An incoherent article about an incoherent election

It’s Tuesday November 8th 2016. I guess I’d better write something about Donald Trump. To be specific, I’d better publish something about Donald Trump and this presidential election. I’ve written plenty, read, researched, mulled and even put money on Hilary to win (what good will the money be if Trump wins anyway?)

Acceptance Speech

I began to write an article after Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention, all the way back in July. That was the point at which he broke out from being the Republican party’s problem, to become all our problem.

The speech appalled me. The first half an hour was a coherently presented ultra-right wing promise to restore law and order. Until then, Trump hadn’t commented much about the series of police shootings and brutality towards African Americans that had been surging through the news. In his address he identified it as ‘the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation’, a description which invites his chilling response, ‘Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.’ Black grievances, what black grievances?

The following 45 minutes was an incoherent, frantic rant about immigrants, trade deals, Hilary, strength, respect, anger. And the audience clapped, cheered and booed at every cue with fanatic zeal. There wasn’t one ounce of doubt in their minds. It felt like watching a recording of Hitler at a rally. The whole speech was a tirade, delivered with such intense force and such vociferous anger. For each issue there was no consideration of the other side, no compromise. The recent deal with Iran and NAFTA – ‘the worst deals ever made’, the Middle East – ‘the situation is worse than it has ever been before’, the legacy of Hilary Clinton – ‘death, destruction and weakness’.

Trump concluded his speech not asking for American’s to believe in him, or to trust him or to support him. He doesn’t ask for permission to govern, he assumes his natural right. Trump claims, as Hitler once did, to be Rousseau’s ‘lawgiver’, saying to every American ‘I am your voice… I’m with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you’. This man clearly sees himself as the ‘lawgiver’ Rousseau wrote about in 1762. Now a maligned and discredited view of good governance, Rousseau believed that proper leadership of the masses could be found in an individual of ‘a superior intelligence that could see all men’s passions without having any of them’ with the ability to ‘persuade without convincing’. Reason, logic and deliberation are antithesis to this man and his imagined subjects.

Trump rally

Two Parallels

And then a few days ago, after reading two very interesting pieces from New York Magazine I started to write a post entitled ‘Donald Trump, Two Parallels’. In it I planned to first talk about Trump’s similarity to Pat Buchanan, an isolationist libertarian right wing nutjob from the early ’90s who campaigned in the Republican primary for the 1992 Presidential Election. He lost to then President George Bush Sr. who was routed by Bill Clinton in the polls on November 3rd. The second parallel would be with Hitler, using quotes from Mein Kampf and books written about fascism like Erich Fromm’s excellent ‘Escape from Freedom’.

Pat Buchanan's 1992 Brochure

The policies listed in Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign brochure are all there in Trump’s campaign, along with the thinly veiled racism of claims such as ‘If discrimination is wrong when practiced against black men and women, it is wrong when practiced against any man or woman’. The difference between the two is that 24 years later, Trump stands tantalisingly close to bringing his right into the White House. How can we understand this, without lazy recourse to Great Man Theory? This fantastic, detailed article ‘The GOP’s Age of Authoritarianism Has Only Just Begun‘ offers a compelling explanation.

The short version is that since the 1960s the Republican party has been on a gradual trajectory towards the libertarian right. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has put it ‘I’m a conservative from the conservative wing of the conservative movement’, yet he is now their mainstream and their political leader in Congress. Why don’t we talk of the Tea Party any more? They were once the conservative force in American politics that had the rest of the world holding their collective breaths. Remember Sarah Palin?

They won. The mainstream of the Republican party now is the Tea Party. Ted Cruz, a posterboy of the movement, who spent his teenage years travelling around the southern states reciting the constitution from heart became the anyone-but-Trump candidate in the primaries. Even he wasn’t right wing enough for registered Republicans.

And yet, feast your addled eyes upon this table of Trump’s political affiliations compiled by Politifact:

Month and year of registration Party affiliation
July 1987 Republican
October 1999 Independence Party
August 2001 Democrat
September 2009 Republican
December 2011 No party affiliation (independent)
April 2012 Republican

What about his stance on the Iraq War? It’s clear, he strongly supported it, saying ‘if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion’ in 2000. And he was ambivalent about it, replying ‘Yeah, I guess so’ in 2002. And stood wholly against it in private arguments with a friend around the same time.

Confused yet? In 1999, one Donald J Trump wrote an op-ed denouncing Pat Buchanan. This was as he ran as a candidate in the primaries for the moderate, centrist Reform Party. In his article he wrote both that ‘Buchanan’s ideas are so wrong that a person who sets out to correct them doesn’t know where to start’ and ‘Buchanan is rewriting history and spreading fear for one purpose: To gain political power. That makes him a very dangerous man.’ Remind you of anybody?

Donald and Melania Trump alongside Hiliary and Bill Clinton
The Clinton’s help celebrate Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding in 2005

A publicity stunt?

And so, every time I begin to think seriously about this presidential election and Donald Trump in particular, the unfathomable absurdity of it just weighs down any attempts at rational, systematic analysis. As you think and research and write you are outflanked by the characters, the setting, the whole nonsensical journey that brought us here. On top of that, it’s precisely the media’s fascination with Donald J. Trump and writing about everything he’s saying and doing and said and done and might say and do that’s propelled him and us to this moment. For the first six months, online newspaper Huffington Post reported about his campaign under the entertainment section. Certainly none could doubt the adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ any more.

And yet I should get something down, if only for posterity. I hope I can look back and warmly reminisce at what a crazy place the world had been in 2016 and how it all worked out alright and haven’t we come a long way and I’m so glad national decision making has improved this much.

Where to start, if you’re trying to get your head around the absurdity? I strongly recommend Michael Moore’s analysis, which begins with the line ‘Donald Trump never actually wanted to be President of the United States. I know this for a fact.’ Moore goes on to argue that this was simply a publicity stunt to earn more for his TV show The Apprentice. Hearing the disgusting things he had to say, NBC promptly fired him and his show. As a man who can’t bear to lose, Trump then had no choice but to go on and win the whole shebang. I can hear more than a ring of truth in this story.

Polarisation

The defining feature though must be the polarisation between each side of this election. As John Elledge put it on the New Statesman podcast pre-election special ‘when your side loses it can come as a genuine shock, because how is it possible that Clinton won, because I don’t know anyone who’s voted for Clinton’.

Trump supporter with a sign 'lock her up'

How have we got here?

In America, the watershed moment has to be 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the fairness doctrine. This rule required radio and TV broadcasters to devote some programming time to issues of public importance, and ‘allow the airing of opposing views on those issues’ – the same regulations still apply in the UK. Without this constraint, TV and radio stations began to mirror print journalism by having an editorial bias, targeting an audience, and preaching to the open eared 24 hours a day.

Conservative talk showsThe difference from print media, however, is both the persuasiveness of the full sensual assault that television as a medium provides, and how embedded into people’s lives they both are. In many households the television is on all day, forming a narrative backdrop during every waking hour. Leave your house in America, and you’re in your car, where you can tune into the local hyper-libertarian conservative talk show. The topic today is ‘the government is going to take your guns away and remove your freedom’.

Trump has his supporters who had previously been ambivalent about the Republican party or voting at all. Their loudest concerns are the demise of well-paid skilled, unionised, meaningful work, and soaring health insurance premiums as a result of The Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare). Beginning with a family propensity to watch Fox News, or listen to local talk radio, or receive Republican party literature – or likely all three – these people have over decades been slowly convinced that the solution to their problems are policy interventions that are demonstrably provable to be against their interests; Deunionisation, tax cuts for the richest 1%, deporting immigrants and refusing health insurance to the poor or sick.

Looking upon the American political system from Britain, you can miss just how polarised it is. Independence is something that, far from inspiring trust and impartiality, arouses suspicions of government conspiracy and self-interest. Drawing congressional district boundaries (the equivalent of constituencies in the UK) isn’t trusted to a boundary commission, but instead done by the local party in power, creating districts that snake across the map, including and excluding key communities to lock in a grossly disproportionate number of seats to votes.

In North Carolina, Republican legislators observed the voting methods and patterns of African Americans and then passed and amended laws to deliberately disenfranchise them. The Washington Post reported that ‘The state argued in court that “counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic,” and said it did away with Sunday voting as a result.’

Congress has become more and more partisan after each election, and Republicans less and less wiling to compromise, even denying Obama his constitutional right to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice this year. Speaking of which, unlike in the UK where they consider only the law, Supreme Court judges vote almost without fail along party lines. Following the contested 2000 presidential election, all four of Reagan’s appointees along with one of George Bush Sr.’s defeated the other four justices to stay a recount of all undervotes in Florida. A recount that would have led to Al Gore winning the state, and the presidency, instead of George Bush.

In 2016, however, technological innovations of the last decade are polarising voters globally. So-called microtargeting. In his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to become London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith used racial profiling and the giddying amount of data made available to advertisers from social media profiles in deeply cynical ways. Leaflets were sent to Indian households explaining how Zac met with Indian Prime Minister Modi on his visit to the UK in 2015, and how his Muslim opponent Sadiq Khan didn’t attend the ceremony. Sikhs were reminded that Sadiq supports a tax on family jewellery.

We can be sure that voters in the United States are seeing adverts on Facebook and Twitter that highlight precisely their greatest fears about the opposing candidate and their greatest hopes for this one. These shown between posts from friends and social groups that have been curated by an algorithm to be exactly what you want to see. Even searching Google for wider information will lead you back down familiar paths. Results are organised to reinforce biases and diminish a wider understanding of the other side.

The political brain

in 2008, when Hilary ran in the Democratic primaries and held the spotlight as front-runner and favourite for some time, I was repulsed by the notion of the wife of a former president becoming president. Dynasties are for autocratic regimes. Her husband and former president, Bill Clinton, was impeached. In 1999 he repealed Glass–Steagall – the trigger, the move that started a vortex turning that would in 2008 become a hurricane of financial meltdown causing catastrophic global recession. Her foreign policy stance was almost as hawkish as Bush’s.

Come 2016, I’m practically a Hilary devotee. She’s got a record of over 30 years of public service, particularly enabling women and the disabled. She put up with Bill, for the greater good of the nation and their shared political ideals. The only way to explain the vitriolic hatred against her, and the gap consistently seen when voters are asked if they support her policies and when asked if they support Hilary is misogyny. She’s a woman.

And yet of course I haven’t forgotten about my misgivings. Re-reading them, it’s clear they aren’t mere misgivings, I both love and hate her. As we now know, Boris Johnson is no stranger to such mental dissociation. He wrote separate newspaper articles praising and denouncing continued British membership of the EU before ultimately becoming the figurehead and leading bastion of the leave campaign.

Derrida wrote that every decision is a leap of faith. A decision is necessarily marked by a moment where, knowing that each option has its advantages and disadvantages, risks and opportunities, the decider must regardless chose only one. A move beyond rationality and calculative reasoning.

Following from this, perhaps then decision is defined by action. Up until the moment we commit to action and put our choice into material practice, we’re yet to decide. The war between both points of view rages inside our minds. We all have our biases and our mind, in constant search for peace and congruity, pushes us to wholeheartedly accept them and expel all notions of their opposition. To sidestep the psychically painful process of decision making. The Donald Trump of 2016 is the living example of what awaits us if we do.

And so 2016 has a lesson for us all. Historical trends want us to surrender to our biases and enjoy the feeling of strength and belonging that follows. Online profiling and curation threatens to take the choice out of our hands. Between Boris and Trump, between voting to leave the EU and potentially voting in the most dangerous president ever, between the horrors of ISIS and the callousness the world has shown to the people of Syria, those are people just like us. Those are minds just like ours. So listen to your dissenting inner voice, consider deeply beforehand and continually reflect.

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