Congratulations, America. You played yourself. Writing about Canadian politics, as I tend to do, requires cutting down an overinflated superiority complex at the best of times, but the 2016 US presidential election season is threatening to put the smugness into overdrive.
In a totally unexpected twist of fate, it turns out there are real consequences to making the democratic process into a pay-to-play reality show—especially when the main attraction is partisan hacks shouting talking points at each other while navel-gazing nerds play at being sports announcers. Presidential politics are all fun and games until someone comes along and actually treats it like fun and games.
Donald Trump's candidacy is a runaway train T-boning a bus full of orphans and dragging the wreckage through a protected wetland and uprooting all the plants and killing a bunch of endangered waterfowl. At the end of the line is a giant oil refinery/dynamite depository. The conductor is standing naked on top of the engine with a syringe full of methamphetamine jammed up his asshole, twirling his yuge orange dick around like a helicopter, firing a kalashnikov into the air and screaming racial slurs at the top of his lungs. The train is also on fire. Even though everyone knows that this can only end in the face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's impossible to look away because nobody knows how to turn the cameras off.
Of course, Trump is just the latest symptom of a deeper social disease, one that is metastasizing and all but guaranteed to leave the patient braindead if allowed to run its course. Trump is the earthquake you get when the two great fault lines of contemporary US politics slam into one another: the fact that the Washington establishment is morally and intellectually bankrupt, and the fact that much of white America has lost its goddamned mind.
That Trump is powered by people who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore is obvious to the point of banality. But to boil it down to "stupid people are angry and also racist," while definitely partly true, is to miss a lot of the bullshit that made The Donald's latest presidential bid possible.
What it really comes down to is a large swath of scared people who know that the American dream is dead. But they're stuck in the bargaining stage of grief, and hoping that daddy can cut them a deal.
IT'S MOURNING IN AMERICA
Everyone in America knows that the Emperor wears no clothes. We've known this for years—at least since Vietnam, and reconfirmed for us again after the economic meltdown in 2008. We know that the political system largely consists of lobbyists buying politicians to compete (or collude) with one another to create Value For Shareholders in agribusiness and/or weapons manufacturing. We know this, we know that the two major establishment parties know this, and we know that they know that we know this.
And yet every two-to-four years, everyone pretends that this isn't the case and that we still live in an Enlightenment-era political experiment and that democracy actually works and yadda yadda yadda. The party outside the presidency trots out someone who promises to Make America Great Again and the party inside the presidency trots out someone who promises that America Never Stopped Being Great and both of these statements are increasingly meaningless to increasingly large segments of the American public.
But this year, the whole arrangement has gone tits up. The Republican party is in terminal shock that an aggressive idiot who doesn't seem to know what words mean is the front-runner to be its presidential nominee—despite having spent eight years telling America that having an aggressive idiot in the White House was a really good idea and then another eight years screaming that mandatory private insurance is a form of communism and/or reverse racism.
Meanwhile, the Democrats—whose core message for the last two-and-a-half decades has been to carry the banner of Progress while telling voters to "expect little, deserve less, ask for nothing"—are alarmed to discover that their constituency includes a large number of people who actually want social programs and universal healthcare. Which, as a Canadian, I find adorable.
This is the inevitable outcome of both parties making the last eight years about the culture wars. The so-called moderate wings of both the Republicans and Democrats sing roughly the same tune when it comes to projecting American power abroad or bailing out the banks at home—even if in disagreement about, say, the precise scale of the global shadow drone war. All the substantive discursive struggles have taken place mostly on the cultural front. And after eight years of Obama, both sides are ready to claim (for different reasons) that the social justice jargon is coming from inside the White House.
Despite some very serious continuing problems—rampant police violence against black people, the rollback of reproductive rights at the state level, disproportionate numbers of LGBT youth finding themselves on the street, that sort of thing—the traditionally marginalized segments of American society have more voice and political visibility than ever before. The expansion of civil rights is undeniably a good thing, even if progress is brutally slow and comes with a side of pinkwashing. Hillary Clinton might be as willing as any previous Secretary of State to violently flex the muscle of American empire, but at least married gays can now serve openly in a future foreign war.
But this being America, there are a lot of people still violently attached to white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. The Republican establishment has made hay for the last three decades by getting large swathes of the country riled up about LIBERALS in the hopes of getting evangelicals, paleolibertarians and assorted "racial realists" to stampede to the polls and vote for the red team. With a cosmopolitan black law professor named Barack Hussein Obama in the White House, feeding this beast turned out to be alarmingly easy.
So easy, in fact, that the greatest con-man in living memory is using the opportunity to spin white anxiety into gold.
MAKE AMERICA GRATE AGAIN
Donald Trump is hocking Americans the political equivalent of cheap Viagra. Are you worried your body politic is flaccid, out-of-shape, and unable to perform in the throes of middle age? No worries, bro. We'll make that motherfucker great again. Virile Mexican rapists will trouble you no more.
Donald Trump is the alpha male to end all alpha males. He is a winner, always, even when he's losing (or facing fraud charges). His whole life has been spent building gaudy, phallic towers with his name on them and his go-to point in any debate or interview is that he has the biggest polls, which I had assumed was a very non-subtle way of saying he had the biggest dick until he literally opened a debate last week by saying he had the biggest dick. Somewhere, most likely in hell, Sigmund Freud is having a really good laugh about all this. And that's even before you factor in that Trump is on record as wanting to date his daughter.
Subtlety is dead and Donald Trump is wearing its skin as a mask. The American government is full of pussies, faggots, nerds, and losers and Donald Trump is going to give them all wedgies and shove them in a locker. Just look at what he did to poor Jeb "Please Clap" Bush. The man is tailor-made for a conservative movement that has grown fond of using "cuck" as their pejorative of choice. Nothing betrays the fragile masculinity behind Trump as much as weaponizing emasculation.
Evangelical leaders are rightly alarmed that so many of their sheep are flocking to a serial divorcee who made his fortune building casinos and whose name is synonymous with flashy conspicuous consumption. But they shouldn't be, because most of what passes for Christianity in America long ago ceased to be about the teachings of Jesus Christ and is instead the state religion of American power and the vengeful, angry God of white identity politics. That Ted "Carpet Bombing" Cruz is the only candidate edging out The Donald as the top choice of people who worship a 1st-century Jewish pacifist should tell you just how far the GOP has fallen from the grace of God.
No doubt that white people remain dominant in America's racial hierarchy. But this position is being challenged for the first time in a very long time; arguably ever. And so white people have lost their goddamned minds. I mean, white supremacy in America has always been insane, i.e. pathologically irrational, constitutively fucked beyond belief. But now, because it's under siege as the de facto assumption of all American life, we're seeing the ugly backlash.
The real danger to the success of identity politics as a political tactic was that white identity politics would eventually go mainstream. This is where we are today. Donald Trump has eschewed the respectable Republican tradition of dog-whistle racism for a gold-plated megaphone that also shoots bees at people, and the perfect storm of violently fragile masculinity dovetailing with white anxiety circling the economic drain is what makes it all work. This is what's getting protestors and blacks and Hispanics and Muslims jeered and punched and beaten and ejected from Trump rallies.
Faced with an assault on the institutions of power that have structured their lives for as long as anyone can remember, white America is looking for a hero. And this is the heart of Trump's appeal: the guy genuinely does not give a fuck. His billionaire status means he's free to do and say whatever it takes to win, donors be damned. And who doesn't want to be on the winning side?
This is why it doesn't matter what anyone says about him. It doesn't matter that he's got a long list of failed businesses, that his Mexican border wall is impossible, that John Oliver wants to #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain, that Trump University was an elaborate scam set up to defraud desperate Trumpophiles, or that wantonly torturing civilians and banning a sixth of the earth's population from the country is balls-to-the-wall insane. It doesn't matter. The normal rules of social life do not apply to him. He makes his own rules. He is beyond rules. He is beyond reason. He is a walking, talking eruption of phallic power with a direct line to the American id and this is why all the strictures of civilization shrivel up and die before him. He's a bargain-bin Nietzschean Superman for a country raised on children's beauty pageants.
RENDER UNTO CAESAR
The establishment is powerless to stop this, because the world they've spent 30 years carefully curating is coming apart at the seams. A merry band of Wall Street plutocrats led by Mitt fucking Romney is not going to put a dent in Trump's momentum because, aside from Political Correctness Gone Mad, they represent everything wrong with American government.
This—and only this—is the one point of overlap between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, however much New York newspaper op-eds would like to convince you that they're secretly the same guy. They are the only two candidates publicly acknowledging that things are bad for the country's working class, and that part of the problem is both Republicans and Democrats colluding on free trade agreements that erode American sovereignty and make some guy in a corporate office rich while shuttering factories across the country.
But even while the established political consensus is starting to fray, people are as likely to reach out for the primeval rush of an authoritarian father-figure than to roll up their sleeves and rebuild the Great Society.
This is the only endgame for a cultural zeitgeist obsessed with "authenticity" as it stares down the death of the American dream. Making America Great Again cuts two ways. One way is putting in the hard work of making that dream a reality and actually building a country where everyone is equally able to stand or fall on their own personal merits, rather than on account of the social grouping they were born into.
The other is dispensing with all pretenses that the United States is anything but a pay-to-play game for the rich and powerful. Know your place, keep your head down, render unto Caesar, and if enough gold piles up then maybe the big man on top can cut you in on the action.
Both are equally "authentic" responses to a broken system—fixing it or tearing the whole fucking thing down. Which one do you think the US electorate is more likely to buy when push comes to shove? Even if President Trump never comes to pass, there's no putting this genie back in the bottle.
So come on, America. Come to daddy. And get ready for the spanking of a lifetime.
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