We live in an age of Orwellian political language in which identity politics and insult-hurling transcend facts and principles. Genuine debate has been ousted; entertainment and spectacle have won. The public is encouraged to participate in the charade we call an election cycle, but only for a few months, as those otherwise unconcerned with the needs of the people are vying for power.
There are many examples of the institutionalization of such a political climate, but few are more striking than the two front-runners of the Republican and Democratic parties, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Clinton maintains her perch as the favored Democratic candidate nationwide, despite the fact that — and this point is so obvious as to make spelling it out remarkably banal — she is yet another corporate mouthpiece, inextricably attached to the hips of America’s largest financial institutions.
Justifications for such ties are met little outrage from Clinton loyalists, who seemingly take no offense at her using the attacks of September 11th (twice) to justify her acceptance of what would, in an honest world, be called bribes. She complains in response that those who have the gall to suggest that she is swayed by donations from corporate America are merely impugning her “integrity.”
Apparently undeserving of mention is the fact that Clinton was receiving “support” from the Street long before the attacks of September 11th. This fact is indeed awkward, and, predictably, it is never raised on network television.
Clinton is also an embodiment of what Thomas Ferguson calls the “right turn” in American politics: Clinton is far to the right of someone like Dwight D. Eisenhower, yet today she is the establishment choice of the “left.” Her past enthusiastic support for the use of military force is not simply a collection of mistakes; it is a history of her core principles. The same goes for her intimate relationship with Big Business.
But truths of this sort have been confined to irrelevancy. Clinton has done well to utilize the populist language of Bernie Sanders, abandoning past positions as if doing so were as simple and seamless as changing outfits. There is, to be sure, nothing wrong with a genuine change of mind. But does anyone believe that Ms. Clinton is genuinely opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, given her history and her current commitments? Or that she genuinely desires a fundamental shift in America’s approach to regulating Wall Street?
Donald Trump, on the other hand, embodies the culmination of the fear, anger, and dissatisfaction toward politics as usual. America’s profoundly unequal economic and political climate has left millions looking for someone, or some group, to blame; Trump merely has to point the finger.
“The propagandist’s purpose,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
Trump has shown himself to be an astute propagandist, telling baseless stories meant for no purpose other than to foster outrage and xenophobia. When confronted with reality, his convictions prove imperturbable.
The problem, of course, is that those who support Trump have legitimate grievances. They work hard, but they earn less. Jobs are disappearing. Student debt is crippling millions. Their position in society is increasingly insecure. Trump arises as a breath of fresh air, someone who is willing to call it like he sees it, even if “how he sees it” is based in nothing resembling reality.
Trump, in short, represents the failure of the American political system, a system that is now so inundated with corporate cash as to be completely unable to meet the needs of the population. The hopelessness fostered by such a system is channeled brilliantly by Trump, signaling, once again, the triumph of spectacle over truth.
Such a scenario is not confined to the United States. The rise of the National Front in France and neo-Nazi groups in Greece, where economic turmoil has confined millions to crippling insecurity, are worrying developments, as they, like Trump, occupy a vacuum left by inept politicians and corrupted political structures.
As Noam Chomsky has observed, the rise of such reactionary forces represents a general failure of the left to articulate an alternative or to so much as clearly define the problem: Not minority groups, not President Obama, but the general collusion between corporate America and government that has driven down wages, sent jobs overseas, subjected the economy to perpetual booms and busts, widened income and wealth inequality, and destroyed democracy.
Progressives think it a fruitful project to ridicule the Tea Party (along with other such groups) and its committed members. Instead, the left should be looking inward and wondering: What went wrong? What allowed racism to triumph over solidarity? What allowed the corporate class (and its representatives, including Clinton) to escape blame? And what allowed lies and sensationalism, rather than truth, to fill the vacuum left by the failure of establishment politics?
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