By Jim Miller
There’s been a lot of moral indignation recently in light of Donald Trump’s repugnant call to halt Muslim immigration and his fond remembrance of the American internment camps of the WWII era. Indeed, some folks have even started using the “F” word, rightly noting the fascist tendencies that the Donald’s inflamed rhetoric appeals to and accurately comparing his calls to ban refugees to the shameful exclusion of Jews fleeing the Nazis.
But as righteous as it is to call out Trump’s ugly racism and xenophobia, there is something suspect about the assertion heard in many quarters that somehow now this outlier has “gone too far.” Indeed, the frequent portrayal of Trump as an aberrant figure who has stepped outside the boundaries of mainstream American political discourse simply protests too much.
Donald Trump is not some “out of nowhere” demagogue who caught us unsuspecting; he is the pure product of the last thirty years of ugly American politics where “the center” has increasingly moved to the right.
As the “reasonable” new Democrats eschewed economic populism and threw in with the neoliberal corporate order, as Thomas Frank has observed, more and more extreme expressions of conservative ideology became acceptable political discourse in the Republican party, particularly some of the more odious manifestations of right-wing “backlash populism” that were merely veiled forms of xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and reactionary nationalism.
A sizable portion of the American public doesn’t just hate Muslims and other “minorities,” they hate unions, the government, feminists, science, the cultural elite, the “liberal” media, and pretty much anything that threatens their mythical sense of American identity that is one part John Wayne film, one party Disney, one part cage fight. The fact that it is neoliberalism unmooring their world rather than their perceived enemies doesn’t matter—verifiable evidence doesn’t mean a thing. This form of American anti-modernism is just as fundamentally irrational as the anti-modernist extremism of Al Qaeda and ISIS that our homegrown reactionaries fear as all-powerful enemies of “civilization.”
And as we have seen recently, our own reactionaries are well armed too.
The fact that the establishment of the Democratic party was serving up corporate liberalism while the bottom dropped out of the American economy provided a big opening for the incoherent but emotionally gratifying forms of right-wing populism that gave a large segment of the country something to be pissed about while the purveyors of that reactionary populism were continuing to serve the very interests that were screwing the angry rabble.
It was a classic diversionary tactic that the Democrats were no longer able to effectively counter because, economically, they weren’t ready to afflict the comfortable any more than the Republicans were.
And all the while, in some Democratic circles, the fantasy of the reasonable moderate persisted as if the good people in the Republican Party were just waiting for the right person to compromise with over a cool beer at the summer picnic. Sadly, it seems, the lovers of the mythic middle never quite seemed to grok the fact that the guys across the aisle didn’t want to be friends at all—they just wanted to kick your ass.
But this kind of analysis defies the conventional wisdom of the corporate media outlets so you’ll never hear it there. That’s why we have Noam Chomsky to tell it like it is while the corporate media feigns outrage.
Last week, Democracy Now reported on a speech Chomsky gave at the New School in New York where he absolutely nailed the sad politics our historical moment:
Well, actually, I think we should recognize that the other candidates are not that different. I mean, if you take a look at—just take a look at their views. You know, they tell you their views, and they’re astonishing. So just to keep to Iran, a couple of weeks ago, the two front-runners—they’re not the front-runners any longer—were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. And they differed on Iran. Walker said we have to bomb Iran; when he gets elected, they’re going to bomb Iran immediately, the day he’s elected. Bush was a little—you know, he’s more serious: He said he’s going to wait ’til the first Cabinet meeting, and then they’ll bomb Iran. I mean, this is just off the spectrum of not only international opinion, but even relative sanity.
This is—I think Ornstein and Mann are correct: It’s a radical insurgency; it’s not a political party. You can tell that even by the votes. I mean, any issue of any complexity is going to have some diversity of opinion. But when you get a unanimous vote to kill the Iranian deal or the Affordable Care Act or whatever the next thing may be, you know you’re not dealing with a political party.
It’s an interesting question why that’s true. I think what’s actually happened is that during the whole so-called neoliberal period, last generation, both political parties have drifted to the right.
Today’s Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans. The Republicans have just drifted off the spectrum. They’re so committed to extreme wealth and power that they cannot get votes, can’t get votes by presenting those positions. So what has happened is that they’ve mobilized sectors of the population that have been around for a long time. It is a pretty exceptional country in many ways. One is it’s extremely religious. It’s one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. And by now, I suspect the majority of the base of the Republican Party is evangelical Christians, extremists, not—they’re a mixture, but these are the extremist ones, nativists who are afraid that, you know, “they are taking our white Anglo-Saxon country away from us,” people who have to have guns when they go into Starbucks because, who knows, they might get killed by an Islamic terrorist and so on. I mean, all of that is part of the country, and it goes back to colonial days. There are real roots to it. But these have not been an organized political force in the past. They are now. That’s the base of the Republican Party. And you see it in the primaries. So, yeah, Trump is maybe comic relief, but it’s just a—it’s not that different from the mainstream, which I think is more important.
So let’s get real: Donald Trump is far from surprising. He is not an extreme politician by our current standards. Trump is simply the lightning flash that illuminates our greater political darkness. As Matt Taibbi succinctly put it last week in Rolling Stone, “With his increasingly preposterous run to the White House, the Donald is merely articulating something that runs through the entire culture.”