Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Bloom and the Rose (Part III): The Problem of the Political Right

In two previous blogs I tried to argue that Donald Trump is more interesting and more important for what he tells us about US political culture than for what he might actually do as a presidential candidate or political leader. He is made possible, I have argued, by an odd series of cultural currents that confuse fantasy with reality, misjudge and do not understand economics, believe in simple answers to complex problems and that "deals" can be cut, as well as an interesting syncretism that has come to stand in for Christianity in the US. Trump epitomizes these trends. 

There are, of course, other factors. Xenophobia, bigotry, sexism ... and they come in a special form; that is: overt bigotry, etc., denying that it is bigotry. When I listened to crowds chant on video -- built that wall -- I really did start to wonder deeply about the cultural values of those people chanting. It was something that I never expected to hear in my life. But, it clearly speaks to a particular perspective within American culture that is not simply xenophobic or bigoted or sexist, but one which is distraught at not being able to be publicly xenophobic or bigoted or sexist. This is a perspective that sees nothing wrong with evaluating women's looks and speaking openly about female body parts, as if a reference to a women's figure was a complement women should want. This is the most extreme reaction to "political correctness" - a dated and over-used and near meaningless term. It seeks not to curb the extremes of political correctness nor even to reverse the equality agenda. It seeks a way back to a past that, as it were, never really existed: where one could openly and with impunity use epitaphs or recycle insults because "there was nothing wrong with that" as if black people liked to be called niggers (or, even more disturbingly, knew that they were niggers) or women liked to be sexually objectified. This is an odd cultural trajectory that views simple politeness (something we were all encouraged to be by our parents) as oppression.  

These trends are part of what fuels Trump's candidacy. But, I want to argue in this blog, Trump represents and extreme version of this trend because of the way in which right wing politics has developed in the US since the Reagan era. These developments have led to Trump; in fact, they may have made him inevitable. What developments am I talking about? 

Since (and, including) Reagan, the US right wing was willing to play with fire. This may, in fact, date to Nixon's "southern strategy," a political strategy that was intended to win votes in the largely rural and middle-class sections of the white American south because without these votes, the Republicans stood no chance of winning the presidency. With the Democrats dominating organized labour (still powerful then), the youth, and minority votes ... the only easy and ready source of votes available to Republicans -- that did not involve significant changes in their political-economic views -- was the white south. Under Reagan, Republicans continued this strategy wielding together an odd coalition that included evangelical (and, largely southern) Christians, social conservatives, and white middle-class voters who were in the midst of a "tax revolt" blamed largely on the poor and minorities. It was a body that did not stand for a great deal other than militarism in foreign policy because the different parts of this coalition fit poorly together. After all, Christians (the non-syncretic type) should be concerned about tax revolts (render unto Caesar) and concerned about the materialism it prescribed as the solution to social problems (buy more and make yourself feel good). The full-scale embrace of consumerism, in other words, should have given Christians some pause but this pause (if people had it) was put on hold for power.

In short, the Republican party -- a party with a noble history -- was transformed under the weight of political expediency -- into a party of "no". No gun control, no to equality for women, no to the welfare state, no to socialized medicine, etc. It knew no forward looking policies other than the deregulation of capitalism, which has actually served the Republican voting base very poorly. Problems (say, state spending deficits) that should have been addressed in other ways were ascribed to the effects of progressive policies and, in the process, the idea that minorities, women, the poor, workers, etc., were the people to blame for economic problems became attached to a deeply conservative social view that defended itself as "tradition." 

Part of this  trend necessarily became entangled in the troubling and deeply tangled politics of racialization in the US. Noting the depth and importance of this issue, it is likely that this could not have been avoided. The Reagan-Bush era Republican strategy with regard to race was to play on the fears of white people by using imagery and key words. They found ways of opposing affirmative action (relabeled "reverse racism") without actually coming out and saying "we are racist". They talked about a law and order agenda (minimum mandatory sentences, say) without overtly saying "we'll put blacks and Hispanics behind bars in record numbers," even though -- I strongly suspect --that this is what their voters took away from these discussions. 

The points that they were making, without actually making them, were this: you -- poorer or middle class white voter -- are poorer or not as rich as you would like because your taxes are unfairly being taken from you to pay bills for illegal immigrants or black education or women's equality, etc., and if we just did not have these things ... well, without affirmative action, your son would get into a good school. Without feminism, your son would have a better job, etc. I recall a Bush I campaign advert that showed a black criminal getting leave from jail and supposedly attacking white people, which was blamed on the Democrats. 

The point is this: Republican policies were racialized but Republicans tried to maintain their own sense of propriety and dignity. They didn't chant to build walls or talk openly about their wives' or daughters' bodies. Even if this was done regularly behind closed doors, it was understood that this needed to be done behind closed doors. To be overtly racist or sexist would alienate that part of the Republican vote -- the Orange County crowd -- who were not racist and sexist and who were in the Republican gig for purely economic, lower my taxes because I want to buy a new BMW reasons. 

Somewhere along the line, Republican policies and discourse started to radicalize in extreme ways. There were likely a number of reasons for this because, after all, the Republicans had to run against themselves. It was hard for Bush I to fault government for the problems in the US because he'd been VP for the previous eight years. They did, but it got more and more difficult and so the discourse had to become more and more extreme. 

Then came Obama and we discovered that a large section of the white US population just would not accept a black president. But, what is more, a large section of the US population embraced the new syncretic religion that I detailed in another blog. They were willing, for instance, to risk the complete ruin of the US after the global economic meltdown to stick to their principles. They opposed any state involvement in the economy. They cast their supposedly libertarian values aside, on the other hand, and urged new extreme forms of state involvement in civil society. They took their stand against equality for gay people and against whatever vestiges of the welfare state remained and against environmental regulation. They simply did not believe, for instance, that there was an environmental crisis, employing a conspiracy theory that blamed it on "east coast liberals" and egghead academics. They simply gave up trying to find connections between Christianity and science and asserted bluntly that they rejected science. They argued for the more stringent regulation of women's bodies and opposed (in the case of Arizona) holidays that recognized the important contribution of the civil rights movement to the US. 

And, there were other things, too. They saw themselves embroiled in a deep culture war that was epitomized by the idea of equality for LGBTQ and argued that their freedom of religion was infringed if LGBTQ people were treated equally. They argued that they had the *right* to be bigoted, to refuse service to, say, a gay man if they did not like gay people for supposedly religious reasons (needless to say, this is a shockingly -- embarrassingly? -- selective reading of scripture). Finally, they decided that the great stand needed to be made against the tiny percentage of Trans people in the US because, for reasons that they never explained, Trans people were a threat to children. 

From one perspective, this is all very confusing. I suspect -- and will try to produce a discussion of this at some point in the future -- that there are deeper reasons afoot that relate to the ways in which the liberal state made peace, as it were, with conservative elements of it. But, on the surface, one needs to admit that these views make no sense. How, for instance, does equality for a gay person threaten me or my marriage or my children or my country? It simply does not and Canada stands, in an important way, as testament to that. How could one argue *against* stabilizing the economy after 2008? How could one believe that collapsing banks, homelessness, and skyrocketing unemployment were in the national interest? 

How did this produce Trump? Well, these voices -- in the form of the Tea Party -- gravitated to the Republican Party (or, were already in it) and have been looking, metaphorically, for a political savoir for a long time. They tried Sarah Palin but she was such a joke that ultimately even those voices of  extreme decent had to abandon her.  They tried Michelle Bachman but found that her brand of extremism played poorly on the national stage. They had previously gravitated to such luminaries as Dan Quayle (was he the worst VP ever?) and more recently Ted Cruz tried to recruit them to his bandwagon only to discover that they had already decided Trump was their man. Said differently, this branch of American Republicanism has been looking for a leader who spoke their language, who believed what they believed, and who was as immune to reason as they were for some time. 

Let's pause and try to be as charitable and as objective as we can be. Palin ultimately had to confess that she didn't read very much, didn't understand at least some of the policies she was supporting, and -- by implication - had little idea about foreign policy or even, it seemed, basic international geography. If I were running for office and I put those qualifications before you (a lack of understanding of policy, a failure to read up on issues, a lack of understanding of international issues on a basic level) ... would you vote for me? Yet, it did not affect her supporters. When she opted to become a reality TV ... I won't say "star" because her show was yanked ... personality, it illustrated another connection between that branch of the Republican Party and her and illustrated her similarities to Trump. The fact that her life -- expensive tastes when bought on someone else's dime and a family that stood in contradiction to everything that she supposedly stood for -- gave a lie to the cliches she spouted ... her followers -- including Trump -- were nonplussed. They focused on what she said; not whether or not she actually believed or enacted what she said. 

How does this all make Trump possible? The Tea Party wing of the Republicanism that supported Sarah Palin was unleashed by the mainstream of the Party which thought -- and perhaps for good reason -- that it (the extremists in the Party) could be controlled. They wanted the votes of extremists (of those who denied science, for instance) because it fit with their desire not to rein in big business on environmental questions. They wanted the votes of right wing anarchists -- who call themselves libertarians -- because they needed them. But, they never actually thought those people would be more in the way of followers. They (the leadership) played with fire. And, ultimately, they got burned as bad as the people who they were trying to burn. I don't necessarily blame them (well, I might blame them ... but that is another blog) because they were successful. The extremist wing of the party (xenophobes and homophobes and sexists, etc.) were kept under wraps through Nixon and until Bush II, but as Democrats took more and more of the reasonable vote, Republicans were pushed to more and more extreme rhetoric and they found out that once they had let the extremists into the Party ... well, they had a voice and votes and control. 

Trump is, in many ways, the logical fulfillment of Nixon's "southern strategy."  The southern strategy was, of course, not actually about the south except to the extent that Republicans wanted to appeal to deeply conservative white voters who happened to reside there. They had precious little interest in other sectors of southern votes (say, poor blacks or the urban working class). Today, they have little interest in that large section of  the south who are Hispanic (other than Cuban refugees). Each step along the line that mainstream Republicans took to win elections cost them support in other sectors of society and left their core base of support in the hands of a more and more extreme group of people. Today, it is almost impossible to find a "moderate Republican". And, no wonder ... if you were moderate, would you support Trump? 

Trump's successes, then, do not accrue to him, but to the demise of moderation within the Republican Party and the degree to which it implicit condoned extremism in the believe that they could control. Trump's early success illustrates that they cannot. 
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