History, it seems, reached its zenith eight years ago, in 2008, and has been traveling backward since. How else can one account for the fact that, just as in 2000, the incumbent Democrats are running a highly unlikable former senator, who also served in the outgoing administration, and whose major selling point (aside from her gender, that is) is wonkishness and experience?
If we’ve returned to the year 2000, however, we should recognize that such a recurrence would double (i.e., amplify) any similarities – which may explain why Al Gore’s robotic demeanor has returned in the steely unpleasantness of Hillary Clinton, and how the more or less standard falsehoods and exaggerations of the former (his hypocritical environmentalism, for instance) have multiplied into the latter’s litany of lies and war crimes.
Hardly limited to the Democrats, though, this distorted, double-effect holds for the challenger, too. Like the nominee in 2000, who was also born into wealth and privilege, the current Republican nominee is also regarded as a monstrous buffoon. Not only do each of these businessman-politicians have highly dubious business records, marked by strings of business failures (as well as by a long history of fraud in the case of the current nominee), like the 2000 nominee, the 2016 nominee has no actual political experience. For while Bush did hold public office, the governor of Texas serves a largely symbolic function, with few real responsibilities. Instead of a liability, and despite the fact that both are members of the rarefied plutocratic class, though, this inexperienced outsider persona provided and provides much of the appeal of each. The correlate of this inexperience, meanwhile, their respective geopolitical ignorance, is accompanied by still other similarities – their name/brand recognition, for example, as well as the aggressive swagger characteristic of their respective campaigns.
Among other places, this swagger manifests verbally, in a constant torrent of inanity. While we may not remember very clearly, the doubles also share a penchant for absurd pronouncements. And, again, we see that, like their other qualities, the malapropisms of one of the doubles is not just present but amplified in the other (in Trump’s blatantly racist comments, for instance).
While Trump may lack the chainsaw-lugging approachability that did so much to endear Bush to a sector of the electorate, however, the two nevertheless possess a comparable appeal. In not entirely different ways, each manifests Marshall McLuhan’s insight that the medium is the message. That is, it doesn’t matter that they utter toxic nonsense (e.g., denying climate change), and often don’t know what they’re talking about. Their medium, their brute presence, their opposition to the present, is their message.
Irrespective of Trump’s contradictions and incoherence, it is his brashness, his big mouth, his embodiment of an objection, that is key. Whether his statements are true or false is irrelevant. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “the moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.” And Trump’s followers believe. In this regard, it is hardly coincidental that one of Trump’s most repeated phrases is “believe me.” Much like McLuhan’s example of a light bulb – a medium whose mere presence creates an environment – Trump’s indignant rejection of reality is his medium and message. As opposed to the light bulb, though, the medium of Trump doesn’t illuminate. Rather, it spreads darkness, and myth. And yet, spreading darkness should not be conflated with creating it. That is, Trump has been politically successful in large part because the reality he rejects (which Clinton promotes) is experienced by more and more people as poverty, and unremitting hardship. The fear he spreads is inseparable from the mounting anxiety (economic and otherwise) of millions.
But if Trump and Clinton amount to hypertrophic versions of Bush and Gore, it is a further irony that Trump and Clinton mirror one another as well. Not only is Clinton regarded by Trump’s followers as nothing short of satanic, for instance, while Clinton’s supporters characterize Trump as that secular Satan, Hitler; as so many have pointed out, the main source of Trump’s and Clinton’s appeal is that neither is the other. That is, their identity is their difference, which is the same. It should come as little surprise, then, that alongside Trump’s campaign promise to persecute Muslims domestically is Clinton’s record of bombing Muslims abroad – and that Trump’s anti-immigrant proposals are matched by Clinton’s record of supporting mass deportations, too. True, Trump’s opposition to free trade agreements and wars of aggression distinguish him from Clinton (as well as from Bush). But, aside from the issue of whether one can believe him, these distinctions are dwarfed by Clinton’s and Trump’s respective commitments to capitalism and global hegemony which require such interventions.
The distortions of cyclical time, however, contain more doubles than these. Not only do Trump and Clinton mirror one another, and appear (or reappear) as the intensified doubles of Bush and Gore, the conclusion of Obama’s administration in many respects appears as the double of Bill Clinton’s. With his NATO expansions, his free trade agreements, his continuation of a President Bush’s aggression against Iraq, and his Wall Street-friendly policies (not to mention the ridiculous fact that Clinton was also regarded as the first black president), Obama’s two terms mirror Clinton’s in multiple, amplified manners.
In addition to deeper poverty (resulting from Clinton’s welfare “reform,” free trade policies, and deregulation, along with Bush’s wars and tax cuts), increased police brutality (resulting from law and order legislation stretching back to Hillary’s teenage crush, Barry Goldwater, as well as from Bill Clinton’s signature crime bill), and levels of economic inequality that make the malaise and “jobless recovery” of the post dot-com era look positively rosy, international problems are also intensified in this recurrence. Since it threatens the entire planet, climate change (which Obama successfully ignored for eight years, despite his promises to the contrary) is among the most urgent of these. Another is the threat of nuclear war with Russia, which could easily result from Obama’s (and HRC’s) ongoing expansion of NATO. Of course, rather than the result of any particular politician’s policies, all of these problems (poverty, ecocide, militarism, and police brutality) are nothing but the underside of our political economy itself. Trudging about as we are in the fog of class war (a thick fog of pollution, technology, and ideology), it’s as easy to overlook this as it is to overlook the degree to which this fog surrounds and influences us.
A novelty in 2000, when few used email and fewer could imagine how drastically the internet would infiltrate and determine our lives, the personalized social and media bubbles that led Mitt Romney to think he had the 2012 election sewn up until the last minute are exponentially stronger today. Built into search engines, which then reproduce and reinforce all sorts of baseless political opinions, the pervasive and invasive influence of these curated political realities is more powerful than ever. Among one of the bigger political myths reproduced by these engines, one taken for a fact by so many these days, is the Nader spoiler myth.
Rather than Ralph Nader, of course, it was the US Supreme Court (not to mention Gore’s inability to convince people to vote for him) that decided the 2000 election. Beyond the facts and issues of one of the Court’s most infamous decisions, Sandra Day O’Connor not only openly expressed her desire for a Bush victory (which would allow her to retire during a Republican administration), as well as her anger over the initial announcement of a Gore victory, Scalia’s son and Clarence Thomas’ wife were actively working for Bush – as were Jeb Bush, then Governor of Florida, and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris. These patent conflicts of interest alone should have sufficed to invalidate the Court’s decision as well as the election – the results of which (aside from the fact that Gore won the popular vote) remaininconclusive. All of which is to say, in addition to the doubles of Clinton and Gore, and Trump and Bush, the contested election of 2000 may also see its double appear this year – in a proportionately amplified manner, of course. Beyond the role third parties might play, Trump’s recent statements predicting a “rigged election,” and his former adviser Roger Stone’s predictions of a “bloodbath,” suggest that the amplified return of a contested election is a strong likelihood.
With months until November, however, everything’s still up in the air. And while Trump and Clinton could both drop dead next week, it takes little foresight to recognize that, in such a fraught atmosphere, the subject of voting will remain contentious. Is a vote for Stein, for instance, really a vote for Clinton? With all the neoconservatives supporting her, isn’t a vote for Clinton a vote for them? Moreover, how is one to reconcile the contradiction between Emma Goldman’s famous declaration that “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal” and the fact that barriers are set up to block and limit ballot access and voting all over the country? Aren’t those who’ve worked so hard to gut the Voting Rights Act and institute voter ID laws setting up legal hurdles?
Despite the reality that the monumental costs involved in running a competitive political campaign are enough to expose our putative democracy for the plutocratic system it is, and that even winning an election is a superficial victory (since the laws and structures and institutions determining our lives fold our social fabric into a nearly comprehensive, disempowering maze that officeholders cannot meaningfully address); and just as it’s the case that this fundamentally unjust structure needs to be dismantled (just as poverty needs to be eliminated, not managed), and that voting generally changes very little, and can arguably even worsen things by strengthening the illusion of democratic legitimacy, when it comes to making a mess of this illusory democracy, the banal act of voting (for a radical alternative, at least) has the potential to be at least as effective as marching in a continent-wide demonstration. For while voting may be merely symbolic, symbols can nevertheless be tremendously powerful.
While it’s true that Jill Stein presently has a very low chance of winning – and, even if she were elected, wouldn’t be able to accomplish much within this biophagous system – rather than the ecocidal catastrophe of a Hillary Clinton administration, or the monstrous alternatives of Trump or Gary Johnson (the libertarian candidate who, like the others, doesn’t challenge the rule of exploitation and plunder), a strong showing by Stein and Baraka would deal a sizable blow to the status quo. However symbolic, and limited, the simultaneous demoralization and encouragement that would accompany such a blow would be real enough. And, as history amply demonstrates, once the illusory invincibility, illusory inevitability, and illusory necessity of an unjust arrangement of the world is exposed, the whole shameful sham can come shattering down.