The World's Only Undead Con Artist

The World’s Only Undead Con Artist

In late night wanderings through my TV subscription I regularly stumble on WWE Raw, which is the latest incarnation of World Wrestling, the phenomenon that gave us Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura. I have a vague affection for WWE, because it is so over the top, so ridiculous, and so dramatic that I can’t help but watch it – for about 10 minutes. Then the constant drama wears me out. Tonight I stumbled on a strange combination of scenes in which first some dude called Raynes was kicking the living daylights out of some other dude, chasing him into the broadcasting area and then backstage and smashing him with a television in scenes reminiscent of the great Rowdy Roddy Piper/Paul Orndorff blow up. Following this the head of the WWE corporation came on stage to talk about how he was going to employ the Undertaker to destroy his own son (because in American entertainment Daddy Issues are the big plotline), Shane McMahon, in the “Hell in a Cell” at Wrestlemania, until his son came on to, well, I’m not sure what his intention was but he ended up having the shit kicked out of him by the Undertaker, who is perhaps 60 years old if he’s a day, like Carl McCoy on a potent mixture of steroids, toxoplasmosis and pork fat.

I’m always surprised when I see this because it’s such a transparent mirror of major trends in American popular culture, and it’s such obvious fraud, but the crowd so obviously go wild for it. I can’t understand how people can go crazy for such a fake thing when there is perfectly good real fighting out there, and I can’t understand how people get fired up to support a bunch of people who are, mostly, bullies and savage arseholes.

And that got me thinking about Trump rallies. And wondering if we can get some insight into what’s going on in the Trump movement through the insanity of WWE. Consider the following aspects of WWE…

  • It’s all about breaking the rules: In a typical WWE fight there are rules and a referee, but everyone involved breaks the rules from the start, and the referees stand around yelling and protesting but the wrestlers ignore them, but in the end someone wins according to the rules. The rules basically exist only to confirm the superiority of the victor
  • It’s all about clashes of cultures: In WWE every wrestler serves as a representative of a sub culture, and they are pitted against each other in a vicious battle for superiority. There are goths (the undertaker), migrants (people like Roman Raynes), rich kids (Shane McMahon), hillbillies (the Wyatt family), etc. And they all fight each other according to their own code and culture.
  • The winners are almost always vicious bullies: Typically, within the framework of the rules that they are breaking, the victors win by ganging up on a member of another team (i.e. a subculture) and beating the shit out of them, or by cheating through the help of their friends and viciously hurting a lone victim, but still being declared the winner. Curb-stomping is the norm in WWE.
  • The whole thing is an obvious fraud: The fans all know that what they’re being shown is not the truth, but they lap it up anyway.
  • The corporation is all: All the actors in WWE are supposedly wrestlers for the same corporation, and some of the ongoing threads of drama concern the ownership and direction of the corporation. Given that the wrestlers are teams representing the different American subcultures, the corporation itself serves as a metaphor for America – America as a corporate entity where power is wrested from the current leader through violence and skullduggery

That sounds like the fundamental elements of the movement Trump is building, to me. A movement of bullying power-hungry maniacs who only care about the rules when it suits them, supported by people who know that what they’re being shown is a fraud, but don’t care because the bloodlust and the excitement thrills them, and they know they won’t be the ones in the ring. Obviously WWE didn’t make these things, but maybe WWE – an enduring phenomenon of American pop culture that grew up in Reagan’s America – exemplifies the cultural movements that have been building up to Trump. A popular cultural movement increasingly divorced from the basic rules of polite society as they might be exemplified in sports like American Football, getting increasingly trashy and outrageous, and where the rules present more a set of guidelines to be used to your own advantage than an actual set of restrictions on what you can do.

And in a remarkable coincidence, Hulk Hogan wins a 115 million dollar settlement from one of Trump’s implacable enemies over a 9 second sex tape at the same time that Trump is promising to unleash libel laws on the media…

If, as I have, you have been aware of and occasionally watching WWE in its various forms over the last three decades you will have noticed how it has become unmoored from its origins, increasingly glitzy, increasingly violent, and increasingly savage, at the same time as it has become more popular and more sophisticated, and obviously more fake. This is Trump in a nutshell – the unhinging of American popular culture, and the incursion of its savage and violent underbelly into politics. Even the wives are involved, a common trope in WWE. All those insecurities and violent clashes in the substrate of American culture, that are played out so apparently hilariously in world wrestling, have finally bubbled up into politics too. And this Republican primary season is going to be the Summer Slam of American politics, its final descent into the nadir of this toxic trajectory.

I have always had a vague affection for world wrestling. It’s going to be fascinating to see the culture of WWE get control of the nuclear codes…

 

 

You whelp 'em, we use 'em

You whelp ’em, we use ’em

The National Review, conservative journal of record and close ally of the Republican Party, has been struggling with Trump’s impending nomination victory. They ran a special issue “against Trump” in which all of their columnists whaled on him; they invented the #neverTrump hashtag that is clearly failing; and they have been running a constant series of attacks on him, leavened of course with conspiracy theories about how he is really a Democrat and anyway it’s all Obama’s fault. Finally, though, they realize that the writing is on the wall and have given up on any chance of  holding him off. Today’s National Review is full of articles claiming he is no worse than Bill Clinton, it’s all the left’s fault, the media are all just like Breitbart, and he won’t be so bad as president anyway. I guess this is the bargaining part of the five stages of grief, which leaves just depression and acceptance to go. And make no mistake, the journal that was formed to “Stand athwart history, yelling stop!” is almost certainly going to accept Trump in the vain hope that they can cut a deal with him – or more likely, so that they can stay connected to the wingnut welfare dripfeed. We’ll see about that.

But before acceptance comes depression, and the National Review’s subscription journal released a perfect model for that stage of grief today, in the form of a vicious attack on the “white working class” that make up the Republican base, and that is deserting its mainstream candidates for Trump. In this article we get to see what the Republican establishment really thinks of its base, through the voice of a Republican stalwart, Kevin Williamson. And what he has to say should put to rest any doubts that the Republican leadership have any respect for ordinary people. Here is a taster:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that…

…The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible… The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt [a blue-collar town in New York].

There’s a lot more where that came from, all of it vicious and bitter, and defended by another close friend of the establishment, David French, in a follow-up article. This stuff is so cruel, so bitter and so vicious that it’s hard to comprehend that these people see white working class Americans as anything but their greatest enemy. I want to particularly isolate this phrase for special attention, from the above quote:
the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog
Roll that phrase around in your mouth for a moment. How does it taste? That’s some bitter fruit, right there. I’m having difficulty thinking of anything I’ve read in political discourse from a mainstream commentator any time in the past ten years that compares to this piece of vileness. The language is carefully designed to remove the humanity of its object, not just through the banal comparison to stray dogs (we all know what to do with them!) but through its careful transformation of the phrase “human children” into a soulless other. It’s a phrase so dripping with contempt that no one who deployed it will ever be able to walk back from it. It’s clear to everyone what Williamson and his defenders think of the white working class, and it’s not pretty.
Unfortunately for the puppy-beaters at the National Review, the “white working class”[1] is all that stands between their precious party and electoral oblivion, and for the past 20 years they and their political friends and their donor masters have been assiduously alienating themselves from every other slice of American life. It’s pretty clear that they’ve been running a long con on their main voters, promising them racism and religious fundamentalism in exchange for an economic policy platform built entirely around shoveling money into the bank accounts of their rich mates, no matter what the price to their voters. They’ve sustained that con through deceptively blaming all the problems on Democrats, and maintaining the image that they are the only people who really care about or understand mainstream America. But now a brave new figure has promised that “white working class” base a new, shinier agenda with more racism and an economic message that appeals to their real economic insecurities. The National Review’s “intellectuals” and Republican leadership have been telling their base that the economy is fucked and it’s all Mexicans fault for 20 years now, while stealing their income, and now some philistine has come along to play to the same insecurities with a much louder racist message.
This has the sheisters at the National Review mad for two reasons. It isn’t just that the victims of their con have proven as faithless to them as they were to their victims; it’s also that they realize their position at the wingnut welfare feeding trough is in danger. These trust fund babies who have never done a decent day’s work have made a very good living from writing attack screeds on poor black people and pretending that Obama was born in Kenya, but they thought the skills they were offering were in real demand. Now Trump has shown that the GOP doesn’t need policy nuance or subtly-crafted dog-whistle rhetoric. You just have to call Mexicans rapists and promise people everything they want, and the vote is yours. Why would the Koch brothers bother funneling money to the likes of Kevin Williamson when any old red-faced carnival barker can win the nomination just by screaming at foreigners? If the folks at National Review had any use, it was laying the groundwork for Trump. Their work is done now, the earth properly salted – who needs them any more?
Over the next few months, as the Republican thinktank establishment realize that their base has deserted them, and then also start to worry that the wingnut welfare will follow, you can expect a lot more of these vicious attacks on the white working class. They’re going to show what they really think of the marks they’ve been fleecing over their whole career. And as you read this venom, remember that a central part of Republican “intellectual” mythology is that the Democrats are the party of the inner-city elites, people who don’t care at all about the troubles of ordinary Americans, never move amongst them and don’t understand them. In popular Republican orthodoxy Democrats sneer at blue collar workers and all the schmultzy paraphernalia of workaday America, and only Republicans truly understand these salt-of-the-earth Americans. Then compare Williamson’s phrases with the way Bernie Sanders talks about (and has fought for) the rights and lives of ordinary Americans, or the way Obama engages with the victims of mass shootings. Who really cares about these people?
Everything you need to know about the Republican party’s agenda is in that Williamson article. Let’s hope it becomes their epitaph.
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fn1: I put this phrase in quotes because there is no such thing as a monolithic “white working class” in a country as geographically and economically yooooge as America. White workers in the coastal South are completely different to workers in the megalopolis of the north east, the farming communities of flyover country or the sun-drenched west. In truth the Republicans haven’t been able to maintain a monolithic control over this group, but American political scientists (as well as Republican “thinkers”) seem to see everything in terms of demographics, so I’m stuck with the idea.
picture note: That beast is from the BBC TV Torchwood series special issue, Children of Men, in which [spoilers!] aliens come to earth to harvest human children to use as recreational drugs. The language that alien in the picture uses to describe its drug dispensary is pretty much on a par with Williamson’s.
Never stood a chance ...

Never stood a chance …

Today, rather predictably, Donald Trump won the Super Tuesday primary race by a large margin. He has now amassed a sizable delegate lead and is looking unstoppable, especially while two ambitious losers divide their voters in an attempt to stay relevant to a brokered convention. It’s certainly fascinating watching the rise of a proto-fascist in real time, though I have serious doubts he has any chance of winning the general election and in the long run may be good for American politics, since he in many ways looks like a kind of freeform performance art suicide attempt by the Republican party. My sense of amusement at his escapades will change to one of real fear if he gets the White House, but I can’t see that happening. In the meantime, while we watch his Icarus-like ascendancy, it’s interesting to ponder the reasons why he has suddenly burst onto the scene, simultaneously energizing the Republican base and terrifying its elite. So far I have seen three possible explanations for Trump’s rise, which I’d like to talk about a bit here; all three offer apparently plausible explanations but seem somehow to be vaguely wrong. I don’t have a special explanation for his rise, which I think is mostly just luck and racism, but I think there are specific reasons why it’s happening now, and in particular I think the Republican party has uniquely inoculated itself against rational thought and good sense, and so it’s become very easy to take it over with Trump’s version of charisma, racism and populism. First I’d like to talk about the three explanations I have seen for his rise, and then I’d like to explain why I think that, whatever the reasons, the Republican party is at this juncture uniquely incapable of handling him.

Explanation 1: The schadenfreude explanation

The schadenfreude explanation is very appealing because it involves popcorn and gloating. Basically under this explanation, the Republican party has spent the last 8 years appealing to racism and building up a political logic of obstructionism and anger. As a result, there is an opening for a leader who is uniquely racist and finally willing to say openly what the Republican party has been increasingly clearly dog-whistling in the past 8 years. Usually this schadenfreude explanation starts with the (obvious) unhinging of Republicans after Obama was elected, but it sometimes starts with Bush. It can also be observed in a different, mealy-mouthed form from Republican exiles like David Brooks, who blames it on “anti-politics” and tries to pretend it’s not the GOP’s fault, in the grand tradition of both-sides-do-it. But is the GOP more racist now than in the past? I’m not convinced they are. They ran an actual KKK member for governor one year in the 1960s, and are also the party of Willie Horton and – of course – the southern strategy. Is it possible that the party of Richard Nixon would have had a black secretary of defense, or fielded two hispanics, a woman and a black man in the primary election? Sure they’ve lost it over the election of a black president, but they have also simultaneously fielded a black presidential hopeful of their own, and were generally positive about Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. Also, although Trump has said some fairly crazy things about how he will unleash American power on the world, what America is doing now – and what it did under Bush – is hardly the low point of its moral history. After 9/11 the elders in the Bush administration sternly warned the American people that they might have to tolerate American agents committing violence overseas, a laughable warning when one considers what Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to condone and order in the 1970s and 1980s in latin America. A willingness to waterboard people might seem horrifying to the average observer now, or in 2004, but in 1974 it was standard policy for both parties. Trump’s bombastic claims certainly set the US government back perhaps 10 years morally, but they hardly represent a return to full-scale 1970s violence. He hasn’t, for example, proposed restarting Cointelpro. So far his main outrage – the one single thing he has proposed that really seems to be beyond recent American moral boundaries – is the deportation of 12 million latinos, many of whom would be children and citizens. But against a backdrop of slavery, native American genocide, Japanese internment and Wounded Knee, this is hardly a new moral low for America. The problem, of course, is it’s hard to tell if he’s serious about this. But aside from this one piece of unhinged rhetoric, what he’s proposing isn’t out of step with past American policy and most of what he has said so far is consistent with historical Republican positions. So I’m not convinced that recent Republican Obama Derangement Syndrome and obstructionism is a sufficient explanation for his development.

Explanation 2: Tribalism

At Crooked Timber blog John Quiggin (with whom I have often disagreed on issues of agnotology) attempts to explain Trump’s rise in terms of a fragmentation of American politics into three groups: Tribalists, neo-liberals, and leftists. In this formalism Trump represents an uprising against neoliberalism, in which society falls into tribal or left-wing components. The tribalists try to protect their rights through racial exclusion while the leftists try to reclaim their rights through some kind of class action, and Trump represents the inchoate expression of rage of the tribalists. I think there are a lot of problems with this explanation, which I have expressed over there. Firstly tribalism=right wing in his formalism, and tribalism seems to be happening only within parties, e.g. blacks vote for Clinton and don’t even break for Sanders, let alone Trump, so it doesn’t seem like the tribalism trumps parties – it just seems like a weak attempt to rebrand right wing politics as tribal politics. Also what is neoliberalism? Is neoliberalism in America the same as elsewhere, and is Obama a neoliberal? If so, given that Obama and Clinton have presided over record jobs growth, expanded the welfare system for the first time in 50 years, and brought about a new settlement with long-term enemies, it seems that America has benefited enormously from their neoliberalism. But if Obama represents a break from the past pattern of Clintonesque politics, perhaps he isn’t neoliberal? And can you express the glacial pace of presidential politics in America in terms of neoliberal politics? There has been one previous Democrat president during the 20 year period in which neoliberalism is generally seen as having arisen, so how can we really say anything about the relationship between neoliberal politics and presidents? And can we say Bush was a neoliberal, with his various political settlements and massive expansion of corporate welfare? Unless neoliberal=corporate welfare, we can’t. And if neoliberal=corporate welfare, I’m fairly confident Trump will turn out to be the ultimate neoliberal. His rich friends are no doubt going to make a killing. I don’t find the term “neoliberal” useful as an analytical category, though it can be a convenient shorthand for modern capitalist practice at times, and I’m not convinced by a theory in which right wing people are tribalists but left wing people are principled opponents of inequality and neoliberalism. So I don’t accept this theory.

Explanation 3: Authoritarianism

This is the Vox take on Trump. Under this theory, America has seen a rise in the number of voters who have authoritarian ideals, they have clustered into the Republican party through its increasingly strident policy positions over the past few years, and in times of economic uncertainty they are vulnerable to racist and oppressive cues. This is an interesting, powerful and well-researched theory, and I’m thinking to read the Stenner book referenced to see what I think of it, but I’m not fully convinced by this theory. In particular, the timing is an issue. The GOP has always been authoritarian, so why is it happening now? When you look back at things like McCarthyism, it doesn’t seem like the modern GOP is especially authoritarian. Of course it’s hard to say, because there’s no objective standard of authoritarianism, but what’s lacking from this theory is an explanation of why this happened now rather during, for example, the era of McCarthyism, or the Cold War. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that Trump’s ban on all Muslims entering the country is no worse – and probably better – than previous acts, such as the China Exclusion Act, which was maintained even for the first year during which China was America’s ally against Japan (and resulted in significant Chinese military figures being barred entry to the USA during this war). Even his plan to deport latinos is hardly going to be unique if enacted – it will surely involve internment camps, which have been used before against American citizens. Obviously maintaining segregation required a highly authoritarian government, so it hardly seems like Trump’s ascendancy is unexpected against the flow of mainstream politics.

So what is the answer?

Solution: The GOP has finally sealed itself off from reality.

The rise of Trump is not an unexpected phenomenon, and the only reason he appears unexpected is that mainstream political thinkers on both sides of the political fence have accepted two myths about America: 1) that it is a unique and ideal place and 2) that the Republican party are not a deeply racist, authoritarian party. Given the general shift in American politics after the Southern Strategy, a fairer way of describing point 2) is: there is a strong racist, imperialist under current in American politics, and when it finds a home in one party all hell will eventually break loose. The particular reason that he is so effective in this electoral cycle is one of simple stupidity. The Republican party has recently enacted a process of exclusion from reality that is unique in its history and that uniquely inoculates it against the kind of basic protective measures that would enable it to inform its voters that Trump is beyond the pale. It is this new intellectual isolation that has made it so easy for Trump to seize the nomination without any coherent policies except anger, hatred and naked power.

The GOP has completely isolated itself from reality in the past 10 years. Birtherism, flat tax madness, balanced budget amendments, gun nuttery, and AGW denialism are signs the party has completely lost touch with reality. Denying AGW now requires complete immunity to reality, requiring conspiracy theories about NASA fudging all its data and inevitably leading to the idea that stunts like snowballs on the senate floor can substitute for serious debate. Trump was famously a birther, of course, but by the time he became a birther the party was so drunk on its own reality that birtherism had reached the senate. It’s still easy to find commenters and diarists at websites like Red State who refer to Obama as “Hussein” in an obvious dog whistle to this ludicrous theory. AGW denialism is the ultimate example of this, with activists at every level – up to and including every single presidential contender – claiming it is a myth cooked up in support of big government (this is an actual Cruz quote). Maintaining this kind of delusion in the face of a world going mad with climatological craziness obviously requires a special commitment to making your own facts. Republicans have shown themselves uniquely able to take a side on a scientific issue purely on the basis of its political convenience, and once you start doing that you really need to build a whole intellectual architecture devoted to denying reality.

Republicans even deny their own policies, as seen with the debate over who was or wasn’t in the Gang of Eight, and Rubio criticizing Trump’s individual mandate plan and the Obamacare individual mandate when his own plan involves an individual mandate. Even their attempts to understand Trump are thick with this isolation – they honestly seem to believe that GOP racism is a fiction of the left wing media rather than a simple, obvious fact. Right now the National Review is running a retrospective on William Buckley, the founder of that magazine, who said this:

The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

Yet recently in the Washington Post, we have Jennifer Rubin writing this:

The media, licking its collective chops, cannot wait for the GOP to become the party of racists, misogynists and authoritarians that liberals have always portrayed Republicans to be

That’s right, in the conservative journal of record (which, incidentally, recently hosted an article advocating shooting all Guantanamo detainees, apparently as a joke) William F Buckley advocates violence against black people because they’re inferior and Jennifer Rubin thinks liberals have a fantasy of Republicans as racists. The current Republican movement is so committed to denying reality that they cannot accept the racism of their own history.

The GOP are swimming against a series of global currents that call into question everything they stand for. AGW, the crisis in the middle east that George Bush created, inequality in the USA, and the need for universal health coverage (UHC) are all issues that they simply don’t have a policy answer to. If you listen to any of the presidential candidates other than Trump on these issues, they’re just talking shit. AGW isn’t happening, ISIS is entirely Obama’s fault, inequality is not an issue and UHC just doesn’t work even though every other country in the OECD has it.  These are crises that for rich donors and GOP activists are easily avoided, but for ordinary Americans are increasingly becoming insurmountable. These ordinary Americans want solutions, and for years Republicans have fed them the same thin gruel of free markets and Jesus. Now that they are really starting to need to provide solutions – or argue against the real solutions the Democrats provide – they find themselves struggling because for years the intellectual foundations of their movement have been oriented around justifying away these problems rather than facing them. Without any real solutions, they fall back on authoritarianism and dirty tricks at every level, – e.g. banning state officials from using the term “climate change,” refusing to even hold nominations for a judge etc. These struggles in turn draw in people for whom this crazed logic, authoritarianism and deliberate ignorance works, and then when the party followers reach a critical mass, the party is itself so inoculated to reason and common sense that it can’t defuse the crisis and indeed can barely even understand what caused it. As a result they deny that the problem is even there. All it takes then is for a single charismatic, short-fingered vulgarian to walk in and say that he has a real solution, while actually bothering to talk to the people about their real concerns. The problem here is not that the modern GOP is uniquely racist or authoritarian – it always has been – but that it faces a new set of challenges that it is uniquely incapable of adapting to. It is also such a vehicle of power for the wealthy and privileged that they don’t even understand their voters have a problem, let alone care to fix it. Trump is talking to those voters about what they really feel, and offering racist snake oil as a solution. There’s no sense in which his racist deportation solution is less realistic than trickle-down economics or getting a third job, and in any case there’s no intellectual framework supporting Republican political theory, so why would his voters not believe it?

The Republican party has built an intellectual infrastructure on sand, and Trump has simply come in and seized it, using the unique Republican ability to think a million crazy things before breakfast to his political advantage. All he had to do to seize the party was talk to voters about their real concerns, and offer a racist solution. It doesn’t have to make sense, because nothing in modern Republican politics does. In order to solve this problem the party leadership need to walk back from the illogical and destructive framework they’ve built up, but doing that is going to be a hugely challenging and ultimately destructive process, a purge that will probably completely change the entire party. It’s too late for them to do that in time to stop Trump, so he’s going to seize the nomination and destroy the party.

What a crying shame.