Joke’s On You

Here’s my contribution to the DONALD TRUMP HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE sweepstakes:

Donald Trump is polling well for the same reason Bernie Sanders is polling well.

Sort of.

They’re not at all the same in the sociology of their attraction, nor in the content of their discourse about politics and within politics. Trump’s base and Sanders’ base have no overlap at all. The specifics of what they’re saying and how they’re acting is a product of the particular subculture of their party and their constituencies. It’s perfectly correct to say that Sanders’ enthusiasts are mostly progressives fed up with the Democratic Party in general and Trump’s reception has been fueled by ceaseless moves to a right-wing fringe, that in both cases, there is a history of political sentiment and action within each party which explains what’s going on.

The thing that makes them similar, however, is that they are also the latest spiralling out of a general disaffection with the formal political systems of liberal democracy. It is not limited to the United States, for all that commenters abroad are adopting a superior air in their commentary on the buffoonery of Trump. Jeremy Corbyn might be the Labour Party leader soon for similar reasons. Silvio Berlusconi’s longevity in Italian politics despite Trump-ish behavior has something to do with the same restiveness.

People who are fundamentally inside the world of the political classes–long-time civil servants, policy-making experts, mainstream pundits, elected officials, educated elites generally–are having a hard time fully grasping the big-picture story here. We read each election cycle on its own terms, prompted by horserace journalism.

But not only are publics in most liberal democracies dismayed by the incapacity of their elected officials to do much with the sprawling, recumbent states that they theoretically command, not only are they restive about the downward spiral of their economic and social lives and the predation of the global plutocracy, they’re also tired of the screaming inauthenticity of the entire wretched system. That’s what the low approval ratings mean, first and foremost.

The old saw is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results applies primarily to something that’s already demonstrably failed. Folly, in contrast, is doing the same thing over and over again and ignoring every sign of its imminent failure because it worked the last time. We drove across the bridge once again this morning, so who cares if it trembled and groaned? The power plant didn’t blow up today, even though all the red lights on the console are blinking, so fire it up tomorrow just like always.

The campaign consultants keep saying, “The old forms of message discipline and voter mobilization will work eventually, just ignore the sideshow.” The pundits keep laughing or crying or getting angry with Trump (and a few with Sanders) for taking time away from serious candidates and serious issues. What I think none of them get is that the bridge is trembling and groaning. What those polled in Iowa are saying about Trump and Sanders is less about affection for the specifics of their platform, just as what the people who might vote for Corbyn are probably in some cases not all that interested in the specifics of his political views. What they recognize in all of them is that they’re real people. That what you hear from them if you go to a speech is who they really are, what they really think, how they really feel. They’re not what their handlers have told them to be, they’re not the product of some laboratory.

Trump may be an insane, clownish vulgarian with horrific and brutal views of most issues, but he is at least really an insane vulgarian. With at least most of the rest of the Republicans, it’s never very clear what they actually are. Do they really hate science or education? Really want to drown government in a bathtub? Really believe ten-year olds should be compelled to carry a rape pregnancy to term? Who knows? They’re all just doing what they think the primary electorate will respond to. They’re awkwardly slouching out onto a vaudeville stage and asking desperately of the bored and disaffected audience, “What is it that you want to see? Do you want juggling? Burlesque? Stand-up? A guitar solo? I can try to do that.” Trump is just walking out and being himself at a party. Like him or hate him, you recognize at least that he is what he really is. Sanders, Corbyn, and so on as well.

What most people are not seeing when we look at our leaders is people. As fewer and fewer of us are part of the elite, as downward mobility latches on to the majority of the liberal democratic publics across the world, fewer people are inside the systems that produce and maintain political elites. What we see is more like what Roddy Piper’s character in They Live saw: manipulative aliens.

This is not to say that real, unperformative humanity should give anybody hope. The system will eventually find a way to knock such people out of the running. Or people will decide sooner or later what anyone hosting a party with Donald Trump attending would eventually decide: that he’s an asshole who needs to be booted to the curb before you lose all your friends. If by some insurgent chance someone like Sanders not only got the nomination but won he’d find that the system as a whole is unbeatable no matter how genuine your convictions might be.

At least as long as it is a system. Because that’s what the groans and trembles in the bridge really mean. Trump is less in that sense a comment on the specific madness of the current Republican Party and more a set of rivets explosively popping out in the bridge supports. Anybody who wants to keep crossing the river had better start thinking about building a better bridge.

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3 Responses to Joke’s On You

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I have been reading various blogs on politics and economics since the summer of 2004. I rise at 5:00 and read for an hour or two. Throughout these years I have seen hundreds and hundreds of essays, or “posts” as they seem to be called, which only identify the most obvious manifestations of our problems. These essayists (or “posters?”) rarely drill down to the root of these problems, and they never propose any solutions. I think they do feel some pressure to call for action, but if they do they only call for working within the system. Is that insanity or folly? You decide.

    One duo of scholars, Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, have gone to the trouble to write two entire books on these problems. In 2006 they wrote Broken Branch about Congress. They proposed no solutions. But Ornstein did say this in a Washington Post that same year:

    But ultimately, only a credible threat that the public is prepared to throw the rascals out will change the ways in which politicians in Washington operate.

    That hardly constitutes a solution.

    Six years later, the duo published a second book that they called: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. This time, they made a stab at proposing solutions.
    In one chapter, they consider the usual ideas for improving things, and they conclude that they will not work. I agree. In the next two chapters they make several detailed suggestions of their own about how to repair our constitutional system. They make the following comment at the beginning of the second of these two chapters:

    We are tempted to think big when it comes to reforming political institutions, because the problems are so large and so vexing. But wholesale change in the political system is not possible and might not work. So in this chapter, we will focus on smaller ways to change American institutions to better fit the contemporary parties and political culture.

    Their small ideas have not been heard from since. But they were wrong to reject big ideas because only big ideas can deal with the big problems that they and other scholars are so expert at cataloging.

    So, I ask you, who will solve the problems you and they and many, many others have identified? Paul Krugman in his blog in the NYT has over thousands of posts repeatedly described perhaps a dozen problems with our economic system and yet he has no idea how to solve them. Well, he has yet to post them.

    So, it is my turn to again identify a problem. Scholars, as far as I can see, propose no solutions to our governmental and economic problems. I have read hundreds of books in addition to those of Mann and Ornstein, and no one has a solution. I have identified this problem in many places and many ways and I have worn out my welcome. I have even been banned twice.

    A few years ago I thought that the specter of global warming would galvanize somebody with the power to make changes but it hasn’t. And the danger is even greater than we thought. We are faced with a literal point of no return. If we do not eliminate the use of fossil fuels by 2030 all will be lost.

    We should already be hard at work building your bridge.

  2. Doug says:

    Sanders’ support this time around looks a lot like Bill Bradley’s support back in 2000, and I expect similar results.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the two big differences are that Sanders isn’t Bill Bradley and that 2015 isn’t 2000. But yes, I think you’re basically right that it’s the same structural core.

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