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Death Rattle Politics

Photo by Evan Guest | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Evan Guest | CC BY 2.0

The success of Trump’s campaign and his incursion into traditional Democratic strongholds in the ‘blue firewall’ is a classic example of the politics of scapegoating as a response by elites to systemic crisis; the fact that a representative of the moneyed elite, one with the same kind of experience in the entertainment industry and the same capacity to perform in front of the cameras as the b-actor who took the presidency in the 1980s, took the direct lead in acting out those politics is indicative of how serious those sectors take the need for them.

To standards that demonstrate any regard for causality, support in evidence, honesty or the truism that we are all our own worst enemies, Trump’s campaign was insane. But herein lies the mistake for those who imagine that politics does, should or can operate according to the kind of standards that the rest of society requires as a sine qua non of functionality and coherence; it does not.

On the contrary, and as history strongly reflects, what Maurice Brinton called the politics of the irrational have always played a conspicuous role in politics. This fact was true even before the days of Rome when floods and other natural disasters were interpreted by religious elites as acts of God sent to punish people for their sins, such interpretations functioning to make scapegoats out of the victims for widespread loss of faith in the religious beliefs that buttressed their power.

In the days of Rome, as Norman Cohn pointed out, early Christians were persecuted and fed to the lions in the Colosseum in a violent, cruel and bloody spectacle that gave the Roman people a safe outlet for otherwise inexpressible tensions created by the realties of everyday life in class-divided society, having been demonized as cannibals (because of the Eucharist) and partakers of incestuous orgies. After Constantine converted to Christianity and coopted the anti-imperialist rebellion against the empire for the empire, roles were reversed and Christians persecuted their pagan enemies on the same basis (ie as cannibals who liked to partake of incestuous orgies). Now being in control of the empire, they were faced with the same realities of power.

By that time Julius Caesar had long crossed the Rubicon, subjecting the Roman establishment to the politics of crisis. As James Madison observed during the Constitutional Convention of 1786, however, ‘Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended’; that they were willing and able to do so is evidenced in episodes like the pirate attack on the port of Ostia in 68ACE, which created a crisis that was exploited by Roman elites for war — which as we know from direct experience tend to be used by them to shut down dissent and shift attention and blame away from themselves. As Schumpeter pointed out,

There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest-why, then it was the national honour that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.

The Roman Empire eventually fell, but as Philip K. Dick pointed out, ‘the empire never ended’ — its spirit and traditions surviving in the form of Catholicism, which retained the thrust for empire and perpetrated it throughout much of the next two millennia, through the Crusades, the European Witch Hunts (that for the record followed the apostasy-inducing Great Flood and Famine of 1314-17 and the Black Death) and the Inquisition. The pathogen spread to the New World in the 17th century, fuelling first the nativism of the nineteenth century and then the Hoover-inspired anti-communist politics of the early-to-mind 20th century (often erroneously called McCarthyism), inspiring Arthur Miller to critique anticommunism by drawing a parallel between it and the Salem Witch Trials. The crisis internal to the United States created by the growth of corporate power and its challenge to workers’ rights and civil liberties was mirrored by an outward threat to the burgeoning American Empire, expressed by Cold War architect George Kennan in the following terms:

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves [sic] and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

All of the above form the background to the present, not of which the Cold War period that saw the communist bugbear in the kinds of movements for independent nationalism that had originally inspired the American Revolution and the desire of the colonies to break free of British subjugation. It also evidences examples what social psychologists called stereotype priming, or the metathinking that normalizes the kind of binary logic that makes the politics of scapegoating and demagoguery recognizable and familiar.

Racism has always played a part both in scapegoating, blame shifting and stereotype priming in settler colonial societies, a fact as true of Australia as it is of the United States. As historians and sociologists concerned with whiteness studies have known for some time now, whiteness has long been used by elites to provide the white working class with scraps of ethnic privilege from the banquet of class privilege, above all else as a form of divide and conquer. In this respect, Trump is nothing more than the latest of a litany of demagogues who have sought to take advantage of the truism articulated by Schopenhauer, who wrote that ‘Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority’ — especially true when nationalism was tied to nativism and racialised interpretations of same (such as those posited against Islam as a threat to ‘our’ way of life).

As I pointed out in Counterpunch last year, the collapse of the United States economy and, with it, the US Empire is a forgone conclusion:

Since 1971, the value of the US dollar, and with it the corporeal integrity of the US economy, has been tied to what we know today as the petrodollar system. This arrangement is the result of Nixon’s abolition of the gold standard in 1971, the basis of valuing the US dollar since the end of WW2, coupled with a deal struck with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations for US military hardware and protection in return for oil sales exclusively in US dollars. Despite rendering the US dollar a fiat currency, in the short term at least this arrangement bolstered the dollar’s flagging value by creating demand for it outside the country — thereby rendering what would have otherwise become inflation into a useful export. The concept of a ‘petrodollar’ arose as the volume of these fiat greenbacks outside US borders rose proportionally to those within, as a way of distinguishing between the two.

At the time the ‘Nixon Shock’ as it came to be known may well have seemed like a useful workaround for various problems associated with the disintegration of the postwar Bretton Woods system, which had set monetary policy on exchange rates and the like amongst industrialized states during the intervening period, not least of which being high rates of unemployment and inflation internal to the United States itself. At the same time as saving the dollar from what might be regarded as the inherent shortcomings of market ideology in the short term, however, it also appears to have been a fatal error to the extent that it tied the value of the dollar to what was and remains a finite resource — a fact that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the petrodollar, and with it the US economy.

This is the real story behind the sound and fury of the Trump electoral campaign; what holds true for imperialist wars fought in the name of anticommunism also holds true for class wars fought by privileged cliques on the mass of society in the name of defending ‘the minority of the opulent from the majority,’ as Madison defined the purpose of government at the same time as he observed the function of warmongering in Rome. In the midst of the ground giving away from underneath the imperialists of capital, the white working class in the United States as elsewhere has been well and truly owned by corporate globalization. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of neoliberal policies and free trade deals such as that proposed in the TPP in job losses and decline of living standards while watching the criminals on Wall Street almost tanking the global economy and then being rewarded with taxpayer funded bailouts to the tune of trillions of dollars and squirrelling their money away from the IRS in offshore tax.’

The indifference of the Democratic Party to the suffering of ordinary Americans and their willingness to spend more time fighting off the threat of Bernie Sanders than fighting neoliberalism and the crypto-fascism of Donald Trump has demonstrated their uselessness. In contrast to this, and reflecting similar dynamics throughout history that come in response to periods of crisis, the dog whistling of Trump to the white working class is the oldest trick in the book, the death rattle of an empire in decline and a failed society in the process of tearing itself apart.

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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