From Politics to Poetry
Updated: 43 min 46 sec ago
Populist movements in Western democracies generally don't last long. Instead they usually morph quickly into their own version of the establishment. I think that the reason for the short lived populist aspect of a political movement is reasonably simple. Populist movements are expressions of anger, discontent, and fear rather than expressions of principle. When there is a welling up of fear and discontent, the conmen and shysters come out of the woodwork to take advantage of it because conmen look for easy marks, and when it comes to politics in particular, angry fearful people are easy prey. When these emotions take hold of people, they don't think straight. Instead, they look for people who sooth them, who provide easy answers to complex problems and make them feel like everything is going to be ok. Thus the followers of populist conmen are fervent in their belief and passionate in their commitment to their saviour. As a result of this combination of fervency and fear and anger motivated passion, populist leaders can basically do anything they want and their support will stay relatively steady for some time, as long as they keep spouting their simple, soothing message. In this regard, Trump's now infamous observation that it wouldn't hurt his popularity if went out on 5th Ave. and shot someone, is ominously revealing. The most diehard followers of a populist leader have zero interest in facts, and shockingly little interest in the actions of their leaders. This is because such followers are being feed the political equivalent of soma which puts them in a sort of trance, And as long as their leader proclaims the right trigger phrases, espousing simple ideas about how everything is going to be fixed and all the "bad stuff" and "bad hombres" will expunged, nothing else really matters.
Ironically, this is where populist movements tend to come unstuck. When a populist leader gets swept up in the adulation, even if their intentions were initially good (which they seldom are), they realize that they don't have to do any of the things that their followers want, or they only have to make minimal, often cosmetic efforts to maintain the drug-like trance in which they have put their followers. The problem is, of course, since most populist leaders are primarily interested in enriching themselves and their social/ideological allies at the highest level, they quickly become the establishment that they swept to power to oppose. Thus things don't really change, at least not for the better, and often for the worse. And when this happens, the soma trance wears off just enough people for the populist movement to lose its momentum and things become unstuck. One of the problems, of course, is that populist movements often leave in their wake a rightwing political establishment that can last for years.
This is precisely the scenario that played out in Canada. The populist movement known as the "Reform Party" swept into Ottawa with all sorts of populist promises, feeding off socially conservative ideas and white-privilege fears. The "Reformers" said that they wouldn't take the rich Parliamentary pensions, that they would allow all sorts of free votes in the House of Commons, they insisted that their leader would live in the luxurious housing due an opposition leader or a Prime Minster, and that they would enact legislation based upon its social popularity not based upon some niche interest group. All those commitments lasted about five minutes once the Reform leaders found themselves in the luxurious and complex world of actual legislative politics. But as the Reform movement burned, from the ashes was born an establishment party that enhanced and magnified the very things that people who supported the movement had rebelled against in the first place. So we were left with a party that was less interested in transparency than any government in history, ruled for a very small percentage of the population, was comically dishonest, lined their pockets and the pockets of friends like never before, and was more intrusively sinister than ever in people's personal lives.
The reason that a political movement that started out of anger and claimed to be interested in more responsive and open government could quickly turn into its opposite is because of what we have come to know as "cry-baby conservatism."
Playing the victim is a integral part of modern day conservative parties and movements. Leaders like Harper and Trump continually harp on this idea that the establishment and the media is all against them and that they have to be mean and secretive and dictatorial because otherwise their opponents will win. And the cry-baby conservatives use this simple political strategy to consolidate their power and create a political machine that is often actively acting in ways that are contrary to their stated beliefs and those of their followers. Thus conservative followers in Canada barely noticed the irony when Conservative government cabinet members railed against the elites while at the same time riding in limousines to work. Similarly in the US we have a billionaire president with billionaire cabinet members who cry out against the establishment and have already instituted laws that will make them richer and the average person significantly poorer.
What is clear is that as the Trump movement progresses, the idea of "draining the swamp" and changing the political establishment will feature less and less in the Trumpian narrative. More and more of the Trump followers will accept the idea that the Trump government has to create their own establishment, their own "swamp" if you will, in order to overcome all those "liberal" and media forces that are arrayed against them. Thus people will accept much greater corruption and criminality, than they witnessed in those they initially sought to replace. As I said at the beginning, this is because the followers of leaders like Trump, are not motivated by a principled stance for better, more responsible, democratic, and transparent government. Rather, they are whipped up by anger and fear of a changing world.
Of course, as the populist aspect of the Trump phenomenon wanes, many will come out of the political trance and realize that they have been had and this may result in a significant shift in a different political direction. Either way, the populist movement will be dead. The only question is, will it leave in its wake a political establishment that is able to hold on to power for a while or will it, with its criminality and corruption, undermine the delusional state that brought it to power in the first place, thus causing a kind of counter rebellion?
I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of the Trump presidency thus far is the general confusion that is generated by the blurring of lines between the private and the public (or one might say "strictly" political) aspects of the Trump White House. I think that many mainstream politicos (in both parties) assumed to some degree that once Trump took the oath of office, his tendency to blur those lines, which had been one of the most marked aspects of Trump the campaigner, would abate someone and that the Americans would still have a so-called "commander in chief." Not only has this abatement not occurred but the lines between the personal aspects of Trump and his family (and his minions) has become almost inextricable from the office of the president.
This blurring of lines has been on full display in the last few days, particularly in the fallout from the decision by Nordstrom, an up-market retail chain, to stop selling Ivanka Trump's line of clothing and accessories. This decision incensed the president, and what incenses the president must necessarily anger his minions too. Thus on Thursday morning, presidential advisor and spokes-demon Kellyanne Conway, appeared on Fox News and as she spoke with reporters about the Nordstrom decision she took a moment to explicitly and shamelessly plug Ivanka's clothing line, telling Americans to "Go buy Ivanka's stuff." Well, this little plug is a clear violation of the US Code of Federal Regulations (Specifically 2365.702) which states that "An employee shall not use his public office for private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service of enterprise." Ms. Conway's endorsement, one might even say promotion, of Ivanka Trump's products is such a gross violation of a fairly simple CFR code that it seems almost comical if it weren't so terribly sordid.
The lines of personal and political blurred further when Donald Trump himself used Twitter to disparage Nordstrom for its business decision. Trump had Tweeted on Wednesday morning, telling us that his "daughter Ivanka has been treated unfairly" by Nordstrom, and that she is "a great person." This Tweet is arguably also a violation of the same CFR code, though a more ambiguous one. What is most startling, however, is the degree to which this has already become the new normal. The idea of a President using personal time and presidential power to publicly argue about a business decision that financially impacts his daughter is totally amazing. And the silence on the part of congressional Republicans is deafening in this regard. If President Obama had issued such a Tweet concerning a family member of his, the impeachment hearing would have already begun.
But specific ethics code violations and impeachment issues aside, this blurring of the lines of the political and the personal at the very top of the US government should be deeply troubling to anyone. Of course, politicians (particularly executive one) are able to routinely enrich their friends and associates through public appointments. This phenomenon is so rife that even in the most tightly controlled democracies it seems almost impossible to stop. And after politicians leave elected office they commonly enrich themselves through things like paid speaking engagements etc. However, with the Trump administration the US has now entered the realm of the "banana republic" or modern autocratic nations like Russia in which wildly unqualified political donors are rewarded with federal cabinet positions, the President's children have found their way into the highest level international meetings, the President continues to have his hand in business processes directly affected by government decisions, the President is attempting to delegitimize other branches of government, and he and his minions are actually using their positions to directly promote the financial interests of the Trump family. And and troubling as these facts are, they don't even touch upon the way that the Trump administration has made lying a matter of course. And we are not talking about traditional political "spin" here, we are talking about simple, readily verifiable, falsehoods. The cult of personality that has so defined the autocracies and dictatorships of the past century has truly come to roust in Washington.
And if the US (and the rest of us) survives the Trump era intact, it seems clear that democracy has been severely (if not mortally) wounded in the process. Once the line between personal and public interests has become so blurred is very hard to see clearly again.
I am disappointed about recent political/social events. Ok, disappointment is far too week a word. Perhaps existential dread is a better word for my prevailing emotion. But then I think to myself, if I feel so overwhelmed by these events, what must racialized and marginalized people be feeling? I am a well-educated, white man. In social terms, it doesn't come more privileged than that. If I feel a sense of dread, I can't imagine the anger and disappointment of those who don't enjoy such privilege.
I grew up in the US in the 60s and 70s so I am certainly no stranger to open and overt racism. I heard the "N" word hurled at kids and adults and I understood, even as a child, its import and implications. But my youthful experiences in the US were mostly in Santa Monica, California and a mostly white neighborhood of Denver Colorado, and as racist epicentres go these were hardly crawling with racist sentiment, (at least not overly). When I came to Canada I actually saw more open racism among my peers, aimed almost exclusively at indigenous people and those whose "heritage" was Indian or Pakistani. But despite all of this, I assumed (I suppose like most privileged, white liberals) that we were on the road to a society where racism was vanishing. Now, I've always understood how painful the process was, and with what snail-like slowness it was proceeding. But I assumed, perhaps naively, that we were on the way down that path.
Suddenly the ground of that naive certainty has been pulled out from people like me. Again, this is probably itself a form of white privilege. While I blithely assumed things were genuinely changing, those who suffered the effects of real racism knew the score; they knew that blatant and structural racism continued in many cases unabated.
But I have never been particularly sanguine about progress or the goodness of human beings. So, at some level, I am not that surprised to see a resurgence of white supremacy, nor am I surprised at the cavalier attitude of many people at what amounts to a supremacist takeover of the White House. But what I suppose I am disappointed at is the way that structural racism has so insidiously seeped into people's consciousness, to the degree that self-professed liberals often hide their racism behind security concerns or, even more insidiously, behind moral indignation concerning black activism.
A case in point is the moral indignation that white liberals hurl at Black Lives Matter in general and at the Toronto chapter co-founder of that organization Yusra Khogali in particular. Now, I am very consciously not going to rehash white people's criticism of BLM or Khogali because that would be to fall into the very white privilege that I so despise. What amazes me is the ease with which white liberals make these criticisms, even to the point that a prominent white blogger on the Huffington post openly called for Khogali to resign in a recent post.
Here's the thing - it has always been a central element of racism and white privilege that white people feel that they can tell racialized or oppressed groups how they should protest, be politically active, or who they should chose as their leaders. But telling racialized people what to do is the very problem that racialized activists are reacting against, it is the very thing they are protesting. For white liberals to tell BLM who they should choose as a leader is a grand confirmation of racism and white privilege! As a white person you may not like who BLM (or any such activist organization) chooses as their leader, and my response is, tough luck, get over it! For centuries white people have brutalized and enslaved racialized people, raped them, imprisoned them, and lynched them. In the US this process continues almost unabated. The system of slavery and lynching has been replaced with a national prison system that is as brutal and de-humanizing as slavery ever was. In the face of this kind of violence and brutalization (here and abroad), moral-indignation at the actions of BLM and Khogali is the height of white privilege. Such indignation is like someone subjecting their neighbors to daily verbal and physical abuse and then being righteously upset if the neighbors or their kids egg the abuser's house.
Struggling against oppression has always been a messy, sometimes violent, business. That's because oppression is itself a messy and violent business, and the desire of liberal white people to keep it nice and tidy is a massive element of their privilege. It's easy to call for calm forgiveness and gentle inclusiveness when you're on the winning side of history. My answer to white people who have a sense of moral indignation at BLM is, get your own house in order and remember you have little or no sense what a daily ubiquitous experience of racial oppression feels like.
If Yusra Khogali hates me, I don't blame her. White people have given her plenty or reasons to hate us. Even if I disagree with BLM strategies, I'm not going to white-splain some notion of "appropriate" political action. When white Americans elect a white supremacist government, it amazes me to hear white people tell racialized groups to "calm down" and play nice.