Whoever wins the presidency, American society will be the loser if it cannot build a political movement based on a different ideology, explains Jude Fernando
The first presidential debate between a ‘salesman’ and a lawyer ended up with the lawyer winning the debate because the ‘salesman’ proved that he not only lacks the knowledge, skills, and etiquette to engage in a public forum, but also cares very little about morals and social responsibility in doing business. Trump was either too arrogant, self-righteous or intellectually incapable of learning from his debating consultants and campaign managers, worth millions of dollars. The skillful lawyer outsmarted the slick ‘salesman’ and crushed him. But the salesman refuses to accept the loss—and certainly the presidency is not guaranteed for the lawyer.
The debate may not have killed Trump’s chances of being the next president of the United States, even though he was unapologetic about his well-documented deplorable comments and his controversial legal and moral history. One would expect that in the United States, a country that is hypersensitive about political correctness, inclusivity, diversity, and multiculturalism, that Trump-like behavior would make a politician (or even a civilian) a social outcast and that the pre-election polls would predict a landslide victory for Clinton. The allegations against Clinton are nothing compared with those against Trump. Additionally, during the presidential debate, she took personal responsibility for some of those allegations, though she fell short of making a sincere apology. The debate, however, did little to reduce the risk the Democrats took by fielding a candidate who is unpopular both inside and outside the Democratic Party- the risk of losing an opportunity to win a hat trick of democratic presidencies.
Certainly, Trump is not an anomaly in today’s world. Nor can his popularity be explained by the absence of better candidates among the Republicans or Clinton’s unpopularity. If we are to understand Trump’s ascendancy, we need to look beyond the personalities and personal histories of Trump and Clinton. We must look beyond the way they have conducted their respective campaigns and the first debate, and the taken-for-granted differences between the Democratic and Republican political parties. We need to look at characteristics within the American political culture that have remained unchanged, and that politicians and the general public are unwilling and/or unable to disrupt. This culture is not a lone creation of politicians but also of the society’s obsession with global control, excessive of political correctness, religious conservatives, liberal institutions, and the mainstream media.
Hegemony and security
Trump appeals to the emotional side and Clinton appeals to the intellectual side of the national-security concerns of the American public, although neither challenge the origins, goals, economic bases, or realities of national security that continue to be rooted in Dean Acheson’s assertion that “no challenge can be tolerated to the power, position, and prestige of the United States.” America’s global hegemony is a deeply ingrained ideal in the minds of most Americans, and its preservation still holds strong appeal for the American public. This is not only a political ideal but also an economic and cultural ideal that is promoted by politicians as well as educational and religious entities. What underpins these ideals is a global expansionist agenda of American security and economic and political interests, which many countries widely perceived as acts of aggressive imperialism-even when they appear in the form of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ or the principle of the ‘right to protect’. These policies have inadvertently contributed to security threats to American interests and to the lives of ordinary people in not only America but also the rest of the world.
Security threats to human life have taken many forms and, in fact, gained a life of their own and can that can no longer be traced back to their original causes. Unaccustomed to thinking about freedom and security outside the narrative of global dominance, Americans are trading their freedom for temporary security and a willingness to risk both. Hence, people lose patience with diplomacy as the main mechanism for addressing the perceived root causes of these insecurities. Under these circumstances, anyone who promises to be a spokesperson for fear and anxiety and advocates using aggressive measures to safeguard security by taking ‘control’ has a good chance of winning the presidency.
Not all Americans are unaware of the negative consequences of this global dominance narrative. Not all Americans endorse the narrative, either. In fact, many do not. Rather, they are deprived of an alternative narrative derived from ethical and moral foundations that would be more humane, equitable, and just for the entire world. Certainly, Clinton is neither structurally positioned nor willing to take political risks by providing a space for a substantive ideological shift in America’s engagement with its security issues. Trump’s reckless, unintelligible, and even dangerous national-security policies don’t seem to turn votes away from those whom security is the crucial issue. Perhaps, these voters prefer a Trump because a ‘strong and wrong’ president is better than one who is ‘weak and right’.
Given the persistently negative publicity surrounding Trump in the mainstream media throughout the GOP primaries, stories that would have been considered scandalous and career ending for most other candidates, one would have expected to see Trump make an early exit from the Presidential campaign- well before the conclusion of the GOP primaries. Instead, the media proved to be an unwitting ally of Trump because he understood how to seduce the media with sensation, unconventional styles, and hyperactivity on Twitter, sound bites, and aggressive negativity. Thus, during the presidential campaign, overemphasis on the negative stories about Trump, at the expense of positive stories about Clinton, might well benefit Trump, in the long term.
Trump’s popularity also demonstrates the inability of the liberal media to represent its own liberal values. The public no longer believes in the wisdom of the liberal media, which held the view that Trump’s candidacy would wane as the primary season progressed. The media was more obsessed with and gave more publicity to his outrageous and unconventional campaign than it did to the campaign of Bernie Sanders. The media bias against Sanders benefited Trump by making Clinton unpopular among both Democrat opponents and independents.
During the primaries, the media did so much to discredit other Republican hopefuls as ‘political hacks’ that it helped Trump to establish his credentials as a non-politician, making him attractive to those who think that politicians are the main cause of all America’s woes, which can therefore, only be resolved by a non-politician. For his supporters, Trump epitomizes success (e.g., a billionaire real estate developer, a celebrity, a best-selling author, a relentless name-merchandiser, and a reality show star). The liberal media cultivated and subsequently elevated Trump to his current status virtually outside the boundaries of the traditional parties’ apparatuses until Trump was competing with the media. The media’s construction of Trump as a non-establishment outsider is completely false. His fortunes came from the politics of the very politicians he now despises. In fact, he offered several such politicians patronage in the past.
The media that ridicules Trump’s economic and foreign policies rarely provides space for a dialogue on policies grounded in alternative norms and values. The media that supports corporations and opposes unions, holds similar views about the suffering of the American people as Trump and Clinton and believes that economic crises are mainly driven by political crises rather than by the logic internal to the corporate economy. The media worries about Trump disrupting America’s relations with the rest of the world but rarely provides space for those who challenge the moral basis of American ‘control’ around the world, which the world does not voluntarily embrace. It is hard to escape the fact that Trump’s populist, and often racist national security paradigm is partly a creation of the media.
It was precisely the media’s penchant for personalities like Trump that made the first debate a record breaker, watched by 84 million people, the highest in 36 years. The reason is simply that negative coverage brings more viewers, hence advertising income. Trump will be the winner, if the ‘liberal media’ continues to provide more coverage to Trump’s failings than to exposing the fundamental policy differences between Clinton and Trump.
The one thing that stands out in Trump's campaign is his war against political correctness. Unapologetic use of highly offensive, politically incorrect language did not deprive him of the GOP nomination. Trump’s charge that political correctness is an enemy of freedom of expression, one's ability to take bold action against terrorism and immigration, and that it stands on the way of making ‘America great again,’ struck a chord among his followers.
However, society’s hypersensitivity to political correctness does not move beyond language. “What we’re learning from Trump is that a lot of people have been biting their lips, but not changing their minds,” argues William A. Galston, of the Brooking Institute. Some may use politically correct language simply to prove their inclusivity rather than engaging in self-criticism of their own sense of sexism and racism. Those who use gender-inclusive language may feel threatened by the idea of a female president. In general, political correctness applies only to political and cultural rights, not to economic rights. Many commit to socially and politically inclusive policies, as long as those policies do not undermine their economic privilege or way of life. The even playground created by political correctness loses its progressive power when such language fails to bring substantive social and economic change.
Corporatism and politics
A majority of the Democratic and Republican voters expect answers to problems arising from corporate capitalism through means that would not disrupt its ideological core. Policies that benefit everyone regardless of their ability to pay are scorned as socialist and parasitic, even though they are far from being socialist policies. Thus, most voters, and indeed the media, construe economic crises as political crises and naively hope that changes in political leadership will automatically effect economic changes.
The culture of blaming politics for all social ills then enhances the popularity of candidates like Trump, who is a political outsider. Voters are attracted to outward personality traits due to the mutually reinforcing individualism of the political culture, and the individualism of neoliberal capitalism, which distracts voter attention from the root economic causes of the issues that they are most passionate about. Similarly, the culture of blaming others is far more popular than the political will to commit to structural changes.
While Clinton may be more palatable for self-righteous corporations and liberals who consider themselves socially responsible and green, Trump might have an edge when it comes to winning the election. Trump proposes to nationalise the economy, which would only benefit legal Americans by erecting a wall between the United States and Mexico, blocking immigration, reducing taxes and government regulations, and perhaps even withdrawing from NAFTA. Regardless of the ethical and legal issues involving his business dealings, his claims about his experience in creating jobs appeal to his followers, who mistakenly think politicians are the ones solely responsible for job losses. Trump appeals to white blue-collar workers who are virtually ignored by the Democratic party, although Trump and Clinton are not pro-labor candidates in any sense of the word.
Trump’s claim of being a political outsider gives the appearance that his political decisions will not succumb to partisan politics. One of Trump's main claims is that under Clinton, the status quo is likely to prevail. This appeals to his voters who fail to see that Trump is hardly an outsider to Washington, but rather, that he has a long history of manipulating and benefiting from partisan politics. Meanwhile, those who supported Sanders and vehemently oppose Clinton may vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or abstain from voting altogether. Some may even vote for Trump hoping that the space for more radical politics will be wider if the country’s situation gets worse under Trump.
American society is fearful of radical political action beyond rhetoric. No economic or social support networks exist for those who suffer due to engagement in radical politics. While the basic civic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are far greater than those of many countries around the world, society cannot enjoy those freedoms. Civic freedoms are undermined by the economic inequalities upon which civic freedoms are predicated. The job insecurity, debt, and consumerism that sustain the economy discourage people from participating in radical politics. No economic or social networks of support exist to compensate for the losses of those who engage in radical politics. Thus, political apathy reigns, as people are busy and engaged in personal consumption. Consequently, countercultural forces against consumerism and political apathy do not coalesce into broader political movements capable of challenging the status quo.
Trump as God
Trump continues to garner support from evangelicals, despite some prominent evangelicals questioning the sincerity of his faith and worry about his religious illiteracy. Trump’s popularity among these conservative evangelical Christians has a lot to do with the fact that they consider Trump the savior of their religious values, values that are synonymous with their economic, social, and cultural values. These Christians worship a God constructed in the image of America’s political, economic, and cultural narratives - narratives that contradict fundamental moral teachings of the Bible. For these religious conservatives, defending ‘national interests’ is synonymous with defending their faith in God, regardless of the contradiction of the two. They seem more than willing to compromise the morals and ethics found in their respective doctrines in favor of their narrow and selfish economic and nationalistic interests. Trump’s policies threaten to isolate Americans from the rest of the world, perhaps even leading to the persecution of fellow Christians elsewhere.
The secularists’ failure to reach out to religious Trump supporters is a failure to understand and accommodate the social transformative potential of faith. In fact, secularists kill secularism and play into the hands of the religious right when they fail to give equal space for religion and other ideologies. The secularists may quite correctly hold the evangelical right in contempt, but they often derive their ideals from values that differ little from those of religious conservatives.
The Democratic Party and the liberal media maintain a distance from any serious discussion on religion and politics among the Trump supporters, whereas religion is an important basis for Christians to rationalize their support for Trump.
The idea that most minorities support the Democrats is a myth. Many minorities feel a sense of betrayal by both the Democrats and Republicans. Democrats do not command the minority support as they once did. One important reason is that some members of the minority communities, too, believe in the economic, social, and political ideals of Trump. A number of my minority friends told me that they plan to vote for Trump because he will provide jobs for those willing to do hard work, and he has the resolve to stop the illegal immigration and fight Islamic terrorism. Pro-Trump minorities act in the same way as the pro-Trump blue-collar working class, who see so-called illegal immigrants and welfare dependent minorities as a menace.
No real winner
American society will be the loser, regardless of who wins the presidency. Clinton’s superior debating skills are not robust evidence of her having the capacity to manage the country. Nor would the blatant falsehoods and inaccuracies of Trump’s claims and him losing the first debate, necessarily turn voters away from him. The way Clinton and Trump avoided truthfully addressing the substantive issues is typical of how lawyers and salesmen act within their respective professional cultures.
The final decision of voters lies outside the contours of the debate. Americans from time to time have taken risks by electing Trump-like presidents. In this election cycle, a Clinton or Trump presidency would only confirm that America is in need of a political movement based on a radically different political and economic ideology. Corporatism and its academic and media allies, and the right-wing evangelicals are certain to stand in the way of such a political movement.
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