Invasion of the Party Snatchers

Trump and Clinton, 2016 election campaign.

As an American with numerous friends in foreign countries, it often falls to one to be the interpreter (not to say justifier) of what goes on in American public life. In part, this is simply the normal interplay of people seeking to understand cultures and mores foreign to their own, and it is the subject of a literature has a long provenance, from Xenophon and Julius Caesar to Tocqueville and Twain, to Alastair Cooke (to name only a few).

But the rough beast that is American public life these days is so fundamentally different from what has gone before that attempts to explain it often run aground on the shoals of our own incomprehension.

I am reminded of the time I spent attending high school in the United Kingdom. This was 1986, the high era of Reagan and Thatcher, when the assault on the postwar social compact was in full effect. England was but a few years removed from the long, hot summer of 1981 when rioting had exploded in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, and elsewhere, and the memories were still fresh and raw. The Thatcher government’s breaking of the miners’ strike and of the industrial action against Rupert Murdoch’s Sun printing plant showed that neoliberalism cared little more for the fate of the white working classes than it did for people of colour.

I spent the first half of the year attending a polytechnic school in Chillwell, outside of Nottingham. The kids there busily revising for their A Levels, while I had already been accepted to university and was basically playing out the string. I was a bit of a curiosity there, partly due to my accent (the indeterminate drawl of the western United States) which made them all think that I should be chasing tumbleweeds. I was also a lot more politically engaged than they were. I went to Socialist Workers Party meetings (upstairs at the Narrow Boat in Nottingham). It was a chance to break out from the small town life in eastern Washington, but they also go a knockdown deal on the pints, which made the whole thing all that much more attractive. That, and the fact that I was very into the hardcore scene (and Nottingham was a great place for that too) made me an object of both fascination and occasional loathing.

On the whole, I got on pretty well. I was 17 which, given the permissive enforcement of the drinking age, meant that I could go out to the pub, the centre of social life among my classmates. They were mostly moderately conservative, but also very conscious of Britain’s status as second banana to the United States. I had one of them spend an hour trying to convince me that the British economy was in some way capable of competing with those of the major industrial states. In a larger sense, I was constantly having to explain American politics. This became particularly intense when the US bombed Libya in April of 1986. My classmates were oddly bitter about this and thought I was somehow to blame. I remember telling some of them, “Well, I think it was a terrible idea, but if you have a problem with it your beef is with Whitehall. They’re the ones who let us use you as an aircraft carrier.” This went down about as poorly as you would expect.

Through it all, there was a sort of sense that the politics in both places made a certain kind of sense. Thatcherism and Reaganism shared a lot of similarities. Although both masqueraded as in some sense “revolutionary,” they were in most respects consonant with the neoliberalism of the German social market economy and the thinkers of the Mont Pelerin Society. Reaganism had a somewhat more Keynesian cast, although its tendency to funnel money into the economy via defence spending meant that it was Keynesianism as run by Darth Vader. But both approaches shared obsessive commitments to “free” markets and the conviction that a good dose of white racism could paper over most problems among the poorer classes.

As such, I and my classmates had a common language (over and above the fact that we all spoke English) and common frames of political reference through which to interpret the politics of the day. In those instances when I met kids from Germany, or France, or Sweden, we all could recognise the common constellation of views and values that shaped the topographies of the public spheres of North Atlantic industrial democracies. The Cold War helped too. The possibility of a nuclear exchange with the USSR was an omnipresent frame for our various worldviews. And much as we might disagree about a lot of things, the idea of living under some sort of post-Stalinist state socialism was generally viewed with repugnance.

Nowadays, trying to explain American politics to anyone from outside the United States is a complex and daunting task. Trump himself is so far outside the historical mainstream that it is difficult to find any truly apt point of comparison. Perhaps Silvio Berlusconi fits the bill, but that just illustrates the degree to which he too defeats that ability of liberals to tune in to the new key in which politics is now being played.

The important fact the remember about politics in the United States is that it is a case of life imitating art. This is not always a negative thing, but the sad fact of the matter is that the current model for political life in this country is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and not the Nicole Kidman one from 2007 where the invaders are essentially benign. No, today’s Republican Party has been colonised by a new species of politico, one essentially devoid of human empathy or any feeling for the decent drapery of liberal democracy. While they look like the politicians who have always inhabited the halls of American power (and who not infrequently stained them with gore), Trump and his abettors lack even the modicum of empathy (or good sense) that, for instance, dissuaded Truman from nuclearising the Korean conflict.

The United Kingdom, the politics of which were for long generally parallel to our own, is now being run by a down market version of Thatcher’s party trying desperately to pick up the pieces from David Cameron bungled Brexit gambit. Whatever else you can say about the current state of the Tory Party, they at least resisted colonisation by UKIP, perhaps because the last existed as a free-standing entity rather undertaking a long march through the back benches. In any case, there is a lot in terms of cultural and political linkage between Theresa May and Edward Heath than between her and any strain of American politics.

In Germany, Angela Merkel represents precisely the variety of technocrat that US politics functions to exclude. Since the era of Reagan (and arguably since that of Kennedy) US politics has taken on the case of a beauty pageant, focusing on metaissues of style and presentation. The political prospects of someone like Merkel, whose persona is has the dispassionate moderation of a regional DMV administrator, would be limited indeed in the political environment here.

Now we have Mr. Trump, whose stock in trade is tackiness and petit bourgeois white resentment. Slavoj Žižek pointed out in one of his recent books (perhaps his most recent although he emits books like a queen been emits larvae so I really can’t be sure) that the real danger of Trump and his supporters is their attack on civility. By this he does not mean to invoke that sort of defense of polite discourse that is generally code for making people of color shut up. Rather, it is the willingness of Trump and his people to say things that would previously have been unsayable that creates the most dangerous dynamic in modern politics.

There is a grain of truth here. To a great degree, Mr. Trump’s policies are either a rehash of standard neoliberal nostrums or products of well-known regions of the conservative imaginary. But the change that he was wrought on American politics has a much to do with the willingness of the man himself and his protégés to say things in public that most civilised people would hesitate to say in private. Thus, for instance, when it was recently revealed that a Trump aide dismissed John McCain’s criticism of Gina Haspel by pointing out that, “he’s dying anyway”, the administration’s media arm’s main concern was finding out who leaked this sentiment rather than its intrinsic repugnance.

The difficulty of explaining this and so many other features of American politics is that the Republican Party is a party of a new type. One might point out some superficial similarities between Trumpism and mid-century fascism. But the fact of the matter is that Trumpism lacks the substantial atavism of its fascist predecessors. In truth, that atavism was generally a put on, but Trumpism dispenses with the veneration of the past entirely. Making America great again has nothing to do with a past that ever actually existed except, to the degree that it is a code phrase for the unrestricted dominance of the white male id. In this, at least, it has a bit more substantial foundation than venerating Wotan or obsession with the Kyffhäuser.

Ultimately, the problem is one of decoding. Trump is not so much about what he says or does. Rather, Trumpism is a matter of the feelings that he generates among the petit bourgeois incels which compose his base. His power is more about the generation and expenditure of libidinal energy than about political actions or institutions. Perhaps the most frightening thing is that we who have the privilege of viewing it at close range find it nearly as mystifying as people elsewhere.

Photograph courtesy of IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. Published under a Creative Commons license.