Friday, 4 March 2016

The Man Who Would be King

The most entertaining, if not necessarily enlightening, criticism is that which combines both a specific distaste and an underlying despair at the gullibility of others. I don't mean the vapid moaning of solipsistic old men at how rubbish modern life is, but the sort of criticism that springs from incredulity that everyone else has been taken in, that they've been suckered. Random examples would be Michael Moorcock's demolition of Tolkien in Epic Pooh or Christopher Hitchens hatchet-job on Mother Theresa. Regardless of the specifics, or even if justified, this is a moral critique of society in which the subject is symptomatic: o tempora o mores. Though this can be progressive, as in the cases of Moorcock and Hitchens, and there is an obvious egalitarian dimension to "cutting someone down to size", this form of criticism is often reactionary and misanthropic, assuming a cultural debasement or moral decline. It is a criticism of popular taste.

This is why the style is rare in politics, except on the fringes where berating the majority for their stupidity or fecklessness never completely goes out of fashion (cue Hitler in bunker video). You can sometimes get away with it in the context of a criticism of party members, though only if you can cast them as out of step with the wider population (as the Labour right are currently trying to do), but the odds are that you will alienate more than persuade, both among the targets of your criticism and the wider population. This presents a particular problem for American conservatism today because the fundamental critique of Donald Trump is that he is being propelled towards the presidential nomination by a psychological reaction to the dumbing-down and instrumentality of US politics that has largely been engineered by the right since the 1970s. As Will Davies puts it, Trump is "a nightmare of the Republican Party’s own making". The need to avoid mentioning this home truth has prompted a number of strategies.

Mitt Romney's belated criticism of Trump, which we can probably assume is representative of the Republican Party establishment, is notable not so much for its frankness in characterising the front-runner as a fraud and an idiot, but in its attempt to cast him as a would-be monarch. This allows Romney to link the party with the Founding Fathers and avoid the need to question its culpability in the normalisation of fraud and idiocy over recent years. For example, Romney notes that The Donald "is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name" and that "He inherited his business, he didn’t create it". Conservatives can't criticise actual social elites, and Trump won't be successfully associated with "liberal elites", real or imaginary. Nor can conservatives criticise the power of money in politics or the rights of the successful to demand attention, but they can criticise claims to natural pre-eminence and suggest that Trump's vanity arises from a background of privilege.

This monarchical slant is ironically one that Trump is happy to indulge, from claiming he is so rich that he cannot be bought to insisting that he can personally solve America's problems through sheer force of personality. In recent days he has even been prepared to discuss the size of his penis, conflating his own potency with "making America great again", much like a medieval monarch. Trump loves to talk about "making deals", but more frequent are his wiseguy-like assurances that he can "sort out" one issue or another in an unspecified way. Journalists demanding substance are wasting their breath. What his supporters admire is his demonstration of will (that wall) and his appeal to the id (speak before you think). His narcissism and rudeness are liberating because they question authority, but Trump is no anarchist (though Davies' claim that "As a performance artist, he is a dadaist" is spot on). As a projection of America, he insists he will bow to no one but all will bow to him, but this naked hegemony is unattractive to conservatives because it is arbitrary and personal, leading foreign policy neocons to dismiss him as dictatorial and demand pre-emptive regime change.

Romney's appeal to propriety centres on an image of the president as the embodiment of public manners: "Haven’t we seen before what happens when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? ... He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president". The problem is that the Republican Party has done little to advance this ideal, either in its instrumental promotion of George W Bush and his brother Jeb or in its persistent undermining of Democratic presidents since Jimmy Carter. While it could just about credibly claim that its attempt to impeach Bill Clinton was driven by a belief in his unsuitability for the highest office, its lack of congressional cooperation with Barack Obama, and its indulgence of "Birthers" and other crypto-racist snidery, was a clear mark of disrespect for the presidency as much as for the individual. The office has been brought into disrepute more under Republican presidents than Democratic ones.

Tom Nichols in The Daily Beast takes a different tack by trying to blame Trump on the political correctness of the left: "By assailing sensible conservatives as sexists, racists, and imbeciles, they paved the way for a jackass who embodies their worst fears". Political correctness was another invention of the right that has subsequently taken on a life of its own, but Nichols insists on sticking to the superficial history in which liberals won the culture war while conservatives won the economic war (the truth is that neoliberals won both). Trump's rise "is happening not because of an overly rightist GOP, but because American liberals, complacently turning away from the excesses of the left and eviscerating their own moderate wing, have damaged the two-party system to the point that an unhinged billionaire demagogue is raking in support from people who are now more afraid of leftists controlling the Justice Department than they are of Putin or ISIS".

To make this charge stick, Nichols must avoid all mention of the influence of money on politics and the conditioning role of partisan media. This despite the fact that Trump's real political achievement so far, in his self-funding and contempt for Fox News, has been to make campaign financing and media bias salient with ordinary voters in a way that must leave intellectual critics of the US system like Lawrence Lessig green with envy. Instead, Nichols must conjure a world dominated by "multiculturalists" in which "brutish leftist tactics radicalized otherwise more centrist people toward Trump not because they care so much about gay marriage or guns or refugees any other issue, but because they’re terrified that they’re losing the basic right to express themselves". This appeal to the First Amendment leads Nichols to claim that Trump's veiled threats towards Black Lives Matter activists is popular with his supporters because of their love of free speech rather than racism.

Among centrists, the chief strategic response to the rise of Trump has been to insist that Hillary Clinton is the nation's only hope, despite poll evidence suggesting Bernie Sanders might do even better in a head-to-head. This is not just about using Trump as a bogeyman to dragoon Democratic voters into the Clinton camp during the nomination race, but to persuade "reasonable republicans" that they should hold their noses and vote for her in the general election. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker has even gone so far as to draw a parallel with the 2002 French Presidential election when socialists voted overwhelmingly for Jaques Chirac in the second round to deny Jean-Marie Le Pen. Given that the Front National candidate's vote share only rose from 17% in the opening round to 18% in the run-off (Chirac got 20% in the first round), many socialists subsequently concluded that they would have done better to abstain and deny Chirac the benefit of a landslide.

Romney's attempt to cast Trump as a wannabe king looks like it may be part of an emerging strategy to define the New Yorker as unconstitutional, perhaps preparing the way for a procedural coup at the national convention if the party establishment can't turn around the remaining primaries. The problem with this approach, which is illustrated by the Tom Nichols article quoted above, is that thirty years of conservative reinterpretation in the Supreme Court have produced a popular understanding of the constitution that is weighted more to the defence of money and the protection of sectional privileges than the prevention of monarchical ambition. The paranoia of the populist right has been directed for so long towards external enemies, the "PC police" and domestic "moochers" that identifying the chief threat to the republic as a rogue billionaire who rants on TV requires a major shift in perceptions. So long as Trump doesn't come out in favour of greater gun control it is hard to see this working.

1 comment:

  1. I think this issue has come as the culmination of a trend that has been developing for some time now. Like the EU referendum here, the US Presidential sagas are largely a matter where little is really at stake for the elites, but where personal conflicts are fought out in a kind of 'presentational' manner. Managerialists like to portray themselves as rational, hard-headed actors and safe pairs of hands, while their opponents seek to use populism and identity scares to appeal to a more disgruntled or alarmist constituency. I think it is notable that the latter approach is taken by the likes of Gove and Duncan-Smith, who have very little to sell themselves on when it comes to charisma, wit, and human warmth.

    One of the advantages to this type of politics is that it helps to solve these kind of faction-fights within the elite in a rhetorical and theatrical manner that suggests a lot more is a stake. This, and the powerful magnetism of lesser-evilism, helps to marginalise the Left, who end up excluded from the debate or simply ignored (as with the EU referendum).

    As you demonstrate, the problem with Trump is that he has taken things too seriously and is not 'playing the game'. However, I think the issue isn't just the idea that Trump is aiming for 'kingship', but that the Republican mainstream are frightened that he is mobilising too much grassroots support, which has a danger of going out of control. In this fear they are all too aligned with the 'centrist' neoliberalism of the Democrats and European ex-social democracy. Might some Republicans break ranks and opt for the lesser-evil of Clinton?