Notes on the End of 2016: The Trump Zone

It’s a fairly widespread opinion, particularly in the privileged sectors of East and West Coast urban areas, that 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” And it probably was. I’m not referring to the pop cultural obsession with the various artist/celebrities that have passed away. While many of them were significant in their own ways, their accumulation as a series of tragic deaths has more to do with laws of probability than any discernible affect created by our current historical arc. No, the “worst year ever” has most to do with the end of an ideological bubble that was pierced by the election of Donald Trump as president.

As the new year begins, and the uneasiness mounts with the approach of the January 20th inauguration, here are some thoughts–not necessarily designed to be a prescriptive path toward some future liberation, but meditations on hard realities that should be confronted just to be able to see the way forward.

  • A troubling race/class rift among “progressives” has come into view: One of the disturbing aftermaths of the Trump election has been an internecine battle among “progressives.” One tendency blames center-Left democrats for over-privileging identity politics and ignoring “white working class rage,” while another contended that there was no reasonable class-based justification for white working class voters to ignore Trump’s racism and give him their vote . Clearly, both positions have strong merit. No doubt the Democratic Party cloaked itself in a neoliberal multiculturalist orgy of American exceptionalism during the Convention in August, while refusing to address the twin problems faced by blacks and Latinxs—mass incarceration and mass deportation. But the segment of the working class that is arguably most affected by neoliberalism, working people of color, apparently did not share the “white working class” rage that turned the tide in Michigan and Pennsylvania and voted heavily against Trump. His victory in swing states was certainly attributable to  the white voter who was either a) overtly racist and energized by Trump’s appeal to intolerance and scapegoating or b) not as attuned to fringe neo-fascism yet willing to ignore the blatant bigotry of Trump’s campaign. While I think it can be counterproductive to assemble, as Clinton seemed to be doing, a “talented tenth” of privileged people of color to put a friendly mask on neoliberalism as it does little to address growing inequality, it is far more damaging to reinforce myths about white hegemony over working class identity and to use that to invalidate the still-urgent need for social justice for those who are racialized or otherwise marginalized by normative secularism, liberal or conservative. At the same time, I think it’s a big mistake to uncritically back a candidate just because they share some kind of marginalized identity with you—from my perspective such a candidate must share a range of intersectional critiques with a voter for them to earn that vote.
  • Trump’s victory does not symbolize an emerging political force—it represents a quirk in an electoral vote system designed, at the time of the “Founding Fathers,” to privilege slave owners and slave states: The hand-wringing over the failure of the Democratic Party, and even its neoliberal center, is in many ways misplaced, since Clinton won by almost 3,000,000 popular votes. Trump won 4 out of 5 of the most crucial swing states by a narrow margin, but captured 75 of their 79 electoral votes. Yet rather than focus on abolishing the electoral college, some “liberals/progressives” became enamored with a short-lived phenomenon of “Hamilton Electors,” in which dissident electors cited Alexander Hamilton’s “genius” in devising the electoral system to deny the presidency to election winners who had conflict of interests, dubious qualifications, and/or were in debt to foreign countries, from taking power. In fact, Hamilton was an elitist who was concerned with “too much democracy” and the electoral college’s implementation served the dual purpose of assuring that the president would be elected by an elite that would be a final check against the potential ignorance of the mass voting public, as well as protect the interests of slave states, whose population was diminished since a slave only counted as 3/5 of a person. By over-privileging small states, the electoral college has long had a regressive effect on national politics, empowering the agenda of states with powerful religious-right and anti-voting-rights political activists.
  • Russia, or “Russians” may be hacking US servers, but they did not “hack the election.” President Obama’s retaliation against Russia, while relatively insignificant, can be welcomed as an attempt to irritate both Putin, who is an ephemeral kleptocrat and has a dubious partnership with Syria’s Assad, as well as the incoming President Trump. Yet it’s not clear exactly what the extent or level of Russian involvement in “hacking” the 2016 election. The main action—the release of thousands of DNC emails– appears to have been accomplished by a crude phishing technique fallen for by DNC boss John Podesta. These type of emails, which ask the recipient to reset their User Name and Password for banking or other websites, are the type I have received thousands of times, and most of us would be able to suss them out. Outside of claims made by a recent Homeland Security/FBI report, which lack specificity, there is not clear evidence that the hacking was done by representatives of the Russian government, and there is no evidence of direct hacking of electronic balloting in the US by Russians. Finally, what was revealed by the emails was not sensitive information regarding national security but a sustained pattern of hypocritical actions and beliefs seemingly held by candidate Clinton and her aides that revealed their duplicitous–and not necessarily favorable to marginalized Americans–agenda. What has gone relatively unmentioned, at least since the first days after Trump’s ghastly victory, is that the greater damage was probably done by the FBI director James Comey when he released his misleading announcement that emails found on sexual transgressor Anthony Weiner’s computer may have contained incriminating legal evidence against Clinton.
  • The real Russian threat is not the looming possibility of a renewed Cold War but the apparent influence of their new political theory of management and control on Trump. There has already been plenty of discussion about Trump’s “shapeshifting.” He is an outsider who is the consummate insider. He is a rapacious capitalist who proclaims to represent worker’s rights. He projects a heterosexist patriarchal image but promotes his daughter’s efforts on supporting maternity leave. He embraces both hardcore Zionists and alt-right anti-Semites. He takes a position and quickly reverses it. He lies indiscriminately. This kind of diffracted, chaotic representation of Trump and his political positions seems to coincide perfectly with a strategy being used by the Russians that has been evolving since the rise of Putin. Sometimes called “sovereign democracy,” the strategy, developed by Putin’s right-hand operative Vladislav Surkov, is a way of positioning Russia in the global economy and European politics. Surkov’s implementation of “post-truth politics” and use of “fake opposition parties” seem to suggest the method behind Trump’s shapeshifting madness. As detailed in Adam Curtis’s recent “documentary” Hypernormalisation, this Russian governmental strategy has exploited confusing contradictions that keep the populace unsure of what is really going on in terms of policy, the state of society, and the validity of shared information. Of course since the government had already been in control of the media, the task of manipulating it to serve their new strategy was relatively simple. There’s still debate as to whether Russia is a white-collar crime kleptocracy or a “normal middle-income country, with all the typical shortcomings of these—crony capitalism, corruption, income inequality, media bias, electoral manipulation,” and these descriptions seem to fit both Obama and Trump’s America to a tee.
  • The de-centering of journalism in the US has disrupted prevailing discourses for the good and for the bad. The campaign against the “liberal media,” which was never liberal per se, but more accurately center-right, has been carried on by old school right-wing radio for decades now, but has grown in effectiveness in part because of the destabilization of mainstream media by multiplying cable news outlets, a shift from newspapers and magazines to web-based “print” media, and of course, citizen journalists and social media. The critique of MSM–which is certainly an elite, but has some members that at least maintain a semblance of dedication to professional standards–from the left has pushed some of its centrist tendencies to the left, particularly on the web and cable, with some positive results. But the discrediting of media professionals by the right, violently scapegoating them at times, has galvanized reactionary tendencies. Even more insidiously, right media activists have manipulated algorithms to increase the mass distribution of “fake news,” a dangerous development that can have isolated effects of suffocating reasonable political debate and journalistic inquiry. The naked pursuit of profit by “surveillance capitalism” giants like Facebook and Google through click-bait chicanery disguised as journalism has allowed for an unprecedented level of Orwellian doublethink to flourish, making it more difficult to defeat Trump or Trump-like candidates in the future.
  • Surveillance capitalism is widely accepted uncritically, with little resistance offered, and can be worsened with new threats to net neutrality. Not so long ago, cyberspace was a wide-open playground for chat rooms, multi-user dungeons, listservs, and long emails; John Perry Barlow getting punked by Phiber Optik. These days Big Tech has made the internet experience the ultimate expression of neoliberalism, a hotbed of surveillance capitalism. Personal data is the currency, shared through an endless feedback mechanism that tries to match consumer desire with products and services, becoming the dominant function of the internet. While it could be argued that most social interaction has always included some degree of use-value exchange, the internet now appears to argue that social interaction be defined by it. What’s disturbing is that the transition to surveillance capitalism has been for the most part accepted uncritically, with almost no leadership surfacing to propose new open-source platforms for social networking and information-sharing. While some have argued that internet activism has been rendered impotent by the nature of virtual communication, there is little discussion about the chilling effect that movements that try to use Big Tech platforms suffer from because of the nature of the platforms’ function as the mechanism of surveillance capitalism. With Trump looming, net neutrality is under serious threat. The erosion or erasure of net neutrality will exacerbate the hegemony of surveillance capitalism on the internet, making resistance considerably more difficult.
  • The real problem for the US has been its failure to come to grips with its leadership role in a failing, oppressive global economic system. The reason Russia is ahead of the curve in the ideological management of their society is because they were forced to come to grips more rapidly with the collapse of its economic system, and the erosion of the physical space occupied by its empire—caused by both external and internal factors–and needed to devise a system of control that would obscure its transformation from communist state to pseudo-kleptocracy (or “normal” quasi-democratic police state) . As stated earlier, a central reason, perhaps not for Cinton’s defeat, but for the unnecessarily narrow electoral margin between her and an obviously incompetent demagogue, was the Democratic Party’s near-psychotic embrace of American exceptionalism in terms of world leadership, while ignoring the rapidly growing wealth inequality gap between the elite 1% and the rest of its struggling population. This logic supports the idea that Sanders would have stood a better chance against Trump, but of course we’ll never know if that could be true. While there are other factors at play involved with Sanders’ viability, his position at least confronted global economic problems where Clinton’s hedge-fund backed perspective focused more on Cold War-style global police actions that continue to exacerbate universal inequality and precarity of life across the globe.
  • Just finding ways to be optimistic is not enough. Although most marginalized groups have developed strong survival mechanisms by deflecting or denying the onset of chronic pessimism, it is important to confront how serious and threatening and era we’re entering. True, we have our friends, colleagues, and loved ones, and should be infinitely grateful for them and celebrate them, but it is a mistake to believe that without critical thinking and action, they are sufficient for survival. The planet is threatened with imminent destruction by climate change, food and water shortages, wholesale environmental destruction caused by a desperate addiction to fossil fuel extraction, and possible renewed arms races. Conventional political discourse is already beginning to degenerate into wildly competing, irrational, and mutually destructive, multi-positional societal chaos. Two years ago the aforementioned Vladisov Surkov, in his short story “Without Sky,” talks about a “non-linear war” where instead of a typical two-sided conflict, “four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. No. All against all.” In the US, the center has at least temporarily collapsed. The left is fighting itself, expressing old frustrations. The right, still incoherent and without a clue, is firmly in control and needs only to flex its muscles to cause immediate destruction and imposition of fear. We face a difficult struggle to develop a political language that can point the way towards initiating change. It is very possible we will have to live the next few months or years in a defensive posture, reacting to threats individually and collectively to survive a coming disruption in communication and widespread eruptions of misinformation.
  • We need to develop a new language to express what’s necessary for reform and survival. The good thing about the Trump victory, if such a phrase can be uttered, is that it has Made America Transparent Again. The US agenda to control the world economy and keep profits in the hand of a tiny elite is perhaps best personified by a vain, oafish, semi-literate demagogue. The unsettling change in power has had immediate effects, like CNN left-center talking head Van Jones and others calling for the end of the DNC centrism that has afflicted the Democratic Party since the emergence of Bill Clinton. There’s no reason why social class-driven agendas can’t interact with and fuse with identity politics to create a political philosophy that discourages elitism and acknowledges solidarity among the vast majority that is not benefitting from neoliberalism and neocolonialism. We need to permanently disrupt the prevailing tendency of the US to privilege certain sectors of its population with what it calls “democracy” while denying subaltern folks at home and abroad the use-value of what is called “freedom.” We need to create new economic models that prioritize the local over the global, and return equitable chunks of the profits of production to those of us who are not owners of productive apparatuses, speculative financiers, and self-interested entrepreneurs. We need to stop identifying with the illusory exceptionalism of a deteriorating empire of exploitation and create shared agendas with peers around the world.
  • The primary mode for what we’ve been experiencing is loss, and we have to face that. Loss is what neoliberalism has designed for the majority of the world to experience. Anyone who is not part of the 1% is losing. We see this reflected in various ways: the loss of previous gains by past liberation movements; the loss of wealth from one generation to the next; the loss of millions of potentially productive people to mental and physical illness; the loss of life to genocide and imprisonment; the loss of romantic and social partnerships to the strain of hyper-competitiveness,  the obsolescence and shrinkage of many once-vital and life-affirming career paths; the loss of intimacy and spirituality in our personal and community relationships to the encroaching surveillance state panopticon enforcing controlled consumerism. Loss is one of the most powerful motifs of art, literature, psychology, everyday economic activity, and we must find ways to harness its power. For too long we have been deluding ourselves that we are too strong to lose, but we need to face that we have lost more than we can continue to tolerate. We can’t ignore those among us whose lives are wracked by loss and have been almost from the beginning. Until they are healed, none of us will be. Only then can we return to a realistic embrace of hope and faith.

All of which is to say, no matter what, we got ya back.


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