Trump happens

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately in order to write an omnibus book column looking at the flood of books on the Trump election, geared toward the release of Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised What Happened. Here are some gleanings.

Ressentiment, writ very large

From Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra:


Today, however, this vision of universal uplift seems another example of intellectuals and technocrats confusing their private interest with public interest, their own socio-economic mobility as members of a lucky and fairly arbitrarily chosen elite with general welfare. Nowhere does the evidence of moral misery accumulate faster than in the so-called public sphere. The setting for opinion and argument originally created in France’s eighteenth-century salons by face to face relations, individual reason and urbane civility, is now defined, in its digital incarnations, by racists, misogynists and lynch mobs, often anonymous.

In the absence of reasoned debate, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain broad credence: it was while peddling one of them, “Obama is a foreign-born Muslim,” that Donald Trump rose to political prominence. Lynch mobs, assassins and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people can think only in terms of the categories of friends and foes, sectarian loyalty or treason. The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking. The world at large – from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.


The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth. The fruits of human creativity – from smartphones to stem-cell reconstructions – continue to grow. But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed: for instance, nearly half of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity and, even in rich countries, there is a growing life-expectancy gap between classes.

In an economically stagnant world that offers a dream of individual empowerment to all but no realizable dreams of political change, the lure of active nihilism can only grow. Timothy McVeigh with his quintessentially American and First World background illustrates the passage from passive to active nihilism as vividly as men from impoverished postcolonial societies. For he claimed to be defending, with his spectacular brutality, the idea – individual autonomy – that modernity itself had enshrined, and then barred him from.

He was born into a way of life common until the 1980s among large numbers of the depoliticized and apathetic working-class and middle-class populations in the United States and Europe. [. . .] McVeigh grew up as this period of general affluence and leisure peaked, and a series of economic crises from the 1970s onwards began to make the American Dream, as he himself pointed out, seem less and less credible. McVeigh found it hard to get jobs commensurate with his sense of dignity. Brought up by a culture of individualism to consider himself unique, he seemed to have suffered from a sense of diminishment as he grew older and sensed the vast political and economic forces working around an on him. In our own time, support for Donald Trump’s white nationalism connects with middle-aged working-class men, who have suffered a dramatic deterioration in mortality and morbidity due to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.


A heightened sense of rhetoric of self-empowerment accompanied, for instance, the IT revolution, as young graduates and dropouts became billionaires overnight in the Bay Area, and users of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp briefly appeared to be toppling authoritarian regimes worldwide. But the drivers of Uber cars, toiling for abysmally low fares, represent the actual fate of many self-employed “entrepreneurs.”
Capital continually moves across national boundaries in the search for profit, contemptuously sweeping skills and norms made obsolete by technology into the dustbin of history. We may pretend to be entrepreneurs, polishing our personal brands, decorating our stalls in virtual as well as real marketplaces; but defeat, humiliation and resentment are more commonplace experiences than success and contentment in the strenuous endeavour of franchising the individual self.


There is plainly much more longing than can be realized legitimately in the age of freedom and entrepreneurship; more desires for objects of consumption than can be fulfilled by actual income; more dreams than can be fused with stable society by redistribution and greater opportunity; more discontents than can be allayed by politics or traditional therapies; more demand for status symbols and brand names than can be met by non-criminal means, more claims made on celebrity than can be met by increasingly divided attention spans; more stimuli from the news media than can be converted into action; and more outrage than can be expressed by social media.
Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge.

Growing tired of an excess of democracy

From The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce:


In Enlightenment terms, our democracies are switching from John Locke’s social contract to the bleaker Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. We are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of our history, indifference towards society’s losers and complacency about the strength of our democracy. It has helped turn society into a contest of ethnic grievances, in which “awakened whites” – as the alt-right now call them – are by far the largest minority.


The story of liberal democracy is thus a continual tension between the neat democratic folk theory and the more complex liberal idea. Nowadays they have turned into opposite forces. Here, then, is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will. In the words of one Dutch scholar, Western populism is an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” The British and American people supposedly reclaimed their sovereignty in 2016. I call it the Reaction. It is pretty clear which direction the Western elites are bending. Davos is no fan club for more democracy. Having hived off many areas that were once under democratic control (such as monetary policy and trade and investment), post-2016 Western elites now fear they have not gone far enough.

But elite disenchantment with democracy has been rising for many years. According to the World Values Survey, which offers the most detailed take on the state of global public opinion, support for democracy has plummeted across the Western world since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is particularly true of the younger generation. For a long time, academics assumed that rising signs of disaffection with democracy were simply a reflection of dislike of the government of the moment. Government legitimacy may have been on the wane, but regime legitimacy was still robust. There were no alternatives. Democracy, after all, was the only game in town. That reading was far too complacent.

The United State of Anger

From The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore by Jared Yates Sexton:


Everyone had it backward and they’d had it backward all along. The pundits had wrung their hands over the poll numbers, wondering what it would take for Trump to finally lose his momentum while Saturday Night Live booked him to host and the cable news programs interviewed him every second they weren’t showing him live at his rallies.
Between appearances, they’d wonder aloud: How does Trump drag so many people to his extreme point of view?

Trump hadn’t dragged anybody anywhere. And he didn’t have impressive poll numbers because he’d somehow or another convinced anybody of anything. Trump was, as of that moment, the heartbeat of an America with which many of us were unaccustomed. His was not a proactive candidacy but a pure, unadulterated reaction to what a slice of the American public wanted. This was a group that lived their lives steeped in unbelievable anger. They were either poor or less rich than they thought they should be, they were middle or upper middle class, and they were, almost to a person, white. They were angry and all they wanted in the fucking world was to blame somebody.

Trump wasn’t the cause; he was the disease personified.

Hillaryland and Clintonworld: Building a better bubble, together

From Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes


Over the course of the summer, the confidence of party insiders had been replaced by a degree of paranoia that nearly matched Hillary’s own outsize phobia. She was convinced that leaks of information had helped doom her 2008 campaign. In reality, the leaking and disloyalty were symptoms, not the cause, of the dysfunction in her first run for the White House. As long as she was seen as the prohibitive favorite to win the primary and the election, Democrats would fear being branded traitors or leakers. But if she wasn’t going to be in a position to reward or punish them, they had no reason to worry about whether they were rated as ones or sevens on her loyalty scale. After the 2008 campaign, two of her aides, Kris Balderston and Adrienne Elrod, had toiled to assign loyalty scores to members of Congress, ranging from one for the most loyal to seven for those who had committed the most egregious acts of treachery. Bill Clinton had campaigned against some of the sevens in subsequent primary elections, helping to knock them out of office. The fear of retribution was not lost on the remaining sevens, some of whom rushed to endorse Hillary early in the 2016 cycle.


The one person with whom she didn’t seem particularly upset: herself. No one who drew a salary from the campaign would tell her that. It was a self-signed death warrant to raise a question about Hillary’s competence – to her or to anyone else – in loyalty obsessed Clintonworld. Most of the people around her were jockeying to get closer to her, not make her wonder about their commitment. And many didn’t know her very well personally. Even Huma Abedin, who was close to her, had all but given up on guiding her toward shifting course. She had long since started telling Hillary allies outside the campaign to take their complaints and suggestions straight to the candidate. For the mercenaries who had joined the campaign in hopes of finding jobs in the next administration, there was little percentage in getting on Hillary’s bad side. They also feared – appropriately – that unflattering words about Hillary or the strategy would be repeated at their own expense by those who hoped to gain Hillary’s favor. Concern about being cast out to the perimeter of Hillary’s overlapping circles of influence far outweighed the itch to tell Hillary what she was doing wrong.


The rise of populism, and particularly right-wing populism, wasn’t a phenomenon limited to American politics. Brits were locked in a tense battle between those who wanted to exit the European Union and those who wanted to remain. Populist figures with nationalistic tendencies – like Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, and Norbert Hofer in Austria – were on the rise across Europe. By ceding the reformer mantle to Sanders – and to Trump – Hillary was dismissing a whole world’s worth of evidence that she was running into the headwinds of history.

The blunt instrument

From Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green


Trump, who has an uncanny ability to read an audience, intuited in the spring of 2011 that the birther calumny could help him forge a powerful connection with party activists. He also figured out that the norms forbidding such behavior were not inviolable rules that carried a harsh penalty but rather sentiments of a nobler, bygone era, gossamer-thin and needlessly adhered to by politicians who lacked his willingness to defy them. He could violate them with impunity and pay no price for it – in fact, he discovered, Republican voters thrilled to his provocations and rewarded him. National polls taken in mid-April, two weeks before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, showed Trump leading the field of 2012 GOP presidential candidates.

Privately, what amused him the most, he later told a friend, was that no party official in a position of power dared to stand up to him. In his first nationally televised interview, on C-SPAN, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, was confronted about Trump’s possible candidacy and his birther attacks on Obama. “Is the birther debate good for the party?” Jeff Zeleny, a reporter for the New York Times, asked him. “I think all these guys are credible,” Priebus replied, looking slightly nauseated. “I mean, obviously, people are going to have different opinions. And, you know, you’re going to have a lot of different candidates that are running, they’re gonna talk about different things at different times. . . . I think having a diversity of opinion is fine.”

The lesson Trump took away was that the party gatekeepers, who were privately appalled at his behavior and did not want him in the race, would pose no threat to him at all if he decided to run.


In the summer of 2016, Bannon described Trump as a “blunt instrument for us.” But by the following April, Trump was in the White House and Bannon had raised his estimation of him to path-breaking leader. “He’s taken this nationalist movement and moved it up twenty years,” Bannon said. “If France, Germany, England, or any of these places had the equivalent of a Donald Trump, they would be in power. They don’t.”

When he took over Trump’s campaign in August, Bannon did indeed run a nationalist, divisive campaign in which issues of race, immigration, culture, and identity were put front and center. This wasn’t by accident or lacking purpose, even if the candidate himself didn’t care to understand its broader historical context. By exhuming the nationalist thinkers of an earlier age, Bannon was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, or what might more accurately be described as an American nationalist-Traditionalism. Whatever the label, Trump proved to be an able messenger.

Trump: the show (part one)

From Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi


There are some people now who are urging the media to ignore Donald Trump, and simply not cover him. But it’s a little late for that.

The time to start worrying about the consequences of our editorial decisions was before we raised a generation of people who get all of their information from television, and who believe that the solution to every problem is simple enough that you can find it before the 21 minutes of the sitcom are over.

Or before we created a world in which the only inner-city black people you ever see are being chased by cops, and the only Muslims onscreen are either chopping off heads or throwing rocks at a barricades.

This is an amazing thing to say, because in Donald Trump’s world everything is about him, but Trump’s campaign isn’t about Trump anymore. With his increasingly preposterous run to the White House, the Donald is merely articulating something that runs through the entire culture.

It’s hard to believe because Trump the person is so limited in his ability to articulate anything. Even in his books, where he’s allegedly trying to string multiple thoughts together, Trump wanders randomly from impulse to impulse, seemingly without rhyme or reason. He doesn’t think anything through. (He’s brilliantly cast this driving-blind trait as “not being politically correct.”)

It’s not an accident that his attention span lasts exactly one news cycle. He’s exactly like the rest of America, except that he’s making news, not following it – starring on TV instead of watching it. Just like we channel-surf, he focuses as long as he can on whatever mess he’s in, and then he moves on to the next bad idea or incorrect memory that pops into his head.

Lots of people have remarked on the irony of this absurd caricature of a spoiled rich kid connecting so well with working-class America. But Trump does have something very much in common with everybody else. He watches TV. That’s his primary experience with reality, and just like most of his voters, he doesn’t realize that it’s a distorted picture.

If you got all of your information from TV and movies, you’d have some pretty dumb ideas. You’d be convinced blowing stuff up works, because it always does in our movies. You’d have no empathy for the poor, because there are no poor people in American movies or TV shows – they’re rarely even shown on the news, because advertisers consider them a bummer.

Politically, you’d have no ability to grasp nuance or complexity, since there is none in our mainstream political discussion. All problems, even the most complicated, are boiled down to a few minutes of TV content at most. That’s how issues like the last financial collapse completely flew by Middle America. The truth, with all the intricacies of all those arcane new mortgage-based financial instruments, was much harder to grasp than a story about lazy minorities buying houses they couldn’t afford, which is what Middle America still believes.

Trump isn’t just selling these easy answers. He’s also buying them. Trump is a TV believer. He’s so subsumed in all the crap he’s watched – and you can tell by the cropped syntax in his books and his speech, Trump is a watcher, not a reader – it’s all mixed up in his head.

He surely believes he saw that celebration of Muslims in Jersey City, when it was probably a clip of people in Palestine. When he says, “I have a great relationship with the blacks,” what he probably means is that he liked watching The Cosby Show.
In this he’s just like millions and millions of Americans, who have all been raised on a mountain of unthreatening caricatures and clichés. TV is a world in which the customer is always right, especially about hard stuff like race and class. Trump’s ideas about Mexicans and Muslims are typical of someone who doesn’t know any, except in the shows he chooses to watch about them.

This world of schlock stereotypes and EZ solutions is the one experience a pampered billionaire can share with all of those “paycheck-to-paycheck” voters the candidates are always trying to reach. TV is the ultimate leveling phenomenon. It makes everyone, rich and poor, equally incapable of dealing with reality.

That’s why it’s so ironic that some people think the solution to the Trump problem is turning him off. What got us into this mess was the impulse to change the channel the moment we feel uncomfortable. Even if we take the man off the air, the problem he represents is still going to be there, just like poverty, corruption, mass incarceration, pollution and all of the other things we keep off the airwaves.


Of course, Trump’s ignorance level, considering his Wharton education, is nearly as awesome as what Bush accomplished in spite of Yale. In fact, unlike Bush, who had the decency to not even try to understand the news, Trump reads all sorts of crazy things and believes them all. From theories about vaccines causing autism to conspiratorial questions about the pillow on Antonin Scalia’s face to Internet legends about Americans using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to shoot Muslims, there isn’t any absurd idea Donald Trump isn’t willing to entertain, so long as it fits in with his worldview.
But Washington is freaking out about Trump in a way they never did about Bush. Why? Because Bush was their moron, while Trump is his own moron. That’s really what it comes down to.

And all of the Beltway’s hooting and hollering about how “embarrassing” and “dangerous” Trump is will fall on deaf ears, because as gullible as Americans can be, they’re smart enough to remember being told that it was OK to vote for George Bush, a man capable of losing at tic-tac-toe.

We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment. The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island. Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married With Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs. It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.

Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines. There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.


Politics at its most basic isn’t a Princeton debating society. It’s a desperate battle over who gets what. But during the past 50 years, when there was a vast shift in the distribution of wealth in this country, when tens of millions of people were put out of good, dignified jobs and into humiliating ones, America’s elections remained weirdly civil, Queensberry-rules reality shows full of stilted TV debates over issues like abortion, gay marriage and the estate tax.

As any journalist who’s ever covered a miners’ strike or a foreclosure court will report, things get physically tense when people are forced to fight for their economic lives. Yet Trump’s campaign has been the first to unleash that menacing feel during a modern presidential race.

Some, or maybe a lot of it, is racial resentment. But much of it has to be long-delayed anger over the way things have been divvied up over the years. The significance of Trump’s wall idea, apart from its bluntly racist appeal as a barrier to nonwhite people, is that it redefines the world in terms of a clear Us and Them, with politicians directly responsible for Us.

It’s a plain rebuttal to the Sullivan explanation for why nobody between the coasts has a decent job anymore, i.e., that there are “global economic forces” at work that we can no more change than we can the weather. Trump’s solutions are preposterous, logistically impossible and ideologically vicious, but he’s giving people a promise more concrete than “tax cuts will stimulate growth that will eventually bring jobs back.” He’s peddling hope, and with hope comes anger.


Trump’s early rampage through the Republican field made literary sense. It was classic farce. He was the lewd, unwelcome guest who horrified priggish, decent society, a theme that has mesmerized audiences for centuries, from Vanity Fair to The Government Inspector to (closer to home) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When you let a hands-y, drunken slob loose at an aristocrats’ ball, the satirical power of the story comes from the aristocrats deserving what comes next. And nothing has ever deserved a comeuppance quite like the American presidential electoral process, which had become as exclusive and cut off from the people as a tsarist shooting party.

The first symptom of a degraded aristocracy is a lack of capable candidates for the throne. After years of indulgence, ruling families become frail, inbred and isolated, with no one but mystics, impotents and children to put forward as kings. Think of Nikolai Romanov reading fortunes as his troops starved at the front. Weak princes lead to popular uprisings. Which brings us to this year’s Republican field.

There wasn’t one capable or inspiring person in the infamous “Clown Car” lineup. All 16 of the non-Trump entrants were dunces, religious zealots, wimps or tyrants, all equally out of touch with voters. Scott Walker was a lipless sadist who in centuries past would have worn a leather jerkin and thrown dogs off the castle walls for recreation. Marco Rubio was the young rake with debts. Jeb Bush was the last offering in a fast-diminishing hereditary line. Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer. And so on.

The party spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” as solutions to the growing alienation and financial privation of the ordinary voter. In place of jobs, exported overseas by the millions by their financial backers, Republicans glibly offered the flag, Jesus and Willie Horton.

In recent years it all went stale. They started to run out of lines to sell the public. Things got so desperate that during the Tea Party phase, some GOP candidates began dabbling in the truth. They told voters that all Washington politicians, including their own leaders, had abandoned them and become whores for special interests. It was a slapstick routine: Throw us bums out!

Republican voters ate it up and spent the whole of last primary season howling for blood as Trump shredded one party-approved hack after another. By the time the other 16 candidates finished their mass-suicide-squad routine, a tail-chasing, sewer-mouthed septuagenarian New Yorker was accepting the nomination of the Family Values Party.

Trump: the show (part two)

From Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen


Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis. If he hadn’t run for president, I might not have mentioned him at all. But here he is, a stupendous Exhibit A. To describe him is practically to summarize this book.

He’s driven by resentment of the Establishment. He doesn’t like experts because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts, to feel the truth. He sees conspiracies everywhere. He exploits the myths of white racial victimhood. His case of Kids “R” Us Syndrome – spoiled, impulsive, moody, a seventy-year-old brat – is extreme.

And he is first and last a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex. “He is P. T. Barnum,” his sister, a federal judge, said to his biographer Tim O’Brien in 2005. Even as a teenager in the early 1960s, Trump himself told O’Brien, he understood that any racket in America could be turned into an entertainment racket. “I said, ‘You know what I’ll do? I am going to go into real estate, and I am going to put show business into real estate. I’ll have the best of both worlds.” Back then, in 1961, the historian Daniel Boorstin already saw what was coming in politics, what would make Trump president. “Our national politics have become a competition for images or between images, rather than reality,” Boorstin wrote. “Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.”

Although the fantasy-industrial complex had been annexing presidential politics for more than half a century when candidate Trump came along, his campaign and presidency are its ultimate expression, like nothing we’d witnessed in real life or imagined we ever would. [. . .] Before the full emergence of Fantasyland, Trump’s various enterprises would have seemed an embarrassing, ridiculous, incoherent jumble for a businessman, let alone a serious candidate for president. What connects a Muslim-mausoleum-themed casino in New Jersey to a short-lived sham professional football league to an autobiography he didn’t write to hotels and buildings he didn’t build to a mail-order meat business to a beauty pageant to an airline that lasted three years to a sham “university” to repeatedly welshing on giant loans to selling deodorant and mattresses and a vodka and toiled waters called Empire and Success to a board game named after himself to a TV show about pretending to fire people?

What connects them all, of course, is the new, total American embrace of admixtures of the fictional and real and of fame for fame’s sake. Trump’s reality was a reality show before that genre or term existed.

Tyranny of the minority

From One Nation After Trump by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann


Trump took advantage of a trend in American politics toward minority rule, or what might be called “non-majoritarianism.” Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population), and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box. Trump profited from this bias against the majority, becoming president despite losing the popular vote by the largest margin ever for an Electoral College winner.


Trump’s victory was less an endorsement of his program than a rejection of Clinton. Exit polling found that in the electorate that made Trump president, 60 percent had an unfavorable view of him; only 38 percent had a favorable view, which suggests how small his core support was on Election Day. But Clinton’s numbers were nearly as bad, as 55 percent had an unfavorable view of her. Here is what should be seen as the decisive piece of data about the 2016 election: Among voters who had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton (nearly a fifth of the electorate), Trump won decisively, 47 percent to 30 percent. Among the quarter of voters who explicitly said that the main motivation of their choice was dislike of the other candidate, the numbers were similar: 50 percent for Trump, 39 percent for Clinton. The 2016 election was a negative verdict, not a mandate for Trumpism.

These numbers are critical for understanding how fragile Trump’s hold on the public is and why he began his term with the lowest approval ratings of any new president in the history of modern polling. They explain why his disapproval numbers increased so quickly after he took office and why a large-scale grassroots movement rose up against him so rapidly. Trump did not speak for the country, and Trumpist ideology – to the extent the he even has a consistent ideology – does not command majority support.

Through all of the controversies in Trump’s early months in office, political analysts regularly argued that despite his problems, Trump was still hanging on to support from his “base.” But his base was a minority, and Trump showed little capacity for expanding beyond this core. This will have consequences in the long run, and it should give heart to Trump’s foes.

The diagnosis

From Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump by Allen Frances


So, how does it add up? Successful politicians succeed in winning hearts and minds because they are good at understanding and exploiting human nature. Platforms, policy, and pronouncements are just empty words without empathic connection – the bond that conveys to the electorate that they are listened to, understood, and will be cared for. Hucksters like Trump are expert at feigning this connection, to the detriment of all of us. True statesmen aspire to see political life as a selfless journey with, and for, their constituents – not a game of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. At the beginning of our experiment in democracy, political discourse was conducted in the high-toned intellectual style of the enlightenment. Arguments used logic and were meant to appeal to reason. In this past election campaign, the contrast between the cortex and the amygdala was won by the amygdala – extravagant emotion triumphed over rational thought.

Trump won. American democracy, societal sanity, and the future welfare of our children and planet all lost. He isn’t crazy, but we are for electing him. And for allowing our society to degenerate to the point that someone like Trump could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. The contingencies contributing to his win were crazily long-shot, requiring the unlikely convergence of sixteen Republican dwarfs in the primary, a vulnerable opponent in the election, the Putin push, the heavy hand of the FBI, the spite of Julian Assange, and wacky third-party candidates splitting the vote. We are now paying the price.


A media battering

They hugged after the fight.

Last night Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeated Conor McGregor in a highly publicized (read: hyped) boxing match.

The result surprised no one, as Mayweather, despite being a much older man and coming out of retirement for the fight, as well as being (at least) twenty pounds lighter, had a record of 49 – 0 coming in, while McGregor had never boxed professionally.

Even the way it played out wasn’t surprising, as Mayweather simply let McGregor tire himself out in the first few rounds (as he has a known tendency to do) before walking him down later. I don’t think we can read much into the result. Though commentators would say after the bell that McGregor “acquitted himself well/didn’t embarrass himself/held his own,” the fight followed the script Mayweather had written, and the script was to put on a good show.

In most respects, then, it was a fight that was a pseudo-event. Though not fixed, the outcome was never in much doubt and everything pretty much went as expected. What really made it a pseudo-event, however, was the fact that it was such an artificial, manufactured spectacle. Despite not even being a real boxing match, and with no title on the line (though there was a gold, jewel-encrusted “Money Belt”), it became, reportedly, the biggest pay-per-view event in combat sports history. In the weeks leading up to fight night the big question sports reporters were asking was what it would all “mean” for the sport of boxing and MMA. It’s significant that they had to ask. The only real answer was that it meant nothing.

Even the build-up was a let-down. Three of the four public events held with Mayweather and McGregor, both legends in the trash talking department, were unmitigated disasters. But for a pseudo-event the hype is everything, no matter how good it is or whether or not it means anything.

McGregor made his usual boasts about knocking Mayweather out in the first round, and how his cardio was up to a full twelve rounds (which, of course, it wasn’t). “Trust me,” he kept repeating. It was all bullshit. Effective, to some degree, at pumping himself up, but how were we in the audience to take it?

That appeal to trust made me think of another supreme bullshit artist: the current president of the United States. “Trust me,” he said throughout the 2016 election campaign. He was going to build a wall. He was going to defeat ISIS. He was going to make America great again. It was going to be beautiful. Trust me.

The parallel points to a depressing truth. There seems to be little society can do to defend itself against such masters of self-promotion. One may criticize them, fact-check them, rail against them even, but it’s all for nought. The sports media rightly called Mayweather-McGregor a cynical money-grab and a joke, but so what? The mainstream news media, including most of the conservative media, rejected Trump right down the line. It didn’t make any difference. Simply by being talked about these celebrity brands and pseudo-events were winners.

This was brought home to me in a recent report done on the media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. Remember: the mainstream media overwhelmingly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Nevertheless, Trump won the war for the media, getting far more coverage, and it didn’t matter in the slightest that most of it was either (a) clips of his most outrageous gaffes and lies, or (b) negative commentary on the same. It also didn’t matter whether what he was saying was true or offensive. His whole campaign was a pseudo-event, like the Mayweather-McGregor fight. Criticism is pointless. Such people and such events are critic-proof, just like countless Hollywood and publishing blockbusters. Did anyone think 50 Shades of Grey was a good book, or a good movie? Twilight? The Transformers? They were panned by critics and audiences, yet they were all runaway franchise megahits. The power of the brand is truly remarkable.

It seems to me this is a problem. It’s a natural bias in the media that, as I say, society doesn’t seem to have any defence against. In the week leading up to the big May-Mac fight it didn’t just dominate the sports news programs but even took over top spot on the regular news. All of this coverage (promotion, free advertising) for a phony spectacle starring a couple of particularly loud celebrities. It’s assumed that between them Mayweather and McGregor took home close to half a billion dollars for the night’s work. A reality-TV host has become president. I know I shouldn’t be surprised or upset by this, but I don’t know how to be cynical enough not to be.

You keep using that word . . .

Yesterday morning on CNN New Day co-anchor Alisyn Camerota was interviewing former Governor of New Hampshire and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu about investigations and broader speculations into the possibility of some kind of collusion between the Trump White House and Russia. Throughout the interview Sununu kept insisting on the lack of any evidence of “a veniality.” This is what it sounded like:

CAMEROTA: I’m trying to gauge your comfort level with all of this
SUNUNU: My comfort level? The only discomfort I have is with folks in the media trying to create a veniality without having the courage to specifically tell me what the veniality that I should be concerned about is. I don’t have . . . I have not identified a veniality. Have you?

Is “veniality” really the word Sununu wanted to use? It refers to a minor sin, easily forgiven. I don’t think that’s what anyone speaking about these matters is really interested in. My guess is that what he meant to say was “venality,” which means capable of being bribed or open to corruption. The two words are actually very different, coming from completely different roots. The weird thing is, I’m still not entirely sure what the intended meaning was, or if either veniality or venality were being properly used.

That ’90s show

I was at university in the early 1990s, a period that we can now refer to in hindsight as the crest of the first wave of political correctness. There were even arguments over appropriation of voice and cultural appropriation that were loudly debated at meetings of the Writers’ Union of Canada. For those of you with an interest in such historical matters, Philip Marchand covered the moment in an essay later reprinted in Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1998). Then things died down. When Russell Smith sent up the whole matter of identity politics in his novel Muriella Pent in 2004 he was very much looking back on matters that no longer seemed that relevant. Here is the first paragraph from my review of Muriella Pent, which I wrote 13 years ago:

Muriella Pent is a curious novel that could be easily mistaken as prematurely dated. It has, for example, a lot to say about fashions in the arts, about what’s in and what’s out, and it directs its satire toward subjects (like the debates over political correctness and appropriation of voice) that are now very out.

Ouch. In my defence, I did end the review by saying it would be wrong to write Muriella Pent off as “a blast from the past,” and closed with these now prophetic words: “I have a hunch it might be ahead of its time.”

Well, it’s been a while but the once “very out” topics of political correctness and appropriation of voice are now very much back in. For good and ill. Who would have thought in 2004 that in 2016 someone would come along and ride a crusade against the forces of political correctness all the way into the White House? That would have seemed even more preposterous than a President Trump.

Whatever you think of all this, it’s clear we’re now experiencing a second wave. Looking at the dates it’s hard to miss the generational ebb and flow. That may be one explanation anyway for the curious rise and fall and rise again of the same arguments, expressed with the same rhetoric, pro and con (roughly, freedom of speech vs. exploitation and oppression). We even have, in place of Smith’s Muriella Pent, Stephen Henighan’s Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives, a new satire on identity politics in Canadian cultural circles.

It’s déjà vu, but is it progress?

I’ll avoid entering into the arena here, mainly because I think there is a basic disagreement over the terms of the debate (or conversation, as it’s more gently styled). Well-meaning people seem to mean very different things when they use the term cultural appropriation. For some, every work of art necessarily involves cultural appropriation, while for others it is an act of genocide. Both sides have a point to make, but obviously, expressed in these terms, they have no common ground.

But why are these matters becoming so prominent now? Is it because of the generational ebb and flow I mentioned? Or the effect of so many highly publicized examples of the phenomenon in recent years, like the cases of Rachel Dolezal (the former head of the NAACP who was outed by her parents as being white), Joseph Boyden (whose Indigenous heritage has been called into question), and Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial (co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement to sell cola)?

I’m sure that cases like these all provided fuel to the fire, but I don’t think they were the real drivers. For that, I’d point the finger elsewhere.

(1) The media. You can’t exaggerate how much the media plays this stuff up, and the effect that has. After the story broke about Hal Niedzviecki quitting his post as editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine due to an editorial he wrote (that began “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation”) there was a barrage of high-profile, mainstream commentary. The CBC ran op-ed pieces, as well as broadcasting interviews and hosting discussions online and on their flagship news programs. I think the National Post had two columns a day for nearly a week talking about it, and other newspapers followed suit. When was the last time, if ever, that anything having to do with writers in Canada received half as much media attention?

(2) Universities. I’ve previously pointed out that matters of identity are now the only subject of interest in English departments. Identity politics now constitute the foundation of any English program, and are of far more importance than the practice of textual analysis or making judgments of aesthetic value. What this has led to is the current critical dispensation, where, for example, the only question we need to ask about Joseph Boyden is whether his voice can be established as authentic.

These were both drivers of the cultural appropriation debate twenty years ago, but they have since metastasized. The media, in transitioning online, is far more dependent on pushing people’s buttons in order to grab clicks and eyeballs, going after immediate responses and snap moral judgments. Meanwhile, universities have limited the accepted terms of critical discourse to include only such matters of identity as are now being re-argued. Working in tandem they have made this time around an amplified version of the same debate we had in the 1990s, but not one with much more to say. My guess is that the conversation will move away again after a while, but I don’t think we’ll be moving on.

Tight right spiral

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump and the British vote for Brexit a lot of pundits fell back on the famous line from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” about how “the centre cannot hold.” Specifically, what they meant by this was the disintegration of the traditional party systems in established democracies. More generally they were expressing a concern over the fate of democracy in our time.

I’m not going to try to predict how all this plays out, mainly because my lack of skill when it comes to political forecasting is a matter of record. I am, however, struck by a couple of things about recent developments.

In the first place, we are clearly seeing a total rejection of the current system. Before Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election he first had to rout an entire field of establishment Republican candidates. You really couldn’t be a bigger political outsider than Trump. In turn, his status as destroyer or wrecking ball was the main reason he was able to defeat Clinton, who was the most establishment candidate imaginable.

This same anti-establishment wave has just washed over France, where the two winning candidates are both fringe figures in terms of mainstream French politics. The candidate with the most votes, Emmanuel Macron, is no outsider, but he is a newcomer to electoral politics who only founded his own party a year ago. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, is usually characterized as “far-right” if not fascist.

I think such a rejection of centrist, establishment politics is, though perhaps dangerous, certainly understandable. Large segments of the electorate now see the mainstream parties as having been unrepresentative, unresponsive, and incompetent during what has been a long downward spiral. And they have some valid reasons for feeling this way.

This leads me to my second observation. What we are seeing as the dust settles on the collapse of the mainstream middle is not political polarization. The new lines being drawn on the political map are between “centrist” politicians, often associated with banking and the financial sector, and the far right. Clinton and Trump. Macron and Le Pen. There is no movement toward the left. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have all been widely derided, if not pilloried, sometimes even within their own parties, as dangerous cranks and kooks. They were either kneecapped by the process (Sanders), left in the dust (Mélenchon), or been assassinated in the press by fire from all angles (Corbyn). Some of this may have been their own fault, but however you want to see it the point remains that “there is no alternative” on the left. Which, in turn, means that the centre is being pulled ineluctably to the right. In a recent book about the failed Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 the author (a Clinton supporter) admitted that Clinton herself may not have been a true progressive candidate, but she was as close as American politics was going to get. Which, if true, means there is no progressive movement in America today.

In short, the failure of the traditional party system and traditional politics — a politics which has been characterized, I think correctly, as being fundamentally neoliberal in nature — has led not to a rejection of that ideology but rather to a lurch even further down the same road. This is not a move that’s likely to help save a system that is in crisis, but rather one that will only hasten its eventual collapse.

Pointing the finger of blame

Donald Trump has become the 45th president of the United States.

I am in a state of shock as I write those words. Even given my poor record as a predictor of elections, I would have thought this was impossible.

In the months leading up to the vote Trump had established himself as the worst candidate for president put forward by a major party in American political history, running by far the worst campaign. The election itself should have been declared a no contest.

Unfortunately, he was running against Hillary Clinton, herself a historically unpopular candidate. Despite her many failings, however, I still thought Clinton would win, with Trump registering only as the last twitch in the death spasms of a certain strand of American conservatism (a point I’ve addressed elsewhere). Clinton had overwhelming systemic advantages in money, the electoral college (yes, this was thought to be to her advantage), and the favour of the media, while he was . . . well, he was Trump.

Her strengths, however, were part of Clinton’s undoing. Her election came to be seen as a near-coronation, the campaign a one-horse race. This suggests something very damaged in American democracy, and voters rebelled against her inevitability, their sense that they had been denied a choice.

Defenders of Clinton made much during the campaign, and no doubt will continue to do so, of how her enemies were ignorant bigots. They were the “deplorables” who hated women and non-white immigrants (specifically Mexicans and Muslims). Trumpism was only the politics of the white working class, a.k.a. losers. No doubt there was some truth to this, but I think the problem with Hillary Clinton was something simpler.

For starters, every election is about change. This has led to the cult of the “outsider” and the non-politician politician. It’s hard to overstate how essential this branding is. Hence Bill Clinton calling his wife “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life” at the Democratic convention. He had to say that because it was so obvious that Hillary Clinton was a status quo figure. Her own professed desire was for “incremental” change, which may be realistic but is not inspiring rhetoric.

But who could expect anything more from her? She had been in the highest offices of American politics for decades, as much a figure of the establishment as any single person could be. No one could mistake her as representing change, and indeed in her campaign’s final days she appealed repeatedly to the need to continue the legacy of Barack Obama.

The first problem, then, with Hillary Clinton was not that she was a woman but that people were sick of her. They were sick of her twenty years ago, when “Clinton fatigue” was a thing encompassing both her and her husband, and she hadn’t been out of the public eye since!

The second problem with Clinton as a candidate was that she was a political operator. I hesitate to say “politician” because politics, at least of the retail variety, was not really her calling. She would admit on the trail that she wasn’t a natural like her husband at campaigning. That was to put it mildly. Though courtiers built her up as someone likeable in intimate settings, she had difficulty projecting charm or charisma. One felt a weariness, discomfort, and not least paranoia on her part whenever she had to appear in the public eye. It was enough to make even the rank vulgarity of Trump seem human in comparison. The overriding question I had watching Clinton over the course of the past year is why she was even doing this. By all accounts she experienced her husband’s presidency as something of a nightmare. Was her run for the presidency an attempt at some belated validation? Or, worse, revenge?

In any event, her awkwardness as a candidate does a lot to explain her curious political career. She went from being the wife of the president, which in her case was a position of some power, to being air-lifted into a super-safe seat in the senate (Patrick Moynihan retired to make way for her in New York, a state she had little personal connection to). She would go on to an appointment as secretary of state under Obama and then win a Democratic primary against an eccentric figure who wasn’t even a member of the party (and who the party itself plotted against). She then ran for president against an even more impossible figure, with all of the above-mentioned institutional advantages providing a strong wind at her back.

Some critics referred to this career trajectory as “falling upwards,” but it was really just a combination of good luck and skilful operation of the system. She has always carried with her an air of inevitability and entitlement. None of this made her popular. If people want change, and look to outsiders rather than politicians to effect it, what can one make of the ultimate career politician preparing to take the highest office in the land virtually unopposed? And with Clinton there was always a certain odour attached to the label of politician even beyond the usual dislike. “How did Hillary Clinton end up filthy rich?” ran the main television ad for the Trump campaign (titled “Corruption”). It was a question that stuck, to be answered (in the ad) by charges of the “politics of personal enrichment” and “pay for play.” Her defence was simply that there was no “smoking gun” or hard proof of a quid quo pro or criminality. This was weak. No matter how legitimate the sources of “Clinton cash” there is still, I think, a lot of native feeling that people in public office should not be getting rich off of it. As for why people were paying the Clintons up to half a million dollars to listen to them make a speech . . . it just smelled bad.

In sum, the problem with Hillary was not that she was a woman but that she was hard to like, harder to trust, and someone people were tired of. The charge that people who opposed her did so only because they were bigots or ignorant was, however, the first (and often last) line of defence of most liberals – and I say this as a liberal myself (or someone a little to the left of that). It was a defence Clinton herself would adopt in her concession speech, taking on the persona of a feminist martyr cruelly crushed against the patriarchy’s glass ceiling while heroically lighting the way for those who would follow in her giant footsteps. The liberal media — that is, the same media that had enabled her at the expense of all common sense and cast her campaign in the language of a battle against misogyny and for human rights — echoed these sentiments. If Democrats make this their preferred narrative for what happened then they will have learned nothing.

The truth is, Bill Clinton would not have fared any better. Clinton, Inc. had, in the years since his leaving office, become the face of liberal oligarchy. This is an over-class – financial, political, business (most prominently tech), and media – that believes very much in individual freedom and human rights, but also in rule by a managerial elite whose attitude toward democracy is paternalistic at best. It’s no coincidence that many of its leading lights are prominent spokespersons for what’s been called “the new philanthropy.” This is a world not of corporations but of benevolent private foundations.

Such philanthropy meant nothing to the American middle class, who neither wanted nor were in line for a hand-out. What use was the Clinton Global Initiative to Americans? Globalization, they had been told, had lifted billions out of poverty all over the world. But so what? What good had it done for homegrown “losers” aside from giving them cheap shit to buy at Wal-Mart? And was that supposed to be enough?

Well, there are scarier things than rule by a liberal oligarchy, as we may find out. I think Hillary Clinton was a much safer choice than Donald Trump. But I think we would be wrong to write off critics of the elite as rednecks or white nativists only expressing the time-honoured anti-intellectualism of American politics. Clinton was unfairly accused during the campaign of being ambitious, which I think was a clear example of a sexist double standard. Anyone running for president has to be ambitious. Ambition can be a good thing. But no elite or oligarchy can be expected to look after anyone’s interest as well as their own. I have never been one to accuse any government of taking a “nanny state” attitude, and I’m no enemy to government regulation, but I look at the liberal oligarchy and I fear its benevolence.

If you’re looking to lay blame this morning, lay it on both parties. The Republican establishment didn’t want any part of Trump, but all the same he is on them. They created the matrix that spawned him and then couldn’t control the forces they thought to cynically exploit. Even more at fault, however, is the Democratic party, which was so out of touch, so enamoured of its own good intentions, it thought it could ride a deeply flawed candidate who many Americans despised into the most powerful office in the land by wrapping her in a feminist mantle. Trump v. Clinton should never have happened. Never. That it did is an indictment of the system.

There has been much hand-wringing recently over the rise of populism in Western democracies. Populism, in these arguments, is equated with xenophobia, racism, authoritarianism, and nationalism. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think there’s a way for a healthy politics to be more populist. Moving forward, both parties are going to have to find it.

Conflict of interest, again

A while back, commenting on a story involving a CBC reporter, I had occasion to say something about conflict of interest. Here is how my post began

Why is the concept of conflict of interest so hard to understand? True, like any misdemeanour that has certain penalties attached to it, there is some room for debate when assessing culpability. But the thing is, we know it when we see it. And it’s precisely because we know it when we see it that we can say when it exists.

I say “exists” because conflict of interest is not a specific action or event. It doesn’t “occur.” One doesn’t have to actually do anything at all. Conflict of interest is a state of being. You are in a position where there is a conflict of interest or you are not.

I couldn’t help but think of this while watching the cotton-candy accrual of controversy surrounding presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and the State Department’s relation to the family’s Clinton Foundation. The same issue is again front and center. While acknowledging an unseemly “appearance of impropriety,” Clinton’s defenders point to the fact that there has been no finding of criminality (and that through no lack of investigation). Indeed, Clinton herself has said — in her defence! — that “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”

Again I am wondering why the nature of the problem is so hard to understand, or if Clinton is being deliberately obtuse. The smoke is the smoking gun. Charles Krauthammer’s column (and this is a commentator I rarely find myself in agreement with), puts it this way

The Associated Press found that more than half the private interests who were granted phone or personal contact with secretary Clinton — 85 of 154 — were donors to the foundation. Total contributions? As much as $156 million.

Current Clinton response? There was no quid pro quo.

What a long way we’ve come. This is the very last line of defence. Yes, it’s obvious that access and influence were sold. But no one has demonstrated definitively that the donors received something tangible of value — a pipeline, a permit, a waiver, a favourable regulatory ruling — in exchange.

It’s hard to believe the Clinton folks would be stupid enough to commit something so blatant to writing. Nonetheless, there might be an email allusion to some such conversation. With thousands more emails to come, who knows what lies beneath.

On the face of it, it’s rather odd that a visible quid pro quo is the bright line for malfeasance. Anything short of that — the country is awash with political money that buys access — is deemed acceptable. As Donald Trump says of his own donation-giving days, “when I need something from them . . . I call them, they are there for me.” This is considered routine and unremarkable.

It’s not until a Rolex shows up on your wrist that you get indicted. Or you are found to have dangled a Senate appointment for cash. Then, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, you go to jail. (He got 14 years.)

Yet we are hardly bothered by the routine practice of presidents rewarding big donors with cushy ambassadorships, appointments to portentous boards or invitations to state dinners.

The bright line seems to be outright bribery. Anything short of that is considered — not just for the Clintons, for everyone — acceptable corruption.

It’s a sorry standard. And right now it is Hillary Clinton’s saving grace.

As I said in my earlier post, conflict of interest isn’t an act, it’s a position one finds oneself in. And it is all a matter of perception: perceived conflict of interest (by an objective observer) is conflict of interest. To argue over “exact allegations” of improper behaviour is changing the subject. That may sound harsh, but the reason for having such a hard rule is simple: because in most cases proving any wrongdoing is impossible. The accused can simply respond with a blank denial and that’s the end of it. Short of concrete evidence of “outright bribery” anything goes. And outright bribery isn’t the way corruption works, except at the very lowest level.

Look, everyone in a position of power sells access. When you buy access you get something in return, as the worst-presidential-candidate-in-history Donald Trump testifies. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about how the system works, which means this is just another one of those things that everybody takes for granted but that can never be admitted publicly. The only danger is in assuming that people are too stupid not to know what’s going on.