MODERATOR: Good evening and welcome back to Clash of Worldviews, the show in which we try to get to the bottom of big issues. You may have heard that President-Elect Donald Trump is a charlatan and an ogre, and that Hillary Clinton is crooked and phony. But Trump’s election has cast doubt on so much of our conventional wisdom that we’re still wondering—as though lost in a wasteland—just what the true meaning of Trump’s election might be. To help answer that question, we’ve asked Adam Garnett, famed liberal humanist and Hillary Clinton supporter, and Fred Fogarty, a Donald Trump supporter and self-described member of the alt-right to be with us to discuss the matter. Gentlemen, who would like to begin? What is Trumpism all about?
ADAM: In a word, Trump is about himself, while his supporters are about having a laugh at the country’s expense. They’re not downtrodden, these older white working class folks; they’re just venting because they’ve fared badly under globalization, they know the days of exclusive white power or imperialism are over, and they mean to take the country down with them. If they can’t rule any longer like they used to in the first half of the last century, they’re going to pollute the discourse with their vulgarity and send a bull into the china shop.
FRED: So “they’re not downtrodden,” but they’ve also “fared badly under globalization”? Which is it, I wonder? You see how the elites can’t even think straight? No wonder they were ripe for being humiliated by Trump and by the rise of the alt-right!
ADAM: I meant that these Trumpists have benefited from governmental support. They’re part of the middle class, but they’d like to blow up the social system, thus committing collective suicide by voting against their economic interest. Trump, in other words, isn’t an expression of revolt against the powers that be. Instead, he’s a rogue power, an agent of anarchy.
FRED: Keep telling yourself that, Adam! Keep patting yourself on the back. You’re one of the good guys, right? Not some useful idiot to plutocrats.
ADAM: And who are you, Freddy? What vile hate speech will you treat us to this evening? I can hardly wait to plug my ears.
FRED: Yeah, because you’re a feminized liberal who can’t stomach the naked truth. You think Trump’s supporters are all morons and only liberals have reason on their side. That’s where you’re wrong. Many of Trump’s voters aren’t highly uneducated, but that doesn’t make them stupid. Just look at what foolishness was wrought by Clinton’s neoliberal class of professionals: they’re the Ivy Leaguers but they got it all wrong. Their polls, their history lessons, their self-serving analyses were so many paper tigers squashed by the juggernaut Trump. You think Hillary Clinton deserved to win, because she was the more rational and responsible candidate. That’s what that euphemism was about: Trump supposedly lacked “the demeanor to be president.” But you know what Hillary Clinton lacked? An honest bone in her body. She couldn’t speak the unpopular truth to the public and she lost because hardly anyone trusted that she would change the United States for the better.
ADAM: And what will Trump do? Wave his magic wand and make American great again? Is that supposed to be some profound truth he told?
FRED: Trump doesn’t speak in fancy academic double-talk. I’ll grant you that. His language is seldom precise, but the essence of his diagnosis was highly negative and thus accurate. Trump’s view of America’s standing in the world is apocalyptic, as even the Democrats pointed out. Maybe Trump exaggerates for rhetorical effect, but his main point is that the United States isn’t doing well on the whole. That’s the truth that Hillary Clinton couldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, because she had to own Obama’s legacy. The public no longer respects the system, they were disappointed by Obama who ran falsely as a change candidate, and they wanted a leader from outside the corrupt establishment who would at least have a fighting chance of effecting radical change.
ADAM: Who is supposed to benefit from Trump’s administration? Surely you don’t mean the older blue collar whites who have been misled by Republicans for decades. Surely you’re aware that the Republicans have used social wedge issues to stir up animosities and compel these folks to vote against their economic interest. Surely you understand that trickle-down economics just further enriches the top one percent while everyone else falls further behind, that a smaller government with fewer taxes gets out of the way only of giant corporations which are already as powerful as some entire countries, but that the little guy may need government support if he’s going to survive globalization.
FRED: But he’s not going to survive globalization. Again, that’s the sort of dark truth you don’t want to hear. The system that maintains the economic status quo is rigged against him. That’s the system that Obama and Hillary defend as the technocratic managers they are. That’s the system we want Trump to destroy.
ADAM: And your street smarts are supposed to enable you to divine the contents of Trump’s mind? When you psychically peer into its depths, how do you get past the boatload of mental disorders to discover his true intentions?
FRED: Oh, is Trump unfit to attend one of your dinner parties? Is he too coarse for polite company? And that would be the company of smug liberal professionals like you, the company of system managers and consumers who boast that they’re “progressive” when the system they’re upholding is impoverishing billions, enslaving or exterminating all nonhuman animal species, and destroying the planet.
ADAM: When did alt-right conservatives become tree-huggers?
FRED: I’m not opposed to eating meat. But I am disgusted with Big Agriculture. We should be upstanding men and women who earn what we have. If you want to eat meat, go out and hunt; be sustainable in your way of life. Don’t be a sissy who whines when you discover there are bad chemicals in the plastic-covered beef you buy at the supermarket.
ADAM: So now you want a sustainable way of life? What happened to Trump blowing up the system?
FRED: There’s no contradiction there: it’s the global system of crony capitalism that’s unsustainable, so it has to be destroyed to give us a chance to put something else in its place.
ADAM: And do you really think Trump will destroy the system that he admits to having gamed for decades to enrich himself?
FRED: I’m not a psychic or a prophet. I don’t know what Trump will do as president. But we’re not talking about Trump. We’re talking about Trumpism. The meaning of Trump is that he rose to power on a wave of resentment against the neoliberal social order.
ADAM: Resentment against social progress, you mean. Trump ascended thanks to a global backlash fuelled by churlish contempt for foreigners who threaten whites’ narcissistic, nationalist delusions of grandeur. You don’t want to share power with blacks, gays, or Muslims, so you empowered a regressive champion, like they’re doing in Europe.
FRED: Minorities and women have played the race card and identity politics for several decades now, but when white men stand up for themselves they’re being racists and misogynists? That’s a tiresome double standard.
ADAM: Yeah, it’s double because there are two things there. Blacks were literally slaves under whites, and women were oppressed in patriarchies around the world for millennia. White men benefited from those inequities, so now they’re not just “standing up for themselves”; they’re trying to reinstitute imperialist power structures.
FRED: Your beef then is with nature. You think we progress by departing from what’s natural, but that bit of liberal humanism is as delusional as belief in a sky-god with a white beard. Nature is filled with inequalities. Men aren’t the same as women, and races aren’t culturally or even biologically all the same. These are some more of those dark truths that terrify liberals.
ADAM: Races aren’t biologically the same, eh? So we’re back to the quackery that drove fascism in the Second World War?
FRED: Tell me, then, why would the races be biologically the same? What would make them identical, overriding the genes that cause different skin colours, for example? You sound like Isaac Newton who assumed God must be holding the orbits in place, preventing planets from falling into the sun.
ADAM: Liberals don’t think races and sexes are identical. Obviously men and women have different physical characteristics, and blacks and whites, for example, have different skin colours. The point, rather, is that all people should be held in equal regard, the physical differences between them being irrelevant to their human rights.
FRED: That’s the liberal myth alright. But there are no human rights, you know. That’s a fiction we’ve been telling ourselves in the modern world, to replace the old religious stories that rationalized how we thought the world should be. You may prefer to treat men and women the same, but that civic religious dogma of yours is currently backfiring. When men treat women the same way they treat men, for example, that’s unromantic. Even if women are too politically correct or clouded by feminist platitudes to call metrosexual men on it, they won’t appreciate that sort of equal treatment. It’s boring and unsatisfying to them. That’s why their soap opera daydreams and romance novels tell a very different story. A woman wants a world to correspond to her fantasies in which a heroic man sweeps her off her feet.
ADAM: I’m pretty sure women have been clamouring also for equal pay for equal work.
FRED: Sure they have, because like children they don’t know what’s best for them. It’s in their best interest to be led by strong men. They may think they want to do men’s dirty work in business and politics and the like, and perhaps some women are exceptions and that’s what they truly want. But many feminists are lying to themselves and only pretending to be content with modernity. And I note again the shadiness of this talk of equality: the flip side of human rights is our domination of other species, which will lead to our downfall.
ADAM: Authoritarian men like Trump may prefer sheepish women, just as white bullies may presume that the white race has a manifest destiny to rule the planet while so-called inferior races are doomed to languish under the whip. But these are atrocious stereotypes, not dark empirical truths as you would have us believe.
FRED: They’re truer to nature than is your liberal humanistic happy-talk! You have to be blind and deaf in a bubble of political correctness to think the races are all the same. Think of races as breeds. We breed dogs or horses and we prize pure breeds, the ones that best display the characteristics of their type. A mutt, by contrast, is a dog with mixed blood and muddled traits that don’t allow it to excel in a particular environment. Natural selection works the same way, so when we interbreed as humans, we pollute our gene pool and lose the traits and skills required to excel or even to survive.
ADAM: There’s just one problem with that bit of eugenics: natural selection doesn’t work the way same way on our species, because we’re not mere animals. Animals are slave to their programming, but people are self-aware and autonomous. That’s why blacks can be enslaved for generations, but an African-American can still be educated and can rise to become President of the United States. Likewise, a woman such as Hillary Clinton can study at Yale and Oxford and become as qualified as any man for that same position. As individuals we can defy our programming and our “blood,” and that’s the source of our equality: we have the equal potential to excel as free beings, liberated from the natural laws that rule over the animal kingdom. But your throwback rhetoric would have certain out-groups regress and be treated as animals so they can be conquered by a so-called exceptional class, by the “power elites.”
FRED: You establishment liberals need to listen more closely to the progressives you’ve ignored. Bernie Sanders and leftists such as Thomas Frank, Glenn Greenwald, and Matt Taibbi recognize that there are power elites and plutocrats who run so-called democracies behind the scenes. I agree that humans have greater self-control than animals. But our freedom isn’t supernatural and it can be overcome by the environment. Look at what happened since the advent of Neolithic farming: we became sedentary and formed unequal, hierarchical societies—regardless of the culture or style of politics. Democracy is based on the assumption that voters have equal rights, but the ancient Greeks understood that democracies devolve, because demagogues arise, whip up mass resentments, and establish a tyranny of the majority. So instead of one from many, as it says on the American seal, we have inequality from equality. The clash between Democrats and Republicans this election cycle was between different economic classes vying for power, but because Trump is a far superior demagogue, he was able to energize his base and get them to vote for radical change. Despite Clinton’s superb self-control and intellectual heft, her voters were uninspired by her tired rhetoric. So where then was our vaunted equality? Our nonrational side got the better of us, and the more beastly class—the white older males and blue collar workers—took political power from the demoralized and decadent millennials and liberal professionals.
ADAM: So what’s your solution to this imperfect state of modern democracy? Elect the most egregious demagogue possible on a wing and a prayer that you just might be left standing after he hurls us all into the apocalypse?
FRED: You still don’t understand. The apocalypse is all around us; it’s been there since the beginning. It’s the state of nature. All human efforts are taken on a wing and prayer. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’re supernatural agents, free from natural processes so that we can forge our path in the wilderness. And being the hypocrites we are, we condemn out-groups who are likewise as deluded by their myths which are unfamiliar to us. You say the alt-right demonizes minorities and other groups, but Hillary Clinton was quick to demonize the alt-right as a “basket of deplorables.” Instead of exercising our autonomy and empathizing with others, we circle the wagons, applauding our tribe and howling at our opponents—just like a troop of monkeys. Instead of listening to what the alt-right is saying, liberals cherry-pick unflattering quotations from this or that website, and thus still don’t understand what the election was really about and why they lost to Trumpism.
ADAM: I know what the alt-right is about. It’s the Frankenstein monster created by the Republican establishment, including Fox News; it’s the set of wedge issues that kept the Republican base in line until the Great Recession unleashed the Tea Party which morphed into the birther movement, joining forces with a thousand conspiracy cliques on the internet, whether it be Alex Jones’ Infowars, the 911 Truthers, the pickup artists, the videogamers, and even the white supremacists. The alt-right is a form of conservatism that speaks to the underclass rather than to “the establishment” or to the wealthy managers of the Republican infrastructure. Instead of the neoliberal, globalist myths peddled by the New York Times and the like—the myths of the free market and of entrepreneurialism, upward mobility, and the need to get the government off our backs—you have the more vulgar myths that sprouted in the dark alleyways of the internet such as 4chan and Reddit.
FRED: Your analysis is incomplete, because the backlash against neoliberalism is global. The internet merely allows for freer communication. So we had Occupy Wall Street and then the Arab Spring, Brexit, the ascent of Putin, China, and Iran, and a rightwing insurgence across Europe. And now we have Trumpism. We use the internet to find the ideas that most interest us, but we mustn’t confuse the messenger with the message. The internet doesn’t cause hostility to free-market capitalism, globalization, and democracy; chat rooms and blogs, Facebook and Twitter merely bring that uprising to the fore. To understand Trumpism, you have to recognize the fault of liberalism, but you’re too invested in your myths to scrutinize them.
ADAM: You’re muddying the waters. Liberalism isn’t responsible for globalization, for so-called free-market economics, or for the libertarian frontier culture. Liberalism is just the modern faith that humans are obligated to be godlike, because we enlightened Westerners discovered that a nonhuman god is irrelevant and probably nonexistent. We’re free as individuals from the religious dogmas and traditions that oppressed the masses for most of our history. We have the right to self-determination, to find our own way to be happy as long as we don’t interfere with other people’s equal right to the same. The U.S. Declaration of Independence is a classically liberal document.
FRED: Sure, that’s where liberalism starts, in the ideal of self-determination, because the rational individual must take over for the old gods we’ve left behind. But the institutions of capitalism and democracy arise from that ideal. “Let the individual sellers and buyers select their prices and what to produce or purchase.” “Let the voters choose their political representatives.” We invest power in all of us, because we worship ourselves after the death of God. But look what happens to liberal economies and governments. Monopolies, oligopolies, and plutocracies emerge, and the wealthy exercise their unequal power to entrench their privileges, manipulating the laws to their advantage and going round and round the revolving door between the private and public sectors so that the majority falls far behind with stagnant wages and no political power. And when developing countries adopt the neoliberal Washington Consensus, we have a global competition and a race to the bottom for the sake of private profit, further hurting the chances of millions of Americans to “find their own way to be happy.”
ADAM: But the irony here is appalling! The so-called Washington Consensus was established mainly by Republicans. Free market ideology grew out of right-wing, libertarian think-tanks.
FRED: Then how do you explain Bill Clinton’s NAFTA trade deal or his repeal of Glass-Steagall?
ADAM: Clinton had to triangulate to outmaneuver the Republican-led congress.
FRED: No, that’s a pitiful excuse. The Clintons and other Democratic leaders are one with establishment Republicans in their neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is just a name for the bipartisan consensus that’s based on the sacrosanct classic liberal ideal of individual freedom. Bill Clinton was indoctrinated into neoliberalism under Carroll Quigley at Georgetown University, subsequently influencing his wife and thus another leader of the Democratic Party, and Barack Obama adopted the cutthroat, careerist culture of neoliberalism at Harvard Law School and was further indoctrinated by the neoliberal establishment figures he had picked for some reason to fill out his economics cabinet (I’m referring to Jaimie Rubin, Geithner, and Summers). What do these Democratic leaders have in common? They’re fatalistic about the powers that be, so that these neoliberal Democrats conclude that only incremental, not radical social change is possible. They take a neutral, “scientific,” hands-off, “no-drama” perspective on world affairs, seeing themselves as mere technocratic managers, because the system is already in place and functioning as it should. The system in question is capitalistic and democratic: it spread from Britain in the Industrial Revolution to the United States and then to other parts of the world. Liberalism was almost defeated by Nazi and Soviet ideologies, but the West won out and the American way of life is supposed to stand now as the goal for all humanity, the United States being the indispensible, exceptional nation that can do no wrong. That’s what all the American power elites believe on both the left and the right. Except they’re wrong and there’s both domestic and foreign revolts against neoliberalism, that is, against the American forms of capitalism and democracy which enrich the few at the expense of the many and which even play out as stage-managed hoaxes. A 2014 study showed that America is plutocratic, not democratic, because most voters’ interests never get translated into public policy; their representatives heed the directives only of their wealthy donors and patrons.
ADAM: Well, allow me to introduce an alternative interpretation. Again, it’s rich hearing this radical progressivism from an extreme right-winger. This looks to me rather like a cynical act of rebranding. After Obama was elected, the Republicans tried being friendlier to minorities, to address the demographic realities which must be unsettling to proponents of the trusty Southern Strategy. But that didn’t work, because the Tea Party took over the Republican Party, casting out the moderates and leaving Republicans with Trump whose crudities can’t be papered over. So there’s a new strategy: excuse alt-right radicalism by blaming it on the left, by pretending Trump is just like Bernie Sanders.
FRED: Your academic labels are unhelpful since they have you looking at the trees so you can’t see the whole forest. Progressives and the alt-right do have something in common: they’re both radical! They’ve both been shut out of the mainstream American discourse, so now the corporate media are scrambling to find labels to box us in, to normalize and co-opt us, to shut down the revolution and protect their privileged positions. Trump was elected precisely because of his vulgarity, because out of all the nominees and candidates, he was seen to have by far the greatest chance of being a genuine outsider who will destroy the establishment, who will drain the swamp, as he put it. That was the aim of the voters who mattered most this election, to subvert the neoliberal social order, to embarrass the power elites but also to rollback globalization, free trade, and the culture of stifling political correctness.
ADAM: Good luck with all that! The most likely outcome of this revolt will be its signaling that America has already declined past the point of easy retrieval. Cynics are lashing out but they have no idea how to solve our real problems, so the election of Trump is a symptom, not a cure for our disordered culture. Trump will probably succeed only in humiliating all Americans. At least he’ll entertain us, the way the violinists kept playing as the Titanic sank.
FRED: And when progressives are evidently so demoralized that they speak of the end of American greatness, you know you’ve got them beat.
ADAM: I’m just observing that this rightwing backlash against globalization is futile, because the heroes you’re electing, whether in Britain or here in the U.S., are actually bumbling imbeciles or charlatans who can’t govern a child’s birthday party let alone a superpowerful nation. What happens when a horde of troglodytes storms the battlements? Does it create a shining new world order or is nature using that manifest barbarism to wipe us all out? Sorry, but a businessman with the early advantages Trump had, who went bankrupt several times and is now hiding his true net worth by not releasing his tax returns doesn’t inspire much confidence that even if he could run the country the way he ran his businesses, our fate would be in good hands. But don’t worry: when Trump wrecks our economy the way he wrecked his businesses, it will be the Democrats who pick up the pieces. And bless the short memory of troglodytes, since that will prevent them from feeling the shame they ought to feel for having disgraced themselves with this reckless course of action. Indeed, they’ll have disgraced themselves before their white male forebears who were the classic liberals of early modernity, who were ingenious and highly creative renaissance men. Donald Trump is no renaissance man.