“Populism”?

Here is a definition of populism:

  • S: (n) populism (the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite). [From wordnet via Princeton U.]

Given this definition, I can see why more than a few people might find the word almost useless with regard to the victory of Trump’s campaign.

First, Trump is of the privileged elite, obviously, and second, he wallows in this status in front of his followers.  Why the working-class sector of his followers celebrate his elitism has answers in studies of psychology, racism, misogyny, White Supremacy, mass media, and American history.   Second, perhaps they also truly believe he will represent and support their “struggle with the privileged elite; if so, then Pseudocracy did indeed triumph in this election.  Online, I’ve seen the term “drain the swamp” used by his supporters.  It is of course mostly an empty signifier, ready to be deployed in the service of blind rage and cultivated ignorance.  But even if we agree that it can refer to replacing elite insiders in government with commoners, it remains preposterous.  Most of Trump’s announced appointees seem to have spent a lot of time in the swamp.

I wonder if it’s also likely that Trumpster populism is actually anti-populism, a reaction against the demographic shifts in “the populace” that are making it less White, less Christian.  Trump’s loss of the popular vote may support this conjecture, and at any rate, the loss is certainly ironically counter-populists.  Trump’s obvious taste for authoritarianism and bullying help the irony to spike.

At the moment, I don’t see any effective means for opposing Trump’s anti-populist scheme to pimp the rage that springs from angry ignorance and ignorant anger. For one thing, his anti-populism relies on a disdain for facts, hallucinations induced by slogans (“Lock her up!”), and a depraved indifference to sensible solutions.  A cult-leader, Trump will probably not have to face any serious consequences for failing miserably to address material conditions unfavorable to those not wealthy, those not elite, and he will continue to benefit from expressed, livid opposition to parts of the populace that struggle mightily: many immigrants, many African Americans, many LGBTQ persons, many Muslims, and many women.

Uncomfortable Questions About the Next U.S. President

As noted in a recent post, I frequently asked myself and others over the past year or so why Trump wouldn’t be elected, and although occasionally I allowed myself to think he would not, I never really believed that a significant percentage of White voters wouldn’t vote for him–or do something with their vote equally as stupid.  My realism or pessimism was based on two assumptions: the U.S. remains a deeply, perhaps fatally, White Supremacist nation (empire), and its misogyny is also difficult to over-estimate, even among women.

Now that Trump is President, I find myself asking questions that are, in their specifics, perhaps more alarming than “Why wouldn’t they -White Americans – elect a White Supremacist, sexually predatory, misogynistic, politically irrational man?”

Such as . . .

  1. Why wouldn’t Trump deploy nuclear weapons?  What is to stop him?  Not the military structure, and not the governmental structure, not the advisers he is appointing, and not his capacity to make sober judgments or think about consequences.  He embodies  nihilistic impulsiveness.
  2. Why wouldn’t Trump’s presidency approve of/instigate even more violence against Blacks, LGBQT persons, Latinos, the press, and anyone perceived to be Left of Himmler? We already know his administration will be White Supremacist and misogynist, and we already know the sadistic nature of his campaign and his rallies.  And we can see how racist police personnel and White nationalists are emboldened, further licensed to spread misery and lethal harm.  (The FBI warned in 2006 of significant infiltration by White Supremacists in American police departments.)  Trump’s apparent pick for Attorney General is the Segregationist  Jeff Sessions, who regards the NAACP and the ACLU as un-American and “Communist.”  For what this appointment might mean, see this article: Jeff Sessions
  3. Why wouldn’t Trump wreck the national and global economy?  His own business-management “style” seems to be reckless and sometimes hopelessly inept.  His main skills are bullying, cheating, and declaring bankruptcy. His personality is such that he focuses mainly on looting, and now he may loot the largest economy in the world. We also know how vacuous he is with regard to history, economics, law, and–well, anything involving complexity. You might even say his campaign was the anti-knowledge, anti-complexity campaign.  The debates made that plain.  One participant was informed and rational (Clinton); the other, not.

People recoil from such questions, and why wouldn’t/shouldn’t they?  They want everything to seem all right, and they just want to get through their day.   Plus a significant majority of White people expect great (positive) things from Trump, not great disasters, in spite of mountains of evidence pointing (along the Bayesian spectrum of probability) to the contrary.  They view is having been elected with relief and joy, ecstasy.

Few people find comfort in acknowledging the likelihood of enormous disasters because, well, such acknowledgement requires discomfort and discourages the normalization or minimization of evil.  I can’t seem to put away these and other questions only because they seem logical to me, but that’s probably not a good enough reason to keep bothering people with them (this blog post notwithstanding).

A final question, one that is, I hope, less dour, alarmist, and cautiously pessimistic–and more academic: Is there a future for rhetoric, for public discourse that is in some fashion tethered to reason, logic, and some evidence?  It now seems an eon ago that a lot of us were concerned about “truthiness,” that slurring/blurring  of accuracy, agreed upon facts, and well defined terms.  Now the greater problem seems to be a complete rejection even of discourse that pretends to be rational.  For one main rhetorical message of the Trump campaign was anti-rhetorical.  It was “Shut up if you don’t agree with me.” Secretary Clinton’s knowledge of and experience with policy and her debate-preparation meant almost nothing when pitted against the beastly irrationality of Trump’s movement. And  I lost count of the Trump supporters who proclaimed, “I don’t care what he says–I support him.”  That seems like a post-rhetoric, post-propaganda stance.  Cultish. Will rhetoric be relegated to a hobby played by people who seek escape from the futility of trying to stop what Trump and his gangs will do?

 

 

 

Is Donald Trump the Most Honest Candidate Ever to Run For President?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Everyone:  I too recoil at the very idea this question poses.

However, because Trump is so transparent about his racism, bigotry, misogyny, self-absorption, cynicism, disrespect for the press, disrespect for all citizens (perhaps most especially his followers), indifference to  knowledge about policy, absence of curiosity about issues, disdain for charity (as a concrete practice and a spiritual attitude), fondness for the grotesque, hatred of process, willingness to commit war crimes, desire to flout law and custom, and so on, his candidacy cumulatively amounts to an eff-you to everything and everyone.  So much so that only people like him and people suffering from some kind of mental disorder or other generator of extreme irrationality it seems, will vote for him.

Of course, it would be easier if he would simply state, “I don’t care about anything or anyone, including myself.”  True, he boasts about possibly being the only person to run for the presidency and make money off it.  I think he means make money immediately, as Bill Clinton (for instance) has certainly cashed in. But he seems so reckless that even cynical profiteering seems beyond his interest and capability.  In a way, he’s an imitation grifter; he can’t really even get that right anymore.

It’s also true that he could be elected president.  That tells us much about the United States, about White Americans especially, and about the derangement caused (through no fault of Mr. Obama’s) by the election, twice, of Barack Obama–combined, of course, with willful ignorance, White Supremacy, bizarre White fantasies, and Whites’ own self-loathing. Can a nation that elected Barack Obama president turn around and elect Trump? Probably not, and of course I hope not, but you just never know about White Americans, and let’s face it, that’s whom we’re talking about.  The number of Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and citizens from other groups who will vote for Trump will hardly register in the data.  He is the candidate of disturbed and disturbing White America, or that section of White America that is so disturbed and disturbing.  That Fox News and other similar outlets assist Trump is all you need to know about them and their viewers, readers, listeners.  There’s simply no way to get around that.  By helping him, they, too, have dropped whatever scraps of pretense they held onto.

At any rate, Trump’s candidacy seems to say this: “I hate you all, I am the apotheosis of much that’s wrong with your country, and I dare you to vote for me anyway.  Did I mention I hate you?”

So, yes, even though Trump’s candidacy is all about dishonesty (he has probably set a record for lying–it’s not a close call), it is also about doing away with rhetoric that is in any way subtle, within bounds, and traditionally persuasive.  It’s as close to an “honest” punch in the face as it can get, and, not surprisingly, Trump  also “honestly” encourages violence at his rallies and in the streets. Can American handle this kind of “truth” about itself?  We’ll see.

“The Road Not Taken” Syndrome

You are probably familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” If you are, and if you believe the poem implicitly encourages taking the figuratively less well-trod path in life, then you belong to a vast majority, and you are in error.

A main point of this post, however, is not to correct your error, per se, but to use the established meaning of the poem as a reference-point as we all continue to consider the pseudocracy–the reign of seeming, government by deception and willing self-deception, and media of misinformation.

Two excerpts will demonstrate what the poem actually “says”:

1:Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

This describes the “other” road. Note that, in effect, the roads are similar in appearance and wear.

2: I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Note that the teller is speaking from the present and that he is predicting what he will say and that what he will say has no bearing on his having taken “the other” road. How could it? For in that present moment, NOTHING has resulted from his taken the road he took. In fact, the speaker is more or less admitting that whatever the consequences, if any, will be, he will say (with a sigh) what he will say. One might say, then, that the past and past choices will be what we say they will be.

However, it truly no longer matters what the words in the poem convey because the culture at large has decided what the poem means; indeed, the culture at large may not even know that the phrase “the road less traveled” alludes to the poem. The culture at large has absorbed the alleged lesson that one should take the road less traveled, even though if everyone took that advice, the less traveled road would be the most traveled one.

Similarly, in the pseudocracy, beliefs and psuedo-facts are impervious to observation and information. Thus, no matter what the Act says or what people are experiencing, “Obamacare,” to many, will be Obamacare, not the AHCA, and it will be “a government takeover,” and it will be “more expensive,” and it will be an example of socialism.

And: the Democratic Party will be the party of “the little guy.”

And: White conservative Christians will be under siege, the ultimate victims.

The Republican Party will be the party of judicious financing and small government.

The Democratic Party will be the party that protects the environment.

And: the proper foreign policy will be to make the world afraid of us, and making the world afraid of us will be a good thing.

President Obama will have been born in Kenya, and will not be a Christian.

It will be only a co-incidence that most of the U.S. Senators are White, wealthy men.

And so on.

As Yogi Berra might have said, Nobody takes the road less traveled anymore because it’s so crowded.

We shall be talking about the pseudocracy, with a sigh, ages and ages hence.

“Fox News Cost Mitt the Debate” and Us the Discussion We Deserve

Jonathan [here comes a link] Bernstein at Salon asserts that Fox News cost Mitt Romney the second debate because (the short version) it prefers scandal to ideas and because it forces itself, and thus Mitt, to think in terms of blunt, over-simplistic statements, such as “It’s bad to apologize for anything the U.S. does.

I’d push things further and claim that Fox-News thinking, as well as media-thinking in general costs us citizens the opportunity to hear two men (in this case) discuss what doesn’t get discussed in these “debates.” In pushing further, I’m returning to a previous post about what we don’t talk about when we talk about politics. This time, my list would include . . .

1. Our massive defense-budget, which is, as even Allen Simpson notes, bigger than the defense-budgets-combined of the rest of the world, including (by definition) the budgets of China, Russia, and the EU. I’m not an economist, but I don’t think it takes one to observe that this is an extraordinary headwind into which our federal budget must sail as it tries to take care, as needed, of us. By “take care,” I’m not talking nanny-state here. I’m talking about basic things like medicine, public works projects like U.S. highways, railroads, and electric grids. –Nuts and bolts stuff that small countries like Sweden take care of much better, much more efficiently. Maybe you disagree with my analysis. That’s all right. But wouldn’t you like to hear Romney and Obama and every candidate for the House and Senate discuss this issue? Instead, by default, we have to accept that Romney proposes increasing the budget more than the Joints Chiefs want to, and that Obama will increase it slightly less.

2. Global warming. How amazing that a crucial issue like this is off the table, largely because the GOP “doesn’t believe” in it, as if it were a topic of faith. Thus we know that Romney will say the scientific “jury” is still out (it isn’t) and Obama will tread cautiously because, well, what’s the point? Mitch McConnell will only filibuster any attempts to deal rationally with the problem. How sick and delusional is that? You may have some skeptical questions about global warming and how to deal with it. That’s fine. But wouldn’t you like to hear Romney and Obama discuss it–as opposed to bickering about when, exactly, President Obama characterized on attack as “terror”?

As the spectacle flourishes, we get deprived of discussions that have a chance, at least, of mattering. Whether Obama or Romney are “cost” a debate doesn’t matter to the extent that we pay the cost of not having crucial issues addressed.

Incredible Incredulity

I have complained in this blog about my colleagues’ use of “incredible” as a superlative. My pedantry has not impressed my colleagues. Incredibly, I persist.

My first objection to common use of “incredible” among educated folk is that they emulate colloquial usage in which opposites — “bad” when one means “good” — or obliques — “wicked” for “very” in the Boston area or films about improper Bostonians — become so familiar that terms or phrases lose their former irony. Colleagues have said that they found a job talk “incredible.” At the least I should expect that a PhD could select a less hackneyed, more revealing expression if her or his purpose were to commit to any proposition at all.

No one seems to share my second disappointment with “incredible” either. Wielded in a cunning way, “incredible” permits deceivers to admit literally and explicitly that their expressions are not to be believed but to do so in a manner in which most listeners or readers will infer the opposite or oblique meaning. “I think that this proposal is incredible” may please or placate an audience without necessarily committing the thinker to other than what “the thinker” proclaimed.  Opposition research will encounter proclamations so Janus-faced that the candidate can benefit from a flip-flop that appears to be one thing AND another as tactical conditions warrant.

Still, I admit that the general emptiness of rhetoric and other expression probably protects most of us from such faulty locutions. When a colleague says “I thought his presentation was incredible,” the colleague need mean little more than that the colleague will be making a case for an applicant that the colleague favors on whatever grounds. Who would take an academic, after all, to mean what he or she says?

Seven Types of Pseudocracy

With a tip of the cap to William Empson’s renowned literary study, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), we list here Seven Types of Pseudocracy–“pseudocracy” being “the rule of falsehood” that corrupts our polity. (Wild Bill and I had more to say about these and other aspects of the pseudocracy in “When Did We Start Just Making Shit Up? Origins of U. S. Pseudocracy,” a paper presented to the Western Political Science Association meeting in Portland, Oregon, last week.


1. The elimination and/or suppression of facts indefinitely in political debates.

Example: One major political Party, the GOP, will not engage in serious debate about global warming. It pre-emptively dismisses the possibility that the phenomenon exists and that, were it to exist, humans have anything to do with it.

2. Extending confidence-games indefinitely.

Example: “Trickle-down economics.” Example: The Dems look out for “the little guy”: really? Example: Regulation = bad. Romney has the cheek to say this just three-to-four years after an economic meltdown that resulted, in part, from lax regulation of Wall Street. We’re now well into the third decade of the anti-regulation con.

3. Multiplying roles and erasing boundaries in professional polity.

Examples: Karl Rove and George Stephanopolous. Campaign strategists, executive-branch employees, “contributors” to Cable and Network TV, and in the case of Rove, a creator of news (he was a driving force behind Governor Walker’s election and subsequent hijinks) and commentator on news–and now a major GOP fundraiser. Possible result: the continuing decline of journalism, the continuing manipulation of media by political parties. Possible result: the obliteration of expertise: Who ISN’T “qualified” to be a “contributor” to FOX NEWS or CNN? Who ISN’T “qualified” to be a Democratic or Republican “strategist.”

4. Campaigning permanently; or, governing-as-campaigning.

The notion was formalized by a Carter operative, Pat Cadell. (See Joel Klein’s piece in TIME about “the perils of the permanent campaign”–he refers to Pat Cadell: )

Grotesque example: George W. Bush, in flight-suit, declaring “Mission Accomplished.” What percentage of citizens didn’t think, and perhaps don’t think now, that it was grotesque, however?

5. Making peripheral issues central.

Santorum and contraception. Gay marriage. Clinton going out of his way to return to Arkansas to “oversee” an execution, just to prove . . . what? Gingrich and $2.50 gasoline–at a time when demand is down to ’97 levels and supply is much greater than it was in the Bush administration; and he doesn’t mention what speculation on “futures” does to the price. It’s not so much that car-fuel is a peripheral issues; it’s that the price of car-fuel springs from dynamics over which a president has limited control, so that the issue really isn’t central to who is going to be the better president. Gingrich used the issue to pander and to distract.

6. Refusing to enter into accountable discourse.

Gingrich’s changing the subject and making the media “the enemy” when asked a simple question about his marital hijinks. Attorney General Gonzales answering, in a Congressional hearing, dozens of times, “I don’t remember.” Never, ever, beginning a debate with agreed upon facts.

7. Making points of view or differences of opinion personal and extreme.

So: instead of merely disagreeing with a policy put forward by President Obama, a GOPer is instead obligated to call him a “socialist” (as if!), or a Kenyan colonialist (whatever!), or not-an-American. Or Demo Congressman Grayson saying the GOP’s health-plan is to have you die. We have Gingrich, among others, to thank for what often seems to be a near-total absence of subtlety and of adult discourse.

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