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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/22/16

We Are Ignoring the Worst Dangers of Trumpism at Our Own Peril

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There has been much speculation about the class basis of Trump's support, as the elite media, often without much data, concludes that the average Trump supporter tends to be better off than the average Clinton or Sanders supporter. This conveniently ignores the vast numbers of unemployed or underemployed Americans, those on the economic margins who do not see a way back in, who manifestly appear at Trump rallies around the country. This also allows the establishment media to dismiss Trumpism as a hissy fit, a momentary aberration amongst relatively advantaged people (for one thing because they are white!) that will be over just as soon as the election is done.

The key point that is missed is that Trumpists view themselves as beset by anxieties, whether or not their actual economic standing reflects the heightened state of their worry and resentment. Some of them may be definitionally middle-class, but they do not see themselves as functionally middle-class, and certainly not emotionally middle-class. As Trump resonantly declared, addressing these people in the most rhetorically persuasive convention speech I have witnessed, "I am your voice."

I have always viewed multiculturalism as neoliberalism's ideological arm, a methodology for neoliberalism, for the last 25 years, to divorce culture from economics, movements of individual liberation from class consciousness, offering a form of recognition that rests on isolation, fragmentation, and segregation, rather than universal human values. Thankfully, Trumpists also see multiculturalism the same way, a technique the neoliberal elites have adopted to present themselves as self-righteous moralists while doing nothing about the economic causes of their misery. They have seen through the act.

History shows that the support base for right-wing extremist movements tends to be primarily the petty bourgeoisie--small businesspeople, professionals at the lower levels--but populism never gets far without the support of large numbers of the permanently unemployed. The official economic statistics would have us believe--and Trump vigorously contests this--that we are at or near full employment. In fact, this is a gross deception, because there are tens of millions of Americans who have given up looking for employment, who for various reasons are not employable in any meaningful sense of the word. Trump claims it is 30 percent of the population, but whatever number it really is, experience shows that it is pervasive, outside a few humming urban centers that give the illusion of high employment. As a matter of policy, the U.S. has not been committed to full employment since the 1970s, as part of the anti-inflationary monetary policy inaugurated by Paul Volcker and carried on by other committed neoliberals.

It is interesting to read bemused articles by correspondents at elite magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker, wondering who the Trump supporters really are (as they do after every populist upsurge), acting as though they were writing about aliens from another planet (which they are in a sense, since the elite commentators cannot understand why the Trumpists take such a dire view of the economy, since everything, from their point of view, seems pretty decent, with a 5% unemployment rate, the stock market doing well, and the evidence of their own booming urban areas).

Trump is not incorrect when he paints his picture of hell in American cities. I am fortunate to live in Montrose, the bohemian but rapidly gentrifying part of Houston, Texas, and while the small cultural district is livable, even pleasant, enormous swaths of the larger Houston metropolitan area seem to have been abandoned to primal wilderness, lacking basic infrastructure, decent schools, safety and recreation, even access to good food and clean air and water. Directly east of downtown lies the Fifth Ward, as close a realization of Trump's apocalyptic vision as I have ever seen. But it is not just the Fifth Ward, it is vast territories that have been left to wither and die, as neoliberal municipal governments commit their resources to recreating central city zones as arenas for spectacular multiculturalism (which translates into gigantic bounties for real estate developers), while withdrawing financial support for neighborhoods outside the elite zones.

In the absence of any effort by the neoliberal elites to provide an explanation for historically high levels of permanent unemployment, both in Western Europe and the United States, right-wing populism leeches on to the idea of unfair labor market penetration into heritage occupations, unfair trade agreements benefiting countries on the economic periphery, and unfair racial policies and preference quotas advantaging those without qualifications. This is not a rational way of thinking, but it is a self-consistent logic, which becomes all the more hardened the more the elite neoliberals deny the very existence of such concerns. It is in the latter's interest to promote trade and immigration along strictly neoliberal lines, benefiting the capitalist class at the very top and leaving everyone else worse off.

Some seem to look at the 40 percent support Trump always seems to settle around as his ceiling, but I choose to look at it as his floor, a level of adherence that isn't likely to go away in the new Republican Party we are going to see constituted in the wake of the election. The degree of support for Trumpism has become constant because the Democratic Party has forced down our throats not the clear popular choice for the nominee, i.e., Bernie Sanders, but the candidate that was at the absolute forefront of the accelerated second phase of neoliberalism during the Bill Clinton presidency (after the relatively tentative and half-successful stabs at it in the Reagan era).

We could have had a clear choice, dictated by democratic forces, between democratic socialism (Bernie Sanders) and populist authoritarianism (Donald Trump), a contest that would have been bracingly clarifying, a turning point that would have brought into being new alignments, new political realities. What we got instead--because of Democratic Party shenanigans, the entire party establishment conspiring with Hillary Clinton and her brand of neoliberalism, from Jerry Brown in California to Sherrod Brown in Ohio, buttressed by the liberal apparatus from the media to the academy--is a contest between the old neoliberalism and an amped-up right-wing populism, except that in this case, because of media demonization of Trump, neoliberalism has received a free pass during this election cycle from explaining any policy outcomes.

We might even say that what we're actually getting now is not a contest between neoliberalism and Trumpism, but that because the media has written Trump out of the equation altogether in the latter stages of this campaign, we are now hearing neoliberalism fight it out with its supercharged ideal, which would be Hillary if she were a perfect multiculturalist, without any of her baggage.

But I am certain that the inevitable reckoning has only been deferred. The neoliberal elite, soon after the electoral rituals are over, will desperately try to change the subject with the instigation of crisis, mostly likely war (as they did in the wake of the antiglobalization protests of the late 1990s). But Trump has consolidated right-wing populism to a more defined extent than anything in modern American politics, he has solidified a base which is not going to relinquish prominence under any circumstances, and which, in fact, should propel the corresponding rise of a democratic socialist movement on the left, whether or not it is under Sanders' direction.

Imagine if Trump had faced off Clinton in the primaries. Think of how easily he disposed of "low-energy" Jeb Bush (the Republican version of Hillary) by assailing his brother for letting 9/11 happen on his watch and for his failed Iraq war, breaking sacrosanct Republican taboos. Whenever in this campaign the media has taken a break from scandals, and Trump has been allowed to focus on ideas, he has made gains in electoral standing. This was true during August above all as he focused on his signature economic ideas, and this would have been very true after the second debate, when he finally took on Clinton's corruption head-on and stayed on his economic message, had it not been for the media's self-righteous focus on his politically incorrect persona, the one surefire way to bypass and invalidate any underlying causes of the malaise his supporters (the "basket of deplorables") feel. Once Donald Trump has been made to morph into Bill Cosby, we need not take him seriously; he is dehumanized, as are his supporters.

After all, Hillary Clinton cannot possibly engage in a substantive discussion with Trump. It's unfortunate that he lacks the intellectual acumen to probe each problem to its origin, and he is also restrained from pursuing obvious lines of inquiry because of his own right-wing ideology, but how could the politician who, during the 1990s, most typified everything that is essential of neoliberalism, who threw her weight behind every important move in that direction, possibly defend the outcomes? She supported NAFTA and other trade agreements, welfare reform, crime and terrorism initiatives, punitive measures against immigrants that halted the liberalization in place since the 1965 immigration act, the downsizing of government, the inflation of housing and other bubbles, and the deregulation of banking, telecommunications, and other industries with dire consequences in the following decade.

I thought Trump was right during both debates when he pointed out her legacy of inaction toward causes she now wants to champion, and I thought he was right to mock her for directing people to the policies inscribed on her website. I have visited there too, and I fail to see the slew of statements as anything other than campaign fodder, rhetorical devices that do not exist at any realistic level, since nothing there has any chance of coming to fruition in the absence of control of both houses of congress. Even if the House were to be captured by some miracle, there would not be a move to realize anything like the true progressive policies--free college, universal healthcare, a just wage, and an end to wars--that constituted Sanders' agenda.

What you see on Hillary's website are theoretical insinuations to recoup some minute incrementals of the New Deal consensus that she herself was instrumental, above anyone else besides her husband, in shattering during the 1990s. So the very person who brought about the neoliberal corporate state--a fundamental shift that occurred in the early 1990s, making the U.S. a different kind of country than even what we had known in the Reagan years--now promises to regain a tiny fraction of it, not by pursuing the universal welfare policies of the New Deal, but what we might call fatalist incrementalism or pessimistic consensualism. And that's at the rhetorical level, before any negotiations take place with a hard-boiled anti-welfare ideologue like Paul Ryan.

While Democrats act self-righteously about Trump's rhetoric toward immigrants, let us note that immigration as a contemporary problem first truly manifested itself during the Clinton administration, with the onset of NAFTA, the immiseration of parts of Mexico which led to a surge of new forms of migration, the technical barriers that were erected to make legalization less possible than in earlier years, the huge backlogs that emerged in the process of resistance to administrative discretion that used to be the norm, and the onset of demonization of immigrants (as potential terrorists, criminals and abusers of the welfare system) that had not been seen since the Great Depression. Reagan and the elder Bush were the last two presidents to hold a humanitarian immigration outlook.

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Anis Shivani is the author of several critically acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (more...)

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