Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How We Got to Trump

There are a lot of potential lessons from the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president and, given how the Republican establishment is falling in line to support someone they very recently told us was unfit for the job, it looks like many of those lessons will go unlearned. Perhaps the most important of the lessons, at least in terms of potentially improving our political discourse in the future, is how a Trump candidacy can even fucking happen. As much as Republicans, Trump voters, and some currents of the media would like us to believe that Trump is sui generis or a fluke or the result of an historically weak Republican field, he is the result of a long political process, one that has consequences far beyond the human parody now leading the Republican party. Understanding that process is the first step, both in preventing a Trump presidency and in recreating a political system in which future Trumps are impossible.

McCarthyism & the Red Scare
I don't think the idea of “real Americans” was born during McCarthyism and the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, (I'm sure there is a brilliant doctoral thesis out there about the idea of “real Americans” and how that idea has moved and changed and manipulated political discourse in our country.) but it was during the Red Scare that the traits of the “real American” began to include being a Christian living in a small town (rather than one of those out-of-touch big cities), who believed in capitalism (rather than in socialism or any of its possible forms). Furthermore, this is when actors, writers, and university professors were all summarily barred from the “Real American Club.” Given how it has defined populism, America has always had a fraught relationship with its public intellectuals, but it was here with McCarthy that the very act of intellectual exploration, or the development of intellectual talents, awareness, or resources, became inherently suspect. Essentially, this was the beginning of the end of nuanced, intellectual, and truth-seeking discourse in the public mainstream media.

The Southern Strategy
In the city of codes, the dude who just fucking says it, rules. I feel like there should be some bodily punishment for every Republican who refers to their party as “the party of Lincoln.” With the Southern strategy, Nixon and his allies sought to capture the racist southern Democrats who were alienated by the Civil Rights movement, by, well, by turning the Republican party into the party of racists. But, of course, no one said that. Instead, over time they developed a whole system of codes and policies (e.g. The War on Drugs) that disproportionately affected African Americans and other minorities; a system of codes that is easily transferable to whatever non-white group Republicans in power can blame for America's problems. All Donald Trump did with his racist nonsense was stop talking in the Republican code.

Morning in America
The American century from 1870-1970 saw the greatest increase in overall standards of living in human history. A combination of technological advancement and federal economic management essentially created the middle class, the single-income family, and retirement from the wreckage of the Great Depression and World War II. Really, the only white people who weren't substantially better off in 1970, than they had been in previous decades, were the rich oligarch assholes at the head of so much of society's previous misery. (Of course, they also benefited from the technological advances so it's really, really hard to argue they lost anything anyway.) Obviously, they weren't going to take their slight diminishment of power sitting down. And so, though the stagflation and general malaise of the 1970s were really just a blip at the end of unprecedented century and nothing that couldn't be fixed by some energy independence, rich assholes used it as an opportunity to dismantle the wealthiest and most equitable (for white people) economic system the world had ever seen.

Politics has always been an emotional game, but I believe it was here, with Regan's “Morning in America,” where a candidate ran on the idea that everything would be fixed if we just had the right person as president. Trump's success right now is almost entirely based on the idea that he'll just fix things because he's a good leader and we have Regan to thank for that. (Oh, and pretty much all of our current economic problems, but this piece isn't about those.)

Bill Clinton's Triangulation
It's one of those ideas that makes perfect sense: if you listen to both sides of an argument and take a position roughly in the middle, you'll get a lot of people to agree with you. Shit, you might even stumble into a good idea or compromise while you're at it. And by “makes perfect sense” I mean, “reveals politics as a shell game of shifting power structures that has nothing to do with fighting for the best policies.” In some ways, after losing so much political ground to Regan Republicans, Bill Clinton's triangulation wasn't a bad idea for winning back the White House and stemming the tide of conservative legislation. Unfortunately, rather than triangulating with him after his re-election, Republicans simply moved the center rightward. In the short term that meant Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, Welfare Reform, the continuation of the drug war, the further dismantling of financial and consumer regulations that were such an important part of past growth, and, lest we forget, the George W. Bush presidency.

In the long term, this lead to an overall shift in policy towards the right (despite a population that is actually fairly liberal when their opinions are broken down issue by issue), while hamstringing the more liberal members of the Democratic party who suddenly found themselves radicalized simply for saying the same things Democrats have been saying since FDR.

The Myth of the Liberal Media
There was never a time of unbiased media. Though most did their best, journalists are human beings and their own biases and opinions are naturally going to color their reporting in some way. That said, there was a time when, despite the problem of bias, journalists at least tried to present objective truth to the public. Now, thanks to conservatives who kept ending up on the wrong side of the truth and Fox News, journalism consists of stating a few unassailable facts and presenting two opposing opinions about it, as if those opinions carry the same weight, whether rigorous critical analysis and research would reveal those opinions to have equal weight or not.

So many people, through little fault of their own, end up believing that utter bullshit is true, or, at least has enough truth in it to confirm their bias. Furthermore, we've now reached a point where the mainstream televised media doesn't seem to know how to critically explore an idea, topic, or policy, in a way that moves towards the truth. (It should terrify us, that comedians like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, seem to be the only one's who have figured out how to do in-depth reporting about a topic.) To put this another way, because we are no longer allowed to present a liberal truth without a side of conservative bullshit, mainstream media (which includes Fox, of course) is no longer capable of revealing Trump's bullshit.

McCain Picks Palin
As destructive to our democracy and our political process as all that other shit was, we still might not have Trump if it weren't for Sarah Palin. By selecting her as his running mate, John McCain legitimized a fringe-faction of the Republican party, while also legitimizing the anti-intellectual, totally myopic image of the “real American just speaking her mind.” In a way, Sarah Palin completely changed how we discuss the idea of being “qualified to be President.” Palin was so far beyond the idea of being qualified to be President that she very nearly undercut the debate about qualifications entirely. And, of course, without Palin there is likely no Tea Party.

The Tea Party Lies It's Face Off and Wins
Not a single thing the Tea Party “revolution” was based on had any shred of truth to it. We need to remember that. Not one fucking thing. We have the Tea Party because for one mid-term election, American voters bought a ton of bullshit about death panels, birth certificates, and the tyranny of getting health insurance. It wasn't just that a section of the population got particularly angry about a policy they didn't understand and then voted for a bunch of like-minded individuals; it's that Tea Party leaders and the Republicans who enabled them lied to the American people and the media let them. Since then, the Tea Party has become entrenched in Republican politics and shifted the Republican party far more to the right than maybe it has ever been, to the point where it is actively and unapologetically undermining the functioning of government.

Of course, government is still functioning and Barack Obama is still doing things, which, to those who believe in the Tea Party, means the Republican establishment is failing them. Hence, the destruction of John Boener's career. It's only natural then, that of the field of choices, Republican primary voters would choose the one posturing as the most extreme anti-establishment candidate.

How We Got to Trump
So how did we get to Trump? In short, white supremacism as a political force never went away it just hid itself in codes and we have removed critical discourse from our political process that reveals the racism and nationalism in those codes. I know there is a temptation to blame both sides for a political problem and though Democrats and especially Bill Clinton were involved in laying the ground work for Trump, the responsibility for his candidacy is not equally split. In short, Republican and conservative ideology is wrong, has been wrong for decades, and looks like it's going to be wrong until it finally dies. Sure, there are Republicans who offered substantive input into our political process and, sure, the Republican aversion to taxation and regulation can create important debates about the role of government and the efficacy of federal involvement in the economy and society, but, as a political ideology, social-conservatism and supply-side neoliberal economics are factually bad for the citizens of the United States of American and, well, human beings in general.

In order to keep getting elected despite being wrong, Republicans had to cater to racists, create wedge issues and litmus tests, wave the bloody American flag of shouted patriotism in a time of endless war, leverage the worst traits of organized religion, and become the lapdogs of the wealthy while preventing the rest of the country from learning just how much of their bullshit is bullshit. Given that Trump has four bankruptcies, a litany of failed businesses, is currently under investigation for fraud, would have as much or more money if just didn't mess around with what he inherited and still gets away with telling us he is a successful business, his nomination really isn't a surprise. Trump and the modern Republican party are a perfect fit.

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