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To watch the faces of 2016 Republican presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Scott Walker betray total exasperation on a debate stage before a national audience was truly delightful, joy in its purest form.
It was late early 2016 when Donald Trump – a joke, a living sideshow unto himself – took the stage with his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls and did something high-profile American politicians simply cannot do: He told the truth.
The U.S. economy has been rotted from the inside for decades, the stench of economic stagnation penetrating every crevice of the American Experience, he blurted. We have no business waging colonialist wars in the Middle East, he shouted. American exceptionalism is a fraud, our elites have hollowed out the country, and the candidates on stage – and in the Democratic primary – have no plan whatsoever but to continue the failed neoliberal economic experiment that has wrecked the upward mobility of the middle class and offered nothing but despair and death to the working class.
For all his disgusting racism and misogyny and xenophobia, his astounding stupidity and malice and petty hatreds, Trump – a rapist, an exploiter, a fraud without equal – was a truth teller in 2016. I recall watching Jeb and Rubio and Cruz and Walker – the corporate master class's Chosen One – squirm on the debate stage as Trump bellowed these truths about America in the 21st Century. Because they knew this was going to be an unfair fight – an unwinnable battle – if Trump could be honest about American decline and what it meant for working families in the US. Mainline Republican candidates, with a veneer of respectability and a big fucking American flag lapel on their suit jackets, could not be up front with the voters whose support they sought. Everything was mostly fine, they said. The only problem is that a Democrat has been at the head of the empire for eight years.
The faces of the conservative project's anointed one said it all. Rubio, rivulets of sweat pouring down his ghostly pale face, was exasperated by Trump's willingness to acknowledge the crumbling American empire. Cruz was aghast at Trump's use of invective and childlike insults to fluster his opponents, sometimes turning to the debate moderator as if to say, wait, he can't do that, we never said we were going to be mean to each other. Walker grinned like an idiot jester as he watched the Republican nomination slip further away with every true thing Donald Trump uttered.
Their inability to be truthful meant they had to fight Trump not with one hand tied behind their backs, but with a straight jacket fastened tightly around them and their opponent holding a sledgehammer. They never had a chance against Trump the truther teller. Neither did Hillary Clinton, whose rallying cry of "America is already great" was equal parts insulting and hilarious – the sort of writing that made HBO's Veep a great show. In a Democratic primary system designed to crush left-wing candidates, Clinton and her disingenuous "America is already great" messaging had no issue dispatching Bernie Sanders. It could not stand up against Trump though.
I was reminded of Trump's 2016 advantage over his establishment opponents while I read Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen's "Late Capitalist Fascism," an insightful read about what distinguishes 21st century fascism from interwar fascism (aesthetics, it's all about aesthetics).
"The fascists' advantage is that they admit that there is a problem," Bolt Rasmussen wrote. "Trump's primary appeal was his shocking admission that ordinary Americans have in fact been losing for the last forty years. ... The political class remains unable even to admit the severity of the crisis." The crisis in this case being the four-decade economic contraction that has led to the capitalist class ceasing good-faith negotiations with labor in an all-out war for ever-shrinking profits. This crisis was exposed in the economic meltdown of 2007-2008, which led to more than a decade of non-recovery while undermining leftist parties who opposed post-meltdown austerity, opening the door for fascists who would promise a return to glory and destroy anyone and anything that threatened the supremacy of capital. Without the 2007-2008 collapse, Trump is more likely the owner of a USFL team than a former American president.
"Behind all the outrage, delusion, and over-the-top phoniness there's an ungainly truth in Trump, namely the admission that things are not nearly as good in the US as the political class and its courtiers continue to claim," Bolt Rasmussen wrote. "Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both promised continuity. Clinton was four more years of the same: let's keep things moving, let's pretend we can continue while society is falling apart around us – infrastructure is crumbling and inequality is skyrocketing. The neoliberal non-recovery will last forever. No need for readjustments. Biden was the promise of a return to the already shattered promise four years later. A promise of stabilization, of unity. Of keeping it all together. Trump was the scandalous disclosure of the unreality of the political class's promises of stability and unity. ... Trump, billionaire conman and racist reality star, was definitely a strange herald of decline, but it was nonetheless true: there was never going to be a recovery.
I take absolutely no pleasure in acknowledging that Trump was (and is) the only major political figure in the US who speaks truths other elites won't. It's the Worst Person You Know meme in its most horrifying form: The worst living American, the central figure in what will be the end of democracy in the US and the western world at large, is the only one willing to say shit sucks while his opponents blather on about keeping things together for another four years. Most of Trump's most vociferous opponents pledge the promise of a Bandaid. It's the least inspiring kind of politics imaginable. At least figures like Barack Obama took our dreams and sold them back to us under the guise of gloriously vague campaign promises. Today we have Vice President Kamala Harris – who had the chance to be a transformational figure in U.S. politics – perplexed by voters' expectations that Democrats should exercise power with total control of Washington. There's nothing we can do about anything, Harris recently told CNN, crystallizing the hollowing out of Democratic politics. Obviously Veep was a documentary.
(This is where I'll tell you about a march I attended in 2017 as congressional Republicans rushed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have left tens of millions of Americans without any access to health care. I couldn't believe I was rallying in D.C. to save the ACA, Mitt Romney's late-capitalism nightmare health-care plan, but there I was listening to Senate Democrats address throngs of supporters who begged them to do something, anything to save the law from repeal. I was somewhat excited to see Harris, a rising Democratic star, fire up the crowd as the final speaker. But no. The senator from California had nothing: No fire, no gusto, no desire to even be there on the National Mall talking to folks whose health-care access hung in the balance. Harris seemed disinterested in the whole thing. "Keep your hands off our stuff," she said, referring to the basic human right of health care as "our stuff." It was the least inspiring speech I've ever seen. The crowd went from roars to hushes, then meandered away as Harris rambled on with bromides about America and freedom and liberty and all that horseshit. If Harris is the future of the Democratic Party, we have no hope.)
People Want The Good Faith
The logical way to strip Trump and his fellow fascists of their truth-telling advantage is to bite down hard and also tell truths that will resonate with everyday folks who do not want a Return to Normalcy or the politics of a Bandaid. People can hear hard truths. They live with those truths every day.
Politicians and activists and supporters on Twitter can cite solid jobs reports and certain areas of economic growth all they want in an unwinnable fight to convince folks everything is OK, that the overarching metrics look good from here. Left-leaning media can go on and on about billionaires flooding campaigns with unlimited cash having no impact on politics. Liberal nerds can point to charts and say the numbers say everyone is mostly fine.
Nothing feels OK to Americans who trade their labor for money, and that's all that matters. Politics is about feelings, not facts. Stop trying to make people feel better about shit in an economy where medical and student debt exist. Don't try to talk people into bucking up and smiling as they pay $100 to fill their gas tank in a country without a public transportation system. Working Americans are out here taking "hunger naps" because they can't afford three square meals and they can't bear the hunger pangs. I came across a Twitter thread last week in which dozens of people said they were "belt tightening" by forgoing health insurance to avoid eviction. People online brag about having multiple jobs, about not sleeping or relaxing or taking time for themselves – Hustle Culture being a disturbing outgrowth of late capitalism.
The sooner liberals understand this, the sooner they can come to terms with our slow-moving economic collapse, the sooner they can compete with their fascist opponents who have nothing to lose by telling the truth about American decline. These ghouls mix just enough good faith into their mountain of bad faith to make their messaging palatable to the masses. Things are bad (true) and it's the fault of the poor immigrant family across the street (false). Your economic power has eroded into nothing (true) because of the left-wing plot to replace you with cheap brown and black labor (false). The fascist then offers a plan to restore the fatherland's former glory. Don't worry about the details, they say, because there are no details. Twenty-first Century fascism isn't a political program as much as it is a cultural program.
The Build Back Better program was, for a while, a hopeful harbinger of Democratic elites perhaps straying from rigid neoliberal norms, addressing economic stagnation with massive stimulus rather than murderous austerity measures. Build Back Better would have been unthinkable in the Obama era, when Democrats had a 60-seat Senate majority (with about ten of those Democrats functionally the same as Republicans). The Build Back Better program would have transformed large swaths of American society. An unapologetically pro-family bill, Build Back Better would have provided free childcare for most U.S. families, universal preschool for all three and four year olds (the largest expansion of public education in a century), increased government funding for college tuition, and provided monthly cash for 40 million families with children. The legislation would have expanded Medicaid coverage to almost 5 million people who don't have access to health services. It was (still is?) a shockingly pro-human piece of legislation that would have been the first real attempt in decades to reverse our seemingly unstoppable economic death spiral in this catastrophic phase of capitalism.
That a couple well-compensated progress killers in the Senate blocked Build Back Better in 2021 shouldn't obscure Democrats' willingness to go another route after decades of the same tired cost-cutting bullshit that helped shove white voters firmly into Trump's camp. Build Back Better was a real-life good-faith attempt to address our forty-year economic malaise. It was, dare I say, a positive development.
People want good-faith arguments. They can handle it. It's vital to level with people as we face the specter of electoral norms being eviscerated by a conservative movement that proudly describes itself as illiberal. If centrists and the left don't level with the public, if they cannot say shit sucks and only massive systematic change can turn the tide, we face political horror without end. In a September 2020 survey of Republicans, half of respondents agreed that "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we have have to use force to save it." The same survey found that 40 percent of Republicans agreed that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." One in five Republican respondents disagreed with these statements. One in five. Twenty percent.
The Republican Party is fully radicalized. We live in an era of fascism. We just happen to have the Bandaids in power right now. When the Bandaids are gone, the blood will flow. We need good faith and we need it now.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter @CDCarter13 for maximum alienation.