Beyond culture wars
Donald Trump, we know, has promised to “Make America Great Again”. (#MAGA) It is almost the one message he has consistently held to.
The problem is that Trump is almost completely unlike the selfless heroes portrayed on film by Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in America’s post-war boom. This tycoon-come-Reality TV-star-come-populist is more like a garish parody of the villains in the golden age’s noir classics: their fortunes bound up with fast money and underhand business, with strong hints of thuggish violence and sexual scandal.
It is little wonder then that the 2016 US election campaign has taken our commercial media’s fixation on the politics of personality to a whole new level.
In any other campaign, Hilary Clinton’s historic run to be the first female American President would have been the story. Yet watching Trump fulminate and free associate has all the unnerving fascination of witnessing a moral car crash.
Mr Trump sometimes seems intent on ‘outing’ completely the darker underside of the culture wars against ‘political correctness’ that neoconservative forces have waged around the world for three decades.
He embodies in technicolor daylight that ugly point wherein fraught appeals to traditional values give way to unregenerate chauvinism; high-strung invocations of ‘Western civilization’ fold into xenophobia, a courting of the far Right, and simplistic misrepresentations of history and other cultures; where warrantless wealth feeds the crassest sensationalism; and where protecting ‘our way of life’ turns into open scorn for constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Trump is, in short, the living embodiment of the worst fears of anyone with the least sympathy for the cultural changes that have transformed societies like Australia and the US since the Second World War.
Yet the near-wall-to-wall media coverage of Trump the man, his viral tweets and virulent soundbites has often crowded out analyses of the substantial economic and political, domestic and foreign policy issues of election 2016.
Thankfully, as I write this, Trumpism looks like a political phenomenon with more like four weeks than four years to run its course. Leading Republicans are again jumping ship. The polls are going under. Yet no amount of outrage at Trump’s odium can address the questions the popular success of such a figure raises about the “State of the Union” in the second decade of the new millennium.
What social and economic realities, after all, could have so polarised the American electorate? Why have millions of ordinary Americans deserted more moderate, mainstream candidates? Why do they seem attracted (precisely) to Mr Trump’s willingness to outrageously flaunt “establishment” conventions and bait the mainstream media?
And to what extent do continuing depictions of Trump supporters in much of this media as uneducated troglodytes, if not immoral bigots, reflect and ratchet up—rather than register and respond to—the profound social divisions that made the man a Presidential possibility in the first place?
Being (Tom) Frank
There are nearly as many opinions on the crisis of the Republic as there are pundits who have tried their hands at writing on it.
Arguably one of the most consistently insightful, independent commentators on American life over the last few decades, however, is Thomas Frank. Frank has an uncanny sense for the key issues of the day. He has a razor sharp wit which consistently pits outraged common sense against a sometimes uncommonly counter-sensical political universe. He almost always contests and reframes staid opinions in ways that make you think.
1997’s Conquest of Cool already undercuts many of the dug-in trenchlines of our culture warriors. Frank documents here, ad hilarium, how the leading motifs of the postmodern counterculture (individuality, difference, change, cynical reflexivity …), far from challenging the New Economy, have since the 1960s been seamlessly integrated into marketing, the engine room of consumerist capitalism.
2000 brought One Market Under God. This longer work is a comparably comic journey into the hyperbolic world of the nineties’ managerial discourses committed to bringing competition—hitherto a game played between companies—inside organisations, animated by the dazzling conviction that “markets are a far more democratic form of organization than democratically elected governments.”
In the Bush era, works led by What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) saw this postmodern Voltaire turning his attention to the (veritably) theological mysteries explaining why many of the same middle Americans rendered redundant, literally, in the Clinton-era “booms” were turning in droves against the Democrats, America’s traditional “party of the people”, and towards the GOP.
The answer, as Frank phrases things, is “backlash”. This involves “a crusade in which one’s material interests are suspended in favour of vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged”. The crusade is stoked and steered by an outraged conservative commentariat in unending holy war on “liberal” (as against economic) elites.
And, to return to our subject, it is this same “backlash” that Frank sees underlying the unheralded successes of one Donald J. Trump in 2015-2016. Nevertheless, in the bitter irony at the heart of his latest book Listen, Liberal! Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People, Frank argues that it is the Clintons’-era Democrats, alongside the presently-Trumped Republicans, who are responsible for making something like Trumpism inevitable.
In such a perspective, the present Republican candidate’s brazen brutishness withdraws from the limelight. Mercifully. But the larger stakes of election 2016 are thrown into very different relief.
It really is the economy, Democrats
So, why does Frank, this self-confessed Left liberal, blame the Democrats, of all people, and at such a time?
The first thing Frank will insist upon, like Bernie Sanders’ supporters, is that there are Democrats and Democrats. In a recent interview, Frank has commented on the significance of the “almost allergic reaction” against Sanders from within his own Party:
What he was saying was just so utterly unacceptable to them. And when you think about it, what he’s saying is very deep in the Democratic tradition. It’s not radical. It’s not strange. It’s straight out of the New Deal. I mean, he sounds like—he sounds like, you know, a New Dealer … The things that he was proposing are right out of… the Democratic platform when Roosevelt …, when Harry Truman was president …
Frank knows very well that a newer brand of Democrats, ascendant since the 1990s, will reply that this is just the point. The Party of the People has gone “metro” for a new millennium. Sanders was stuck in “retro” dreams of the redistributive amelioration of inequality, the refurnishing of the safety net, a viable manufacturing sector, and reregulating the financial elites.
But it is just this Democrats’ abandonment of social democracy, and its unintended consequences, that Frank wonders about. Listen Liberal! does little else than wonder about it.
How could it have been that Bill Clinton, that celebrated (if very personally flawed) Democrat, was the President who, having come to power promising relief for middle Americans, instead heroically prioritised reducing the deficit to placate the big end of town?
How could it have been a Democratic government, over the protests of their traditional base in organised labour, that locked down the North American Trade Agreement in 1993?
(NAFTA after all put American workers in direct, unwinnable competition with lower-paid labour from the US’s less developed (and less regulated) Southern neighbours. It has led to 700,000 American job losses within fifteen years.)
How could it have been this same Democratic President that in 1994 introduced mass incarceration, built masses of new prisons, proposed the three-strikes rule and the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack-and-powdered cocaine, leading to mass incarceration of black addicts with no other criminal record?
How could it have been a Democrat President who got tough on welfare moms and repealed the New Deal era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) Act in 1996? And who deregulated Interstate banking in 1994, telecommunications in 1996, and cut capital gains tax in 1997? And who was negotiating with Newt Gingrich for significant further privatisations of Social Security before the Lewinky scandal bit …?
By what political alchemy could it have been, finally, this same Democratic President who repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial from investment banking since the Great Depression?
This action, the world knows, paved the way to the proliferation of funny finance and mass indebtedness that by 2008 had landed America and the world in a new-style Great Recession that it has yet to completely emerge from.
What could a “Party of the People” who by 2000 had thus courted, and begun to successfully win over Wall Street, think that Main Street would make of all this, when life and statistics continue to confirm that the promised “trickle down” has failed to do more than eke away the American middle classes?
And what did the “POP” think that millions of middle Americans would make of the Obama administration’s failure to deliver on its promises to significantly reign in and prosecute those responsible for the GFC, after handing the banks a $16.8 trillion dollar bailout in a period in which income inequality continues to zero-in on 1930s-style numbers?
To ask these questions, Frank proposes, is to have come a long way to understanding how millions of American blue collar workers—the traditional constituency of the Democrats—could have flocked to a Donald Trump in 2015-‘16.
To focus exclusively on the horrors of the man is to miss this bigger, perhaps even more unsettling picture.
Beyond Trump 2016?
Such thought, in any case, explain why Frank was left confessing after the Republican Convention in late July that Trump et al’s speeches were almost more than his simple liberal brain could handle.
For, beyond Trump’s own noir-style depictions of civilizational decay, Frank—unlike most other commentators, predictably—noticed that Trump was making clear overtures to the the young and working class voters Bernie Sanders had assembled against Hillary.
Donald Trump’s many overtures to supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders were just the beginning. He also deliberately echoed the language of Franklin Roosevelt, he denounced “big business” (not once but several times), and certain of his less bloodthirsty foreign policy proposals almost remind one of George McGovern’s campaign theme: “Come home, America.” Ivanka Trump promised something that sounded like universal day care. Peter Thiel denounced the culture wars as a fraud and a distraction. The Republican platform was altered to include a plank calling for the breakup of big banks via the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. I didn’t hear anyone talk about the need to bring “entitlements” under control. And most crucially, the party’s maximum leader has adopted the left critique of “free trade” almost in its entirety, a critique that I have spent much of my adult life making.
How real Trump’s pseudo-social democratic promises could be, given his tax proposals, and how compelling attacks on the big end of town could be in the mouth of a billionaire is not the issue.
The issue is that such proposals could be pitched at all in 2016 by a Republican candidate, alongside the most belligerent and regressive cultural politics imaginable, as a means to win the one-time base of the Democrats.
Frank himself, only two weeks after the Republican convention, had changed his tune. During that time, Trump had insulted the family of an American-Moslem war veteran, dropped hints that gun enthusiasts might take things into their own hands when it came to defeating Hillary Clinton, and taken a dive in the polls.
Frank’s fear that Trump might actually win in 2016, also, had morphed into something different. With Clinton likely to win in a landslide, and the Republicans looking set to implode, Frank now worried that the new-style Democrats would have no need any time soon to address their Trump-breeding abandonment of American workers, outside of the urban, high-tech-savvy professional classes.
My friends and I like to wonder about who will be the “next Bernie Sanders”, but what I am suggesting here is that whoever emerges to lead the populist left will simply be depicted as the next Trump. The billionaire’s scowling country-club face will become the image of populist reform, whether genuine populists had anything to do with him or not. This is the real potential disaster of 2016: that legitimate economic discontent is going to be dismissed as bigotry and xenophobia for years to come.
And meanwhile, the deep economic and social causes that have fuelled so much alienation, anger and hatred in the “City on the Hill” will not go away, when Donald Trump leaves its centre stage.
Authors: Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University