Reprinted from Empire Burlesque
My latest column from the CounterPunch print magazine:
The tangled tropes of Trump are many and various. Most have at least a tincture of veracity in them -- although the phenomenon of his candidacy is so vast and gaseous it's not surprising that some discharge from it would fall, like mist, or a wet clump of coagulate matter, on scattered bits of the truth here and there.
One trope says we've been here before, with the political triumph of a gleefully ignorant, blustering, bigoted faux populist made famous by show biz: Ronald Reagan. Although he was more closely handled, Reagan's off-hand idiocies and nasty nativism were very much in the Trumpian vein. Then there's Dubya Bush, a certified chowderhead riding to power spouting gooberish nonsense and simplistic slogans while, like Reagan, acting as cover for a rapacious agenda of corporatism and militarism.
In this view, Trump is just one more in an inglorious line of dimbulb hucksters whose success confirms, yet again, H.L. Mencken's bleak view of the knuckle-dragging American electorate, whose intelligence can never be underestimated. (Or even misunderestimated.)
Another view sees Trump as a welcome -- if inadvertent -- heightener of contradictions, exposing the unsustainable hypocrisies of the system and bringing the rancid impostume of our militarized hyper-capitalism to the bursting point. The poisons that ooze from this opened carbuncle -- the racism, aggression, nativism, hatred and vulgarity that pour from Trump's mouth in a gangrenous stream -- will provoke a movement that will -- eventually, after much struggle and suffering -- cleanse the body politic at last. ("The worse, the better" is a stance with a long history in political warfare; Lenin was an adept of the principle, as are the Senate Republicans.)
Others take heart from some of Trump's sporadic sputterings that seem to echo fragments of a Ron Paul-like desire to rein in the bipartisan imperial project. They point to the fact that Trump declared -- in a GOP debate, no less -- that Dubya and his cronies should be put on trial for the Iraq War: something no other figure in either major party has ever done. He has also made noises about a more rational policy toward Russia (as opposed to the endless provocations and Cold War chest-beating of the Peace Prize Prez). He even once mentioned in a speech that we should take cognizance of the millions of foreigners who've been killed in the War on Terror: again, something that no other Dem/GOP politician has ever dared mention. (Not even Bernie Sanders, whose "radical" stance is that the Saudis should take over some of the killing for us.) Such statements have been seized upon by some who hope that a Trump presidency will break the bipartisan consensus on America's deadly and sinister foreign policy.
Other tropes view Trump as an unprecedented catastrophe for American politics, a fascist (or fascist-like) figure whose like has never been seen before in our Republic. Or as the undertaker of the Republican Party, which, some savants say, will now go the way of the Whigs. Still others see Trump as a lightning rod for the disaffections of the white working and middle classes whose security and prosperity have been destroyed by globalization and corporate greed; Trump provides them with racist and xenophobic scapegoats for their suffering, while obscuring the true culprits: he and his fellow gorgers in the financial elite (and the politicians whom, he freely admits, the elite buy with their contributions).
This hardly exhausts the meanings that have been attached to Trump's ascendancy. And as noted, there's some truth in most of them. (Although I do think the reports of the GOP's death are greatly exaggerated.) We have had shallow fools in charge of the country before. It is true that the irreconcilable contradictions of the system are coming to a head. Trump has uttered some truths about U.S. imperialism that we never hear from our politicians. He is more openly like a quasi-fascist authoritarian than we've seen before. He is tapping into the justified frustrations of millions of Americans at the depredations of the bipartisan neoliberal project.
But almost all of these tropes have been contradicted by Trump himself. Yes, he occasionally critiques American imperialism -- then makes bellicose statements about augmenting it, including the possibility of using nukes in the Middle East. (To be fair, he stole that from Hillary's 2008 campaign). Yes, he speaks to working class loss -- then touts economic policies that will exacerbate it, such as lifting the few remaining feeble restraints on Wall Street. Yes, he talks of breaking the militaristic foreign policy paradigm -- then promises to put the military in charge of foreign policy, expand the use of torture, "go after" the families of terrorist suspects, and so on.
Despite some garish trappings -- such as the continual disgorgement of his id on Twitter -- if Trump attains the White House, he will no doubt perpetuate the current system in its essential form. As will Clinton, of course; indeed, that perpetuation is the raison d'etre of her whole campaign. In either case, the Deep State -- that unfathomably vast network of contracts and covert ops, surveillance and subversion, corruption and corporatism that constitutes the genuine substance of the American government -- will carry on.