Monday, August 29, 2016

Standing at a Political Precipice

We are definitely living in interesting times, unfortunately for us. The 2016 U.S. election campaign for president has been one of the strangest that I have witnessed in my lifetime. I have seen and recalled fifteen of them, so I have something to compare against. We have on one side of the two-party divide a long-time politician of notable experience and achievement, although not without some negative public disapproval, and on the other side we have a self-proclaimed messianic businessman without any political experience or achievement. Some have said that Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, is the most unprepared and unfit individual to ever run for a national political office. However, he seemed to easily defeat over 16 other political opponents and became the most controversial and divisive candidate ever nominated to a political office, at least in my memory. So, there must be a reason why he has been such a successful candidate so far.

We are used to politicians mostly talking and behaving in a genteel and polite manner. When they don’t, it’s considered a verbal gaffe. It can actually doom the one who commits it to political obsolescence. When conservative politicians speak to their political base they tend to do it using insinuations and innuendoes, which the press calls “dog whistles” even though most people understand what was really being said. Now, we have a presidential candidate who comes right out and says what’s on his mind at the moment, although what has been communicated so far is vile, racist, bigoted, crass, and demeaning. He bullies his opponents, incessantly brags about himself and talks about making America great again. What he is really talking about is making America a place where white privilege can be made irreversibly prominent, just like it was before the Civil Rights era. This message is a kind of opiate for some people, and that is why he has been so successful in his campaign up to this point.

To those of us who are opposed to Trump’s message and who find him a vulgar and ignorant plutocrat, we are mystified as to how anyone could support and vote for him. He is obviously so transparent, at least to us, in his naked lust for power, his need for public adoration and his not so subtle personal avarice that not to see him as such, at least to us, is just short of astonishing. However, there were quite a number of people who voted for him in the primaries and who attended his rallies, where all sorts of disturbing and angry displays of loathing, fear and hatred were on display. This is still occurring at Trump’s rallies for the general election.

What could possibly have happened over the years in our nation that has made part of the population succumb to such angry and outrageous displays of racism, misogyny and bigotry? Why do people eagerly support a man who is so clearly unfit and unprepared to be president of the United States? Has part of our population gone completely mad, making them unable to dispassionately and critically see through the lies and deception that the would-be emperor Trump has no clothes? However, if over a third of the population of the country sees something relevant and meaningful in what this man represents, and that it emotionally resonates with them, then it is doubtful that they are mad. They are more likely deceived, or more accurately, deceiving themselves out of a scornful need to be heard and their grievances given due consideration.

Arlie Russell Hochschild has penned a thoughtful and insightful article that recently appeared in “Mother Jones” entitled, “I Spent 5 Years With Some of Trump's Biggest Fans. Here's What They Won't Tell You.” In that article, the author spent five years performing research in the heart of Dixie, most notably in the state of Louisiana, where she met and interviewed many of the very people that support Donald Trump for president. While their reasons might vary from person to person, each of them had specific grievances about the way the country was being run, its current course and likely future. She noted that people are pessimistic about the future, and that many have personally experienced a profound decline in their standard of living over the last couple of decades. They have a steadfast belief on how things should be that is in stark contradiction to the way things are, but they see the source of their dilemma as the loss of social privilege and the intercession of the Federal Government in helping blacks, immigrants and other minorities at their expense.

While it is true that the manufacturing infrastructure has more or less collapsed in various parts of the Southeast and the Midwest, depleting local economies of good paying jobs, those affected don’t see their problems as the result of the forces of economic transition and the arising of a global economy. They see the rich and powerful as members of an exclusive club that they too, because of their race and its intrinsic privileges, should be able to join through hard work, education and self-improvement. The fact that such efforts have been thwarted and shown to be fruitless is the whole basis of their pessimism and malaise. To them, the U.S. has already fallen from its greatness and is now controlled by liberal-minded political elites and their various constituents. The common blue collar worker seems to have no voice or consideration in the political process whatsoever. This, of course, belies the fact that for the last several years the Republicans have controlled the House, and the Senate for more than two years. The obstacle appears to them to be the doings of the President, the Federal bureaucracy and some of the Federal courts.   

The author talked to a lot of people and she was able to distill their perspective about America in the following brief narrative. 

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.

There are quite a few problems with this story, but the most striking is that the “unmoving line” is immobile for two reasons not at all implied by the thinking behind it. The first is that the wealthy 1% are already at the destination - the American Dream - and they are the one’s who have effectively worked against the possibility of social and economic mobility. The “line of people” is unmoving because the 1% have taken steps to frustrate mobility and to ensure that they maintain their status as the wealthy and powerful. Secondly, immigrants typically start at or near the bottom, since in most cases they come to this country with very little capital and lack the ability to immediately integrate into our economy. There are some who come here because they have a desired expertise, such as medical doctors or IT specialists, but these are a minority. Still, all immigrants ultimately have to go through the process of legally becoming citizens, which is neither easy nor quick.

Also, the tax dollars that are supposedly being largely redistributed to the poor are actually going into the pockets of the wealthy. What is given to the poor and disfranchised by the Government is really a pittance when compared to what is given to the rich. Finally, ensuring some degree of economic equality has been part of the American psyche only since the 1930's. What all people really want is a level playing field and a chance to earn their way, slowly and steadily, into the economic classes above them. This kind of mobility gives them a goal and an incentive to work and better themselves. Hope encouraged by fairness is the counter force to despair and neglect.

Additionally, the “people standing in the middle of a line” assumes a kind of ranking based on the level of privilege that one is born into, and is only occasionally and easily abrogated by someone who is more intelligent or capable than the average person standing in line. That ranking has to do with one’s economic situation and also, unfortunately, race, ethnicity and less so, one’s religion. This isn’t a meritocracy, as far as assumptions go (even though the American Dream would assume that it is all a meritocracy), so when someone who is gifted or has specific talents achieves the American Dream before the others supposedly standing in line ahead of him, those who are still in line are justifiably envious and resentful. This is particularly true when that person is not a proper white Protestant Christian. A black man in the White House seems like an ironic and terrible inversion of the proper order of things, which is based on the privileges and prerequisites of the white Christian populace. These assumptions are ridiculous because the real opponents to the middle and lower classes aren’t the same people who are part of those classes, but who look different or practice a different religion. The truth is that we are united in our new-found victimization caused by social oppression and economic stasis. The real opponents are the wealthy 1% who are seeking to protect their wealth and power by making certain that the rest of the classes are kept in their place whatever the means. 
We should also keep in mind that this social and economic mobility (called the American Dream) is a recent phenomenon in the history of the U.S. It really began at the start of WWII when the Great Depression effectively ended. That mobility began to slow down during the early 1980's and for most people, ended completely in the late 90's. Social and economic mobility was not something that was an expected feature of American culture, from it’s founding in the 18th century and through the middle of the 20th century. The status quo meant that the rich and powerful were the privileged “better folk,” and the teaming masses of the lower classes were meant to be servants and laborers for the upper class. That attitude began to disappear when government and unions joined together to deal with the issues of economic and social inequality during the 1930's. It was due to progressive policies that became the law of the land as put forth by FDR and Congress that actually changed this equation. Prior to the 1930's there really wasn’t a true middle class in the U.S. Most people were essentially blue-collar laborers, and only a few had college educations. That radically changed in the 1930's, but it wasn’t until the 1940's that economic equality and fairness began to become a reality. It was also a time when the top wages also had very high tax brackets. Those high tax brackets continued through the 1950's and helped fund the Federal Government to make massive changes to the nation’s infrastructure, such as the Interstate Freeway system, the space race, the military build up of the Cold War, and many other major changes that benefitted nearly everyone. Government spending was the great mover that pushed corporations and state and local governments to achieve great and lasting changes, many of which we take for granted today.

Since the 1980's things have been going the other way, as wages for the 85% stagnated, and it finally caught up to the rest of us so that only the top 1% have achieved all of the wage and wealth increases for the past 20 years. This change is not coincidental, since it was fostered by crafty legislation bought and paid for by wealthy corporations and individuals through their lobbyist handlers and political operatives. It would seem that some of the wealthy and powerful have an agenda; they want to put the middle class back in the bottle with the lower classes where they resided previously. Fundamentally, it doesn’t make much economic sense overall because if the middle and lower classes don’t have much in the way of disposable income then they will hardly be able to buy anything except the basics. That would seriously diminish our economy, which is based after all on consumerism. It isn’t rational, but it is very human for those on top to ensure that they remain on top by controlling and suppressing those who are below them. That kind of economic feudalism was a staple of Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century, but it had been eliminated (so we thought) in the 1930's.

You see, the wealthy belong to an exclusive club and they really don’t want the rest of the citizens of the U.S. to be able to reap the rewards of our corporatist society as they did, and thereby become members of that exclusive club - making it not so exclusive. That would dilute their wealth and power! Now, the road to the American Dream is just empty rhetoric, and it has been functionally a myth since the 1970's. There was a brief period when our country saw a tremendous movement of multi-generational social and economic mobility that gave people a sense of purpose and hope. Prior to that the lower classes had to know their place in life and live within the status quo. So, it would seem that there are social and political forces that are pushing the U.S. back to the way things were before the American Dream and economic equality gave the lower classes a sense of hope and purpose to their lives.

If we wish to reinstate that upward economic mobility that we briefly experienced as a people after WWII then we need to unite and fight the 1% on both the political and economic fronts. If we are divided by bigotry and racism then we will only make ourselves more vulnerable so we can be manipulated and controlled by the rich. There is still a chance to make our nation a better and more fair place to live and work in. We can, by being united, fight to get the line moving again so that many more Americans can achieve the American Dream. This is because we are stronger, obviously, when we work together as a people than when we are divided.

This brings me to talk a bit more about Donald J. Trump and his campaign for president. I won’t talk about the typical and usual complaints about his supposedly policy ideas, nor his rather vulgar and obnoxious perspectives when it comes to people who are racially, ethnically, or religiously different than the typical WASP American. In fact there is very little of any kind of substantive policy that the Trump campaign is actually promoting. Still, Donald Trump has arrived on the political scene as the savior of the supposedly disenfranchised white working class. He alone can single-handedly change the national economic equation so that the declining middle class (of privileged white people) will once again thrive, or so he has declared to one and all.

It is curious to note that while Trump vilifies non-white and non-Christian folk, he isn’t talking about getting rid of the very programs that are helping the economically disadvantaged white middle and lower classes, such as food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of public relief. He has, therefore, subtlety made it acceptable for these white people to feel good about taking Government assistance as long as it is given to their privileged race. Trump has said that he will bring back all of the good paying jobs lost over the last few decades, although such a promise is unrealistic and empty. He is called the Blue Collar Billionaire simply because he is vulgar, ignorant, brash, ostentatious and intemperate. However, Trump was born of the wealthy elite, and he is just as interested in keeping himself that way whatever the consequences. He is also a ruthless, thoughtless, bullying, mendacious and dishonest businessman, which is hardly a model that our country needs to assist it to overcome the current crisis. Anyone who thinks that Trump is our potential savior has succumbed to their own wishful thinking, since even a cursory glance shows that he is everything that is wrong with our country today.

Those who are planning on voting for him because they think that he will restore prestige to the white race are just fooling themselves. If anything, once in power, Donald Trump would enable the previously promoted Republican legislative agenda of completely gutting the government sponsored safety-net, thereby rolling back all of the perks for the indigent and working poor, not to mention those who are aged and retired. It would represent the final nail in the coffin for the lower and middle classes, since not only would the poor be screwed, but the rest of the middle class as well. They would be forced to pay greater amounts of their income as taxes to offset the massive tax breaks given to the 1%. It would turn our country into a dystopia of Libertarian neglect and selfishness, similar to such great failed states in our global hemisphere as Guatemala or Honduras. The only way that the rich could maintain this social structure would be to enforce a rigidly controlled police state backed by a regime consisting of aggressive authoritarianism. None of us would be safe or secure within that nightmarish scenario, and I suspect the rest of the world would feel a bit frightened as well. The only ones who would be safe and secure would be rich and powerful, and such a regime, once established, would be difficult to either circumvent or overcome.

A Trump presidency with the Republicans fully in power would create a nation where only the elite or the occasionally gifted (white) individual would be able to achieve the American Dream. For the rest of us, we would be living the American Nightmare, where any avenue to self-improvement or economic mobility would be completely shut down. Colleges would be too expensive to even consider attending, and the economic classes would be closed to anyone who aspired to greater things. Entrepreneurism, inventiveness, creativity, and futuristic envisioning would be completely suppressed, replaced by a static and strictly ordered society where the workers would be completely enslaved by their corporate masters. Democracy would be a wistful dream, since the power to make laws and enforce them would be solely in the hands of the rich and their instruments of enforcement, the police and the military. Some would be given undreamed of privileges in this dark world, while the masses would be severely restricted. Gone also would be our representational form of political government, our constitution and our freedoms as outlined in the Bill of Rights. That means that all of those most important amendments, from the 1st to the last, including the so-called “sacred” Second, would be abrogated. Cartels that hold absolute power cannot tolerate any social phenomenon that might ignite a possible rebellion. The people would fear their government, and that fear would be the key to keeping the lid on any kind of dissent or counter movement. That, in my opinion, is the terrifying ultimate conclusion to the right-wing fever dreams for some of the wealthy and powerful players backing the Trump political phenomenon. It would be the dawn of a Fascist America, where inequality and coerced anonymity would reign from sea to dismal sea.

Think that I my words are hyperbolic about this crisis that besets our nation? Look at the people who are eagerly promoting Trump’s campaign. The Republican Party seems to have been taken over by the fringe politicos of the far-right wing. When Trump made Stephen Bannon his campaign CEO, who was the chairman of the ultra-right wing online news site, Breitbart News, it seemed that he was going all in on the fringe right-wing political perspective. Breitbart News is an organization that has been labeled a right wing hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, declaring it as the “media arm of the alt-right.” This is a new term for an old social malignancy consisting of extreme nationalism, racism and bigotry. You can find that article here. Trump is also cultivating and enabling the support of such fringe right-wing radio stars such as Alex Jones, who is considered one of the most prolific right-wing conspiracy mongers in our country. You can see what the SPLC has to say about him at this web page.

The Wall Street Journal, a steady conservative news outlet, has defined the alt-right movement as one that completely rejects mainstream conservatism and seeks to replace it with white nationalism, where any form of multiculturalism or immigration is considered threatening to the white social identity. Bannon is not someone who wants to unify the Republican Party as much as he wants to destroy it completely, and then replace it with a form of American fascism. Now that he is the head of Trump’s campaign, he is bringing into the mainstream what should have been kept at the very fringes of our society, where it can become a powerful social force. The press isn’t really being very critical of this movement yet, nor are they making any critical judgements of this troubling situation occurring in a presidential campaign. It is a frightening escalation of a process that seems to be “goose stepping” our nation into a cloudy future. We must, armed with our votes, reject this emerging dangerous political situation by voting against Donald Trump and his down ticket supporters. It is hoped that a humiliating election defeat will force the Republican Party to reject fascism and move more towards the political center. However, I believe that it will be a close election, and this emerging social power of the alt-right will be a major problem for our nation long after Trump has faded into the history books.   

This is what the right-wing wealthy plutocrats have in mind for our nation, and it has become nearly an unstoppable force in our culture today, simply because it has stealthily emerged into a kind of respectability to those people whose grievances makes them credulous and easily manipulated. Donald J. Trump is just a manifestation of this problematic body politic, but it can and must be stopped before it becomes fully realized at the voting booth. This is why I will be voting for the Democrats in the fall to help make this a wave election. They are certainly not the ideal party, but the stark differences between them and the Republicans couldn’t be more pronounced at this time. As a pagan and a witch, I find Trump to be quite disturbing and inimical to my interests. We, as a united people, this time need to truly vote our economic and political interests, since only this kind of conscientious counter-measure can actually thwart the looming take-over long in the planning by the alt-right and their wealthy sponsors.

Frater Barrabbas