Behind the Matador’s Cape

Photo by Vladimir Terán Altamirano | CC BY 2.0

I’m no fan of bullfighting or rodeo, but those two “sports” provide some useful metaphors for how the United States ruling class rules. Think of the U.S. citizenry as a penned bull, the U.S. capitalist “elite” as a matador or a rodeo bull-rider, and the U.S. president as a red cape or, alternately a rodeo clown.

The role of the cape in bull-fighting (really bull-killing) is to distract the bull’s attention, making the giant animal charge by just in reach of the matador’s lethal swords.  The rodeo clown diverts the bull after it has thrown off its rider.  He helps shoo the animal back into its pen before it can do any more damage to the fallen cowboy.

Are these not the roles that presidents play in the U.S to no small degree? Donald Trump is an especially graphic case in point.  Every night, or close to it, the evening new brims with stories of the latest preposterous Trump outrage: the charge that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton; the claim that Obama  wiretapped Trump Tower; the gross and sexist personal assault on MSNBC talk show hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough; the idiotic criticism of a retail firm for discontinuing his daughter’s perfume brand; the wacky if supremely dangerous war of words with Kim Jong-Un; the horrifying cover Trump gave to murderous, neo-Nazi Confederate statue-defenders in Charlottesville, Virginia; the praise and advance-pardon of the fascist country sheriff Joe Arpaio;  the vicious assault on Anthem-protesting Black NFL players (“sons of bitches” in the president’s words); the idiotic attack on the Mayor of San Juan after he golfed through Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall in Puerto Rico; the absurd statement the Puerto Rico didn’t experience a “real catastrophe like Katrina.”  Stay tuned:  the orange-tinted presidential freak show never ends.

Among the parts of the populace that pay attention to all this madness, Trump’s disgraceful conduct emotionally potent responses.  Liberals charge angrily at the matador’s cape and rodeo clown. “The left” (typically described in absurdly broad terms to include the Democratic Party in U.S. media) fulminates in dismay and indignation.  The president’s white-nationalist Amerikaner base embraces the cape and the clown in exuberant approval.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, both sides and the folks who (understandably) ignore the ugly rolling spectacle, are being all too stealthily ridden and killed by the real power centers playing the roles of the cowboy and the matador. As Noam Chomsky recently told his longtime interviewer David Barsamian:

“At one level, Trump’s antics ensure that attention is focused on him, and it makes little difference how…The [specifics] don’t really matter. It’s enough that attention is diverted from what is happening in the background. There, out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, ‘the masters of mankind,’ to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase.”

“While attention is focused on Trump’s latest mad doings, the [House Speaker Paul] Ryan gang and the executive branch are ramming through legislation and orders that undermine workers’ rights, cripple consumer protections, and severely harm rural communities. They seek to devastate health programs, revoking the taxes that pay for them in order to further enrich their Constituency, and to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed some much-needed constraints on the predatory financial system that grew during the neoliberal period.”

The worst crimes behind the curtain may be the environmental ones. Besides quite publicly pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trump White House is more quietly doing everything it can “to maximize the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling [environmental] regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival” (Chomsky).

Also in an exterminist death-knell vein, the Trump administration is proceeding ahead with the reckless and expensive nuclear weapons “modernization” programs started under Barack Obama.

Along the way, as Chomsky might also have noted, the Trump White House is re-making the federal bench in the image of the radically reactionary, objectively racist, and arch-regressive Federalist Society. Trump is doing everything he can to slash health coverage for poor people short of his and the GOP’s repeated failed efforts to repeal corporatist Obamacare – this while he angles to pass a plutocratic tax cut for Big Business and the super-rich in a nation where the top tenth of the upper 1 percent already has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

The openly disgraceful nature and over-the-top malignant narcissism of the current, orange-tinted White House occupant is beyond parallel in U.S. history – though not without precedents in late Rome and other empires in decline. And the nation under Trump and the Republican Congress has been moving to its rightmost policy point since the 1920s – in standard plutocratic defiance of technically irrelevant majority progressive public opinion.  But Trump hardly invented the diversionary cape and clown ruse.  The game was on under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton, both George Bushes (the seasoned ruling class and imperial operative father and the open ruling-class moron son), and Barack Obama. It’s as old as the republic, in all honesty.

It gets very childish and binary these days. With the Republicans atop the executive branch, the Democrats’ more liberal, urban, “educated,” and multicultural base fume at the vicious GOP idiot and/or bastard in the White House. Much of the country’s white- nationalist “Red State”-Amerikaner crowd feels that that they have their man in power.  With the Democrats in the White House, the roles are reversed. The white nationalist cohort rages at the horrid “liberal elitist” president cape and clown while many among the urban, “sophisticated,” and multicultural legions feel empowered.  It goes back and forth.

Either way, the evening news usually begins with some story about what the current sitting attention center president did, said, or (now) Tweeted.  The talking media bobble-skulls conduct their daily ritual of diverting attention away from the nation’s cringing captivity to its unelected and combined dictatorships of money and empire. The great social-structural and institutional machines of domestic and global class and imperial rule remain set on kill.  They continue to calmly distribute wealth and power ever further upward across a long “neoliberal” era (really the profits system returning to its longstanding inhuman norm) that has brought us to a sickening and eco-cidal New Gilded Age of spectacular hyper-inequality – one utterly without the dynamism and optimism behind the original one, as Andrew O’hehir pointed out three years ago.

The two dominant political organizations function as “two wings of the same bird of prey,” as Upton Sinclair put it in 1904. As the leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page determined through rigorous policy research a few years ago, the neoliberal United States is a corporate “oligarchy” in which “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence on what their government does” regardless of which of the two reigning capitalist parties hold nominal and surface power in the White House and/or Congress.  The Left author and commentator  Chris Hedges put it very well four years ago:

“Both sides of the political spectrum are manipulated by the same forces. If you’re some right-wing Christian zealot in Georgia, then it’s homosexuals and abortion and all these, you know, wedge issues that are used to whip you up emotionally. If you are a liberal in Manhattan, it’s – you know, they’ll be teaching creationism in your schools or whatever…Yet in fact it’s just a game, because whether it’s Bush or whether it’s Obama, Goldman Sachs always wins. There is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs” (emphasis added).

Some might object to my anthropomorphic depiction of “We the People” as a bull, an animal. Sorry.  I am perfectly aware that the majority U.S. working- and lower-class populace is comprised of homo sapiens, the most highly sentient and intelligent species ever to inhabit any part of the known universe. But the underlying system of class rule, all the way down to its core labor processes, rests on the systematic dehumanization of the majority populace.  It reflects the denial of full human rights, opportunities, and rewards, and the destruction of human capacities.  Capital relegates most homo sapiens to subordinate status and less-than-fully human experience within and beyond authoritarian workplaces where masses are commanded to create and preserve ever more absurd levels of wealth and hence power for a small, privileged, parasitic, and ever more dynastically entrenched ownership and investor class. The manipulation of the many by the few is pervasive across all the nation’s leading institutions. What’s true on and in the nation’s shop-floors, offices, mines, call-centers, sweatshops, warehouses, distribution centers, fields, and mills is true all the way up the nation’s authoritarian political culture.  America’s “corporate-managed democracy” functions largely as a “marionette theater” (Mike Lofgren)  to divert, deter, and deflect the “bewildered herd” (top U.S. corporate-elitist propagandist Walter Lippman’s revealing description of citizen majority in 1922) or the “proles” (the working-class majority in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984) from focusing on the nation’s real power centers and acting collectively against the real “deep state” powers that rule beneath and beyond the “visible state’s” (Lofgren) electoral, parliamentary, and media spectacles. A key goal is to keep the bull/populace – “the rabble,” the commoners – focused on the cape and the clown, not the mass-murderous master-class matadors and riders.

Someday, though, the ruling class will meet the fate of Ivan Fandino, a famous Spanish bullfighter gored to death after he tripped on his own cape last June.  Matador deaths are exceedingly uncommon.  The bulls almost never prevail over their sadistic human tormentors.  But they do win out on extraordinary rare occasions and the long overdue global socialist people’s revolution only needs to happen once. It doesn’t matter what the people’s overall win-loss record is.  The revolutionary cadre fighting with and for the workers and citizens of the world can go zero for one hundred but finally prevail just once and we can move beyond the savage, less-than-fully-human pre-history of class rule.  We can bat .010 and still win the World Series.

It’s not just about dreams and long-shots. By all environmental indications, goring the parasitic capitalist matador and stomping his evil twin the imperialist bull-riding cowboy has become an existential necessity. Averting environmental catastrophe requires the radically democratic empowerment of ordinary people and a revolutionary rehabilitation and advancement of the natural and social commons—things that simply cannot be attained under the continued rule of capital. Stark as the American author and activist Joel Kovel’s formulation may sound, he’s dead-on correct: “The future will be eco-socialist, because without eco-socialism there will be no future.”  Bulls-eye!

What are the chances of popular and commoner/commons triumph before it’s too late?  Who knows?  It’s not about the crystal ball. But fine, let’s say, too pessimistically I think, that the odds are just one in ten.  Giving up and letting the matador win unopposed brings it down to nothing.

We have no choice but to get bullish on revolution.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).