The dangers of Trump denialism

‘We should have seen this coming,’ Marco Rubio said in the speech suspending his election campaign. ‘People are angry and people are really frustrated,’ he continued, as if this were news. His comments were disingenuous in at least three respects.

First, Rubio himself happily rode a wave of Tea Party anger into the Senate. All of this has been building for at least a decade, and Rubio leveraged it where he could. Second, writers and commentators – especially on the left – did see it coming, and have been warning about it for some time. Mainstream political figures just chose not to listen.

Third, the anger he mentions might be unusually intense right now, but he’s really only concerned about it because mainstream Republicans no longer have the capacity to channel it for electoral purposes. Rubio is neither the first, nor the last Republican left high and dry by the resurgence of older nativist and nationalist currents that they assumed they could manage.

The political movement led by Donald Trump has brought the United States to a moment of real political danger. It comes not from the protesters who have been savaged by liberals and conservatives alike for disrupting his events, but from Trump’s ‘scripted violence’, now playing out in his rallies, and increasingly in the streets.

All of this will likely worsen over the summer and autumn, if – when – Trump is running for president as the Republican Party’s nominee. Not all of Trump’s supporters are inclined to violence, but those who have lashed out at protesters have disproportionately targeted people of colour. Without determined organisation and solidarity on the left, they and the other groups the right has habitually scapegoated will bear the greatest burdens of Trumpism.

Yet even now, ten months after he announced and nine after he first took his continuing lead in national polling, there is still a stubborn tendency among paid-up political commentators to believe that Donald Trump may fall short of the nomination. Last Sunday, on NBC’s Meet The Press, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt once again predicted Trump’s demise.

‘I think [his popularity] took a big hit over the last 72 hours. If you remember the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, the battle for Seattle, nobody liked that and recoiled from it. There are professional disrupters, they do go to this, he is now a magnet for it.’

An absurd comparison between Trump rallies and the Battle of Seattle hints at the mood of desperation that has arisen among those with the most to lose from Trump’s ascent. Almost anything that can possibly serve as a bad omen for his campaign is seized upon. Alex Castellanos asked of Hewitt, ‘how many times can you bury Donald Trump?’ After a long season of repeated eulogies, he remains defiantly alive, and as of the latest primaries, he is the presumptive nominee.

Outright Trump denialism of this kind will fade after his triumphs on 15 May, but there are many other ways of not taking Trump seriously. One is to insist that his political views are not deeply held, that he’s a mere opportunist, that even now his campaign is just a bid for publicity, and that in the end, we shouldn’t take what he says at face value.

Conservatives and liberals are both at times attracted to the view that Trump is just putting it on. On the left we find a more sophisticated version of this in the notion that Trump is some free-floating populist signifier and primarily a vessel for popular frustration, without which he would be ideologically empty. Across the political spectrum there is a desire to portray the Donald as pure negation.

This is all pretty odd, because his concrete, stated positions are consistent and continuous with the oldest traditions on the American right. Mostly they are a less coherent, less gloomy recitation of the ‘paleo-conservatism’ last given national prominence in the presidential runs of Pat Buchanan. Historian George H Nash’s description of Buchanan’s positions could have been penned as a description of Trump. Buchanan was:

[f]iercely and defiantly ‘nationalist’ (rather than ‘internationalist’), skeptical of ‘global democracy’ and entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America’s Europe-oriented culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of free trade … .

They share an ambivalence about Israel, and Trump’s promise to ‘bomb the shit out of’ ISIS is best understood as a shortcut to pulling out of the Middle East altogether, before retreating into splendid isolation. Trump’s hostility to black civil rights is far less explicit than Buchanan’s, and he doesn’t appear to be an ideological anti-Semite, but he has made up for it with a new emphasis on Islamophobia, and has sent enough signals to earn the fervent support of outright white nationalists and others on the racist right. Even on the left there has been a weird, ahistorical misreading of Trump as some kind of confused quasi-progressive. This is a fantasy: his campaign is a recrudescence of All-American, white-supremacist Toryism.

There are some marginal differences between Buchananite and Trumpist paleo-conservatism. Both men are hostile to free trade, but while Buchanan’s economic ideal is a nation of small businesspeople descended from the ‘distributism’ of Catholic social thought, Trump is apparently pushing a kind of Herrenvolk welfarism, where white Americans continue receiving state largesse in the form of pensions and medical subsidies, and new immigrants are denied a place at the table.

Also unlike Buchanan, who attends Latin Mass, Trump is not a religious conservative, or a religious anything. He seems fundamentally uninterested in issues like abortion, let alone questions of personal morality. But the most godless GOP candidate in living memory has had no trouble attracting evangelical voters who, like other grassroots conservatives, now see the ‘Republican establishment’ as their principal enemy. It’s worth noting that the Christian right is itself a relatively new political force, and the longer history of American conservatism reveals no necessary connection between it and evangelical Christianity.

As Trump recalls Buchanan, the latter in turn recalls American pre-war conservatism, before ‘fusionist’ movement conservatism, the religious right and later the neo-cons took a decisive hold on Republican politics. Both men frankly articulate the American nativism that generations of Republicans have tried but ultimately failed to expunge from their party and their movement.

Both identify scapegoats for the woes of white middle-class Americans, but Trump – with his larger crowds, more violent rhetoric, and with a prominent left-wing campaign to target – is undoubtedly more dangerous to the groups he singles out, and to democratic institutions, than Buchanan ever was.

In 1992 and 1996, when Buchanan had his most serious tilts, powerful figures like William F Buckley Jr and institutions like his magazine National Review were, as George Hawley puts it, keeping ‘more radical – or simply different right-wing voices from reaching a larger audience, or exercising major influence on the Republican Party.’

Buckley attacked Buchanan for his anti-Semitism at a time when the conservative leadership still had a decisive influence on rank and file opinion. As a result, Buchanan lost three successive nominations, though he picked up four states and three million votes in 1992.

Those conditions no longer obtain. The communications revolution that has diminished the power of media gatekeepers everywhere has also brought low the erstwhile pillars of the conservative movement. Trump and his supporters have made good use of social media, and are supported by upstart hard-right influencers like Breitbart News. National Review simply doesn’t carry the weight that it once did, and their frustration is evident in pieces like Kevin Williamson’s in the latest issue – probably the purest and most unguarded expression of class hatred that a mainstream conservative outlet has published in decades.

Other parts of the conservative media galaxy – like talk radio – are just now reaping the whirlwind. They have spent eight years urging conservative Republicans to rise up against their compromising congressional leaders, and now they, too, have lost control of that impulse. Powerful hosts like Mark Levin, Eric Erickson and Glenn Beck have all endorsed Ted Cruz – whose ideology is really just a harder, more uncompromising, Tea Party-inflected version of movement conservatism – and all pilloried Trump, to little avail.

It doesn’t help that neo-conservatism has been utterly discredited, not least among those whose sons and daughters died or themselves were maimed in mind and body in the failed wars begun by George W Bush. In 2003, right-wing dissenters were bullied into line to support the war. In recent months, Trump has openly mocked the President who started them in rallies and debates.

Further, the economic fortunes of most Americans have deteriorated sharply over the last two decades, with the bottom half of households seeing their real income flatline or decline, most markedly since the crisis of 2008, while the top two quintiles pull away.

This divergence in fortunes help us to another explanation of liberal and conservative surprise at Trumpism, and the continuing resistance to the idea that it’s real. Wealth, education and status have become geographically concentrated, to the extent that rich and poor Americans can be said to inhabit separate worlds. It’s difficult to appreciate this until you’ve taken a car ride from America’s wealthy coastal enclaves into the broken hinterlands, where 2008 has never really ended.

The relatively tiny corridor from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington DC contains 37 of the 75 wealthiest counties in the country. This strip also contains the most important centres of capital, national politics, and political media. Meanwhile, the South contains 79 per cent of the poorest counties. It’s tough to register anger and dissent, let alone empathise with it, if you never run across anyone who is getting stiffed.

A more fundamental reason for this disconnect, though, may be the internal crises of American liberalism and conservatism, neither of which successfully processed the end of the Cold War. This also applies to the political media, which is dominated by a narrow spectrum of liberal and conservative opinion, and where the left remains extremely marginal.

A fear of communism allowed conservatives to weave together strands of economic libertarianism, Christian conservatism, and neo-conservative overseas interventionism. When the Soviet Union fell, movement conservatism tried to compensate with a sequence of frenetic culture wars, which it generally lost.

For a while it was still able to persuade observers that it had prevailed over an older, more protean and authentically populist line of right-wing thinking. War and the immiseration of what Americans call the middle class has let Trump poke a hole in this edifice. It’s large enough to admit his movement and smaller groups of fellow travellers – white nationalists, the patriot movement, neo-fascists – who the conservative establishment can no longer pretend to be able to keep at bay.

The blindness of liberalism is a more complex malady. Liberals have proved themselves constitutionally unable to heed the warnings of the left about the rise of an armed and militant far right in recent decades.

Perhaps that’s because, after the abandonment of Cold War welfare state liberalism, after the Clintons and Obama, liberal intellectuals – including journalists – have become increasingly economistic, seeing politics as essentially managerial and transactional, to the extent that they find it difficult to process political passions, or even understand how it is that they have persisted.

As is the case in centre-left parties throughout the developed world, tepid, third-way politics has been the Democratic Party’s only real offering for three decades, at least until the social-democratic candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Third-wayism has been based on the assumption that the collapse of state socialism meant the end of ideological conflict, and even of serious social antagonism. All that’s left to do is some nudging, tinkering, and neoliberal ‘reform’.

In an increasingly stratified, militarised, and racially divided polity, this is not a viable politics, as the Obama presidency has demonstrated. But so far the liberal response has not really progressed further than indignant surprise – from the President at his failure to be a ‘uniter’ of a purple America, and now from liberal outlets from the New York Times to Vox at the rise of right-wing populism, which until recently they seemed to find literally unbelievable. Now, some have progressed to another stage of grief – bargaining with reality, arguing that Trump is inauthentic, has a ceiling, or can’t possibly win a general election.

Chantal Mouffe has spent decades warning about the dangers of right-wing populists in Europe – a number of whom Trump also resembles. To a large extent she has also been ignored by liberals, and the fact that she sharply criticises their role in the rise of these actors may have something to do with that.

In 2002 she wrote:

To a great extent the success of right-wing populist parties comes from the fact that they provide people with some form of hope, with the belief that things could be different. Of course this is an illusory hope, founded on false premises and on unacceptable mechanisms of exclusion where xenophobia usually plays a central role. But when they are the only ones to offer an outlet for political passions, their pretence to offer an alternative is seductive and their appeal is likely to grow.

All current indications are that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, and then run on the centre-right, hoping to pick up conservative suburban professionals in swing states to offset the drift of the white working class to Trump. As a matter of political temperament, this will suit the hawkish, business-friendly Clinton. At this point, the neo-con/paleo-con divide that once defined the Republican Party’s internal conflicts will come to delimit the landscape of presidential politics. Trump will have succeeded in dragging the parameters of presidential politics even further to the right.

If she wins – and it’s always possible that she won’t – it will not be because she has offered hope, but from a number of other factors. She may have successfully intuited that respectable opinion is not quite ready for a racist demagogue as president. And leftists and progressives may once again hold their noses and vote for her, or even organise on her behalf, simply in order to stop Trump.

But there’s no reason to think that, having mobilised millions, mortally wounded movement establishment conservatism, and transformed the political landscape, either Trump or Trumpism are going to fade away after the election.

They certainly won’t in the absence of any alternative. Bernie Sanders has gestured towards a different way that hope and passion can be mobilised, and a policy program that would take real measures to ease the desperation of the young, the sick, and the working poor. But he’s on track to lose, and Clinton is likely to stop even paying lip service to progressive ideals as the campaign progresses.

In the absence of an unlikely reorientation of progressive politics towards serious redistribution and social welfare, the appeal of Trumpism will continue to grow. It will go on inciting and attracting violence, and perhaps become a pretext for the further enhancement of the carceral, security, and surveillance state, as the militia movement was for Bill Clinton.

The left will need to be vigilant, energetic, and organised, not only until the autumn but for years to come. As long as Trump is a national political figure, none of us are really safe.

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Photo: Mike Licht/Flickr

Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson is a Guardian Australia columnist. His writing has also appeared in other places, like Soundings, the Atlantic, the Monthly, New Inquiry and various academic journals. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He's on Twitter at @jason_a_w.

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