Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump's brand of populism

Donald Trump gave a speech Thursday that involved defending himself against the latest accusations of sexual assault. But he did so by ramping up his conspiratorial talk. Watch: Trump responds to new harassment allegations, attacks Clinton PBS Newshour 10/13/2016:

Josh Marshall describes his latest conspiracy-minded outbursts, and the obvious anti-Semitic edge to them in Wacky Far-Right Theory For Trump Tape Leak Gets Mainstream Play TPM 10/13/2016 and The Hate Comes Home To Roost TPM 10/13/2016.

That speech could be used as a model piece for rightwing populism. He casts himself as the leader of the People against the Elite. But he does so in classic rightwing fashion, defining the Elite as the Clintons as the head of a vast conspiracy of the "political elite." he works in an economic elite, too. But does so with tropes familiar from anti-Semitic propaganda. Simon Maloy provides a helpful summary of Thursday's rant in Donald Trump has gone nuts: In speech meant to defend sex assault allegations, he goes full Breitbart Salon 11/13/2016:

Speaking to supporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump opened up his remarks by claiming that a global cabal of shadowy “special interests” had looted the American economy and destroyed local manufacturing. “The Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure,” Trump said.

“We’ve seen this first hand in the WikiLeaks documents, in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends and her donors,” he added.

Rhetoric like that is sometimes described as “New World Order” conspiracy theories, which posit that there is a coordinated, hiding-in-plain-sight effort underway by “them” — bankers, secret societies, Jews, socialists, whoever — to eliminate national boundaries and rule over a totalitarian global state. This sort of nonsense is the meat of much of Alex Jones’ lunatic commentary. Trump, representing the Republican Party and finding himself backed into a corner, is now committed to boxing with these shadows. [my emphasis]
It's important to recognize the individual elements of the rightwing populist indictment are not necessarily distinctive in themselves. Many conservative politicians criticize immigrants and do so in demagogic ways without constructing the distinctive populist dichotomy of the People versus the Elite. And liberal politicians can also criticize policies and practices of corporations national and international without combining framing them as part of an Elite hostile to the People.

In the Thursday speech starting at just after 2:00, Trump gives this framing for his message in a passage I'm guessing he was reading from a teleprompter because of its syntactic coherence:

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt - and when I say corrupt, I'm talking about totally corrupt - political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. There is nothing the political establishment will not do, no lie that they won't tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense. And that's what's been happening.

The Washington establishment, and the financial and media corporations that fund them, exist for only one reason: to protect and enrich itself. The Establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. As an example, just one single trade deal they'd like to pass involves trillions of dollars, controlled by many countries, corporations and lobbyists. For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and the global special interests, they partner with these people that don't have your good in mind.

Our campaign represents a true, existential threat like they haven't seen before. This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government. The political establishment is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry.

The political establishment has destroyed our factories, and our jobs, as they flee to Mexico, China and other countries all around the world.
To rightly judge whether a passage like that is right or left, authoritarian or democratic, demagogic or realistic, you would have to know about the political context of not only the issues being discussed but the current usages of the concepts and the nuances of the way they are combined.

For those of us following American politics relatively closely, on either a professional or "lay" basis, the anti-immigrant part of that passage is a signifier that's it's rightwing. And his rhetorical construction of the political elite there relies on a standard concept in conservative political talk in which the political elite in the form of politicians and government "bureaucrats" is made responsible for all political and economic ills, with wealthy donors to liberal causes ("the financial and media corporations that fund them") playing a malignant but supportive role. Trump is invoking the conservative image of the "elite" as being liberal politicians, the "gubment," and snooty professors.

Populism isn't inherently rightwing or left, nor is it inherently authoritarian. It has to be understood in action to characterize its political/ideological content.

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