better educated but otherwise essentially identical media-obsessed opponents) crave and indeed deserve.
Trump and the monstrously vapid Kardashian family are, to borrow a phrase, two cheeks of the same derriere.
As such, when it comes to Trump, it’s a mistake to look to politics for precedent and illumination. When you see craven veterans sucker-punching protesters at Trump rallies, you shouldn’t be thinking of the event as ‘political’ in the sense that you’re used to.
[I’ve cut some material that links this setup to the ostensible meat of the essay, which I’m not sharing.]
What is your involvement in politics and governance? Don’t answer glibly: think for a second, and sit with your answer. Be honest. No points for reading this essay, by the way.
How do you stay informed about politics? Do you read primary sources — laws, treaties, the actual words and written instruments of the people in power — or even aspirationally neutral journalism? Or (much more likely) do you rely mostly on ideologically friendly pundits and ‘news analysts’ (read: pundits) to digest your information for you? Do you vote in off-year elections? Are you annoyed by my use of the casually dismissive term ‘off-year’ in that sentence? Have you ever read the platform of a major political party — or a minor one? Do you attend or even pay attention to debates? When you watch a debate, do you go in rooting for one side and always come out confirmed in your belief that your side is right?
Do you know the names of your City Councillors? Do you know how your city’s budget has worked out over the last few years or decades? If your town does participatory budgeting, do you participate? Do you vote in school board elections? Have you ever written a letter to your representatives in congress? Have you ever demanded accountability for your political donations?
One of the reasons Donald Trump has locked up the Republican nomination is that, if we’re being honest, nearly every voting-age American’s answer to most of these questions is something along the lines of ‘I just can’t.’
[The next bit, about ‘turn up every four years to vote in elections where our votes don’t really matter, and can’t be bothered to vote in the ones where they really really do,’ has been cut because you get the point.]
I give myself partial credit and am comfortable with that.