In one of his books, the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano reported a conversation with Juan Peron. Peron was in Spain in one of his periods of exile from Argentina at the time and in a philosophical frame of mind. Peron, who as military attache from Argentina to Italy during Mussolini's reign, was a careful student of Italian fascism. He used much of what he had learned in Italy to founder his Partido Justicialista, better known as Peronismo, half political party, half movement, and wholly as the creation of its founder.
During that interview, Peron offered Galeano this reflection on governing Argentina. Argentina, he said, is like a violin. The left hand holds it; the right hand plays it.
I don't know if this is the right shoe for the foot of the moment. But considering our consumer society's attraction to bright, shiny objects (like Trump's hair, wife, fortune and the various red capes he uses to toy with the angry populace), maybe the shoe fits. --wmh
Don’t Cry for Me, America
What Trumpism Means for Democracy
Whether or not Donald Trump ultimately succeeds in winning the White House, historians are likely to rank him as the most consequential presidential candidate of at least the past half-century. He has already transformed the tone and temper of American political life. If he becomes the Republican nominee, he will demolish its structural underpinnings as well. Should he prevail in November, his election will alter its very fabric in ways likely to prove irreversible. Whether Trump ever delivers on his promise to "Make America Great Again," he is already transforming American democratic practice.
Trump takes obvious delight in thumbing his nose at the political establishment and flouting its norms. Yet to classify him as an anti-establishment figure is to miss his true significance. He is to American politics what Martin Shkreli is to Big Pharma. Each represents in exaggerated form the distilled essence of a much larger and more disturbing reality. Each embodies the smirking cynicism that has become one of the defining characteristics of our age. Each in his own way is a sign of the times.
In contrast to the universally reviled Shkreli, however, Trump has cultivated a mass following that appears impervious to his missteps, miscues, and misstatements. What Trump actually believes -- whether he believes in anything apart from big, splashy self-display -- is largely unknown and probably beside the point. Trumpism is not a program or an ideology. It is an attitude or pose that feeds off of, and then reinforces, widespread anger and alienation.
The pose works because the anger -- always present in certain quarters of the American electorate but especially acute today -- is genuine. By acting the part of impish bad boy and consciously trampling on the canons of political correctness, Trump validates that anger. The more outrageous his behavior, the more secure his position at the very center of the political circus. Wondering what he will do next, we can’t take our eyes off him. And to quote Marco Rubio in a different context, Trump “knows exactly what he is doing.”
Targeting Obama's Presidency
There is a form of genius at work here. To an extent unmatched by any other figure in American public life, Trump understands that previous distinctions between the ostensibly serious and the self-evidently frivolous have collapsed. Back in 1968, then running for president, Richard Nixon, of all people, got things rolling when he appeared on Laugh-In and uttered the immortal words, “Sock it to me?” But no one has come close to Trump in grasping the implications of all this: in contemporary America, celebrity confers authority. Mere credentials or qualifications have become an afterthought. How else to explain the host of a "reality" TV show instantly qualifying as a serious contender for high office?
For further evidence of Trump’s genius, consider the skill with which he plays the media, especially celebrity journalists who themselves specialize in smirking cynicism. Rather than pretending to take them seriously, he unmasks their preening narcissism, which mirrors his own. He refuses to acknowledge their self-assigned role as gatekeepers empowered to police the boundaries of permissible discourse. As the embodiment of “breaking news,” he continues to stretch those boundaries beyond recognition.
In that regard, the spectacle of televised “debates” has offered Trump an ideal platform for promoting his cult of personality. Once a solemn, almost soporific forum for civic education -- remember Kennedy and Nixon in 1960? -- presidential debates now provide occasions for trading insults, provoking gaffes, engaging in verbal food fights, and marketing magical solutions to problems ranging from war to border security that are immune to magic. For all of that we have Trump chiefly to thank.
Trump’s success as a campaigner schools his opponents, of course. In a shrinking Republican field, survival requires mimicking his antics. In that regard, Ted Cruz rates as Trump’s star pupil. Cruz is to Trump what Lady Gaga was to Amy Winehouse -- a less freewheeling, more scripted, and arguably more calculating version of the original.
Yet if not a clone, Cruz taps into the same vein of pissed-off, give-me-my-country-back rage that Trump himself has so adeptly exploited. Like the master himself, Cruz has demonstrated a notable aptitude for expressing disagreement through denigration and for extravagant, crackpot promises. For his part, Marco Rubio, the only other Republican still seriously in the running, lags not far behind. When it comes to swagger and grandiosity, nothing beats a vow to create a “New American Century,” thereby resurrecting a mythic past when all was ostensibly right with the world.
On two points alone do these several Republicans see eye-to-eye. The first relates to domestic policy, the second to America’s role in the world.
On point one: with absolute unanimity, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio ascribe to Barack Obama any and all problems besetting the nation. To take their critique at face value, the country was doing swimmingly well back in 2009 when Obama took office. Today, it’s FUBAR, due entirely to Obama’s malign actions.
Wielding comparable authority, however, a Republican president can, they claim, dismantle Obama’s poisonous legacy and restore all that he has destroyed. From “day one,” on issues ranging from health care to immigration to the environment, the Republican candidates vow to do exactly this. With the stroke of a pen and the wave of a hand, it will be a breeze.
On point two: ditto. Aided and abetted by Hillary Clinton, Obama has made a complete hash of things abroad. Here the list of Republican grievances is especially long. Thanks to Obama, Russia threatens Europe; North Korea is misbehaving; China is flexing its military muscles; ISIS is on the march; Iran has a clear path to acquiring nuclear weapons; and perhaps most distressingly of all, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is unhappy with U.S. policy.
Here, too, the Republican candidates see eye-to-eye and have solutions readily at hand. In one way or another, all of those solutions relate to military power. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio are unabashed militarists. (So, too, is Hillary Clinton, but that’s an issue deserving an essay of its own). Their gripe with Obama is that he never put American military might fully to work, a defect they vow to amend. A Republican commander-in-chief, be it Trump, Cruz, or Rubio, won’t take any guff from Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing or Tehran. He will eradicate "radical Islamic terrorism," put the mullahs back in their box, torture a bunch of terrorists in the bargain, and give Bibi whatever he wants.
In addition to offering Obama a sort of backhanded tribute -- so much damage wrought by just one man in so little time -- the Republican critique reinforces reigning theories of presidential omnipotence. Just as an incompetent or ill-motivated chief executive can screw everything up, so, too, can a bold and skillful one set things right.
Juan and Evita in Washington?
The ratio between promises made and promises fulfilled by every president in recent memory -- Obama included -- should have demolished such theories long ago. But no such luck. Fantasies of a great president saving the day still persist, something that Trump, Cruz, and Rubio have all made the centerpiece of their campaigns. Elect me, each asserts. I alone can save the Republic.
Here, however, Trump may enjoy an edge over his competitors, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. With Americans assigning to their presidents the attributes of demigods -- each and every one memorializedbefore death with a library-shrine -- who better to fill the role than an egomaniacal tycoon who already acts the part? The times call for strong leadership. Who better to provide it than a wheeler-dealer unbothered by the rules that constrain mere mortals?
What then lies ahead?
If Trump secures the Republican nomination, now an increasingly imaginable prospect, the party is likely to implode. Whatever rump organization survives will have forfeited any remaining claim to represent principled conservatism.
None of this will matter to Trump, however. He is no conservative and Trumpism requires no party. Even if some new institutional alternative to conventional liberalism eventually emerges, the two-party system that has long defined the landscape of American politics will be gone for good.
Should Trump or a Trump mini-me ultimately succeed in capturing the presidency, a possibility that can no longer be dismissed out of hand, the effects will be even more profound. In all but name, the United States will cease to be a constitutional republic. Once President Trump inevitably declares that he alone expresses the popular will, Americans will find that they have traded the rule of law for a version of caudillismo. Trump’s Washington could come to resemble Buenos Aires in the days of Juan Perón, with Melania a suitably glamorous stand-in for Evita, and plebiscites suitably glamorous stand-ins for elections.
That a considerable number of Americans appear to welcome this prospect may seem inexplicable. Yet reason enough exists for their disenchantment. American democracy has been decaying for decades. The people know that they are no longer truly sovereign. They know that the apparatus of power, both public and private, does not promote the common good, itself a concept that has become obsolete. They have had their fill of irresponsibility, lack of accountability, incompetence, and the bad times that increasingly seem to go with them.
So in disturbingly large numbers they have turned to Trump to strip bare the body politic, willing to take a chance that he will come up with something that, if not better, will at least be more entertaining. As Argentines and others who have trusted their fate to demagogues have discovered, such expectations are doomed to disappointment.
In the meantime, just imagine how the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library, no doubt taller than all the others put together, might one day glitter and glisten -- perhaps with casino attached.
The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism
College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades. These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters. This game has ended.
There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.
These Americans want a kind of freedom—a freedom to hate. They want the freedom to use words like “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” “chink,” “raghead” and “fag.” They want the freedom to idealize violence and the gun culture. They want the freedom to have enemies, to physically assault Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals and anyone who dares criticize their cryptofascism. They want the freedom to celebrate historical movements and figures that the college-educated elites condemn, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederacy. They want the freedom to ridicule and dismiss intellectuals, ideas, science and culture. They want the freedom to silence those who have been telling them how to behave. And they want the freedom to revel in hypermasculinity, racism, sexism and white patriarchy. These are the core sentiments of fascism. These sentiments are engendered by the collapse of the liberal state.
The Democrats are playing a very dangerous game by anointing Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate. She epitomizes the double-dealing of the college-educated elites, those who speak the feel-your-pain language of ordinary men and women, who hold up the bible of political correctness, while selling out the poor and the working class to corporate power.
The Republicans, energized by America’s reality-star version of Il Duce, Donald Trump, have been pulling in voters, especially new voters, while the Democrats are well below the voter turnouts for 2008. In the voting Tuesday, 5.6 million votes were cast for the Democrats while 8.3 million went to the Republicans. Those numbers were virtually reversed in 2008—8.2 million for the Democrats and about 5 million for the Republicans.
Richard Rorty in his last book, “Achieving Our Country,” written in 1998, presciently saw where our postindustrial nation was headed.
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
Fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the “losers” who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment. The sociologist Émile Durkheim warned that the disenfranchisement of a class of people from the structures of society produced a state of “anomie”—a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals.” Those trapped in this “anomie,” he wrote, are easy prey to propaganda and emotionally driven mass movements. Hannah Arendt, echoing Durkheim, noted that “the chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”
In fascism the politically disempowered and disengaged, ignored and reviled by the establishment, discover a voice and a sense of empowerment.
As Arendt noted, the fascist and communist movements in Europe in the 1930s “… recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who had never before appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the control of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with either parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.”
Fascism is aided and advanced by the apathy of those who are tired of being conned and lied to by a bankrupt liberal establishment, whose only reason to vote for a politician or support a political party is to elect the least worst. This, for many voters, is the best Clinton can offer.
Fascism expresses itself in familiar and comforting national and religious symbols, which is why it comes in various varieties and forms. Italian fascism, which looked back to the glory of the Roman Empire, for example, never shared the Nazis’ love of Teutonic and Nordic myths. American fascism too will reach back to traditional patriotic symbols, narratives and beliefs.
Robert Paxton wrote in “The Anatomy of Fascism”:
The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as [George] Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.
Fascism is about an inspired and seemingly strong leader who promises moral renewal, new glory and revenge. It is about the replacement of rational debate with sensual experience. This is why the lies, half-truths and fabrications by Trump have no impact on his followers. Fascists transform politics, as philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin pointed out, into aesthetics. And the ultimate aesthetic for the fascist, Benjamin said, is war.
Paxton singles out the amorphous ideology characteristic of all fascist movements.
Fascism rested not upon the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people, a notion related to romanticist ideas of national historic flowering and of individual artistic or spiritual genius, though fascism otherwise denied romanticism’s exaltation of unfettered personal creativity. The fascist leader wanted to bring his people into a higher realm of politics that they would experience sensually: the warmth of belonging to a race now fully aware of its identity, historic destiny, and power; the excitement of participating in a wave of shared feelings, and of sacrificing one’s petty concerns for the group’s good; and the thrill of domination.
There is only one way left to blunt the yearning for fascism coalescing around Trump. It is to build, as fast as possible, movements or parties that declare war on corporate power, engage in sustained acts of civil disobedience and seek to reintegrate the disenfranchised—the “losers”—back into the economy and political life of the country. This movement will never come out of the Democratic Party. If Clinton prevails in the general election Trump may disappear, but the fascist sentiments will expand. Another Trump, perhaps more vile, will be vomited up from the bowels of the decayed political system. We are fighting for our political life. Tremendous damage has been done by corporate power and the college-educated elites to our capitalist democracy. The longer the elites, who oversaw this disemboweling of the country on behalf of corporations—who believe, as does CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves, that however bad Trump would be for America he would at least be good for corporate profit—remain in charge, the worse it is going to get.