By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Were it not for the Donald, the electoral season so far would have been the bore that many of us were expecting and dreading.
Trump turned it into a guilty pleasure, more interesting by far than any of his reality TV shows.
And it looks like the Trump phenomenon has legs. Unless something very unforeseen happens, or the man loses interest, it won’t flicker out anytime soon.
Eager to feather their own nests, seasoned political operatives are already defecting to the Trump campaign. A joke barely a month ago, the Donald actually stands a chance of winning the early caucuses and primaries. After that, who knows!
But to get there, he will have to do more than attack other Republican candidates and Fox media personalities for being the phony ne’er-do-wells that they are. He will have to appeal to what is basest and most contemptible in human nature.
In our Age of Austerity, there are plenty of people susceptible to that kind of demagoguery — people screwed over by capitalist money men like Trump, and by the (bipartisan) political establishment that serves them, who won’t or can’t fight back in a constructive way.
As bona fide fascists discovered long ago, and as rightwing authoritarians and assorted opportunists have been doing ever since, a good way to reach them is to scapegoat others.
Vulnerable populations make outstanding scapegoats, especially if they are or can be made out to be of a different race, religion or ethnicity.
Trump is now using “illegal” immigrants from Mexico and Central America for this purpose.
It is anybody’s guess how much of this stems from his own mean-spiritedness. The man is plainly having a whale of a time — like a huckster never giving a sucker an even break. Who knows or cares what he really thinks; maybe not even Trump himself?
It could get nasty, however; indeed, the nastiness is already starting. Reports of nativist thugs acting out are on the rise; and, in more respectable circles, people are feeling freer to voice anti-Hispanic bigotry. Trump’s rivals for the nomination are picking up on the new vibe as well.
In these dog days of summer, the nastiness so far has been muted. Notwithstanding the self-righteous glee of panicked liberals with “beautiful souls,” it is still possible to hope that the dark side of the Trump phenomenon will pass. But it is not too soon to sound the alarm bells.
For the time being, though, we can go on thanking that ridiculous man for making the media’s obsessive fascination with the year and a half long horse race that presidential elections have become a tad less boring than it would otherwise be.
After all, if we cannot have real politics — the kind there is supposed to be in democracies, where citizens collectively seek to discover and implement the common good or, failing that, to negotiate compromises within a broad framework of mutual respect and cooperation — then why not absurdist spectacle instead?
If outbreaks of anti-Hispanic violence or worse don’t turn the show too sour to bear, there might even be some riveting plot twists ahead – especially if Trump decides to bolt the GOP and run an independent campaign.
That would be welcome for more than just the spectacle. What is bad for the GOP is good for the nation.
So viva Trump for making the electoral circus less boring; and, in the process, maybe, just maybe, tearing the GOP apart!
None of the other Republican contenders, ridiculous as they are, could have done anything like that; they are neither rich enough nor preposterous enough, and they lack the media savvy.
There was a lot of brouhaha in the Spring and early Summer about how strong the lineup of Republican contenders is. We don’t hear much about that anymore for an obvious reason: it turned out that not one of them is even mildly interesting.
Before long, a few of them will probably jack up the whacko factor, the better to grab media attention. It won’t do them much good, however. Being a nut case is so 2008 and 2012.
And even if it weren’t passé, which of the contenders this time has the flair of, say, a Sarah Palin or a Michele Bachman? Scott Walker? He is just pathetic. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz? Arguably, even worse.
Working from 2008 and 2012 scripts would therefore be disastrous for ratings. No wonder cable news producers are pleased as can be that the Donald burst upon the scene. If he didn’t exist, they couldn’t have invented him, and they would be left trying to squeeze advertising revenue out of a gaggle of flyweight bores.
Whatever else Trump may be – grotesque, sleazy, egomaniacal, misogynistic, racist — he is not boring. The more repellent he is, the more noxious his views, the more interesting his shenanigans become.
So, yes, by all means viva Trump – for keeping the electoral season interesting.
There is nothing on the Democratic side that remotely compares.
Hillary Clinton is old news. When challenged from the left, she fakes left. It is too predictable to be even mildly amusing.
This could change if somehow the inevitable nominee is dethroned and those noxious Clintons get their comeuppance. But the chances of that are slim.
Because the anybody-but-Hillary temptation is hard to repress, even for liberals, there seems to be a move afoot to replace Hillary with some other Clintonite – some other lesser evil neoliberal-neocon.
The most likely prospect is Joe Biden. How pathetic is that! The man is every bit as incompetent and daft.
For the bigwigs to dump Hillary for him would be a dumb move for more reasons than just his obvious shortcomings. Were she squeezed out, her only enthusiastic supporters — the women and (some) men for whom breaking the glass ceiling is not just the main thing but the only thing — would revolt. Because “hell hath no fury…,” Democrats would regret that from Day One.
If Biden decides to go for it, there could be some drama on the Democratic side. But even if he prevailed, so what! A Clinton would be out; a Clintonite would take her place.
It would be different if the media would pay more attention to Bernie Sanders or even to Martin O’Malley, the Sanders Lite candidate who seems to be running for Vice President.
They are the ones forcing Hillary to fake left. Until the Republican nominee is chosen and full-fledged lesser evilism takes hold, Hillary cannot afford to alienate the voters whom Sanders especially is bringing out in droves.
Sanders and O’Malley are pushing views of the kind that pollsters seem to have in mind by “very liberal.” In Sanders’ case, those views could also be called “social democratic.”
This is the American contribution to an emerging worldwide trend where, in response to popular demand, anti-austerity progressive (though hardly radical, much less revolutionary) politics is taking root.
The pattern, so far, is that this is tolerated up to a point, and then put down when it seems actually to threaten ruling class interests and privileges.
The soft coup that “the institutions” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) led against the Syriza government in Greece is the most extreme example.
Everybody knows that something similar would happen in the United States if it looked like Sanders really would become the Democratic nominee and therefore, because he would be running against one or another buffoon, the next President of the United States.
In America, there is no need for “institutions” to intervene should “we, the people” look like we might be getting out of line. The Democratic Party establishment will do the job. In the coming election, they will see to it that Clinton or some other Clintonite gets the nod.
For now, though, Sanders is drawing huge crowds by pressing a left line – on domestic, not foreign, affairs – endorsing “Scandinavian-style socialism.” Real socialists might take exception to the Sanders view of socialism, but for using the word and for endorsing the values behind it, he deserves a bravo too.
The Sanders campaign is yet another reason why the election season so far has not been nearly as boring and mind numbing as anticipated. Yin and Yang, Trump and Sanders – both of them doing surprisingly well. Trump entertains; Sanders edifies.
The entertainment is likely to go on for a while, but don’t count on the edification lasting for the duration. All indications are that, when the time comes, Sanders will collapse his campaign into Clinton’s – or some other Clintonite’s – and that the most important effect of his campaign will be to have kept progressives and radicals in line long enough to thwart independent efforts to use the 2016 election to launch a serious challenge to the status quo.
Even so, by campaigning against neoliberal austerity and for a continuation of the comparatively more progressive policies that neoliberalism replaced, his campaign, though waged within the Democratic Party, can and probably will have beneficial long-term effects.
Whatever gets “progressives” thinking outside the Clintonite box is all for the good even if, in the short run, nothing much comes of it.
The crowds coming out to see Sanders are enthused. The crowds that Trump has drawn so far – at his much-publicized Mobile, Alabama rally, for example – seem comprised mainly of curious onlookers, there for the show.
This is likely to continue for a while, unless Trump decides to play the racist card even more blatantly than he already has – riling up enough proto-fascist sentiment to change the character of the spectacle he has set in motion.
Whether or not this happens, the media cannot get enough of him, while Sanders and the more anodyne O’Malley might as well be under a media blackout.
In view of Sanders’ popularity, and the likely impact the two of them will have on the race, especially early on, they cannot be ignored entirely the way that the two other declared – and also worthy — Democratic candidates, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, have so far been. Nevertheless, the coverage of the Sanders and O’Malley campaigns has been remarkably meager.
The reason is not just the content of their ideas, though that surely figures in. It is also that they are not with the program. They seem more interested in doing politics the way it is supposed to be done than in turning elections into reality TV.
American media no longer know what to make of candidates like that.
But who needs them anyway when there is Donald Trump flying around in a helicopter, and saying the darndest things?
* * *
Much has been made about how Trump tells it like it is – how he announces for all the world to hear how money corrupts politics, and how buying favors from politicians is what capitalists do.
To the delight of his audiences, and the dismay of his fellow Republicans, he never misses a chance to point out that he should know – because he has bought more than a few favors in his time, and because he knows how to get politicians to do his bidding.
At the first Republican candidates’ “debate,” held in Cleveland earlier this month, he boasted that some of the politicians from whom he has bought favors were right there on the podium with him.
And he told the people assembled in the hall, and the vast audience watching on TV, that he buys favors from Democrats too, as if everybody didn’t already know.
He famously remarked that he got Hillary Clinton to come to his wedding because he asked her and she owed him.
This says a lot about Trump. Anyone with money enough, who still has the good sense and judgment he was born with, would have paid the Clintons to stay away.
But the chumps Trump is targeting don’t care about their man’s taste or with whom he keeps company. Why should they? They understand that Trump is a wiseguy who keeps his friends close – or would, if he had any — and his enemies closer.
They also know, better than most liberals, that the system is rotten to its core. How could they not; they bear the brunt of it. Yet nobody else – nobody that potential Trump voters would listen to, anyway – ever says it. Trump said it; and he was talking from experience. Good for him!
People who might actually vote for Trump are not particularly keen on talking truth to power – that is for sissy boys and uppity females. But they love it when powerful rich guys tell it like it is. This is probably the main reason why the Donald is now doing so well.
When Trump falls, as he probably will, it will be because power can also talk truth to those who should be talking truth to it. It almost never does, because it is almost never in its interest to do so. But this time it is.
And the truth about Trump isn’t pretty. It is all out there too, many times over, thanks to the tabloid press and a few other intrepid journalists.
It hasn’t registered yet because folks out in the hustings who go for Trump know little of his story and care less.
This will change. however; Republicans of all stripes, eager to save their hides, will see to it.
When this happens, can the romance survive?
It is hard to see how. After all, the truth is not just that Trump is part of the grand hypocrisy around us; he admits that and is proud of it. His people love him for this reason.
But will they love him for supporting Democrats, not just the Clintons, when it suits his purposes, or for advocating public works projects and reasonable policies on education and health care, as he has, from time to time, in the past?
Or for having had a more restrained view of the proper uses of American military power than the bloodthirsty war mongers and chicken hawks running against him, or, for that matter, than Barack Obama and other Clintonite Democrats?
And how will they feel when truly disturbing facts about Trump’s business dealings are reported in mainstream – and rightwing – media so often and so incontrovertibly that some of it is bound to seep in? For a glimpse of the problems ahead, this is a good place to look.
There is not even much need for more investigative reporting; the facts are out there, and have been for a long time. There are reporters, mainly but not only in New York, who, for years, have majored in Trump, and who have more dirt on him than a dump truck can hold.
It is just a matter of getting potential Trump voters to pay attention.
Trump is the Crown Prince of sleazy deals, and he has few equals when it comes to marshaling every legal (or not so legal) means to rip off business partners, contractors and employees.
Best of all: remember the late Leona Helmsley’s quip about how “only the little people pay taxes.” Can the romance survive when the little people realize that Trump lives by that maxim?
Once all this and more registers, even voters who are only looking for a way to say “fuck you” to the system will be appalled. They will reach their limit, and balk.
Nativist, anti-Hispanic rabble rousing will then be Trump’s only line of defense.
If and when this happens, who will benefit? Trust the Donald to find a way. And Democrats will benefit too, of course: the Hispanic vote will be theirs for generations to come.
The Republican establishment is appalled by that prospect, but the mostly white, religious, socially alienated voters they rely upon to keep them in power like it fine. The rabble is as ready to be roused, as their self-righteous liberal counterparts are eager to be taken in Obama-style yet again.
Can the juggernaut Trump is building for himself in the Republican Party be stopped? Probably. A lone billionaire is no match for all the billionaire and millionaire backers of the GOP.
But even if Republicans are able to nominate somebody else – another Bush, for example — Trump has the money to do what he wants. He could decide to run for President on his own nickel. That would be more than just a thorn in the Republicans’ side; Trump could do the GOP in.
There are people who say, more or less seriously, that Trump is a Democratic mole. The evidence that supports that hypothesis also suggests that he is somehow in cahoots with the Clintons.
These are inferences to the best explanation; the stock and trade of “conspiracy theorists” everywhere. The chances of there being any truth to these claims are slight; it always is with conspiracy theories. The reason why, in almost all cases, is that the purported conspirators just aren’t that clever.
The Clintons certainly are not; and neither is Trump. But while there is surely no real conspiracy afoot, there might as well be.
Hillary famously complained of “a vast rightwing conspiracy” determined to do her and her husband in. It would be closer to the mark, now that Trump is involved, to talk of a vast, ideologically ill defined but basically center-right, conspiracy dedicated to engineering a full-fledged Clinton Restoration.
Fascism or Clintonism; either way, the Donald is bad news. But at least he is interesting.
Thanks to a Republican dominated Supreme Court that has ruled on several occasions that the kinds of corruption Trump talks about involve Constitutionally protected free speech, interesting is probably the most we can hope to get out of the electoral season this year — apart from any sparks that might survive the all but certain demise of the Sanders’ campaign.
The jury is still out on whether that little something is better than nothing at all, but, for now, we can still think that it is. Keeping our fingers crossed, we can still say: viva Trump!
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).