Theodicy of Trump – a Tweet-Drizzle (OAG #11)

Notes:

  1. (Pillsy []

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2 comments on “Theodicy of Trump – a Tweet-Drizzle (OAG #11)

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  1. Only the retrospective knowledge that Trump, against every establishment anticipation, won the election lends the idea that Hillary Clinton ought to have refused to participate in the debates in a (to my mind, Quixotic) attempt to “de-legitimize” Trump even the remotest plausibility. For one thing, a refusal to debate Trump would have been portrayed by the Trump campaign as an instance of the very pusillanimity of the establishment cum political class that you say (assuming that I understand you correctly–the compressed nature of a “tweet” may be an obstacle to my understanding) is “the one thing Trump & his voters had right”.

    In any case, the key reason why the Clinton campaign assumed it would not be in their self-interest to attempt to “de-legitimize” Trump was their conviction–universally shared by the establishment punditocracy–that Trump was unelectable (where “electable” is somehow supposed to correlate with “approximation to left-liberalism” or, perhaps better, to “liberalism simpliciter”), and thus Hillary Clinton, however moribund her candidacy, was assured of victory.

    It is proverbial that the failure to cognize one’s position as vulnerable or defeasible sets one up for disappointment or even astonishment–and the astonishment of left-liberals and of others whose political perspectives are approximations or echoes, however remote, of left-liberalism or liberalism simpliciter, is inscribed in their political deeds to this very day, some six-odd months after the election.

    The left-liberalism that is concretized in the Democratic Party has quite obviously become a species of fanaticism–and, while I’d be the last person on earth to deny the virtue (and maybe even the sheer necessity at all times) of fanaticism–it seems to me that this particular iteration of the fanatic spirit isn’t born of an underlying vitality but rather of a decay of vitality.

    • From early on, Trump gave his adversaries abundant excuses to declare him illegitimate, or illegitimate as far as their principles were concerned.

      To skip ahead to the Fall and to imagine Hillary Clinton “re-born hard,” refusing to debate the man who incited violence at his rallies; who crudely demeaned his opponents; who ran a campaign filled with stooges of a foreign power; who encouraged, celebrated, and exploited the actions of WikiLeaks; who ran a never-disavowed multi-year effort to de-legitimize the sitting president; and so on, is difficult precisely because many or most of those justifications had been present for months, and had already been “normalized.” The refusal to debate would have been a clear statement, but the person able to make it in September-October would have been able to make it or its equivalent in January-February.

      HRC’s message in the end seemed to be that Trump was unfit and unacceptable, as Jeet Heer notes. Debating him contradicted or blunted that message, but so did a thousand other things she did and didn’t do. She could also have chosen to let others make that argument, and to focus all of her strength on the “agenda” that Heer says she downplayed. Instead, she tried to do both – “It’s an emergency! Here’s my worker retraining proposal!” – in the political equivalent of dividing her forces in the face of the enemy.

      In short, she tried to play the odds and play the game, just as Obama tried to play the odds as he calculated them, in the hope of getting by with a “normal” victory. Obama apparently was ready to go public on the Russian allegations by the Summer, for instance, but is said to have backed down when Mitch McConnell threatened to call it “politics.” You don’t have to take a position on the intrinsic importance of the Russian question to understand the contradiction in the Democrats’ response to it, the same as the contradiction in relation to Trump: If it was a matter of the greatest significance, then there should not have been any backing down to McConnell. Obama should have treated the issue as an emergency, taken extraordinary measures, and alerted the public. That he did not treat the issue as an emergency then compromises his defenders now when they ask us to treat it that way now. I discussed this question in some detail at around the same time the Russian question was receiving its first major post-election public airing late last Fall (OAG #2).

      The same goes in regard to dealing with Trump. Unfortunately for his opponents, the kind of candidate who could have refused to debate Trump and could have driven the point home and sustained it is not the kind of candidate that the Democrats were prepared to nominate. They don’t understand how to be hard in that way. As I’ve been saying, that is the one or perhaps the only thing that Trump seems to understand: how to go on with passionate intensity vs those who lack all conviction. Instead of backing down to a McConnell like Obama, we can assume that in a similar situation Trump would have been blurting out the awful truth at the first opportunity and every subsequent one.

      The point of this argument is not to imagine going back in time and persuading HRC to adopt a saving tactic at the last possible second. The point is to illustrated the problem that the anti-Trump coalition was not able to face last year, but may be forced to face eventually, or may be in the process of being forced to face. To beat Trumpism they will have to mimic it without, if possible, succumbing to it, just as to beat the fascist totalitarians, we once upon a time needed to get a lot more fascist-totalitarian than we had been (and lastingly).

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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