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Who would have thought that American liberals (unlike leftists) would be rooting for a scenario in which the military would be mobilized by Democrats to remove Trump from the White House if Biden gets elected, Trump calls the election rigged, and then refuses to leave. How far would we be at that point from a military coup?

In reality, the arbiters of a scenario in which Trump refuses to acknowledge a Biden win in November could well be the State electors who are supposed to be ratified by state legislatures in December to represent the majority vote of a State. State electors should, by convention, pledge their support to the majority candidate in a given state. But state electors can be technically “faithless” and pledge their votes to the minority winner in a state. There are many reasons why the U.S. constitution does not have a high standing in the world, and why even American constitutional scholars do not recommend it as a model for a new constitution in fledgling democracies. While such a move by electors would end up being challenged in court, the ensuing chaos, and Trump’s ability to instrumentalize it, would be devastating. Trump is all about the performative gesture. He needed only a few days of camouflage-clad unidentified federal agents invading Seattle protests to instill the fear of “radical anarchists and leftists” in his die-hard or potential voters.

Once again, in November, the survival of even a long-flawed democracy in the U.S. will come down to just how successfully Trump and other right-wing demagogic Republicans can fan the flames of white working-class and middle-class resentment to re-elect the “blue-collar billionaire.” Decades of Republican and Democratic allegiance to unregulated globalized capitalism resulted in massive work disenfranchisement. For Republican politicians this is just about the inevitable winners and losers in a zero-sum game. Democratic politicians purport to care. But rather than address the problems through wealth-redistribution policies, the majority of them have long gamed elections to try to win by razor-thin margins. For decades they gambled that there was no harm in having a college education be accessible to only 35% of the U.S. population at the same time that industrial and unionized jobs disappeared, agri-business closed down hundreds of thousands of family farms, and automation pushed people into unemployment or the precarious gig economy. It’s no coincidence that when Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, it was via the two states with huge numbers of tech jobs.

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Democratic inaction in a nutshell. 538.org (click on image.)

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ ”

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

The mass paranoia and the obsession on the part of his base with conspiracy theories, which have been so useful to Trump in the last five years, is built into the populist imagination because, as Zizek points out, political populism requires a disavowal of knowledge and a projection toward an enemy somewhere out there. It requires that the populist subject refuse (and I would argue be unable): “…to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, [giving] rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.” Some agent lurking behind the scenes – hence, the rants about the “deep state,” the rigged elections, the crooked media, etc., and the scary rise of QAnon.

  • “1% of the global population possess 46% of available resources.

  • 10% of the global population possess 86% of the available resources.

  • 50% of the global population possess nothing.

“…so we have an oligarchy of 10%, and then we have a destitute mass of almost half of the global population, the mass of the destitute population, the overwhelming majority of the African and Asian masses. …There remain the other 40%. These 40% are the middle classes…who laboriously share out between them the remaining 14% of the world’s resources. It is largely a Western class. It is the mass support for local democratic power…I think that we can say that a very important aim of this group is not to fall back into, not to be identified with, the immense mass of the destitute.

…This is why this class, taken as a whole, is porous to racism, to xenophobia, to hatred of the destitute. These are the subjective determinations that threaten this median mass which defines the West in the broad sense, or the representation it has of itself; and they are determinations that fuel a sentiment of superiority.”

Our Wound is Not So Recent, Alain Badiou, 2016

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60% of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump in 2016. That most of them may be racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-arab, etc., is unquestionable. But it is their inability to understand how they are positioned in relation to capital that makes them particularly vulnerable to demagogic manipulation by the political right. It is their paranoid projections that embolden the Republican politicans who are primarily out to consolidate corporate power and push wealth ever upward, but will actively exploit racism and other deadly prejudices if that provides a cover for the destruction of the “administrative state.” If state legislatures wreak havoc in November, it will be because Republicans overtly fan the flames of resentment, while Democrats have done so by default for decades.

“Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing. They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the “thin blue line” between the haves and the have-nots.”

The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale, 2017

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Globalized capital is making billions off of mass pandemic suffering – shorting investments that depend on bankruptcies and loss of jobs and climate disasters, consolidating markets, and getting unlimited federal stock market subsidies.  Chaos is the operative word. Capital always welcomes chaos because there is profit in lawlessness (the ultimate deregulation), as long as militarized police are willing to protect the privileged. Global corporations and finance capital have long set the stage for the election of a lawless crook. If Trump hadn’t arrived on the scene, it would have been someone like him. Why else have the 1% been so eerily silent during the pandemic – even during the anti-racism uprisings? They need not do anything public while corporate political hacks and  inchoate right-wing resentment do the dirty work for them. And even if the Democrats manage to win this November, 2024 will be the ultimate nightmare if they don’t manage to attend to mass precarity.

According to Freud, it is when people’s self-love is threatened that they resort to extremes. Far from being humbled, they tend to lash out in narcissistic self-defence. We are in a vicious circle if it is true that there are no limits to what people will do to hold onto their belief in themselves…A group is nothing if not the struggle to preserve its ideal image of itself…In psychoanalytic terms, you might say that narcissists are so frantic and demanding because of the extent of the internal damage they are battling to repair.

Jacqueline Rose, “In Our Present Day White Christian Culture,” 2004

Coda: Following the Republican Convention I notice the usual befuddled and astonished references by Democratic pundits, politicians on news shows, and journalists to the irrationality of a Trump base that is willing to follow him to the death, given Trump’s failure to curtail the pandemic and its ensuing economic collapse, etc. But those who do not include the recognition of an unconscious in their analyses cannot understand that self-destructive behavior often has its own logic beneath the surface. It is the group identification aspect of that base that keeps itself coherent, hence the unwavering 42% approval rating that Trump has had for four years. It will take actual capital-challenging policies to dislodge that mass identification over time, but it will also take an understanding of mass psychology – either self-consciously or instinctively – for politicians and mass cultural producers to create fissures in that seemingly unmovable base. Liberals and centrist democrats can delude themselves into thinking that we don’t need to budge that base, but rather just continue to game the electoral system. But that is one very dangerous game to play.

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Hodja’s financial situation was worsening. He began to cut down on everything, including the food he gave to his donkey. Since he noticed no change for the worse in the animal, every day he reduced the amount of food he gave him.

One day, the donkey died. Hodja was very sad. “What a shame! Just as he was getting used to hunger, he died.”

Tale by Nasreddin Hodja, 13th Century satirist of the region of present-day Turkey

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What a shame! Just as people with health insurance were getting used to millions not having it, a pandemic hit and their lack of coverage threatened all.

What a shame! Just as health insurance companies had gotten used to mainly leveraging profits, they had to provide healthcare.

What a shame! Just as the stock market had gotten used to rising with no connection to everyday labor, labor stopped and it crashed.

What a shame! Just as outsourcing materials vital to curbing a pandemic was working, we ran out of those materials.

What a shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to not being bothered by the poor, the starving masses took to the streets (some with guns).

What a shame! Just as centrists had gotten used to accepting less and less from their politicians, they needed them to deliver immediately.

What a shame! Just as U.S. politicians had gotten used to gaming slim-margin reelections, they had to respond to dire human needs.

What a shame! Just as middle-class Americans were getting used to corporate news-as-entertainment, their lives depended on non-ideological facts.

What a shame! Just as those living in comfort had gotten used to ignoring those living paycheck-to-paycheck, the precarious started to make their needs known.

What a shame! Just as we had gotten used to hyper-individualism, we had to work together to survive.

What a Shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to low taxation, our consumer revenue plummeted and the middle-class couldn’t pay their tax bills, and…

What a shame! Just as the well-off had gotten used to taking essential blue-collar workers for granted, their lives depended on them.

What a shame! Just as the right and centrists had succeeded in demonizing democratic socialism, they needed that system in order to survive without imposing martial law.

What a shame! Just as we were getting used to taking global cooperation for granted, we needed it desperately.

What a shame! Just as Bernie Sanders was maneuvered out of his lead by corporate media, the DNC, and oligarchs… #WhereIsJoe?

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April 10, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shoot me now. Let’s just get it over with. Just when you thought all you had to deal with was a dangerously megalomaniacal narcissistic president, installed by a combination of cynical 1%ers and a mass electorate that shoved Trump’s reality TV promises into that terrified empty space that’s constantly washed by waves of globalization’s precarity-caused anxiety…

Now we have to deal with the possibility of a talk-show-empire host’s presidential run. And all it took was an award show speech. Setting aside the fact that Oprah has no political experience (the attractiveness of which is a continuing sign of the breakdown of democracy), the worst of it is that Americans have never faced what the Oprah brand stands for. Possibly that’s because Oprah doesn’t seem to understand her own politics, her pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-blame-those-who-haven’t-had-the-strength-and-gumption-to-succeed-as-she-has politics. Because through the Oprah-lens, the problem with those who are poor isn’t connected to the fact that the .01% owns the globalized flow of capital; the problem is just that they haven’t repeated their affirmations often enough. I haven’t watched too many Oprah shows, but I will never forget one that I did watch, during which she berated a celebrity who was talking about her experience of life-threatening post-partum depression and how treatment for it had helped her. In Oprah’s view, clinical depression was something to overcome on one’s own, without help from therapy or drugs. Yeah, shoot me now, because if you think we’re living through a bizarre political spectacle now…

It seems relevant here to re-quote that theorist, the one who most other theorists seem to love to hate, but who has more insights per book than most do in a lifetime, Slavoj Zizek. I first published this quote in 2013, in a post I wrote about populism. Because, hey, Trumpism wasn’t born yesterday. And without understanding populism fully, we (we highly educated folk, at the very least) will be fated to make the same wildly dangerous mistakes over and over.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

First we stand by while an idiocracy is created (i.e. testing, and Obama’s “Race to the Top”) We starve schools of money, undermine the public system, and wonder why kids who are at risk (food-insecure; poverty-induced violence) just don’t learn. Liberals rant about how stupid Trump’s base is. But the refusal to understand what causes our precarity, or to engage with complexity, is not something that liberals should distance themselves from by attributing that sort of behavior only to Trump’s low-income and lower-middle class white base. All the countless liberals and Democrats who have been waxing poetic on social media about Oprah running to save the day need to get a grip on complexity.

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Let’s turn to television. With rare exceptions of critique, television has mostly been an expression of cultural symptom. In the category of symptom, a couple of months ago I watched the French TV series, Spin. The French title is Les Hommes de L’Ombre, but since the characters themselves use the term “spin” (i.e. spinning the news), we can’t attribute the pithy English title solely to a dumbing down for Americans and Brits. It’s an apt enough translation for those who just don’t have the patience for homophones in a title.

The online blurb for the show describes it as a French House of Cards: “This multi award-winning, hit political thriller explores the intense rivalry between two spin doctors, the seasoned master and his protégé.” At the start, Spin presents a political battle that pits three parties with distinct – albeit barely described – political views against each other – left, right, and center. But by the time one is a handful of episodes into the show, something rather eerie becomes apparent. After a couple of brief narrative exchanges in the first episode, about outrage of politicians forsaking their party ideologies in order to form coalitions and back-room deals with parties that stand for diametrically opposed politics, that aspect of the storyline is disappeared. Completely. In fact, the right-wing political aide who gripes the longest about their boss forming an unthinkable political coalition with the left- survives only a couple of episodes. All the other characters – those without political leanings that one can discern other than party titles – survive for one to three seasons. And the entirety of the show is then about the jockeying for power by all the characters in the show, and the lengths to which they are willing to go (led by one or the other of the two spin doctors) to remain in power, or move up in power. It’s quite compelling, albeit terrifying in what it represents. One candidate’s slogan –Ensemble– says it all. Even her speeches are composed of nothing. Change you can believe in.

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Maybe this is not unique as a cultural symptom, given that the American House of Cards, or the American satire, Veep—both shows ostensibly about American politics — are narratives concerned only with power, and virtually not at all with politics. But that’s because America. Really, the power plays in both of those American shows could take place in any other work setting – the corporate world, Hollywood, even academia (where the kleiner politik can get particularly ugly) . In Spin, the architecture plays a big role in reminding the viewer constantly of the representative power of the state. But it’s disconcerting that 18 episodes of a French show fully focused on politicians should have nothing  in its narrative to do with politics. France – one of the origins of modern democracy. I suppose one could say that the cultural symptom is late to the game, given that France had been heading toward Macron for a long time- to wit, its waning adherence to a social democracy when faced with the pressures of globalized capitalism.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 5.05.06 PMYesterday I clicked on the link to the article mentioned above. In “The Hollow Parties,” political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld inscribe their argument about the hollowing out of American political parties into what appears to be a long-standing academic debate around the changes in the American party system and its voters. I am not a fan of political science as a discipline, for the very reasons that this text makes apparent, which is that the argument never goes deep enough into the broad structural aspects of political changes, let alone into what motivates human beings to respond one way or another to political shifts. But I think their point about the parties being hollowed out is important, and the following statement is chillingly apt:

… parties motivated by hatred for their opponents lose the capacity to enforce what Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry.” They become vehicles for partisans’ own venom and spleen, and their partial democratic visions descend into cabal and conspiracy.

Nothing better describes what we are now experiencing, as witnessed in millions of venomous twitter comments, from both pro-Trumpers and Trump-resisters, who are often at each others throats. Take a look at the comments section of Trump’s twitter feed and try to stay sane.

There’s no question that #Oprahisoursymptom. Because when politics has been hollowed out, the vacuum that is created gets filled with nightmarish possibilities and an unquenchable desire for non-politicians to come to our rescue.

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