Brutal Historical Logic Democracy at a Dead-End in America

On the eve of the US election, Hillary Clinton has a lead in the polls, but it's a small one. Donald Trump's success is the logical outcome of the decades-long erosion of liberal democracy in America.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
REUTERS

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

An Essay by


I can hardly believe it -- and my fingers are quivering as I type this -- but I'm afraid that Donald Trump will be elected as the next president of the United States.

How have I come to that conclusion?

It has been like a slow-motion train wreck that we have been watching in amazement, fear and disgust over the course of the past several months. But now, shortly before the trains finally plow into each other, something akin to understanding has set in.

It may have been misguided to focus too intently on the trains themselves. The real story is the history of this country, which is so deeply and traumatically divided. It is a country that is so profoundly rent asunder by shock and change, so gripped by fear, that it is hardly recognizable anymore.

The real story is that of the last 35 years. Since the 1980 Reagan Revolution, a conservative syndicate has systematically strived to destroy the foundations of liberal democracy by elevating the economy, selfishness and social Darwinism above all.

The real story is that of the last 25 years. Since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the Democrats, the leftists and liberal forces (as has happened with New Labour in Britain and the Social Democrats in Germany) have capitulated to globalization as if to a law of nature. Step by step, they have abandoned a significant segment of their voters: workers and the lower-middle class.

The real story is that of the last eight years, during which Barack Obama has been president. For many Americans, his presidency remains an ignominy and a disgrace because racism has such deep roots in American history and now appears to many whites as a matter of survival. Sometimes it seems as though it's all they have left.

The election of Donald Trump by these white Americans would be a direct reaction to the eight years of Barack Obama, a man who embodies the future and opportunities of this country. In concert with reactionaries who have come before, Trump invokes an idyllic past, to which it is impossible to return, not even with violence.

A Rearguard Battle of the Defeated

It would thus be a tragedy if Trump won the election, but it would have a certain brutal historical logic, because the pendulum often swings hard, first in one direction and then in the other. What is happening in America -- and this too is comparable to Europe -- is a fight over "white identity," as the New York Times described it. It is the rearguard battle of a disappearing white majority.

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But it is also the rearguard battle of the defeated -- or at least those who see themselves as such -- against the process of globalization, which both Republicans and Democrats alike, from Reagan to Obama, have held up as the key to future prosperity. Instead, though, globalization has left large swathes of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere desolated and empty -- materially, morally and politically. It has permanently alienated segments of the population from political consensus or even common sense.

Donald Trump has plunged into this vacuum with a ruthlessness and brutality that has left the Republican elite gasping for breath and crippled the party for the foreseeable future -- and which has left the country's liberal elite perplexed and horrified. They are simply unable to believe that this vulgar oaf, this groping slob, this idiotic demagogue could have a chance against their Hillary.

Did Journalists Underestimate Trump?

For one thing has long been clear: She was the one. Large segments of the liberal media elite came to that consensus early on, as the consummate Thomas Frank recently described. First Bernie Sanders gummed up the works, a candidate they sought early on to reject, thus putting off huge numbers of younger voters. And then Donald Trump became the uninvited guest at the coronation party for the Democratic queen.

Many writers at liberal newspapers and magazines were certain, and remain so even now, that Trump no longer had a chance -- following the debates and after the revelations of his tax privileges and corporeal sexism. Every day, the New York Times has presented a graphic showing, up until a few days ago, that Hillary Clinton had a 92 percent chance of being elected. Seldom has data journalism fallen so low.

What everyone overlooked, though, was that there was scant enthusiasm and few convincing reasons to support Hillary -- and that there were many good reasons to be for Trump, whether one liked them or not. And the debates showed the entire world that there were many, many reasons to fear Trump: He proudly and openly presented the anti-democratic program of an authoritarian ruler who would have no consideration for prevailing law or human dignity.

Hillary in prison, to hell with the environment, a wall on the Mexican border, bomb the shit out of ISIS, beat them up: Trump assembled a political platform of horrors. His tax cuts would make Reagan's radical capitalism look quaint; he would "cancel" the Paris climate deal; he would establish a climate of hate and mistrust against blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and all other minorities; he would appoint ultra-right-wing justices to the Supreme Court and would thus determine the societal climate on decisive social questions such as gun ownership and abortion for a long time to come.

The hair-raising logic underpinning this platform is that the country is still suffering from the consequences of the economic and financial crises that have dispossessed parts of the middle class since 2008. Those who nonetheless vote for Trump are acting roughly as logically as someone whose car, house and silver have been stolen -- but who invites the thief to dinner anyway so he can take the table and chairs as well.

A Dead-End for America's Political Parties

But they are doing so anyway and it took a long time for elite opinion makers to realize what was happening. Thomas Frank described the phenomenon in his book "Listen, Liberal," as did George Packer in the New Yorker: The GOP, long the party of the rich, has under Trump become the party of the working class and the disenfranchised -- because they feel abandoned by the Democrats.

And so this campaign -- ugly, grotesque and damaging to both decency and the practice of democracy -- is indeed indicative of something larger. It is indicative of a tectonic shift that is much more meaningful and which will have lasting consequences. Through their ploys and scheming, America's two largest political parties have maneuvered the democratic system into a dead-end street -- and it is difficult to imagine an escape without radical change.

The Republicans are primarily responsible for the extensive destruction of the political landscape which made an agitator like Trump possible. Since 2009, they have waged such a fierce political battle against Barack Obama -- characterized by manipulation and blocking him at every turn -- that damage to democracy has been the result. Trump's cries that the system is "rigged" have met with such widespread agreement because the Republicans themselves have spent so long cynically perverting the system.

The fact that the party has become increasingly radicalized in recent years -- to such an extent that George W. Bush would today belong on the party's left wing -- has played an important role. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan even describes himself as a "bomb-thrower from the right" and as a "conservative from the conservative wing of the conservative movement."

Movements aren't interested in governing; they have the goal of transforming society. That is what connects the Republicans' conservative revolution with the uprising of the liberal conscience as embodied by Bernie Sanders. But it makes little sense to view these two phenomena through the lens of populism because the one side is rooted in fear, hate and exclusion while the other preaches justice, fairness and redistribution.

It is clear that American society cannot continue down this road for much longer. The tensions that have been apparent in recent years have become too great, from the stagnating middle class to the structural racism that has become manifested in the country's prison system in such a way that it can now be compared to a new kind of slavery.

It is disastrous that a racist with fascist tendencies has come so close to taking over power in this country, a man who appeals to hate, greed and the basest of instincts, an agitator who plays people off against each other, who abhors losers and who adheres to the credo: might makes right. An authoritarian, narcissistic, manic, manipulative and dangerous liar who is capable of anything.

Division and Rearrangement

That is why, despite all the criticism of Hillary Clinton -- whose politics and mistakes still fall within the realm of rationality -- I cannot understand how some could be so enthralled by their destructive fantasies as to yearn for a President Trump. It would transform America into an explosive, iniquitous country in an explosive, unpredictable world.

There are good reasons to be opposed to Clinton, a transitional figure from an era of unfairness to an era that will be shaped by a new generation. Her problem is that she cannot free herself from this blemish. She will likely be unable to motivate a segment of the African-American electorate, which was so electrified by Obama, and that could cost her this election. It will be close, extremely close.

But America is in the process of dividing and rearranging itself: It's rural America versus the large cities; it's whites against everyone else; it's the middle class against everyone else; it's the wars of years past, which have cast their shadows over this campaign and led large numbers of veterans from these destructive conflicts to vote for Trump even though the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan were led by Republican presidents.

Trump, the irrationalist, isn't just profiting from Putin, WikiLeaks, the FBI and the aggressive sexism that is loath to see a woman in the White House. He is also profiting from the divisions that he has helped create. He is a perpetual motion machine of hate.

Still, nothing has yet happened. Everything remains possible.

What was Barack Obama's campaign motto again?

Hope.

And anyway, Michelle Obama has recently looked as though she were warming up for 2020.

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jordaninge 11/07/2016
1. Trump and democracy in America
Possibly the best explanation of the reasons for Trump's rise to where he is one day before the election and, by the way, brilliantly translated (I read the German version first), possibly by the author himself? Or did he write it in English first? Difficult to tell, even by another translator.
squigglediggle 11/07/2016
2.
When I was a teenager (back during the Cold War) we were taught in school how to recognize communist propaganda. Joe McCarthy held hearings to try to purge Communism from the country. Authorities had realized that Communism sounded good on paper to the young (sharing and equality were nice, right?). It was widely held that Liberals had been duped early on by the ideology and that it was a threat to democracy. There was a huge push back. Today, in the United States, it would be very difficult to find an audience for communism. But around the world, the new anti-democratic ideology of Libertarianism (aka free-market, privatization, anarcho-capitalism, agorism) has been enthusiastically embraced - and there has hardly been a whisper to stand against it. People seem to not be able to see that it is the mirror image (and identical twin) of communism - while seducing and eroding liberal institutions by demonizing them and the principles they stand for. Read Democracy - The God That Failed, by Hans Hermann-Hoppe. Read The New Libertarian Manifesto, by Samuel Konkin III. Both outline plans for the methodical disintegration of governmental institutions (by breeding distrust, engaging in direct sabotage, and instigating obstruction). They are the intelligensia behind think tanks, astro-turfing, and media manipulation. Their stated purpose is to break up nation states and alliances (like the EU). When communism was first introduced, few recognized it as a danger. It wasn't until after it's destructive powers were unleashed that people began to fear it and see it for what it is. But "bad guys" don't have only one strategy (evil doesn't retain the same shape. It morphs so we will not recognize it until it's too late). This alt-right ideology has infiltrated conservative thinking to the point where it has been normalized in the Republican party. It has happened without a word from the media. It has happened without debate or naming the threat. It created the conditions for an opportunist like Donald Trump to take the bait and divide us further (to prove that democracy and self-governance are inferior to the "natural order" of Social Darwinism). Like during the Cold War, we need to teach children to recognize propaganda. We need to name the libertarian/anarcho-capitalism threat to democracy. We need to help people understand the way we are being used and duped -- before history repeats itself and democracy is lost.
maartendebacker 11/07/2016
3.
"Since the 1980 Reagan Revolution, a conservative syndicate has systematically strived to destroy the foundations of liberal democracy by elevating the economy, selfishness and social Darwinism above all." Reagan revived the economy. It were those after him that pushed for true gobalization, together with the rise of information technology. Conservatism is anti-globalist (nationalist), liberalism is pro-globalist (one world view, no-borders, etc.)
Mila Uneed 11/07/2016
4. Blame the Democrats too!
None of this would have happened if the Democrats had a legitimate primary process. "[...]Hillary Clinton -- whose politics and mistakes still fall within the realm of rationality[...]" - you say. But in fact , the Clintons hacked the Democratic party - and for what reason? Aside, from the lack of credibility, what is the vision of Hillary? Did you hear anything else from Hilary, except "now it's my turn, and we'll talk politics later" ? How will she be different than her husband? Or from Obama, for that matter, who campaigned on a promise of change, but ended up as the arch-Neo-liberal? If the Democrats had a good (normal) candidate, this article would not have existed. The people are fed up with both parties, this is why Sanders and Trump were able to raise so much support. Sanders however, fell victim to Clintons' politicking one step below, that's the only difference. What this politicking will turn into when she (!?) becomes president, remains to be seen. House of Cards, anyone?
henrykjr 11/08/2016
5. America is awake! Hopefully Germany will wake up soon!
I rarely post on news sites but find myself compelled to enlighten the Europeans as to what is going on. I am a Trump supporter because: 1. In US history being a "Politician" is not a lifelong career it was something that average Americans did for 4-8 years and then returned home back to their normal lives. This is no longer the case. 2. I believe that the US is the last hope for the world to remain free from oppression. Many of you look down your noses at our Second Amendment (the right to own guns). It has kept our country free. I bet Europe would have wished to have that law in place around 1936 right? 3. I do not believe in one world, one religion and one government. Europe might be ok with countries being run out of the United Nations and Brussels but as an American I'm in no rush to join the globalists. 4. I believe in the right of self determination. You work hard, study hard, and be honest. You will be rewarded. I'm not interested in using the efforts of my labor to somehow give it to many that know how to take advantage of the system. 5. I am against the United Nations. The idea of the world getting together to discuss issues is important. The reality is that besides the G20 the UN is filled full of people that are a collection of dictators and foreign despots that are jealous of what the West has built and wants to destroy it. 6. I have strong beliefs that God rules the world not governments Germany do you even remember??????? 1. When your sons and daughters were safe going to the train station? 2. Do you remember what happened the last time one government tried to rule Europe? 3. Do you remember having the DM instead of the Euro that gave your country economic sovereignty? 4 Do you remember your President have the best interests of the German population in their thoughts and actions? 5. Do you remember what it was like to have rising wages? 6. Do you remember a time when you went on vacation and did have to worry about being killed? 7. Do you remember what happened the last time Europe had a very strong leader with expansionist intentions? The world is at its tipping point and all will have to decide whether you will live a life of self determination or the life of cattle being let to slaughter by a handful of elites in our world. The choice is yours! HK
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