The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

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DEC 16-JAN 17 Issue
Field Notes

The Presidential Election of 2016: The Rise of the Kakistocracy

How did it happen? The polls were wrong. The result came like a hammer blow to the millions who viewed Trump as anathema and to the many who fear for their rights, their safety, and their future under a Trump régime. It was a crushing defeat for human-rights advocates, healthcare reformers, environmentalists, civil rights activists, and the remnants of a once powerful labor movement. How could America have elected such a despicable unqualified billionaire blowhard to the Presidency? How could so many Americans endorse his regressive, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic policies?

There has been a sea of words written to explain it, to understand it, and to cast the blame. The two most common explanations attribute Trump’s election either to racism, to economic stagnation, or to a combination of both. The first asserts that he tapped into a seething underground racist current that had been held in check by changing mainstream cultural attitudes towards race and diversity until his overt bigotry and misogyny allowed it to surface. The second claims that, although racists and white supremacists make up a certain proportion of Trump supporters, there are many who are not racists, bigots, or male chauvinists but who are suffering in the new economy and have given up on receiving any help from the neo liberal politicians in either party. Let us examine these two arguments.

It is undeniable that Trump drew on, and legitimized, a white backlash, one that has been simmering since Obama’s original election in 2008. Racism and bigotry played a substantial role in Trump’s election. Throughout his campaign he insulted and belittled women, African Americans, Mexicans, the disabled, Muslims, and immigrants He had the enthusiastic support of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists. As the Southern Poverty Law Center put it: “White supremacists who backed his candidacy are jumping for joy. They think they now have their man in the White House.”

It is also quite clear that his promise to bring back jobs was believed by many desperate for a return to some imagined bygone days. The debate goes back and forth as to which of these factors was most important in determining the outcome of the election. In this case, racism trumps the economy for the simple reason that Trump’s own statements, as well as the support he had from known racists and hate groups, mean that anyone who voted for him—whether or not they admit to being racists—were de facto racists by virtue of their willingness to ignore and thus condone the white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry implicit in his candidacy. Whatever the future holds in terms of legislation, public policy, and the implementation of neo-conservative programs, it is this reactionary embrace of the historically tried and true American policy of white supremacy by one of the two major political parties that is most alarming.

Among liberals, there were plenty who were reluctant to vote for Hillary Clinton. Obama’s two terms in office had failed to deliver on his promise of significant change and Clinton represented even less change from what many saw as increasing corporate control of the political system and a widening of income inequality, issues that had fueled the Bernie Sander’s campaign. So while both parties had large numbers of voters disaffected with the establishment only the Republicans ran an anti-establishment figure, one who, even with his obvious and unprecedented defects, inspired enthusiastic support among partisan party members.

In this way the election of 2016 was the mirror image of the election of 2008 when Democrats ran the ultimate outsider, a black man and an intellectual who promised significant change and inspired a zealous movement of enthusiastic supporters, while the Republicans in both 2008 and 2012 nominated establishment figures that who disappointed their conservative base and failed to inspire their voters. But if it is a mirror image it is a fun-house mirror where not only are the left and the right reversed, but the winner is a grotesquely distorted image of an American President. It is this image of the President that now takes on the most significance not only to Americans but also to the rest of the world. The primacy of the image has become the hallmark of the 2016 election.

For both those willing to overlook the racism of the Trump campaign and those who are appalled by him, it is clear that the political system has lost so much of its legitimacy that they could not bring themselves to vote on election day for the one candidate running that represented the status quo. The Tea Partiers, white supremacists, anti-immigrants, and the alt-right gleefully voted for Trump. Most other Republicans voted for him, many reluctantly, in order to retain conservative power in Congress. So did masses of the disgruntled and disenchanted, their cognitive processes infused with echoes of right- wing blogs, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh. One reason for the shock and surprise at the election result was that so many had faith that white Republican women would reject a candidate who had been so insulting to women. They had faith that Christian conservatives and moderate Republicans would not vote for a candidate who so blatantly contradicted their much- trumpeted family values and moral principles. Their faith proved to be unfounded.

The result is something that hasn’t been seen in a long while. Such an overt presence of white supremacy sentiment, with proto-fascist groups like the KKK, neo-Nazis, and armed militias allying themselves with the Republican Party, is a throwback to the first decades of the twentieth century, when sitting senators, a Supreme Court Justice, governors, and hundreds of other government officials were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The rise of the Tea Party within the Republican Party, demonstrated the ability of the far right to take control of the political narrative away from its establishment leaders. This begs the question of: Where does this movement come from? What brought it on?

In Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges suggests, that it is ultimately a result of the failure of liberal policy to play the role assigned to it by the capitalist class, that is, to act as the protector of and advocate for the working class; to provide that class with surrogates that will defend their interests in the political arena and demonstrate that the corporate state can be forced to concede some power to the working class and provide an avenue for a peaceful improvement of working-class life in the fashion of the New Deal. Starting in the 1970s and culminating within Bill Clinton’s embrace of neoliberalism, Democrats lessened their defense of labor unions and welfare legislation. As a result, much of the Democratic Party’s base among the working class eroded, becoming prey to the conservative populism of Reagan and laying the foundation for today’s white working-class conservatives.

This argument, however, underplays the limits that liberals faced once the recovery from the Great Depression and the Second World War had run its course. The massive amount of value lost through depreciation in the world wide depression of the thirties and the huge amount of physical capital destroyed in the war set the stage for the post war boom, as capital expanded to fill the void and capital accumulation led to enhanced profitability and a rise in real wages. When this process reached its limits in the 1970s, stagnation set in and the need to maintain profits began to restrict the ability of capital to continue to finance social welfare programs and to allow autonomous labor unions to negotiate improved wages and conditions. Liberal politicians linked to the state and liberal intellectuals embedded in a system of powerful corporate influence over universities, media outlets, and cultural institutions came under pressure and faced possible ostracism for advocating views contrary to the interests of the corporate elite, which is, first and always, about maintaining profit. Liberal policy now had to come to terms with this new set of circumstances. It did so by adopting identity politics, championing civil rights, human rights, gay rights, and environmentalism while at the same time enforcing the austerity measures demanded by the need for capital accumulation. So yes, the liberals have indeed failed to play the traditional role assigned them by the capitalist class. They could not provide the support for labor and for social welfare programs that would improve the lives of working people; but they really had no other choice if they wished to be players and remain in the game.

Without what Hedges refers to as the liberal class providing the social control mechanism of pacifying the working class, that function reverted to the conservatives. In response, they have cooked up an ideological stew of traditional white supremacy and xenophobia—the traditional method for dividing the working class. They added in anti-intellectualism, macho paternalism, old time religion, and stonewashed rugged individualism providing some comfort food for thought. As we have all heard and were counting on to counter Trump populism, demographic trends in the U.S. point to a younger, more educated, more diverse electorate in the future and so there was a division within the conservative movement, with more moderate Republicans looking to move the party in a more minority-friendly direction. Hence Rubio, Cruz, and others tried courting the Latino vote. This faction lost out, and, following their embrace of unabashed intolerance towards all minority groups, the Republicans must now work to sew up their power while they are in control of all branches of government before detrimental population changes detrimental to their interests occur. This means that, rather than working to unify the country and attempting to placate those who voted against them, they are much more likely to stack the Supreme Court, increase voter suppression, and enact legislation that will hamper all efforts at unseating them in the near future.

Against this scenario, the left opposition of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and President Obama, are calling for a two-fold strategy of, first, allowing Trump the chance to ignore his campaign rhetoric and govern reasonably, but, second, if he persists in implementing his radical right-wing agenda, of fighting him “tooth and nail.” The problem is that the Democrats have very little power to impede him while he has the backing of a Republican-controlled Congress and he has little incentive to do anything except to affect the ultra-conservative platform that the Tea Party Republicans have been pushing for years. And while they hope that more reasonable voices among the Republicans can influence him to moderate his actions, there is little reason to think that a group that was too spineless to stand up to him as a candidate would have the will or desire to face him down now. So the left Democrats will speak forcefully with anger and righteousness, as we have seen from Warren and Sanders, but will counsel moderation, calling for on their followers to contribute to and volunteer for liberal non-governmental organizations and to participate in long-term electoral work, like running for local office on school committees and town councils. While all that may help in the long run, it would have little immediate effect on the damage that Trump can impose now.

What all this does is to point out the inability of the political process to address the serious concerns of the population within the confines of a Presidential election. When thousands of people took to the streets in protest following the election, chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” they were expressing frustration not only a frustration with the election results but with the entire system that constantly boasts of being the most democratic in the world while producing a spectacle of sham democracy where the individual is defenseless against the dominance of wealth and where corporate power is always the deciding factor.

This leaves the movement in the streets as the only force that can possibly act as a restraint on the Trump Republicans, but as we have seen in the cases of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement, the such movements can dissipate when the initial outrage wears off with little to show accept the radicalization of some of the participants.

Democracy is a sham in this system. Protest has nowhere to go. Elections channel all energy into a long-term sports event. We are living in the Society of the Spectacle. Real politics involving real choice about the greatest good for the greatest number ist verboten. Choice is limited not only to two acceptable candidates but to one acceptable bottom line: how will it be paid for? The only allowable options are those that can be implemented within the confines of the present market- regulated economy. Any suggestion that threatens the profit-making capacity of capital is ruled off the table. Democracy that constricts choices to such an extent is no real democracy and in fact becomes a bulwark for corporate oligarchy, as we are witnessing.

To the real working class, which is not only the caricature represented as the white blue-collar worker but most of the diverse population of this country and the world, working every day to make the whole show run, the kind of demagogy we have witnessed in the election of Donald Trump is a feeble attempt to divide us and further subjugate us to the power of those who rule in their own interest for their own profit. The failure of the formal political process to protect the vulnerable from becoming victimized by the likes of Trump and his backers necessitates united action outside of this show democracy, beyond electoral politics controlled and confined by corporate power. It means taking the fight not only to the streets but to the workplace, the homes, the communities and the hearts and minds of all who hold out hope for a better world.

Perhaps this hammer blow that hit us all on 11/9 can act as a wake-up call for all who thought that their somewhat secure places in a world fraught with so much war, suffering, and oppression, while facing an unstable future, kept them immune to its effects. Maybe now we can see that we must move together as one people the world over and revamp the system so that it can truly work for the benefit of all of us, with no one left out. The people who do the work have all the ultimate power if they unite to use it. The only true democracy is when all have a part in decisions that affect their lives which means where they live where they work and how their lives are organized.

When demonstrations fail there is always the general strike.


Peter St. Clair

PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

All Issues