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Unpresidented?

Unpresidented?

By Howard Davis

Adoration of the Calf Francis Picabia

The rise of populism has shaken the global political establishment. Both Brexit and Trump's victory came as profound shocks, as politicians tried to figure out why large sections of their electorates are so angry and frustrated. But the answer is glaringly obvious - populism is the result of economic failure. If nothing else, the past ten years have shown that the neoliberal approach to the economy has tilted the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management. Neoliberalism is a rigged system that ensures the fruits of growth go to the few, not to the many. It decreed that those responsible for the global financial crisis could get away with it, while those who were innocent are treated like wage slaves and asked to bear the brunt of austerity measures (e.g. the Greeks).

Anybody seeking to understand why Trump won the presidency need only look at what has happened to the division of the economic spoils. The share of national income that went to the bottom 90% of the population held steady at around 66% from 1950 to 1980. It then began a steep decline, falling to just over 50% when the financial crisis broke in 2007. Nor is it the case that everybody benefits when the US economy is doing well. During the business cycle upswing between 1961 and 1969, the bottom 90% of Americans took 67% of the income gains. During the Reagan expansion two decades later they took 20%. During the Greenspan housing bubble from 2001 to 2007, they got just two cents in every extra dollar of national income generated, while the richest 10% took the rest.

Populism is seen by many commentators as an irrational phenomena - but it is completely logical for the bottom 90% of the US population to question why they are getting only 2% of income gains, and for British workers to complain about the weakest decade for real wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars. Populism stems from a profound sense that the economic system is at best broken, and at worst rigged. In any other walk of life, a failed experiment results in change, but the danger in the political sphere is that conmen and charlatans are able to seize opportunities otherwise denied them. Populist demagogues have made sporadic and minatory appearances during periods of gross inequality throughout history. The ascendancy of Trump in such circumstances is by no means a new phenomenon.

The following is a highly random assortment of observations that demonstrate his appeal is hardly unprecedented. As Mel Brooks recently observed, the foul-mouthed satsuma may be just another "song and dance man," but nonetheless he remains a profoundly dangerous and destabilizing threat to global democracy. The same may be said of Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Erdogan, Modi, and Duterte - to name only the most egregious of those aspiring dictators and petty despots who have recently sprung up like so many toadstools from cow shit after a rainstorm. To come across them is exactly like stumbling over a woodland tuber, unexpected and white, and a cause for some mirth, although there is also a darker side to such fungi. The historical problem for dyspeptic megalomaniacs, from Julius Caesar to Mussolini and Margaret Thatcher, is that their own people eventually become so disgusted by their toxicity they turn on them. For the sake of the planet, we can only hope and pray that the Republican Party comes to its senses in this respect sooner rather than later. It must impeach Trump for the myriad unconstitutional illegalities he has already committed, before we come to accept mendacious, egotistical narcissism as the new standard in acceptable political discourse.

* * *

Ruminating on the extraordinary ability of the eighteenth-century conman Count Cagliostro (in reality a Sicilian flip-flam artist named Giuseppe Balsamo) to deceive and pimp his way around the courts of Europe, Casanova commented on his mysterious success in Soliloque d'un Penseur (1786) - "This is a man whose partisans think him wise because when he speaks he seems ignorant. This is a man who is persuasive because he masters no language. This is a man whom people understand because he never explains himself … This is a man whom people believe noble because he is gross in his discourse and manners. This is a man whom they believe sincere because he has all the appearances of being a liar." Casanova prided himself on being an enlightened adventurer of the ancient regime - urbane, polished, witty, and genteel - while Cagliostro betokened the darker chaos of plebeian revolution and Romantic irrationalism. When he died in 1797, Casanova remained convinced that something terrible had happened to the world which he had known, but he could not pinpoint exactly what it was …

* * *

Thomas Carlyle was confident he could. His 1833 essay Count Cagliostro: In Two Flights explored the same mystery as Casanova's Soliloque. He investigated how someone without intellect, beauty, or charm could dupe many of the mightiest nobles, churchmen, and philosophers of Europe, in an age of supposed enlightenment. Carlyle conceded that Cagliostro displayed some exceptional negative abilities - "cunning in supreme degree," "brazen impudence," "a genius for deception," "pig-like defensive ferocity," and a "vulpine astucicity." In short, Cagliostro was the perfect expression of his type - "a quack genius." He suggested that what elevated Cagliostro above the mundane was that he gave voice to the needs and longings of his times. The Sicilian was the archetype not of an age of reason, but rather of imposture - "Quack of Quacks! A most portentous face of scoundrelism: a fat, snub, abominable face; dew-lapped, flat-nosed, greasy, full of greediness, sensuality, oxlike obstinacy; a forehead impudent, refusing to be ashamed; and then two eyes turned up seraphically languishing as in divine contemplation and adoration; a touch of quiz too: on the whole, perhaps the most perfect quack-face produced by the eighteenth century."

* * *

In the twentieth century, it was the sociologist Émile Durkheim who first warned that the disenfranchisement of a class of people from the structures of society produced a state of anomie - a "condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals." Those trapped in this anomie are easy prey to propaganda and emotionally-driven mass movements. Hannah Arendt, echoing Durkheim, noted that "the chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships." Under fascism, the politically disempowered and disengaged, ignored and reviled by the establishment, discover a voice and a sense of empowerment.

* * *

In his 2009 collection of essays 'The Revolt of The Pendulum,' Clive James wrote about "the blind obduracy" of those "negligent vigilantes" who profess a grand vision of how the world must go. His always prescient observations are worth quoting directly and extensively. They come from the Introduction and a penetrating essay on Karl Kraus, which not only contains some superb writing, but is also especially salient to the topic. Its relevance pertains to Trump's political views and tactics in various ways, but especially in regard to the dangers of demagogy and his professed isolationism.

James begins with the immediate qualification that -

I wish I had thought of the term 'negligent vigilantes,' but it was Alan Finkielkraut: fine phrases should never be borrowed unacknowledged. In the twentieth-century, many among even the best qualified intellectuals thought that liberal democracy either had a natural outcome in Nazi-style fascism or was helpless to oppose it, and that Communism might therefore have credentials as an historical force to shape the future. Only slowly was the conclusion drawn that fascism and Communism were merely two different forms of totalitarianism, and that they were far less the enemies of each other than they were the common enemy of democracy … But a sensible viewpoint is not glamorous enough for those who are commanded by a vision, and the vision of the culpable West is now the dominant vision amongst the intellectuals of the world, and all the more dominant if the West is where they come from. Those of us without that vision must content ourselves with having a viewpoint, which even at its most coherent is nothing more ambitious than a set of views. Any set of views should logically begin with the view that there is something desirable about a political system that leaves us free to have them, even if that system finds it difficult, as it should, to deal with the views that are inimical to its existence. In any free nation, for example, there will be eloquent voices to proclaim the virtues of isolationism. And indeed that view is considerable: it can always be plausibly said that the US would be better off it if it had never gone near Iraq. Interference will always have a cost, and to accept that cost without question will always be callous. But the idea that there need never be a moral cost in leaving things as they are is one that only a visionary could hold. Charles Lindbergh had a vision of isolationism that would have keep America out of WWII ... 'All I have is a voice,' said Auden, 'to undo the folded lie'. The operative word is 'folded'. The writer, if he wishes to write about current affairs … must have the confidence to regard the unpicking of language as a proper job, and he must have the patience to do it.

James goes on to discuss one such writer - the great Austrian aphorist Karl Kraus -

who spent a lifetime thinking that euphemistic talk led necessarily to evil, as exemplified by the Great War, which he had thought the most evil thing imaginable. But the Nazis, who largely said exactly what they meant - and even their euphemisms were meant to be decoded as the threat of murder - brought an evil worse than that. Today there is no excuse for failing to see that the avowedly irrational doesn't yield to reason. But Kraus had every excuse, because total irrationality was not yet in charge of a modern European state. Even before the Great War broke out, Kraus had ample cause to think that he was already dealing with enough madness to keep him busy …

The Nazis, on the way up, had a lot of prejudice to draw upon, and it doesn't need a very big minority to look like a majority when it comes parading down the street. Military force transferred to civilian life was the revolutionary new element that would eventually paralyze conventional political expression and Kraus' critique along with it. After the war, Kraus realized almost soon as Hitler did that if the war's unfettered violence were to be unleashed in peacetime politics, private armies could enforce a new and criminal legality. Unlike, Hitler, however, he had little idea of what to do about it. He can scarcely be blamed for that. Apart from the psychopaths, hardly anybody had ...

The dying Kraus [however] could congratulate himself that he had at least, at last, seen things clearly. He had discovered the limited effectiveness of telling people they were fanatics when they think fanaticism to be a virtue … His German equivalent, Kurt Tucholsky, had the same trouble sinking to the occasion. Asked why he had not said more about the Nazis, he said, 'You can't shoot that low' …

The First World War had confirmed Kraus in his pacifism, but by the time he died he knew that peace, in the face of Hitler, had ceased to be credible as a principle, and could be espoused merely as a desirable state of affairs. He had been blind-sided by events, but at least he changed his mind. Many of his admirers were to prove less flexible … in its extreme form, this mass delusion of the intellect comes up with brain waves like the one about President Bush having arranged the attack on the World Trade Centre. Since it was always clear that President Bush was barely capable of arranging to recite his own name with the words in the right order, it seems a bizarre notion.

It is quite possible to imagine Kraus having a fun time with Bush's use of language, although first it would have to be translated into German, and before that it would have to be translated into English ... The terrorist can talk a pure language: it's purely violent, but still pure. His opponent is bound to equivocate, and sound silly doing so. That was the point Kraus missed because it had not yet become apparent by contrast with something worse. A liberal democracy, of any kind or degree, is bound to deal in hypocrisy and lies, simply because it has a measure of real politics, and is not unified and simplified by an ideology. Totalitarian irrationalism can say exactly what's on its mind. Hitler had genocide on his mind, and said so. But only his nuttiest colleagues believed he would actually do it …

Kraus might well have said, for example, that few official statements coming out of Washington in the last ten years, even those that stumbled out of the lips of the second President Bush, have ever attained quite the lethal fatality of Osama bin Laden's fatwa of 1998. He wouldn't have been able to read it in Arabic, but his analysis of the German translation would have been scathing.

* * *

In his essay 'The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism,' Chris Hedges observed that "fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the 'losers' who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment." When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols, and sensation. To Trump supporters, rational argument is irrelevant, to be replaced by "alternative facts." For those who voted for him, Hilary Clinton's many vaunted years of public service and invaluable diplomatic experience simply provided more nails in her political coffin.

* * *

Finally, in a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, Lawrence Douglas, a Law Professor at Amherst College, outlined six aspects of "Trumpspeak" that bear repeating in light of the way demagogues transform language to suit their personal agendas:

1. A speaker can never be accused of lying if he’s simply repeating the statements of others; it is the responsibility of those who make original claims to check for the accuracy and truthfulness of their assertions, not the person who repeats them.

2. Trumpspeak is figurative. It lives in quotation marks. This is not only because Trumpspeak works by repeating the statements of others, but because it is gestural, performative. Trumpspeak is unscripted; words cascade forth only to be rearranged and endlessly massaged to say whatever is needed in the moment.

3. Truth is not factual, it’s imagistic. Truthful statements do not necessarily offer an accurate account of events in the world. They provide an approximation or exaggeration of something that might, in theory, have occurred. Whether a terror attack in Sweden ever took place on the night named by the president is irrelevant.

4. Trumpspeak confuses prophecy with honesty. The president accurately predicted his electoral victory and therefore must be a man of his word. Conversely, if a news organization failed to correctly anticipate the president’s win at the polls, Trumpspeak treats this as evidence of the falsity and mendacity of that organization’s reportage about all of reality.

5. Belief is a signal of truth. If his supporters believe him, then what Trump is saying must be true. Conversely, if his detractors disbelieve him, this too is evidence that what he is saying must be true. In Trumpspeak, detractors claim Trump is a liar because they are his detractors; and in calling Trump a liar, they in fact are lying.

6. Trumpspeak is transactional. It places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless. Valuable statements, then, are true by virtue of the fact that they advance my interests. Statements that fail to do so are worthless and thus false.

* * *

In his 1938 'Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies,' Franklin Roosevelt warned in that "The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism." In light of the continued support of Trump by corporate-funded conservative think-tanks (such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economics Affairs, the Centre for Policy Study, the Adam Smith Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Atlantic Bridge Project), this is a perturbing admonition, and one we would do well to remember.

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