Half a day’s travelling to the Baltimore backwoods to do a story on whatever happened to the Tea Party, and the Tea Party meeting was cancelled. So I guess we know. The Tea Party guy was most apologetic. “We’re so caught up, I didn’t really push it. Besides,” he said, a little forlornly, “no one RSVPed.”
Well, that left me with a whole day in the wilds of suburban north Virginia (it’s all one, the vast exurbs out of DC), and the first chance to try and think about what is actually going on in this election. Which is a good thing. Because more than anything what you need in this election, and what you get least of, is time to have a bit of a think. This election is very likely not merely history, but History, and it trips you up at every moment. Anyone who says they have a straightforward idea of what is going on is either a fool or a liar. So here is a tentative stab at trying to work out where things are.
Donald Trump has now put the idea of a “rigged election” at the centre of his campaign. Ten days ago this looked like a throwaway thing, an expression of personal frustration at the poor polling, and the undeniable Hillary-shifted nature of the mainstream media (“liberal media” is overstating it). In the past week, the argument has been elaborated and extended, to the point where it has become a system critique of contemporary America. Using material from the WikiLeaks “Podesta files”, Trump has built an account of system bias that, in many respects, mirrors the “New Left”/Marcusian critique of “repressive tolerance” in the 1960s.
The Podesta files document a range of cynical discussion of campaign tactics and media emphases, and embarrassing examples of journalists flattering and horse-trading with Clinton campaign insiders. Much of it is individually innocuous; taken together it gives a picture of the news and Democratic political strategies as part of a total synergy. There is no record of such co-ordination with Republicans, though it undoubtedly exists. That’s especially so with Fox News, which boosts Republicans in an overtly and explicitly propagandistic manner. But Trump has alienated so many sections of Fox — only Sean Hannity explicitly spruiks him — that the impression of a pro-liberal media is all the stronger.
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Several days ago, Trump began to add polling to the mix. In 2012, Republicans had adopted the idea of “skewed polling” — the idea that the polls were under-representing registered Republicans — partly as a strategy to keep supporters’ hopes alive, partly as a result of genuine delusion. The idea of “skewing” was busted by the result, and many Republican supporters, embarrassed, swore off it. In 2016 this has returned, using an email from the Podesta batch, in which Podesta asks a pollster to “oversample” certain state-level polls for internal use. “Oversampling” refers to the basic act of using samples larger than the minimum required to get a statistically significant result, thus narrowing the error range. Trump and his surrogates have now used the notion of “oversampling” to portray newspaper polls as skewed towards non-whites and women, as a way of showing Trump trailing by a large margin.
[Rundle: two weeks out from a massacre … or is it?]
The idea of media “rigging” and oversampling has allowed Trump to give a complete portrait of the system as a conspiracy. By this account, the Clinton power group within the Democrats were furthering an open borders agenda, combined with the sale of influence to sovereign wealth funds and to large corporate groups, especially those traditionally aligned with the Democrats — i.e. media, entertainment and IT. The media, in selling the Clinton agenda, then used skewed/”oversampled” polling to sell the election result, with the prospect of actual election stealing — ballot stuffing and the hacking of voting machines — left unargued, but also undispelled, and implicit.
By joining together the material from the Podesta emails — which undoubtedly shows a pattern of soft influence-trading and favours, channeled through the Clinton Foundation — with the more speculative idea of systemic media management, the false construction of “oversampling” and the unfounded accusation of mass voter fraud, the Trump campaign is creating a picture of a system so totalised and geared against the common person that a withdrawal of loyalty from the federal government can be permitted. The picture painted is so dire as to suggest that the United States has essentially been stolen, and what currently exists — and is to be re-elected — is a shadow United States, a liberal-radical simulacra of the country that has been substituted for the real thing, which has been slowly disappearing since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
One principal cause that this picture of the “shadow US” serves is to license working with foreign agents. Thus WikiLeaks — which, for its part, has never claimed to be part of the left, or necessarily bound to it — has been lionised by the Trump right as a champion of freedom, even though many were calling for Julian Assange’s execution when the “Cablegate” documents were released in 2010.
Further, the idea of a “shadow US” stealing the real US licenses a blase attitude to the idea that the Russian government has played a part in obtaining and distributing the Podesta emails. For, if the country is about to be irrevocably lost in any case, what does a bit of foreign interference matter? Indeed, the muted nature of protest at possible Russian involvement has been made possible by the growing admiration and envy for Putin and Russia among a section of the US right.
In this, the right appears to be mimicking exactly what anti-communists criticised in the left, old and new, in the post-WWII period: the admiration for dictatorial leaders who could achieve abroad what a powerless and marginal left could not achieve at home. Putin, for the Trump right, is not simply an ad hoc semi-dictator (such as, say, Erdogan). Putin, as a white man in a country that is European, but also not part of the effete EU nations to its west, is effectively the white, male conservative spirit in exile — bound up with and supporting the church and the family, crushing LGBT people, asserting national will.
The potency of this tale of a “shadow US” is that, in its descriptions of the workings of power, it is not inaccurate. The Clinton machine and related groups do have an elitist and manipulative view of the public, and a political practice that expresses it, they do have a cliental relationship with large blocs of capital, and sovereign wealth. The picture is skewed of course by obscuring the fact that the Republicans are as involved in it too, with a different set of clients. Trump himself gets around his own decades-long presence within the elites by saying that he “used to be one of them”, and thus knows their ways — “and I alone can defeat them!”. The rhetoric thus explicitly echoes Christian themes of the reformed sinner, and the submission of self to Christ.
For the Trump right, the rise of Trump represents a blessed release from the contradictory politics that the Republican Party has maintained since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 — the fusion of a simplistic free-market economics with state enforcement of traditional culture and imperial power projection abroad. This could be held in suspension for decades. But after 2008, the contradiction became so intense as to be traumatic — indeed, its final form was via the Tea Party, which festishised the small entrepreneur and implicitly blamed people for their own poverty, or near-poverty.
The rise of Trump, and his rejection of petit-bourgeois free-market politics in favour of nationalist protectionism and a nostalgic recall of post-war corporate Keynesianism, was a sudden and blessed release for millions. Trumpism, though its actual budgetary proposals are an obvious con, is, in principle, a more consistent politics. It promises to regulate both domestic and foreign conditions via the same mechanism — national strength and decisiveness.
Once again, this abolishes another contradiction in Reaganite/Tea Party politics — the simultaneous demand for a constitutional order (which would sharply limit presidential power) and the charge that the President is weak and ineffectual. Overwhelmingly, the one thing that one hears from Trump supporters at rallies is that they support Trump because “he’s a businessman” and “knows what to do”. Such a response is near total — as is the idea that they want “government off their backs”. How is this contradiction rounded out? The Trumpists’ idea of smaller government is not the Tea Party’s idea of distributed power, returned to the people; it’s that the people’s power will be invested in one man, who will then act as the government. Hence the appeal of Trump’s promise (and Newt Gingrich’s before him) that the tyrannical, corporate, corrupt government will be wiped away with a series of executive orders: “On day one, I will use executive orders to entirely abolish the Obama era,” Trump promises.
The importance of the Trump right is that it maps onto no explicit or single previous right formation. Trump has taken the conspiracy theories and paranoid style of the alt-right, but he has largely eschewed its explicit white nativism and racism. He’s taken over a section of the Tea Party — a now largely disintegrated movement — especially its leaders (Amy Kremer, once the “grassroots” leader of the Tea Party Express, then head of a PAC, now runs Women For Trump).
Some Tea Partiers want nothing to do with him; others have simply shucked their austere free-market politics and been transformed by Trumpism. Trump has kept the support of the leadership of the evangelical right, even though he lost a section of the rank and file (students at Liberty University, run by the fiercely pro-Trump Jerry Falwell Jr, produced a “Liberty Students Against Trump” manifesto). Trump has thus prompted a substantial recomposition of the right. This is a new power base — and, as many have observed, a ready-made audience for a new media venture, a right nationalist “America First”, scorning the free-market pieties of Fox News.
[Rundle: a party foul as Trump supporters watch their hero fall off a cliff]
What he appears to have done in the past couple of weeks, beyond all expectations, is make an insurgent philosophy based in the paranoid style of American politics and turned it into a political meme that has spread with enormous rapidity through a significant section of the population. To reserve one’s right to challenge electoral results state by state is legitimate enough; to suggest that the whole election might be rigged in a quasi-mystical fashion is unquestionably a serious blow to a dialogic, institutional politics, in the name of war-as-politics, lurking in the shadows.
It is fair to say that the “New Left” challenged the “manufacture of consent” by media/corporate/state conglomerates, and has always reserved the right to challenge the legitimacy of given state authorities via wider mass social action. Trump’s challenge is not like this — it’s a gnostic, quasi-religious process that draws on the conspiratorial dimension at the root of US revolutionary history.
Yet what is most remarkable about all this is that many of Trumps’s supporters do not have a triumphal air about them, but a funereal and nihilistic one. Some of the alt-right talk about a “Flight 93” election, taking control or crashing to the earth. Sean Hannity and others mainstream this, calling it “America’s last chance” or the “last American election”. At rallies, they do not have a sense of organising urgency about them — many, of course, are elderly — but of fatalism. Trump’s rallies are huge, but they don’t lead to anything — you rarely see someone circulating with a clipboard pushing hard for sign-ups, the staple of political rallies.
They’re here for Trump, for the Trump transfusion, stories of rigged media and fixed polls, all of which will tell that the America communicated to them is not the real America. They are storing up a sense of what what remains of their America for the long Clintonian winter. Everything that surrounds them in the culture tells them that the world they knew is passing away — powerful women in non-trivial numbers, black and Latino culture, SCOTUS waving through same-sex marriage, and the prospect of a liberal-dominated SCOTUS next year, a society dominated by incomprehensible knowledge production rather than straightforward industry, a multi-polar world abroad.
The conspiracy theories have multiplied and spread far beyond the 5% fringe they would hitherto have occupied, because there is nothing else but organised paranoia that has the power to balance out the deeper sense of inevitable drift in an unwanted direction. That is by no means all of Trump’s potential voters, or even most of them, but it is many of them. From diverse raw materials, working on the fly, Donald Trump and those around him have weaved an extraordinary counter-narrative of American life, one which seems to be honour Reaganite optimism — “morning in America” — through its dark other, continental twilight, and rebirth. What happens next is unknowable, as was Trump himself, and the Tea Party before that, and Obama, in 2008, himself.