What a disgusting spectacle, this Republican presidential race! Filled with bigotry and jingoism, smears and showboating, hypocrisy and lies, and all to be decided by who raises the most money. Calls for torture, carpet bombing, surveillance, and deportations strike just the right chords to make Obama look like a wimp and pump up the Republican voting base. The ringmaster is a billionaire reality TV star who “echoes the appeals of demagogues of the past century” (NY Times, Dec. 5).
This is all criticized in the media, even by conservatives. They see this “freak show” as an embarrassment and mockery of America’s democracy – which is what makes the USA so great and entitles it to judge countries where religious fanatics and corrupt dictators wield power.
But if the Republican candidates could care less whether they are telling lies and no campaign tactic is too low because they “want to win” – doesn’t this say something about electoral politics? After all, they are not competing for the best way to meet the peoples’ needs, but for the right to wield power. What’s pretty about that?
For all the criticism of the Republican campaigns in the media, it always asks: who is going to win? Will Trump blow himself up with his most recent comments? Will Jeb Bush find his mojo by pledging to travel back in time to kill the baby Hitler? Can Ben Carson distance himself from the religious nuts who attack Planned Parenthood clinics without sinking in the polls? And so on.
There is only one criteria for the media coverage of the campaigns: can this candidate successfully lead the nation with his personality? Everything is measured and compared: polls, the size and enthusiasm of crowds, the catchiness of slogans, debate performances. Every diss and zinger is analyzed from the point of view: did this attract or repel voters?
Journalists try to project the way the candidates run their campaigns as clues to their successful leadership. Fundraising is key because, before a single voter has been addressed, a candidate must appeal to money; and the more success he has doing this, the more attractive he becomes, because money is always looking for success and gravitates toward success.
The criteria – who is winning? – ends up affirming the same ugly tactics that are deplored. For example, a recent article in The Atlantic (Nov. 18) surveys the long history of race-baiting in Republican campaigns and only one question arises: “will this work in 2016?” Cynical, yeah, but who can argue if that’s what gains a majority …?
Not that the media isn’t worried. Op-eds ask: can you imagine a President Trump or a President Carson? Will they be able to get their programs through, win support from other countries for their international ventures, be a strong leader in war? The concern is always with the success of the nation and its ambitions.
The media participates in the quest for power by trying to interest people in these questions. Because if the candidate wins the party’s nomination, this shows he’s got right stuff to be president and, in the final analysis, the end justifies all the means.
The time-tested method
The media’s perspective – success shows you have the character to succeed – corresponds to what campaigns are all about. The various candidates for the Republican nomination want to convince the party’s voters: before you stands the next President of the USA! They stage a personality cult by advertising the success they have already achieved in business or politics, in their family life, or in their policy meetings with God. Anything that connotes “winner” can serve this purpose (that hair is real, by the way!).
The private wealth they have amassed is the best proof they have the know-how to supervise America’s economy and military power because they have personally benefited from it. It should also be proof that they are not called to public service because they need the money, so they are incorruptible. This is a tradition in American politics going back to George Washington, the richest American in his time.
Not any rich jerk can do this. A politician has to master the trick of getting people to vote for him by recognizing their interests, but at the same time telling them that their interests are special and that he decides what’s good for the nation. Some fall off this tightrope. Romney wasn’t supposed to say that 47% of Americans are lazy welfare bums, even if he thought it. A successful politician has to tell the people that they don’t count and get them to vote for him.
A politician turns ordinary people into followers by tapping into their discontent. This exists in abundance because there are always lots of reasons for discontent. But people have to be taught to look at their private problems as America’s problems. This is a dangerous lie because these are not the same. When things are going badly for ordinary people, this doesn’t mean things are going badly for the nation. And if the economy is growing, this doesn’t mean ordinary people are prospering; just the opposite, in fact.
“Our” problem that “we” have to solve means: the politician has to solve it. He promises to make America great again because you are entitled to this as an “American,” whether you are a worker or a capitalist, a renter or a landlord, a small IRA saver or a brokerage manager. Voters are always addressed as nationalists, whether this is spoken or not. So its a quick slip from asking “who is ruining my life?” to “who is ruining the nation?”
The Republican rainbow
For Republicans, good rule means removing obstacles to business. The contradiction in the Republican ideology is that “freedom from Big Government” requires a regime of comprehensive state force. Government becomes “big” as soon as it goes beyond protecting property and persons. This reason of state is the unquestioned premise of American politics, and the only debate is over where to draw the line.
The issues in the Republican race are all over the place, reflecting the diversity of interests competing inside the party. It includes evangelical Christians like Cruz and Rubio, urban bosses like Christie, “post-feminist” executives like Fiorina. If an election was just about issues, these politicians would be in different parties. The candidates are competing over what “Republican” means.
In the normal case, staging propaganda for a politician’s personality is done through their handling of so-called issues. Issues come up by them defining things as issues, and they compete in this field as well. Trump says illegal immigrants are a threat to national security; Kasich says it isn’t an issue. Here the state’s need for law and order comes into conflict with business’s need for a cheap and super-exploitable labor force. The issues are not fake; the candidates have serious problems with the way things are being done in Washington. But the specific issue is not as important as the impression they make on the public with it.
The only candidate who is being criticized for not dealing with the issues is Trump. He seems to be taking a shortcut by merely projecting his personality, by being “The Donald.” Trump is about: “do this.” That’s the end of it. How do you close the border? Just close it. Why isn’t it closed? People are incompetent. He refuses to debate on the level of detailed policy proscriptions. “I’m Donald Trump, I get things done. If things aren’t getting done, then everybody else is stupid.”
Journalists dislike Trump for not taking politics as an intellectual pursuit. They have the idea that a candidate should enunciate a policy and criticize a rival’s policy without insulting them. They think its important that candidates prove their leadership by how they handle issues and respond to critics. The debates should give the public the sense of a leader who makes wise decisions for the nation.
The voters know they aren’t voting for issues, but for a person who holds power. They have been declared too incompetent to decide issue themselves, so they need a leader to decide whether government spending is out of control or whether troops should be sent to Syria. Elections are not about political arguments, but whether a candidate is a straight shooter and inspires confidence. That’s what the people are qualified to judge in elections: does this politician give you a warm feeling, like you could watch a football game with him? Does he make you feel secure?
The candidates are fishing for the trust of the electorate and this is not an absolute thing, but relative: who do you trust most? This way of getting into office is set up to get a winner, so you don’t need a majority of votes, just more than the next candidate. The two strategies are slinging mud (the low road) and boasting and bragging (the high road). They are one and the same: I’m better than him, he’s worse than me.
The voters know that a politician doesn’t answer to them just because they vote for him, so it becomes a matter of trust that this candidate is going to manage the affairs of the nation in a way that seems reasonable to them. All they can hope for is that their private interest is somehow included in the politician’s concept of the national interest. So they have to listen to the politicians for clues that they share a common idea of what America is all about.
For journalists seeking to discredit Trump, “populist” is the preferred label. In modern political parlance, “populism” is the ultimate in bad politics (even though populism is Latin for the Greek word democracy). It means not getting votes by demonstrating you are above the people, but by pandering to them. However, Trump’s fans know he isn’t saying: hey, Jane Doe, I’m going to help you out, what do you need? A job, a better house, a safer neighborhood? He is not feeding illusions about what is in store for them. Just the opposite: “wages are too damn high!” And this doesn’t faze them.
This has many political observers scratching their heads. Why does Trump appeal to working class white voters? Thomas Edsall consulted with psychiatrists who explained that this is “genetically based,” caused by a “primitive unconscious,” narcissism, feelings of emasculation, and maybe all of the above (New York Times, Dec. 2). They don’t bother to examine how people think about their hardships, which could lead to leftist conclusions. Its enough to point to increased economic insecurity, as if this automatically leads to xenophobia. If that’s the case, then the only thing to do is to vote for the Democrats and a kinder, gentler nationalism.
One of the great hypocrisies of the political elite is blaming all the stupidities of campaigns on the voters. All the techniques of vote mongering (“baby-kissing,” opportunism, etc.) are turned into a concession to the stupidity of the lower classes. This inverts the real relation; it make the voters responsible for the idiocies of the political system.
Many Democrats suspect that the American working class isn’t ready for democracy if it is voting the wrong way. But if the working class doesn’t see its problems as a result of the nation and its economy but of immigrants and Muslims, doesn’t this show that they have been successfully politicized by the media, the parties, and all the ideological institutions of capitalist society? When the working class can come up with nothing more than giving up their material interests by voting, then isn’t everything on track for America and the uses it plans for its human material?
Real and imagined dangers
The comparison of Trump to fascism misses both what is fascist in democracy and the real danger that Trump poses.
The division of humans into leaders and led is a principle shared by democracy, fascism and state socialism. Ruling requires authority, “charisma,” that mysterious quality of a personality to attract a following. Hitler was a magnet for it, whereas there were tons of fascists in the administration of the Third Reich who couldn’t be its public face because they lacked a feeling of leadership.
Here the similarity ends. Who can imagine Hitler holding a press conference? No fascist would ever do that. The Führer just demanded obedience. Democracy is different in that the leader has to pander to the voters. Its one of the contradictions of democracy that the leader has to appear leader-like while engaging in the unleaderly act of begging for votes. It takes this risk because it is confident that it has the winning ideology: this is all about you, the people! It flatters them: you know how to recognize a great leader! You are the true sovereign who is going to give up sovereignty as soon as the election is over.
The fascist ideal of leadership is alive and kicking in American democracy. Fascism is also not needed when all fascist measures – ethnic cleansing, strength through war, class unity – are fit subjects for national debate.