The Meaning of the Trump Surge

The news is full of it – literally and figuratively: Trump is surging in the polls, especially in so-called battleground states. Is it time to worry?

Indeed, it is, but not about Trump. The Donald has been headed for defeat from the moment he started trouncing his rivals in the Republican primaries and caucuses. No matter that the polls are now detecting a Trump surge (more like a trickle, actually) or that the know-it-alls — left, right and center — now think otherwise. Nothing has changed; he still is.

Good and thoughtful people of all stripes should be grateful for Trump’s successes in the primaries and caucuses — not just because it took attention away from the “moral” (actually theocratic and morally vicious) obsessions of Republican voters and politicians, but also because, had the Republicans nominated any of Trump’s rivals, they would now be fielding someone even worse.

For anyone who doubts this, here is a two-word rejoinder: “Ted Cruz.”   If that isn’t enough, here is another: “Marco Rubio.”

Some of those rivals might actually have been able to win – maybe even the hapless Jeb Bush, the feckless brother of the worst President ever.  Hold that thought and Trump doesn’t look so bad.

However, the Trump surge – let’s call it that, even if the word exaggerates the truth — does make it even more urgent than it used to be to worry about Hillary Clinton.

A vote for Hillary isn’t just a vote for maintaining and worsening an already intolerably inegalitarian status quo; it is also a vote for maintaining and intensifying America’s reckless and increasingly futile efforts to remain the one and only global hegemon.

This is not news, however. The time to start worrying about a Hillary presidency was long before this dreadful and seemingly interminable election season began. Nothing that has happened in the past month has changed that one iota.

What has changed is that, with Trump doing better in the polls, everybody is now so busy worrying about the orange-haired boogeyman that efforts to liberate American politics from the stifling and increasingly undemocratic duopoly party system that sustains Clinton v. Trump elections have been set back.

Even while the Sanders insurgency was flourishing, there was never much reason to think that the Democratic Party could be reformed from within. Under the aegis of the Clintons and others like them, it had long ago become too rotten.

There was a small chance, however, that the Sanders campaign would split the Democratic Party.

Without really trying and perhaps without even intending anything of the kind, Trump drove a stake through the heart of the GOP; he did such a good job of it that it might never recover.

Sanders could have done much the same for the Democrats, but in a principled and constructive way.

The hope then was that the “good guys” in the party would find the courage to rise to the occasion.   It turns out, though, that the good guys — Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Chris Murphy, and the rest — were not just going along to get along. In fact, like the nominally independent Sanders, they are, at heart, good Democrats — faux progressives. There was never much doubt of this; but hope springs eternal.

They also appear to have been born without backbones. Nevertheless, if pushed along by militant Sandernistas, some of them might have followed Sanders’ lead, had he taken the lead. More likely, though, most of the heroes of the occasion would have come from down-ticket precincts – from Congressmen and women and from state and local Democratic Parties.

We will never know, however, because Sanders saw to it that nothing like that would happen. Instead of making history, he quashed history in the making.

To that end, all he had to do was cross over to the Dark Side – or reveal that he had been there all along. With its head cut off, the movement he started went south. “Our Revolution,” indeed.

But even Sanders’ betrayal couldn’t quash hope completely.

As Clinton pulled ahead in national polls after the Democratic and Republican conventions, there was reason to think that something worthwhile would come of all the electoral nonsense this year, after all: that this would be the breakout year for the Green Party. After all their years in the wilderness, the Greens were finally about to become a significant factor in American politics.

No more salutary development is even remotely feasible at this time.

This could still happen, of course; but the Trump “surge” diminishes the likelihood that it will. Unlike the theoretical possibility that the Trumps will soon be moving into the White House – or slumming there, as they remain ensconced in the gilded monstrosities the Donald prefers — this truly is worrisome.

If the Greens remain as marginal after November 8 as they have been for as long as that party has existed, then nothing good will have come out of this election season – not even a modest diminution in the extent of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ stranglehold over American “democracy.”

What a waste, after so much sound and fury!

Now even that hope is slipping away because, thanks in part to the Trump surge, the Commission on Presidential Debates has weighed in.

It was always plain that – if need be, by hook or crook – they would do all they could to see to it that the Green’s Jill Stein, and also Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, wouldn’t get to “debate” Hillary and the Donald.

As it turned out, they didn’t have to resort to any unusual funny business; the media kept both Stein and Johnson so far out of sight and mind that they had no chance of meeting the threshold for inclusion that the Commission, a creature of the two parties’ national committees, insisted upon.

If the debates this year were run, say, according to the old League of Women Voters rules, Stein and Johnson would be in.

Even if they were, Clinton would still win the election – she has too much media support and too many political machines working for her to lose, no matter how awful a candidate she is. But the quality of political discourse would improve a hundred-fold or more.

The benefits of that, especially after the election is over, would be incalculable.

No such luck, though. Instead of an enlightening exchange of views, we will soon be treated to a spectacle akin to a professional wrestling match – in which the very embodiment of the same old same old defends herself against a cunning, but mindless, buffoon.

Worse still, thanks to anti-Trump hysteria, Stein may not even succeed in getting enough votes, five percent of the total cast, to secure public funding for the Green Party in future elections.

That barrier is less like the “glass ceiling” that Hillary’s fans used to go on about than it is like Trump’s proposed separation wall along the U.S. – Mexican border.

The former hasn’t really existed in years – a suitable female candidate could easily have broken through the so-called glass ceiling at any time since the eighties, if not before. On the other hand, the barrier third party candidates face, especially now with restrictions on campaign “contributions” effectively gutted, is nearly impenetrable.

Nevertheless, Stein was on track for surpassing the threshold. Now, that prospect is less likely.

Worry about that!   And instead of piling on votes for a neoliberal warmonger to stave off Trump, strike a blow for democracy instead!

A Trump-style “conspiracy theorist” could easily lay the blame for the Trump surge on Team Hillary. Making voters think that Trump might actually win benefits her electoral prospects by motivating her base and scaring the fearful into voting for her. There is not, and never has been, much need for that – but it can’t hurt.

And, by further impeding the prospects of Stein and Johnson, anti-Trump hysteria strengthens the duopoly party system, not that there was ever much need for that either.

However, the Empress of Ineptitude isn’t clever enough to pull off a conspiracy of such magnitude. The idea that she and her people are somehow behind the narrowing polling data does have a certain plausibility; good conspiracy theories always do. But there are better explanations at hand for Clinton’s and Trump’s current standings in the polls.

They come down to fortuitous circumstances at the time the polls were conducted, and by the ways their results have been conveyed. There is also some, probably temporary, follow-the-herd behavior involved. John Cassidy’s piece on the narrowing of Clinton’s lead, published on The New Yorker website, September 17, provides a comprehensive account.

But why all the worry about Trump anyway?

In polite society these days, the answer is obvious: Trump will bring fascism or something like it to the USA.

This answer assumes, of course, that Trump has more than a negligible chance of emerging victorious. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that point, even though it is almost certainly false.

Even then, the obvious answer isn’t as obvious as it seems. Trump’s foreign policy views, as best they can be ascertained, outflank Clinton’s from the left, especially on matters bearing on war and peace; and on trade, infrastructure development and jobs creation, his views are arguably more progressive as well.

Hillary may not be quite the card-carrying neoconservative — or, insofar as there is a difference, “humanitarian intervener” — that she sometimes seems to be. But, on either description, she is plainly a fellow traveler. And the people she is likely to empower – Samantha Power, for example – are what one would expect from an admirer of the war criminal Henry Kissinger and the murderous Madeleine Albright.

Trump, on the other hand, is a hollow man; he goes wherever his mood and purpose at the time lead him. Does this give more or less cause for worry? The question is complicated; it may even be unanswerable.

Part of the problem is that huckster Donald keeps changing his spiel. Either he is one wily son of a bitch, working his marks by telling them whatever they want to hear at the moment, or he is incapable of holding a thought for more than a day or two. Both could be true.

The one sure thing is that nobody flip flops like he does. Hillary follows the polls, the way second- and third-rate politicians normally do; and, when she takes a position, she generally sticks with it, at least for a while. Trump seems somehow to derive his policy positions from a random number generator, and to hold them for only as long as he feels he has something to gain from them. That could be just for a fleeting moment, if need be; it doesn’t matter to him.

His campaign is not, and never has been about policy positions – not even when he was mouthing off about building a Great Wall along the Mexican border, or when he goes on about preventing Muslims from entering the United States.

Were Trump actually to become President, these and other proposals of his would have to be modified substantially, probably beyond recognition.

But, for the time being, what Trump has said, and what he will say between now and November, has little, if anything, to do with he would do were he, per impossibile, President of the United States.

The temptation is to think of Trump as a garden-variety demagogue. But that misses the point. What comes out of his mouth are not policy prescriptions at all; they are emotive utterances. He is not voicing ideas; he is conveying an attitude.

Serious politicians don’t speak in that register. But culture warriors do — especially if they are hucksters at heart, and have a flare for showmanship.

The attitude Trump conveys genuinely is “deplorable,” just as Hillary said; and Latinos and Muslims – and persons of all “identities” who stand in solidarity with the targets of his slurs – are entirely right to take umbrage.

But even this is not the main reason to wish him ill.

The deeper problem is that no matter whom he offends, Trump’s character is dangerously off kilter.

What ultimately disqualifies him for the office of President is not the racism, nativism and Islamophobia he stirs up, deplorable as that may be, but the plain fact, by now widely appreciated, that he is, by temperament, too mercurial to lead a country that has a military footprint in all the four corners of the earth and nuclear weapons out the wazoo.

Hillary’s character flaws are serious too; among other things, she seems to think, in her bones, that war is the answer. This sensibility underlies her politics.

Because it does, her politics, unlike Trump’s character, is not at all off kilter. This is why it is such a problem.

In short, Hillary’s politics, domestic and foreign, is part and parcel of precisely what is harming almost everybody who is not a member of “the billionaire class,” as it was called back when it was still possible to speak Bernie-speak with a good conscience.

The Team Hillary-corporate media line is that Trump appeals mainly to “white working class” voters — to older ones especially, and to males more than females.   How nice of the guardians of the status quo finally to concede that there is a working class. For decades, the word was practically verboten in their circles; workers were just part of what Bill Clinton famously called “the great forgotten middle class. ”

But, of course, by “working class,” they don’t quite mean working class. Sociologists and economists can argue endlessly about exactly how to characterize the working class, about who is in and who is not; but the basic idea is clear enough.

The working class en soi, in itself, as theorists used to say, is comprised of individuals who work for wages in manufacturing or service industries. Following Marx’s lead, the working class, like all social classes, is defined by its relation to the larger society’s means of production.

Leftwing historians and others were also interested in the working class pour soi, for itself. Because they saw it as the agent of progressive social change, they focused on its political and cultural consciousness.

However, for the talking heads of the corporate world, “working class” denotes a marketing demographic comprised of low wealth, white men and women who lack a college education. Whether or not they work for wages is irrelevant; their self-consciousness is irrelevant too.

The condescension is palpable.   The working class of old was the bearer of a new, more fully human, form of civilization. The working class we hear about today is a collection of superfluous people who bear a group identity on the road to extinction – much like the peasantry in some industrialized countries not long ago.

There is an important difference, however. The role of peasant became economically and technologically superseded; peasants who did not become farmers (producing mainly for national and international markets, rather than for their own subsistence) became workers or joined the mainstream economy in other ways.

The working class, on the other hand, is not obsolete; not on a global scale.

The problem is that for reasons having to do mainly with the political economy of the United States and other overripe capitalist states, many, though not all, working class jobs have been displaced to parts of the world where labor is cheaper, and therefore where capitalists’ profits are higher.

In the circumstances, few American workers benefit; many suffer; and no one likes the way things are going.

This, not the atavistic attitudes of whites without college degrees, is the root of the problem that Clinton’s media flacks decry.

Conventional wisdom has it that racial animosities, exacerbated by economic insecurity, have fueled the Trump phenomenon. There is much truth in this. For dividing and neutering America’s multi-racial working class, there is no more tried and true method than exacerbating racial and ethnic animosities.

But the deeper problems are structural. Clintonite policies, and the forces Hillary represents, are the causes of those economic insecurities.

For the time being, circumstances have made Hillary Clinton the de facto avatar of those causes.

People, of all hues, some with college educations and some without, understand this to some extent – as “through a glass darkly.” And so, for reasons that go beyond her inherent unlikabity, they don’t like Hillary.  Who can blame them?

Aside from an alarmingly large number of “deplorables,” people also understand, at some level, that Trump is not the answer.

But his candidacy has provided a way for them to say “fuck you” to all that Hillary and others of her ilk represent; it still does.

Had he not betrayed the movement he got going, Sanders could have marshaled anti-Hillary consciousness in a more constructive way.

And Jill Stein is eager to do so now. She could do a far better job than Sanders too, because her progressive vision, unlike his, doesn’t end at the country’s borders. She, unlike he, would at least try to take American imperialism on.

But in the actual world, Jill Stein is still “Jill who?,” and telling pollsters that they now favor the Donald seems to be the only way many people have to tell Hillary and the people around her what they think of them.

However, November 8 is coming. Americans get to decide whose fingers they want on buttons that could, as they say in Clintonese, end the world “as we know it.” That is bound to focus more than a few befuddled minds.

The choice is between a warmongering ideologue, the devil we know too well, and a seventy-year old with an adolescent mind, susceptible to impulse control problems, and with a proven disposition to act out.

Deciding which is worse is indeed more complicated than most liberals think. But, in the end, I would bet the ranch that, in the circumstances, many of the people now telling pollsters that they will likely vote for Trump will have second thoughts; and that many, maybe most, of them will hold their noses and vote for the devil they (justifiably) hate, while others will just stay home. In either case, support for Trump will decline to post-convention levels or worse.

I would venture too that, al things considered, this is probably a good thing.

I say this not for the many “obvious,” but largely spurious, reasons that lesser evilists are currently carting out, but because a peace movement could thwart Hillary’s bellicosity – she is only a politician, after all — while nothing can hold back an enraged or offended Donald Trump.

What will finally do Trump in, however, is not popular awareness of his flaws. It is what has been holding back support for him all along: the united opposition of media, cultural and political elites.

Trump’s “populism” takes off from the fact that nobody likes them either. This is only to be expected; they are part of the same rot that Hillary is, and everybody knows it – again, as through a glass darkly.

But, this side of a mass prise de conscience, a radical change of consciousness on the part of those who now only find the status quo disturbing, this awareness, such as it is, will not change, or even substantially affect, the outcome of the November election.

Therefore, expect those “likely voters” who have been, and maybe still are, closing the gap between Clinton and Trump, to drop away or change their minds.

Expect too that, unless Clinton flubs the debates spectacularly, that, before long — well in advance of Election Day — a Clinton victory will again appear to be the sure thing it has been all along.

Meanwhile, though, the damage will have been done; the duopoly will, for a while, be more entrenched than ever.

This chronic problem could have been addressed this election season had corporate media been a tad less servile or had Bernie Sanders not been quite so pusillanimous or had Clinton been a good enough candidate to ward off the Trump surge, notwithstanding the fact that she is the reason for it.

But since none of this was the case, the only hope remaining is for a Stein surge – big enough to put the Greens over the five percent barrier. The chances of that are slim, thanks to the Commission on Presidential Debates, but greater by far than that the Donald will somehow pull off an election victory.

So, without quite yet abandoning all hope, now is a time to prepare for the troubles ahead. With Hillary apparently fit enough to serve — and with the usual miscreants, the party apparatchiks and the liberal money people, in her pocket — there seems to be nothing, at this point, that anybody can do to head her off.

Now would therefore be a good time too for someone with an entrepreneurial flair to start churning out “Don’t Blame Me, I Didn’t Vote for Her” bumper stickers. There was a lot of that sort of thing back in the LBJ days when liberals couldn’t buy enough of them. Needless to say, most of them did vote for LBJ when he ran against Barry Goldwater, the Donald Trump of the 1964 election.

Johnson won by a landslide, and so will Hillary. And because once Commander-in-Chief Hillary gets going, she will come to be even more reviled by liberals than LBJ was after he ratcheted up the Vietnam War, the market, this time around, will be even better.

You can take that to the bank too — along with my prediction that, even with Hillary for an opponent, the Donald will be getting his comeuppance this November 8.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).