“Learn Lou Bega’s Mambo Number Five so you can still play it when there are no radios.”
— tips for surviving the apocalypse, The Onion
OK, the plan was to write a considered piece on the state of play in the whole presidential race, etc, but clearly that has gone by the board — not because of the simultaneous double whammy of Obama visiting Cuba and the Belgium attack happening, but because I hit Madison, Wisconsin, a couple of days ago and I’ve just been book shopping and bar hopping ever since.
Madison? It’s the capital of the Cheesehead state but also home to one of the country’s great public university systems, which in turn served as a crucible for the Progressive movement in the 20th century.
Progressivism in Wisconsin and Minnesota (where the Dems are still known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) was a vital stream of social liberalism, which led to the New Deal. It also led to Madison becoming this wield amalgam of power and protest, a lot of it centred on the university’s union building, whose layers of numerous intrigues got it nicknamed The Onion — and yes, that’s where the name of the paper came from, because it began here, as a satirical student paper in the ’80s.
There wouldn’t be an Onion without the progressivist movement, nor would The Onion have become a national institution of its sardonic satire — “US Economy Hinges on Success of Vanilla Coke”, “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia”, ”New Snack Bar Fails To Quell Ennui of Modern Existence”. And the Onion people went on to write The Simpsons and create the satirical “opposition” of the Bush era. And as Peter Cook noted, satire should be honoured given that it did so much to stop the rise of Hitler.
So anyway, Madison’s the sort of place where the main street, State Street, leads from the capitol building to the university, and along it there are six bookshops and two dozen great bars and pubs and cafes, and lots of perpetual students, and grifters, and lonely Zooey Deschanel types, and everyone seems to get along.
So all the more striking that, in the bars of State Street, where students and slackers meet with business folks and government employees, the dissatisfaction is such that Trump is still the guy. Not for everyone or even a majority but for enough for it to count as phenom. That’s the contractor crowd, the steak lunch crowd, the raddled hippie crowd, and the “I guess” students approaching their first election.
Mind you, there was raw material aplenty. Obama was on the TV, live from Cuba, saluting with Raul, the Cuban army band playing The Star Spangled Banner, standing in front of the Cuban flag. For Obama, it’s just another part of a competent second-term presidency — wrapping up something that should have been taken care of decades ago.
For the right, of course, it’s further betrayal, the pain added to by the fact that they can’t control him with public opinion anymore. Obama doesn’t care, and he doesn’t care if Clinton differentiates, saying that, well, it wouldn’t have been her choice, etc, etc — that’s all planned, really. Obama didn’t even cut the trip short because of the Brussels bombings — instead he went to a baseball game. Ha!
Meanwhile, on the eve off he Arizona-Utah primaries (there are others; they’re the crucial ones), the right are trying to outflank each other. Trump spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and walked back all his old “be a neutral agent” speech . Still, you can’t fake the details; in his speech, Trump referred to Palestine several times.
For AIPAC, there is no Palestine, as Ted Cruz noted on Twitter. He also hatched a plan to have police patrol Muslim neighbourhoods intensively, to “prevent radicalisation”. Yeah, that’ll work. Wasn’t meant to. Was just meant to 1) outflank Donald, and 2) dare him to advocate torture, which he did, and which Cruz knows even many right-wing Americans baulk at.
Arizona and Utah are important because Arizona’s a winner-takes-all state, and if Trump can take that, he’s further on the way to the magic 1237. He’s likely to, but Utah is a threshold winner-takes-all state, and if Cruz can get more than 50% there, he neutralises Donald. The Mormon state, unlike southern evangelicals, doesn’t put its morals on hold just to vote for a white guy. Trump’s an adulterer, a con artist, a vulgarian, and if his vote is low enough, it would indicate a bizarre fact: that if Trump were the Republican nominee, Utah, by voter abstention, could be in play, and go blue.
That’s one of the stats with which people reassure themselves: that Trump is a winner among Republicans, a loser in the general. But how is it I keep meeting people, even in bars in Madison, Wisconsin, who would vote for him? There are so many of these people.
They say the same things, too. Contrarian types bill and coo over the occasional exotic bloom of a black or Hispanic Trumpkin — but it’s mostly whites who recite the talking points of Rush Limbaugh: “Gotta build a wall”, “They’re laughing at us”, “Make America great again”. Hope to god they’re a self-selecting group of barflies, otherwise Trump’s home. He’d take Wisconsin, Michigan, New York — change the whole ballgame.
Which brings us back to Wisconsin and what we face. From 2010, the state elected a Tea Party senator and governor, the latter the hapless Scott Walker, a failed presidential candidate. The Tea Party urge came from the same place the original progressivist urge came from, channeled and distorted it. Now Walker is going to war against, among other things, his state’s university, having appointed 14 of 16 “regents” under a new system in which professors can be summarily dismissed.
The intent is political (just as reactionaries like the IPA’s James Paterson and John Roskam launch relentless assaults on universities). The effect is to destroy the university’s reputation both as a place of pure reflection and of world-class research.
But that’s what we’re dealing with, as the right immolates. Trump, Walker, Bernardi, Bolt, universities, global warming, evolution, good regulation: the right is now in its nihilist phase. Conservatism, as a movement is about to disappear. Kept alive by dodgy money and archaic structures there and here, the craziness we see is its long goodbye.
The trick is to survive its implosion, and then reconstruct politics in such a way as treats the formation as the subsidised sock puppet it is, after which it will simply vanish to the fringes. The anti-elitist urges among it supporters can then be taken up by a genuine left-wing program.
Or there’s the apocalypse. Fun times on State Street.