Double or quits
Donald Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech sets a belligerent tone for the rest of the presidential campaign, writes Paul Demarty
The symbolism of the serving president of the United States campaigning at Mount Rushmore - putting his own face in the frame with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt - is so obviously crude and self-aggrandising that few think it wise. But no surprise that Donald J Trump should think otherwise: finally he has found a setting as monumental as his ego.
America has monuments on its mind, of course - among other things. The Mount Rushmore memorial has controversies of its own. In order for this circus to take place, the Trump party had to carve its way through angry native American protestors, who are all too aware that the Black Hills were seized from the Lakota through the flagrant violations of treaties, for which the USA got quite the taste during its westward expansion. We wonder if Trump is getting a taste for busting his way through protests, since this is somewhat reminiscent of the police teargassing him a path to St John’s Episcopal Church, so he could wave a Bible around like a space alien who had never before seen a book.
The content of his speech, when it came, certainly added plausibility to that idea. He had come to this monument to rail against those who would pull down others. Even the faces of the past presidents behind him were not safe, since Washington and Jefferson were slave-owners and therefore out of favour. All of this was part of
a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.
This was a “leftwing cultural revolution ... designed to overthrow the American revolution”. Also in Trump’s crosshairs was “cancel culture” - the “very definition of totalitarianism”.
We will address the substance of these claims later, but it is more immediately necessary to put them in context. As things presently stand, Trump is on course for a spanking in November far worse than the one he allegedly suffered at the hands of Stormy Daniels. Joe Biden leads him by around 10 percentage points in national polls and - more ominously - by smaller, but significant, margins in most ‘swing states’, including the rust belt and sun belt states that gave Trump victory in 2016.
There is no mystery to that. There is a pandemic on, you may have noticed, and the US has dealt with it lamentably. The patchwork polity of states and the Byzantine, morally bankrupt, private healthcare system would always have made things difficult, and the only effective counterweight would have been decisive, ‘dictatorial’ use of executive power. Trump has dictatorial tendencies, but he is more of a Caligula than a Napoleon; so he has repeatedly flip-flopped on the virus response, undermining his own staff. He has claimed several times that it was all over; imposed lockdowns and then hours later riled up his core fan base to violate them.
In this situation, Joe Biden barely needs to do anything. This point was raised by Chris Christie, the ghoulish former governor of New Jersey, who was the first of Trump’s rivals for the nomination to endorse him after dropping out of the race. There are splits now, however, and in a widely reported interview with ABC news, Christie noted that
the trend is moving towards Joe Biden, when Joe Biden hasn’t said a word. Joe Biden’s hiding in the basement and not saying anything. No discredit to the [former] vice-president - if you’re winning without doing anything, why do anything?
If Chris Christie is scrambling from your ship, there’s a decent chance that it’s sinking.
So far as the polls go, of course, that is sort of how things were looking four summers ago for Trump - and we all know the result. He has only one political move in his armoury, as we noted last week in relation to the West Bank annexation - diversionary, apocalyptic culture-war rhetoric, the ruthless exploitation of intractable wedge issues. He may have therefore thought a new wave of mass protests against police violence was a real gift - an opportunity to hammer away at the raw nerve he found in the American body politic. He seized it with both hands, but has had a rather lukewarm response so far - excepting among the more obviously ‘deplorable’ parts of his base, such as neo-Confederates and white nationalists.
Trump’s speech is an attempt to raise the temperature here. With the ‘law and order’ version of things having not quite moved the needle, we now have the Manchurian candidate variation of the same theme. The enemy in the first case is ‘thugs’ in the street, and in the second ‘leftwing fascists’, ‘cultural Marxists’ and the like. It is the variation in targets and intensity that saves him from that traditional definition of insanity: doing the same thing again and again, but expecting different results.
Will it work? Again, it is hard to say. The pitch certainly has an air of implausibility to it. Trump’s opponent, after all, is hardly a Marxist firebrand: ‘Sleepy’ Joe Biden is the most decrepit, mainstream Democrat candidate imaginable and, while rumours of his senility are likely overstated, you can sort of see why somebody would think that. As for Black Lives Matter, it certainly has a left wing, but it equally has a lot of very visible support in the bourgeois and corporate world that is almost painfully banal, even in some unlikely quarters. The National Football League, having essentially blacklisted the quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, for ‘taking the knee’ a couple of years ago, has now apologised for such regrettable errors and is 100% on side this time around - something that has enraged Trump, who littered the Kaepernick saga with his usual deranged Twitter commentary. It is a pretty empty gesture, but the opposite of what we got last time.
Trump is perhaps on stronger ground when he complains about ‘cancel culture’, though he is himself the best proof that the power of ‘cancellation’ has very definite limits. From one angle, there is nothing terribly new about it. Plenty of celebrities and politicians, in the days when conservative religious groups more effectively policed public ‘decency’, found themselves ‘cancelled’ for adultery, homosexuality and the like; a whole generation of Hollywood talent was ‘cancelled’ for communist sympathies, real and imagined. Something like this phenomenon lasted at least into the 2000s, with the renaissance of conservative-evangelical power in the Bush administration (and, indeed, there is the case of Kaepernick ... )
The twist is that there is now a separate liberal-left stream of this activity, which is usually what is referred to by the term ‘cancel culture’ (usually by the right). Though rightwing complaints usually involve spectacular selective blindness about the aforementioned cases, the grain of truth is that the liberal-left equivalent is identical in form, but different in content. Where conservative anti-communists used state power and monopolistic media corporations to cleanse Hollywood of the red menace, run-of-the-mill anti-racists demand that the state and monopolistic media corporations suppress racism (among other things); and, just as McCarthy’s definition of a communist tended to grow broader by the minute, so has the liberal definition of racism.
This is not, in the end, a coincidence. Both censorious traditionalism and liberal ‘cancellation’ have at their root the increasing inability of capitalism to manage its ideological contradictions, with bureaucratisation of political life the inevitable outcome. The contradiction between conservatism and liberalism in bourgeois society is real and important, but agonistic rather than antagonistic; thus they both carry, in alternating motion, the underlying dialectical development forward.
Important here is the case of the major social media platforms. Trump’s Twitter obsession is legendary, and he is also an able exploiter of Facebook; but simultaneously he repeats rightwing talking points about ‘anti-conservative bias’ on these platforms. Throughout it all, Twitter and Facebook - especially the latter - have attempted to face both ways. In public, the senior leaders of these companies have piously repudiated the various outrageous slurs and tirades the commander in chief delivers them, but have always held back from censoring them. Discreetly, Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to mollify Republican figures, and Facebook donates to Republican political action committees.
Relations have deteriorated since the killing of George Floyd, with increasingly vocal liberal critics of the platforms (such as, among others, the Zionist Anti-Defamation League) demanding clampdowns on ‘hate speech’. For the first time, Twitter attached content warnings and fact-checks to Trump tweets; Facebook, meanwhile, announced it would carry no political advertising in the run-up to the vote. Trump has responded with an executive order of dubious legal status, suspending section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which excuses internet platforms from legal liability for user content. Constitutionally, Congress would have to legislate for that (and it should be noted that section 230 has many enemies, including Biden), so we presume this is another piece of political theatre for the red-capped gentlemen of Trumpland. At issue here is whether public discourse shall be regulated by the executive branch of the state or the executive suite of Facebook, and whether it shall be regulated in favour of liberal bona fides or patriarchal conservatism; not on the menu is greater freedom of expression and association.
The far left in the United States (as in other countries) has tended to tail the radical wing of various identity-politics strands; but this consequently involves the left in substantially liberal police actions against oppressive speech. While superficially effective and satisfying, such actions are corrosive to the far left. Either there is not a broad consensus in society that the crime of the ‘cancelled’ merits punishment - in which case the whole exercise involves acting as if we have already won, and is thus tactically unwise - or there is such a consensus, in which case the left is trapped into enlarging the armoury of the state and media monopolies, as marginal voices are suppressed - making itself extremely vulnerable to ideological shifts in those apparatuses.
It is this entanglement that gives Trump’s ranting about communist plots what plausibility it has. He has, of course, got it completely upside-down: it is not evidence of covert communist control of the liberals, but liberal control of the communists. The alternation of top-down liberal measures for social progress with conservative-traditionalist backlash, against a merciless ratcheting of economic inequality and deepening alienation, is thereby bound to continue - whether November’s vote goes to Biden, or Trump surprises us all once more.