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