For a while now I’ve wondered when exactly we should start taking seriously what is going on in US politics around Donald Trump. How foolish of me. The time is now. Right now.
Let’s be clear: Trump is not going to be President of the United States of America. He has terrified more people than he’s won over, and the demographics in the US have shifted against anyone who cannot appeal across ethnic lines. I don’t know how great this disparity is – it might be scarily close – but barring some late-stage game changer, I can’t see any path to the Oval Office for Trump.
Let’s also be clear, the fact that I had to write the above paragraph is *fucking terrifying*. Because look where we’re at: Donald Trump is quids in to get the Republican nomination and run for President with the banner of the GOP fluttering over his head. This is a man who is holding a series of rallies where the main entertainment is shouting down and ejecting protestors, loudly booing enemies, and cheering wildly at the prospect of building a giant wall between the US and Mexico. A giant wall! This is the act of a carnival barker crossed with a demagogue. There has never been a major candidate so floridly unfit for political authority of any kind, yet somehow he is not only in the contest for a Presidential nomination, he is very likely to win it.
“Somehow” is the loaded word, there, suggesting Trump has popped up out of nowhere like a Jack-in-the-box with orange skin and a combover. He hasn’t, of course. Trump has been on the scene for a long time, and has spoken of running for President for a long time. He was never taken seriously by sensible people, but it turns out he had the measure of the game the whole time. Trump saw the control systems of US politics are fundamentally broken, and someone like him could walk right in through the shattered glass and start kicking levers. And that is exactly what he’s done.
He will fail to get elected. With any luck, he will shrug off the failure like has has so many others and turn his attention to other things, depriving his supporters of an aggrieved leader to whom they might pledge themselves. The Republican party as a whole will be shaken and weakened. It might, in fact, seem like a happy ending. This could even be true, as an ending to the story of Trump’s political gambit. The problem is, this is not an ending at all. The events of 2016 are much better understood as a beginning, because Trump’s toddler-level manhandling of the sparking, smoking US political control panel is tearing the whole machine to pieces.
“Somehow”. There will be books and books written, trying to explain how the US ended up here, but sitting on the distant moon that is NZ, staring through the telescope, the narrative seems to run like this:
After the second world war, times were good in America, at least if you were white and straight and male. Most folks were reading from the same book, if not always the same page, about how the economy should be managed, whether business needed to be reined in to prevent another depression, and how society should look after the less well-off. For some, this was unacceptable. Government intervention in the economy, progressive taxation and the welfare state were the enemy, and starting from a base in the media (Willam F. Buckley’s National Review), a new conservative movement grew, spawning think tanks and an energetic force of College Republicans.
Movement conservatism began in furious opposition to socialism (which it identified with communism), and before long it found this base of paranoia could easily extend to other fearsome boogeymen. The movement cynically co-opted anxiety over the civil rights movement to annex the sympathies of poor white voters in the south, and over growing secularism and immorality to secure the evangelical Christian vote. The racial politics harmonized with Nixon’s southern strategy, and Ronald Reagan came up through the movement’s institutions to become the first movement conservative President. His Presidency interwove the small-government aims of the movement with the paranoid identity politics that energised it. This frame has remained in place to the present day.
This ideology – use paranoia over blacks, gays and commies to drive a free market agenda – was in place just in time for an enormous infrastructural transition. Communications technology had been slowly changing for a century, but deregulation and new technology in the 80s brought about the era of cable news, and in the early 90s, Fox News was created as a propaganda arm for the movement in the same way many newspapers carried water for certain ideological positions. The power of 24 hour news to shape how its audience saw the world was unprecedented, far exceeding anything the newspapers could achieve. Radio developed along the same lines. The internet followed and in short order it developed intense demographic sorting; political battlegrounds were fierce but the majority of political content online was about reinforcing partisan messages for an audience of allies. In the space of a decade, the conservative-inclined found themselves encased in a bubble of TV, radio and internet that presented a unified picture of civilization under assault, increasingly disconnected from anything resembling reality.
This was the culmination of a political project. Political leadership could have countered these developments, and steered the polity back towards a town square of mutual comprehension, but instead it was welcomed and encouraged by those in power. Karl Rove, a Buckley acolyte who had come of age through the College Republicans, positioned himself as the architect of George W. Bush’s ascension, and his contempt for the very idea of real-world conditions came through in the famous quote (attributed to him) about the reality-based community: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
It did not take long for the movement’s representatives in power to strike the limits of their disregard for reality. Their Middle East adventures descended into a horrific quagmire, economic policy settings led directly to a series of shocks culminating in an economic collapse that wreaked havoc on the globe, and natural disaster in New Orleans showed the horrific consequences of running down civic infrastructure. As delegates attempted to navigate these checks on their ability to create their own reality, the movement’s popular base reacted in fury. Trained by two decades of media messaging within their bubble, they interpreted this hedging as moral weakness. The rise of Barack Obama – a black man with a middle name associated with Islam – only stoked this fury further. The Tea Party movement came into being, and immediately started influencing elections. The movement conservatives had created an electorate fuelled by paranoia, and now found themselves judged for insufficient purity. Things were by now utterly out of the control of any Rove-style planning committee, with the selection of the comically underqualified Sarah Palin as running mate for the Republican candidate in the 2008 election identifiable as the moment where the party’s elite officially lost their grip on the steering wheel.
The situation has essentially remained unchanged since 2008, although it has worsened, achieving even greater extremes of fearful division within the American polity. The movement conservatives spent decades encasing their supporters in a bubble of identity-based fear. They aimed to exploit these voters for economic ends, but lost control of them, and have no way of reining them in. The bubble is self-sustaining, cynically maintained by publishers and broadcasters who derive revenue from stoking the paranoia ever-higher. It is floating further and further away from ground.
And that brings us to 2016. Trump has come in speaking directly to the fears of those in the bubble, while ignoring entirely the economic policy settings that were initially the point of the exercise. Not only is he uninterested in connecting these voters back to real conditions in the world, he is propelling the bubble ever higher into the stratosphere. The many comparisons between Trump and fascism are appealing precisely because he is using fear as his fuel. And one of the consequences of fear is violence.
If Trump gets the nomination – and it seems unlikely he will fail to do so, now – he will not pivot. He has no other setting to pivot towards. He has no policy to discuss, no insight into social matters, no grasp of foreign policy, and no inclination to ever address these things. He will spend his time on the campaign trail perpetuating the same act he has been perfecting thus far, because it is the only one open to him. He will put on a show, and encourage fear and rage, and do everything short of openly inciting violence against his enemies.
He will lose, thankfully. But when he loses the election, what will follow him? Because, be certain, there are other demagogues eagerly preparing to harness the forces Trump is whipping into a frenzy. And those forces themselves will continue to swirl through the electorate, degrading any possibility of reconciliation between belief and fact, let alone between left and right prescriptions for solving the problems of society. Things seem like they are going to get worse, the kind of worse that reverberates out from the United States and affects everywhere else, because when the USA sneezes the entire rest of the world needs to wipe snot off their faces.
But, sitting here on Moon Zealand spying through my telescope, it seems to me there is hope, because that bubble, while becoming ever more vociferous, ever more divorced from reality, and ever more dangerous, is also becoming smaller. Steadily, slowly, surely smaller. The future is gay marriage. The future is Black Lives Matter. The future is Occupy. The future is interfaith understanding. The future is identity-based paranoia slipping away and a pendulum swing away from the extremes of economic liberalism.
It will take time. I like to talk about a “national conversation” when trying to make sense of events and how a society responds to them. The movement conservative paradigm deliberately disrupted this national conversation, which was already less than evenly-spread. The real world in the USA is heavily demographically sorted, and the communications world even moreso. But change is possible nonetheless. Witness the arc from Reagan Press Secretary cracking jokes when asked about AIDS, through to gay marriage becoming widely accepted. This change was never inevitable but the result of countless moments of work, first by activists, and finally by ordinary people who had come to know gay people as pretty much ordinary too. That’s the national conversation. Homosexuality defies demographic sorting, it can pop up like a glorious rainbow in any family, but even deprived of this benefit other identity barriers will also be ground down over time (if never overcome).
I see hope but that hope cannot be taken for granted. The bubble of fear created by Buckley and Rove and Trump and so many others will wreak havoc if it isn’t fought. Resistance is necessary. The fight has already begun, with massive protests against the hate-filled Trump rallies just a sign of what is ahead.
Those in the USA who have to step out into this bubble of fear: you’re doing the hard work. Respect.
Everyone else, around the world: our job is to watch, and to listen, and to support. For even though we are far away, the world is made of connections between people, and we can contribute to the communications environment around those stepping to the line against Trump.
So be reasonable, be considerate, be thoughtful, be kind. Listen. Celebrate difference. Refuse fear. Give. And go into the world with love.