Notes on the American election
I’m an American as well as an Israeli (just ask the IRS) and although I live in Israel and don’t plan to return to the USA, I still care about the country where I was born, grew up, was educated and lived much of my life. In November I will cast my absentee ballot for one of two very problematic choices.
There are multiple issues with both of the major candidates, but I want to focus on two of the main ones: Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty and the nature of Donald Trump’s movement.
Let’s start with Mrs. Clinton. She and her husband have institutionalized the sale of favors to foreign powers and domestic special interests through the Clinton Foundation and by way of exorbitant payments for Clinton speaking engagements.
The famous private email server can have had only one purpose, which was to enable her to hide her correspondence from possible subpoenas and Freedom of Information Act requests.
I know Clinton fans have talking points to explain all this away. Please don’t insult my intelligence with them. Some things are uncomplicated, and this is one of them. She is a crook, in a way and to a degree that no American president since 1900 has been. Not Warren Harding, certainly not Richard Nixon, not any of them.
There is also the matter of her being an inveterate liar (here are just a few of her recent false statements). Can someone serve as president while being corrupt and a liar? Certainly – she might even implement some good policies. But explain this to the middle class or working class person who has seen his or her livelihood evaporate as the elites with which Clinton is associated thrive like never before. Or explain it to someone who thinks the concept of national honor is meaningful.
That working class or middle class person (if they are not Mexican or Muslim) is probably voting for Donald Trump. Is he a breath of fresh air as his supporters say, or the Devil incarnate?
Mr. Trump has numerous moral issues as well, like the disgraceful Trump University scam, and his penchant for not paying people who do work for him. Unlike Hillary, who steals indirectly from the little guy by allowing big banks (for example) to rig the system, Donald sticks his hand right into the pockets of carpenters, cooks, and carpet companies. Of course he too is a liar.
Trump is getting very bad treatment from the media lately (although they gave him free coverage at the start of his campaign, before they believed that he had a chance). But the real problem is not so much Trump’s policies as the kind of movement he has built.
Hillary’s supporters are a little embarrassed by her dishonesty and try to cover for her, but Donald’s don’t care, because “at least he tells it like it is.” And it is true that Trump despises the political correctness that characterizes the Obama Administration. But there is a lot more behind the way Trump’s followers respond to him. They don’t seem to care what he says as much as how he says it, especially if he strikes a blow against the complex of politicians, corporations and minorities that they believe are responsible for screwing them. The more aggressively he attacks his targets, the more his people like him. Inconsistencies, falsehoods and obvious errors in his statements are entirely irrelevant. It’s only important that he hits the enemy, the harder the better.
Trumpism is two things, both of them dangerous: it is a cult of personality and it is a revolutionary movement.
It is a cult of personality because it is all about The Leader. If Trump were to disappear, so would the movement, unless it found another similarly charismatic leader. The movement has only the flimsiest ideology associated with it. Policy isn’t the point: Trump supporters simply want to place themselves in the arms of a strong leader who promises to shatter the structures that they don’t entirely understand, but that they know are responsible for their own problems and for the decline of the US as a world power. That’s why the inconsistency and instability of his positions don’t bother his followers.
Trump is a good speaker despite his sometimes fractured syntax because he projects the image he needs to project: a strong, aggressive, authoritarian leader who doesn’t take shit from anyone. His speeches are 95% emotional content with 5% factual filler. Nobody even listens to the factual part except the journalists writing fact-check stories.
As Jonathan Haidt explains so well, emotion is in the driver’s seat. Reason just comes along for the ride.
Everything Trump does radiates alpha maleness. He has the most wealth, the best women, the biggest buildings. What do you do with an alpha male? You follow him.
It is a revolutionary movement because Trumpism doesn’t respect the courts, the Congress or the Constitution. Perhaps Obama subverts or sidelines these institutions, but Trump doesn’t even pretend to accept their authority. When a court threatened to rule against Trump, he attacked the judge’s ethnicity. He and his supporters believe that the existing system does not deserve respect, and they won’t hesitate to attack any part of it that they see as opposing him.
The combination of a charismatic cult-of-personality leader and an energized, revolutionary movement has historically proven dangerous to the maintenance of a democratic republic.
Trump got his chance from a combination of circumstances. The economic slaughter of the American working class, the presidency of Barack Obama whose contempt for this very group (“they cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”) is so evident, the enforcement of political correctness, and a sharply leftward-moving Democratic Party whose candidate is not only grossly dishonest but a widely disliked poor campaigner who is only good at backroom maneuvering with corporations and the elite – all these have opened the door for him.
Trump has succeeded to do what the Left has been failing at for decades: he has built a revolutionary mass movement that actually has a chance of gaining power. The Left could never connect with the working class but billionaire Trump seems to have no trouble doing so.
To me, a particularly worrisome aspect of the Trumpist movement is the support it gets from the most vicious Jew-haters in the political ecosystem, a group that has been marginalized in the Republican party since W. F. Buckley called out Pat Buchanan in 1991. They’re back.
Ironically, the movement is much like Black Lives Matter, which also takes advantage of the carefully nurtured anger of a segment of the population in order to try to overthrow the existing order (and another irony is the anti-Jewish turn of BLM). One main difference is that BLM doesn’t seem to have a charismatic leader yet.
A Trump victory in the election seems unlikely at this point, but if he loses Trumpism will not go away. A narrative in which Trump loses because he is stabbed in the back by election fraud and by never-Trump Republicans – who, incidentally, include a large percentage of high-profile Jews – is already developing.
I know historical parallels are always misleading, but the similarity to the Germany of the late 1920s is hard to miss.
Of course Trump is not a Hitler. I don’t see him as especially racist and certainly not capable of genocide. But his movement is anti-democratic. It is quite ready to put aside the niceties of checks and balances in order to free its champion to fight for its idea of Truth, Justice and the American Way.
On the other hand, many people think that government in America is already completely dysfunctional, too far gone for politics as usual to save it. They believe that democracy, fairness and individual liberty have been seriously compromised, and that a revolutionary movement like Trumpism is the only hope of restoring them.
So whom do I intend to vote for? Both prospects are so awful that I haven’t decided. I’ll tell you in a few weeks.