Thursday, March 9, 2017

Part 3 (revised) of Political Intimidation & Violence, and the Democratic Party Response: A Brief History (1960-2017)

 Part Three: The 2016 Elections

Roddey Reid

Author’s note: This is the 3rd part of a 4-part series that attempts to take seriously the success of Donald Trump’s violent authoritarian politics that has mainstreamed white nationalism and far-right political agendas. The series builds on an earlier think piece on the rise of Donald Trump as capitalist folk hero and white political bully posted here last July and published in Black Renaissance Noire 16.2. (Fall 2016). Part 4 focuses on the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Hilary Clinton. My general argument is that Trump’s acts of intimidation and threats of violence are not occasional excesses but an integral part of his politics and policies and those of the Republican Party that are remaking U.S. political culture as we know it. It is therefore essential that we understand their power and nature as we mobilize to oppose the new regime. Part 1, “Today and Yesterday,” focuses on the current crisis and the long history of political intimidation and bullying from the 1960s to the present and revolutions in the public media sphere. Part 2, “Democratic Responses,” reviews Democratic Party responses up through the Obama Administration. Part 4, “Practices of Identity and Political Violence,” explores the identity and social composition of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as their cultures of loyalty and governing and concludes with a consideration of what we can learn from contemporary dynamics of political intimidation.

Trump’s Victory

In many respects Donald Trump’s electoral ascent in 2016 can be seen as the climax of this recent history of political intimidation and violence, revolutions in cable and social media, and the rise of aggressive talk radio and reality TV and of the culmination of populist discontent stemming from many voters' experience of the unrelieved suffering and anxiety of daily life under globalized market economies, the endless War on Terror, and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.[1] Many reasons explain Trump’s Electoral College victory and Hillary Clinton’s defeat, but at its most crude, the outcome was a replay of the 2000 elections that saw physical intimidation of poll workers in Florida and unremitting partisanship by Florida’s Secretary of State and the U.S. Supreme Court put George Bush in the White House; this time around it was hackers of DNC and Clinton campaign email accounts and FBI Director James Comey along with voter suppression initiatives in keys states that did the dirty work.[2] 

         Equally important was Trump the candidate: reckless bully persona, he capitalized on the aura of the rogue entrepreneur/tyrannical CEO as capitalist folk hero in a society still in thrall to the free market and brilliantly exploited his status as global brand, political outsider, and symbol of change.[3] Like three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in post-Cold War Italy, he brought to the world of U.S. politics and its isolated, aging party organizations his peerless mastery of cable TV, tabloid news, and the cult of celebrity. He broke new ground in using the power of social media to communicate directly with voters over the heads of mainstream media outlets and the apparatuses of established elites and their political parties that had served as the traditional brokers and gatekeepers of the national conversation and higher office.[4] Wresting control of the content and rhythm of the 24/7 news cycle by a new outrageous Tweet every day, he re-wrote the script of political campaigning and emptied public debate and political reporting of any substance. By virtue of his verbal taunts and threats of physical violence, he took to another level the culture of public intimidation and the affective regime of counter-factuality as instruments of power that George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld had first deployed so effectively. At present in Washington and New York, Trump has now moved to the next stage of rewriting the script of governing, and the battle is joined between the new regime and these older institutions over who will be the reliable source of news and information and who gets to define and enact the national agenda.

            To boot, Trump also stood as the unvarnished expression of the Republicans’ decades-long “Southern strategy” of stoking working and middle-class white voters’ fears in the face of economic uncertainty, stagnating wages, and shifting demographics affecting key regions. The racist strategies that were first coded in euphemisms (“law & order,” “crime,” “War on Drugs,” etc.) forty years ago and then outsourced more recently to the Tea Party’s very public but still politically marginal manifestations where they received their rawest expression, Trump proceeded in turn to mainstream them in their new, overt form and make them a central part of his public bid for office and now of his new Administration. In a sense, Trump has completed the process begun sixteen years ago of converting campaigning through intimidation and fear-mongering to a form of governing.

Hillary Clinton’s Campaign

To her credit, Hillary Clinton, perhaps encouraged by the example of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, did show an understanding of the danger posed not only by Trump’s right-wing populist message but also by his very methods that express a public culture of intimidation and bullying that in itself silently legitimizes the most authoritarian behavior and policies. In the face of threats to very her person (incarceration and assassination) she did not flinch, and in the debates and her political ads she stood up to Trump's abusive and disrespectful outbursts and successfully baited him with facts and stories about his shabby treatment of employees and vendors, members of communities of color, women, and his payment of no Federal taxes thereby reassuring her base and stopping the slip of her lead in the polls. She was attempting to rework the older timid Democratic script while Trump radicalized the old Republican one based on perceptions of “character” and appeals to fear. But in the end it would appear that her defiant “facts” and mocking of his dysfunctional personality enjoyed only limited reach outside of liberal circles, and may have actually caused a backlash among hesitant voters when they were reprised by mainstream news media that, as Glenn Greenwald reminded us after the election, is the second most distrusted American institution after Congress.[5] Her message, as hard-hitting as it was, remained prisoner of Trump’s themes or narrative “frames” (as George Lakoff would say) and too focused on Trump’s character and not enough on solutions to issues voters cared about passionately.

            Last but not least, the message was hampered by the messenger: going into the campaign, Clinton, like Trump, had historically high disapproval ratings but they were judged by different standards not only because of their gender but also because, unlike him, she was the very symbol of the political establishment and opportunist politicians. As unfair as it may seem, in a contest of character Clinton was fated to lose, for rogue Trump’s flaws—violent narcissist, brutal CEO, and unapologetic racist and misogynist—were viewed by many as virtues, or at the very least without consequence. Just as important, Clinton possessed none of Trump’s charisma (that was one, not of a politician, but of the decisive (white) male CEO and entrepreneur, fearless risk-taker, breaker of furniture to get things done, etc.) that earned him every reprieve, every indulgence on the part of many voters even as the repugnant details of his business dealings and private life came to light. Voters were not so forgiving of the overly cautious Clinton. An incrementalist by instinct to boot, Clinton was a poor vehicle for the Democratic Party platform’s new populist line in favor of free college tuition, the fifteen-dollar minimum wage, student debt relief, expanding Medicare, etc.

            Finally, it must be said that in the end the Clinton remained true to the internal culture of the Democratic Party establishment that since the 1980s has prized technical policymaking over political messaging and mobilization (except through a charismatic candidate), recourse to large donors, and survey-based polling data.[6] Cautious management of its socially diverse base led to reliance on static group-defined “firewalls” (women, Blacks, Latinos, union households) whose votes are routinely taken for granted, a ground game focused on voter turnout initiatives, and faith that demographic shifts trending Democratic would automatically translate into meaningful votes. However, as data continues to roll in, it is now apparent that Clinton lost to Trump 28% of the Latino vote and up to 45% of the union vote while African American turnout was low in key battleground states.[7] The Clinton and Democrats’ campaign strategy could be said to betray a fundamental commitment of energies and resources to a narrow strategy of internal party control and predictable electoral outcomes. It was not an expansive, risk-taking approach but rather one based on a zero-sum model of political authority or capital that is always viewed as prone to atrophy:  if you use it, you lose it. Additional investments and expenditures in the way of new ideological themes or new strategies can only deplete it, never increase it. Political capital must be saved for a future time, a time that is always deferred and rarely materializes.[8] It would appear that this is the underlying philosophy of political incrementalism.

            The tumultuous 2016 primaries and Presidential campaign revealed this strategy for what it was: too abstract, ill-informed, and unresponsive to changing circumstances that led to a disastrous neglect of an Electoral College strategy targeting key regions (most notoriously the depressed rural industrial areas of the Midwest, a region with a new phalanx of Republican-dominated statehouses and governorships) and no consideration of the possibility that a controversial candidate like Trump might compromise the reliability of polling that took voters’ responses largely at their word and did not count first-time voters.[9] It also threw glaring light on a largely one-way culture of loyalty that was condescending towards the Democratic base as expressed in the phrase “firewalls” and the slogan “I’m With Her!” An echo of 1970 feminism’s politics of solidarity, in 2016 the slogan seemed, however, to place the burden of political commitment more on voters than the candidate. Much was owed to her, or so it seemed to imply, and she owed little in return beyond the gift of her person. She had already earned our vote by virtue of who she was and her past record. In 2016 that may have appealed to older liberal voters and their battle-tested loyalties but apparently much less so to independent-minded young voters, especially women.[10] Trump, an old-fashioned paternalist, countered with the more vigorous slogan, “I’m With You!” that pledged to take care of distressed voters’ grievances and promised results in return for their ballots. He presented a clearer trade or, if you like, a more legible deal. Ever the decisive entrepreneur and problem-solver, Trump’s slogan spoke not of the past but of the future, which is one of pure promise of change and transformation and of which he, Trump, is the sole broker; this is the sales pitch of many a successful U.S. politician, entrepreneur, and confidence man.

            The Democratic Party establishment’s longstanding internal culture of loyalty has had two other consequences as well: first, a willingness (shared by mainstream news media) to engage in high-handed and disrespectful treatment of insurgent candidates like Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders who threaten their control of the Party[11]; second, in the case of Clinton a startling devotion to dysfunctional campaign and DNC staff at the expense of her chances of winning (the scandalous hacked emails of Huma Abdin and her estranged husband former Congressman Anthony Wiener, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, ousted discredited DNC Chair, and Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s former campaign manager, who replaced Wasserman-Schultz). With respect to Clinton’s inner circle, the one-way culture of loyalty described previously was abandoned in favor of a two-way sense of obligation, equally counterproductive. In the end, the existential threats presented by Trump’s aggressive campaign, the controversy over Clinton’s private email server, and the contents of the hacked emails were not taken seriously and preemptive countermeasures were not pursued.[12]

[1] For a succinct analysis of the elections see Jerome Karabel, “The Roots of the Democratic Debacle,” Huffington Post, 12 Dec. 2016.
[2] Instead of disqualifying ballots as they did in 2000, Republicans succeeded in 2016 ino disqualifying voters pure and simple—as many as 300,000 in Wisconsin alone that Trump carried a mere margin of 23,000 votes.
[3] For Trump’s emergence as a CEO populist candidate see Roddey Reid, “Trump as Capitalist Folk Hero, or the Rise of the White Entrepreneur as Political Bully,” Black Renaissance Noire 16.2 (2016): 92-95.;  for an excellent overview of the “savior” CEO see Christopher Brown, “You’re Fired: Deomcracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO, Shift Newco 15 March 2017 Accessed 20 March 2017.
[4] See Alexander Stille, “Donald Trump, America’s Own Silvio Berlusconi,” The Intercept, 7 March 2016. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017;  and also Stille, The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. (New York: Penguin, 2006). The 2007 paperback edition carries a more succinct subtitle, Media + Money + Celebrity  = Power = Berlusconi . Like Trump, Berlusconi was the product of the old system but presented himself as a fresh alternative (175); and like Trump he got his start in shady real estate dealing.
      But the comparison works only so far: Berlusconi soon parlayed his early business successes into a matchless media empire that gave him a monopoly of Italian television and made him Italy’s richest man, something Trump can only dream of. He even created his own political party named after the Milan football team that he owns, Forza Italia, and filled it with his own executives, managers, and employees that became an unheralded patronage machine. “Berlusconi may be unique in the history of modern politics in having to some degree created his own electorate” (183). Like Trump’s followers, Berlusconi’s were fed up with the traditional politics of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist and Socialist parties but apparently they were much less ideological and less committed to particular political issues: “Berlusconi understood that voters were more interested in personality than programs, and what he needed to do was to sell himself and the lifestyle he represented” (163). During his terms of office Berlusconi presided over a steep decline in the economy’s competitiveness, the weakening of its judiciary, and the provincialization of its foreign policy.
[5] Glenn Greenwald (interview), “Why Did Trump  Win? Blame the Failed Policies of the Democratic Party,” Democracy Now! 10 Nov. 2016 Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
[6] On the fatal role uncritical use of “big data” played in the Clinton campaign, see David Auerbach, “Confirmation Bias: Did Big Data Sink the Clinton Campaign?” n+1, 23 Feb. 2017. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
[7] But as Mike Davis is careful to point out, Democrats performed poorly up and down the ballot, locally as well as nationally; the problem exceeded the Clinton campaign itself. Mike Davis, “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class,” Jacobin 7 Feb. 2017 Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.
[8] Steven Shaviro (private communication).
[9] Nate Silver, “The Polls Missed Trump. We Asked Pollsters Why,” FiveThirtyEight, 9 Nov. 2016. Accessed 20 Feb. 2017. . Nobel economist Paul Krugman, an otherwise acute observer of the political functioning of longstanding Republican scorched-earth tactics and the power of mainstream news media to hollow out meaningful political reporting, was equally flummoxed and tweeted his shock, “This is not my country!” However, perhaps the country never was his or, rather, was never taken into account by his own data analysis that created large optimistic aggregates concerning employment growth under Obama and the net gain of jobs due to NAFTA that overlooked specifics such as the growing harsh conditions of the U.S. workplace since the 1980s, stagnant wages, the low-wage, dead-end nature of many new unskilled jobs in the service sector, and regional and industry factors such as the ravages caused by factory relocations outside of the U.S. from rural industrial areas of the Midwest. His methodological allegiances seemed to underwrite his own brand of incrementalist politics and his patronizing incomprehension of Bernie Sanders' campaign that focused more on changing national priorities than supplying detailed policy papers.
[10] Clinton’s other slogan, “Stronger Together!”, avoided these pitfalls. Perhaps part of seventy-four year-old Bernie Sanders’ success with younger voters was due to the fact that he, unexpected for someone of his age cohort, made few overt claims upon their loyalty; after all, he had to win them over first with his populist ideas and program. His advanced age combined with a forceful yet respectful tone and demeanor towards voters struck many as unexpected and captured the attention of younger voters.
[11] For an early example of the New York Times’ treatment of Bernie Sanders, see David Bromwich, “Bernie Sanders Gets Slimed by the New York Times,” Salon, 6 July 2015
[12] One is struck also by the surprised reaction of Clinton, her supporters, and senior Democrats including Obama to the release by Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange of the hacked emails. Since both Clinton and Obama had already sought to prosecute him for releasing secret documents detailing wanton killing by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, their expressed outrage at actions targeting them by someone they had helped turn into a powerful political enemy appears disingenuous at best, naïve at worst.

No comments:

Post a Comment