Thursday, December 24, 2015

Emerging approaches to explaining the Trump Phenomenon

The "Trump phenomenon" has put out mainstream press corps and our leading pundits in a real dilemma.

They are deeply committed to a political analysis that features Democrats and Republicans in a ever-shifting but never-ending mirror image of each. Both Sides Do It. This side says, the other side says. America is a center-right nation, goes one of our Pod Pundits' favorite truisms.

Josh Marshall did a famous article back in 2003 as Shrub Bush's Iraq War was still only a few months old called The Post-Modern President Washington Monthly Sept 2003. He wrote then of the Cheney-Bush Administration and their defenders, "They are like deconstructionists and post-modernists who say that everything is political or that everything is ideology." Those are French philosophical trends that became very influential in the Western world, particularly in literary theory. Their popularity increased after the fall of the Soviet Union because to a certain extent they could be enunciated as left theories of society with an anti-Marxist twist. But they are identified with an anti-empiricist assumption that means we cannot distinguish objective reality as such, but we construct various narratives about reality that compete with each other, none of which have superior epistemological claims to the others. (If you want to dig into the philosophical theories themselves, see Gary Aylesworth, Postmodernism (2015) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which includes a section on deconstructionism; Nancy Holland, Deconstruction n/d, accessed 12/23/2015, and Ashley Woodward, Jean-François Lyotard (1924—1998) accessed 12/23/2015, both in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

In the more popular terms that Josh uses in the piece, it's a way of creating your own reality by just pretending that the external world conforms to your claims, whether or not it does. Only the narratives count, and the narratives are all ideological. So you get to choose which one to adopt without worrying whether it's "true," in the pedestrian sense. Or the scientific one, for that matter.

The White House seemed guilty of what might be called persistent, chronic up-is-downism, the tendency to ridicule the possibility that a given policy might actually have its predictable adverse consequences, to deny those consequences once they have already occurred, or--failing that--to insist against all evidence that those consequences were part of the plan all along. By late July, even a paragon of establishment conservatism like Barron's columnist Alan Abelson was lamenting the president's "regrettable aversion to the truth and reality when the truth and reality aren't lovely or convenient."

The president and his aides don't speak untruths because they are necessarily people of bad character. They do so because their politics and policies demand it. As astute observers such as National Journal's Jonathan Rauch have recently noted, George W. Bush campaigned as a moderate, but has governed with the most radical agenda of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, the aim of most of Bush's policies has been to overturn what FDR created three generations ago. On the domestic front, that has meant major tax cuts forcing sharp reductions in resources for future government activism, combined with privatization of as many government functions as possible. Abroad, Bush has pursued an expansive and militarized unilateralism aimed at cutting the U.S. free from entangling alliances and international treaty obligations so as to maximize freedom of maneuver for American power in a Hobbesian world. [my emphasis]
Under the pressure of decades of conservative criticism not balanced by comparable "working the refs" on the liberal/progressive side, it's also become the habit of even of leading "quality" news media to shy away from investigating the truth behind the claims made by partisans.

And when the frame of reference is Both Sides Do It, if One Side is just making stuff up and the Other Side is hewing more closely to empirical reality, the "balanced" coverage of the disputes give an automatic advantage to the liars and fabulists. And if One Side becomes more and more extreme while the Other Side doesn't, then the "middle" between the Both Sides shifts more and more toward the crackpot side. And what gets defined as "radical" and "moderate" shifts accordingly. Political types and DFH bloggers refer to this concept as shifting the Overton Window, "the range (or window) of policies that the public will accept." (What is the Overton window? New Statesman 04/27/2015)

Which brings us to the Trump Phenomenon.

Two different and to a large extent directly opposing approaches to it are elaborated in the following two articles:

David Frum, The Great Republican Revolt The Atlantic Jan/Feb 2016 edition (accessed 12/22/2015)

Digby Parton, Donald Trump will make America white again: “White working-class anxiety” is a dog-whistle for racism Salon 12/22/2015

Both articles deserve a full reading to understand the perspectives. Frum's is more ideological than analytical, though he presents it as the latter. Still, it's important in understanding how the mainstream media and Republican partisans are likely to spin the meaning of the raw racism, xenophobia and militarism we see in the Trump campaign and among his "very passionate" followers. (See Justin Moyer, Trump says fans are ‘very passionate’ after hearing one of them allegedly assaulted Hispanic man Washington Post 08/21/2015)

What Frum's article shows is one version of a Republican narrative to, uh, whitewash the venom and violence associated with the Trump movement. A moment in the continuing effort to move the Overton Window further to the right, in other words. Frum's approach is to essentially ask us to overlook the manifest content (to borrow a Freudian term) of the Trump movement and look at legitimate economic grievances of Trump's supporters. "A majority of Republicans worry that corporations and the wealthy exert too much power," he writes. "Their party leaders work to ensure that these same groups can exert even more."

There's an obvious problem with this perspective. Do Trump's "very passionate" supporters think that Black Lives Matter is a corporate lobbying operation? Did those two guys accused of assaulting a Latino think he was a hedge fund manager? Did the Richmond CA guy arrested with pipebombs allegedly in his house think the Muslim mosque he threatened earlier this month with "I'm going to kill you all" mistake the mosque for a corporate board meeting? (Matthias Gafni, et al, Richmond: Donald Trump supporter arrested on suspicion of threatening Muslims, possessing pipe-bomb device Contra Costa Times 12/21/2015)

Let's just say it strains credibility.

Which is essentially what Digby is saying in her article:

To think racial animus is activated by economic distress is something that progressives desperately want to believe. Because if that’s true, they have solutions. Racism, not so much. Recall Governor Howard Dean’s memorable line back in 2003:

“White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us, and not [Republicans], because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.”
That these white folks might sincerely be more upset about African Americans becoming equal or undocumented immigrants destroying “American culture” or Muslims worshipping a religion they find threatening and weird than their own economic well-being is an unsettling thought. But it’s very hard to ignore the fact that in good times and bad it still exists.
Digby's observation is consistent with that of the famous Authoritarian Personality study headed by the Frankfurt School's Max Horkheimer, who can scarcely be accused of being a conservative.

A few considerations are important to keep in mind in discussions of this issue.

Democratic candidates prior to 1980 had understandable if not exactly honorable reasons to soft-peddle their support for civil rights for African-Americans in particular. Southern states with Democratic Parties that were still partly segregationist were still considered to be competitive in national elections. And the Democratic caucuses in Congress were heavily dependent on Southern Democrats that were partially elected with, let's put it bluntly, white racist votes. But with the Republican Party having successfully identified itself as the anti-black party and the more general ideological realignment of the two major parties, making the same kind of pitch now just sounds silly. And it's impractical politics.

The fight against what Andrew Jackson and his followers called the Money Power has been going on for a long time. "The One Percent" is the most recent popular image for the super-rich who control most of the economy and exert enormously outsized influence in politics through both financing campaigns and lobbying. It would be astonishing if "the super-rich and the giant corporations" (former Sen. Fred Harris' favorite phrase for the One Percent) hadn't come up with alternative targets real and imaginary for angry members of the public to focus their frustration and even hatred against. Black people have long served as such a target, as have immigrants.

One of the most successful alternative targets offered up by neoconservatives in particular is the academic and media elite, which are considered by conservatives to be hotbeds of everything conservatives hate: liberalism, Marxism, anti-Americanism, atheism, Islamism, Communism, etc., etc. While the academic institutions play a major role in supporting the established order - which conservatives support - it takes quite an imagination to see them as ruling the country themselves, whether in cohoots with the Liberal Press bogeyman or not.

Media corporations are indeed very powerful in themselves. But especially since 1992 when the New York Times kicked off the "quality press" frenzy over the Whitewater pseudoscandal, the notion of a generally "liberal press" has become even more unreal than it was back in the days when Spiro Agnew was spewing rather Trump-like venom at the national press. It would be hard to find a living, breathing liberal who thinks the US has a "liberal press." Especially since the Iraq War horror, the perspective of most liberals/progressives can be seen at the Media Matters website.

The liberal/progressive criticism of mainstream media is dramatically, even radically different from that of conservatives. Conservatives want the media to be uniformly conservative propaganda along the FOX News model. Progressives want them to practice actual critical journalism. Even prior to Whitewater, Bernie Sanders gave a left view of the state of the major US media (Time for an American Glasnost Harvard Crimson 11/28/1989; h/t Richard Kreitner of The Nation):
For a free society to function effectively, people need full access to information. As part of the recent "merger mania," the ownership of the mass media in the United States has been concentrated to an alarming degree in the hands of fewer and fewer large corporation. Independent newspapers and magazines have been bought out by major chains, and the radio and television networks are controlled by such powerful companies as General Electric (which now owns NBC).

It is not difficult to argue that commercial television today is largely censored and tightly controlled. It is virtually impossible for serious writers to produce a program for television which would deal with ideas hostile to the interests of the owners of the networks or to corporate sponsors.

Neocons elaborated the theory of a New Class, in which not corporations and banks and wealthy capitalists ruled the country, but rather intellectuals (!!) including journalists. Damon Linker defined the concept this way in his obituary for neocon godfather Irving Kristol: The Unlikely Neocon CBS News/The New Republic 09/21/2009:

In one of their most influential theories, they argued that when modern societies reach what Daniel Bell called a "post-industrial" level of development they tend to become increasingly dependent on a "new class" of highly skilled intellectuals, including scientists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals.

Since all societies are dominated by some elite, the rise of this new class was unremarkable aside from one troubling fact: intellectual elites differ from others in their tendency to adopt an adversarial, even subversive, relation to their own societies. As literary critic Lionel Trilling noted in an important essay of the mid-'60s that significantly shaped the political imagination of Kristol and the other early neocons, the modern intellectual stakes out and occupies "a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn . . . the culture that produced him." Using these concepts to analyze America in the early '70s, Kristol and his colleagues concluded that the tumult and turmoil of the time could be traced to the influence of a decadent and subversive elite. [my emphasis]
The concept has become progressive vulgarized even further, Limbaughized, we might say. So when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker goes after school teachers and university professors, believers in the New Class theory or its various corruptions see him as attacking the real ruling class of the country. The Koch Brothers and the Paul Singers of the world must get some delight out of this particular political slight-of-hand.

Christopher Lasch, who had signed on to the neocon cause by the time he wrote The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991) uses a highbrow version of the New Class theory in that book, painting a picture of snotty, out-of-touch soft intellectuals who are out of touch with what Sarah Palin calls the Real Americans:

Priding themselves on the global reach of their culture, the educated classes led what was in many ways a constricted, insular life. Modern conveniences sheltered them from everyday discomforts. Air-conditioning and central heating protected them from the elements but cut them off from the vivid knowledge of nature that comes only to those who expose themselves to her harsher moods. Exemption from manual labor deprived them of any appreciation of the practical skills it requires or the kind of knowledge that grows directly out of firsthand experience.
Real Amurcans, you see, ain't got no use for all that sissy "air-conditioning" and "central heating." No, Real Amurcans just go out in the woods and build themselves a far without using no matches. (That's the translation into FOXSpeak.)

Also, beware the "false consciousness" trope. There is a popular conservative narrative that runs like this: "Those elitist Democrats think you non-wealthy people who vote for Republicans. They are snobs who look down on you and think you are too dumb to make your own choices in elections." This is a tribal-identifier argument that is effective only if you don't think it through. Any campaign that tries to persuade undecided voters or supporters of the other side that their candidate is better and invites them to vote for that candidate is trying to change the minds of the targeted voters. You could say that the campaign is assuming that the campaign is snobbishly assuming that those voters have a "false consciousness" that makes them think for the moment that don't want to vote for your candidate. For that matter, any sales pitch could be said to be aimed at correcting a potential customer's "false consciousness" that they don't want to buy your product. (See also my post Krugman says "false consciousness" 09/08/2014.)

Alan Rappeport in Analysis of Donald Trump Tax Plan Sees a Boon for Wealthy and Trillions in Debt New York Times 12/23/2015 notes one of several ways that the economic interests of most middle- and lower-income people would not be served, in fact would be damaged, by a Trump Presidency. It's just important to realize that for a non-trivial number of white voters, identfying with the White Man's tribe against blacks, immigrants, Latinos and Muslims is simply more important than improving their own economic prospects. Politics isn't a purely rational activity.

Greg Sargent interviews demographer Ruy Teixeira on how the Trumped-up Republican Party can put together a winning Presidential vote in 2016: Republicans are caught in a brutal demographic trap. But they can still win in 2016. Washington Post/Plum Line 12/22/2015.

But Presidential races are contests, and actual voters decide them in the end. Unless it's 2000 and Jeb Bush is Governor of Florida, of course, in which case a Republican Supreme Court decides instead. But I always worry about Democrats falling back on a lazy assumption that demographics are going their way. Because it could encourage the kind of complacency which is a chronic affliction of the real existing Democratic Party.

And Josh Marshall argues plausibly that Trumpish rhetoric itself creates real barriers to a nationwide 2016 Republican win. (They Must Be So Pleased TPM 12/22/2015)

We'll leave the last word for now to Charlie Pierce (The Republicans Crying About Trump Should Admit They Helped Create Him Esquire Politics Blog 12/23/2015).

I opened this post with a 2003 quote from Josh Marshall to emphasized that the process within the Republican Party that has led to the raw, desublimated version of hate that we hear from Trump and his "very passionate" fans has been in motion for a long time. Here are just a few references on that topic:

  • John Amato and David Neiwert, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane (2010)
  • William Arkin, "The Continuing Misuses of Fear" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 62:42 (2006)
  • Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (2009)
  • David Bromwich, Liberty, Security, and Fear Huffington Post 08/02/2013
  • Joe Conason, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in The Age of Bush (2007)
  • Mark Danner, "The Politics of Fear" New York Review of Books 12/22/2012
  • John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience (2006)
  • Josh Eidelson, Confederate sympathizers and top GOPers unite in auto fight Salon 02/11/2014
  • Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006)
  • Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (2007)
  • Ed Kilgore, The Cult Of The Second Amendment TPM 12/08/2015
  • Paul Krugman, The Closed Minds Problem New York Times 02/27/2015
  • Michael Lind, Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (2003)
  • Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (2000); also the related 2004 documentary, The Hunting of the President
  • Robert McElvaine, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (2008)
  • David Neiwert, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (2009)
  • David Neiwert, The Rise of Pseudo Fascism 02/25/2005
  • Robert Parry, How the US Press Lost Its Way Consortium News 05/15/2012
  • Melanie Tannenbaum, "Decoding Trump-Mania: The Psychological Allure of Hating Political Correctness," Part 1 08/14/2015; Part 2 08/15/2015; Part 3 09/08/2015
  • Nicholas Valentino and David Sears, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South" American Journal of Political Science 49:3 (July 2005)
  • Ray Williams, Anti-Intellectualism and the "Dumbing Down" of America Psychology Today 07/07/2014

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