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If the fulcrum breaks: Donald Trump and the standard narrative

Commentary by Gus Froemke |
April 16, 2016
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Chicago students shut down Trump campaign event
Chicago students shut down Trump campaign event (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Minneapolis, MN - Donald Trump’s ascendance to international political notoriety has sent shockwaves through the Western world’s political powers. Trump’s rejection of the establishment’s norms of behavior and of what he terms “political correctness” is unbalancing bourgeoisie democratic values. On the international scene, Trump is recognized as a simple schoolyard bully who teases and assaults those who have any semblance of creative or individual thought. In Trump’s vision for America you better kneel before the god of ‘businessman’ bravado, hyper-patriotism, bigotry, and triumphalism or you’re not worthy of access to the playground.

This unbalancing is challenging the standard narrative of political change, ‘realignments’ and of minor cultural and social revolutions of the past. This standard narrative subscribes how American politics are mere pendulum swings between conservative Republican and liberal Democratic eras. Trump’s challenge to the standard narrative has the establishment scrambling to reset conventional political expectations. Trump’s rising power poses significant dangers to civil rights, freedom of speech, press and assembly, in addition to pushing racist and xenophobic policies. Donald Trump is breaking the fulcrum of American political orthodoxy and we stand at the edge of a potential transformation.

The Great Dissatisfaction and the blue-collar billionaire

The Great Dissatisfaction is a genuine anger of the American people toward decline. Indeed, average wage-earners in America’s cities and towns have seen nothing but decline for the past 30 or so years. Declining wages, rural depopulation and dislocation, declining manufacturing jobs and an overall decline in the standard of living for the majority of Americans has led to mass discontent. Donald Trump has made his campaign all about winning - winning for American business, American workers, American veterans, and satisfying the dissatisfied. Trump tells the folks on the losing end of the economic gamut that if we just vote Trump we can all win again, hooray! ...and if we all just buy Stanley's Snake Oil we’ll never get sick again...

Within America’s rust belt, farm belt and sun belt, mass discontent has risen to transformational proportions. The politics of discontent are nothing new in American electoral discourse, but Donald Trump has nearly made it as far as William Jennings Bryan and farther than Huey Long, Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, George Wallace or Patrick Buchannan ever dreamed of.

Donald Trump is no savior for the American working class or the communities in decline. Trump has proven that he will provide no real or direct challenge to capitalist excess and corporate dominance, but his message of hardnosed nationalism can be comforting to many left behind in the globalized economy. In 2005, nativist television personality Lou Dobbs on CNN railed against the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA and later led a movement against the Dubai Ports World contract which would have provided foreign management of six U.S. ports by an Arab firm. Lou Dobbs was then the only primetime journalist reporting the downside of free trade deals like CAFTA and NAFTA. During the 2006 midterm elections, a new Democratic class ran against the Iraq War and free trade. These new Democrats took over Congress in 2007 and were pronounced "Lou Dobbs Democrats" by CNN. Lou Dobbs was and is a complete xenophobe and now a big supporter of Trump’s racist immigration and security proposals. But the one constant Dobbs and Trump have perpetuated of real value for the working class is a prevailing skepticism of free trade. Free trade is a genuine factor in the decline of manufacturing employment and has consistently accelerated wealth and income inequality. Trump’s plan to reverse the decline isn’t to clean house of America’s corporate raiders, but to browbeat and intimidate emerging nations and Third World countries. Popular resistance to decline and economic insecurity can take radical form and has sometimes acquired fascist traits.

Trump has tapped into America’s populist tradition of revolt against economic decline, and this tradition has had its share of demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin, the Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith, Robert Henry Best and Gerald B. Winrod. These charlatans began their careers championing the cause of the ‘common man.’ They railed against bankers, brokers, corporations, railroads, oil barons and Wall Street, but all were staunchly anti-New Deal and short on solutions. This so-called alliance of the common man began to coalesce around a challenge to President Franklin Roosevelt within the Democratic Party just in time for the 1936 election. Their man was to be Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana. Senator Long was the bombastic orator and autocrat who publicly challenged Roosevelt from the left. He began reviving the Populist Party or People’s Party apparatus and principles with his Share Our Wealth clubs run by Gerald Smith and promoted by radio preacher Father Coughlin. Huey Long was never identified as a southern racist or as holding fascist ideas, but his autocratic style galvanized populist attitudes across the political spectrum. Before Senator Long could challenge Roosevelt’s position he was assassinated at the state capitol in Louisiana. His movement virtually ended with his final heartbeat. His demagogic boosters would later fully embrace European-style fascism.

Donald Trump doesn’t need a radio preacher or a cabal of demagogic supporters. Trump doesn’t need Lou Dobbs, Fox News or even the Republican Party. Trump is a one-man media circus and world-class promoter of iconoclasm. He’s P.T. Barnum’s disciple of humbug politics, and with today’s Ritalin addled ADD generation, shorter and shorter sound bites, celebrity culture and reality television’s prominence, Trump has become the great satisfier of the discontented.

A crack in the fulcrum

Trump may never become President of the U.S., but if he were to reach such a feat he has the potential to become the most despotic president since Andrew Johnson, and the most corrupt since Warren G. Harding. Trump has determinative characteristics which lead us to believe that racism will be promoted and sanctioned and political corruption will be ignored under his potential presidency.

Andrew Johnson, our 17th president, was an openly racist southern Democrat who rose to the vice presidency under Lincoln by a unity ticket with Republicans during the Civil War. When Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination he was impeached for his arrogance toward Congress, but it is now commonly understood that his impeachment was a result from his unwillingness to enforce civil rights for African Americans during Reconstruction. Johnson’s conniving with the defeated slave holders was accompanied by early rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the Black Codes and later Jim Crow laws within the former Confederacy.

Our 29th president, Warren G. Harding, was a machine politician from Ohio who knew how to grease the skids of government and was no stranger to smoke-filled rooms with cards and poker chips. Harding was known for his use of the ‘kickback’ for political favors. The titans of industry and finance were embraced with open arms and placed in cabinet positions within Harding’s administration while the Secretary of Labor James Davis felt strikes were bad and workers ought to accept wage cuts to avoid disrupting commerce. Most infamous of all during the Harding administration was the notorious Teapot Dome Scandal where kickbacks were made for oil leases on federal lands.

We know Trump has openly embraced racism, xenophobia and nationalist fervor for his political scheme, but graft and corruption have followed his business record since he first burst onto the national scene over three decades ago. Notable film personalities in the 1980s such as Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon from Back to School are based on Trump’s image and self-described business acumen.

“First of all you're going to have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up. Then there's the kickbacks to the carpenters, and if you plan on using any cement in this building I'm sure the Teamsters would like to have a little chat with ya, and that'll cost ya. Oh and don't forget a little something for the building inspectors. Then there's long term costs such as waste disposal. I don't know if you're familiar with who runs that business but I assure you it's not the boy scouts.”

– Thornton Melon, Back to School, 1986.

Johnson and Harding are nothing out of the ordinary by American political standards, but what if Trump has the inclination to become worse than the worst? What if Trump is fundamentally transforming the standard narrative of American politics?

Fanaticism and the unbalancing act

Many journalists, academics and political scientists have grappled with ascribing Trump’s appeal and his right-wing populism. By most indications Trump is a political fanatic and many psychologists have indentified his mannerisms with an array of anti-social disorders from megalomania to oppositional defiant disorder or ODD. In the modern era of reality television fanatical personalities are not much of drawback for the electorate, but we still must ask ourselves whether Trump’s fanaticism is a real political movement.

Many spectators of Trump’s brand of fanaticism are perplexed with what it can accomplish and whether it can truly be indentified with political fascism. Commentators ask whether Trump is knowingly inciting violence. Is Trump is covertly or overtly organizing nationalist, racist and suppressive forces within his campaign or is he simply playing ‘dog-whistle’ politics? Is Trump just a buffoon or is he a modern-day Machiavelli? These questions are all completely subjective until we can answer the ultimate question: Can Trump win?

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote his semi-satirical political novel It Can’t Happen Here about a populist politician who runs for president of the U.S. during the Great Depression. This politician is so electrifying that he wins over the Democratic Party from Franklin Roosevelt and eventually the entire American electorate to become a sitting president. Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is the fictional populist of the novel who runs on a platform of combating economic decline and oppressing Jews.

In Lewis’ novel, Windrip adopts the fascist political, economic and social order of 1930s Germany, Italy and Spain. The true irony for today is how Windrip’s 1936 political platform was far less oppressive and far less racist than Donald Trump’s!

Now when Trump says he’s going to raid and deport all undocumented immigrants and restrict entry to the U.S. of all indentified Muslims, the American people must take it seriously. Another parallel between Trump and Windrip is the symbolism of the veteran soldier. Trump always addresses the plight of veterans during his stump speeches and within reactionary movements veterans have traditionally provided a broader mechanism. Windrip’s Minute Men, Americanized Black and Brown Shirts, mostly consisted of displaced and disillusioned veterans from WWI.

The contemporary teetering of the standard narrative has generated a collection of strange bedfellows: some progressives and libertarians, business elites and labor elites, the urban poor and the suburban professional, Democrat and Republican officials and operatives joining forces to block Trump. Many people who insist on the standard narrative are eager to protect and advance its legacy. This kumbaya is quite remarkable and proof that many Americans collectively recognize the dangers Trump pose. Equally remarkable, however, is Trump’s rise is moving him ever closer to striking distance of the White House.

Epilogue

The rise of Trump was never supposed to happen according to the standard narrative. All the professional political handicappers in the press said Trump was too inconsistent, too mean-spirited, too chauvinistic, too racist, too reactionary, too this, and too that to win anything. But here we are and Trump is closing in on his goal. This article undoubtedly raises more questions than answers, but there is only one question we must continue to ask ourselves and it is this: Will we be ready to stand our ground and fight back if the fulcrum breaks?

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