Barring the promotion of Isaac from a tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane, and presuming it does not alight directly on the Tampa Bay Times Forum and slay all the Grand Old Party luminaries gathered there for the Republican National Convention (an occurrence which would provide, to me at least, the first ever compelling evidence of the existence of a benevolent God), some time next week, Donald Trump will mount the dais. And unless my many decades of existence have somehow misled me as to the nature of pandering, he will address President Barack Obama — represented for the gathered millions by a celebrity like-a-look — and tell him “You’re fired!”.
Aside from being a new low in the cretinization of public life, this hilarious bit of political theater might well give us an advance screening of the national mood. National political conventions are often tone-setters for the civic conversation of the years to come, especially when the Republicans are involved. Just in my adult lifetime, we have seen them act as predictors of public life as a McDonald’s commercial (1984); the elevation of the rich, entitled idiot to his current spot at the apex of American society (1988); the muscular reappearance of open racism and the squalling birth of an exciting and lunatic new nationalism (1992); a boom-induced nap (1996); the eerie foreshadowing of a decade of militarism and fear (2000); a nadir of self-serving lies, slander, and xenophobia (2004); and a resurgence of police power without combined with a flailing attempt to wed old-line greed with new-wave extremism within (2008).
If the signs in the sky are to be trusted, I’m guessing this year’s convention will usher in a new mood of clownish authoritarianism. Hard times are here, and European events hint that the austerity scam is coming to America, but we have not responded as we have in the past. During the Depression, the songs of the unions rang out against the the bosses and the scabs, and the biggest political pressure on FDR wasn’t from his ineffectual opposition of Republican fat cats, of whom Americans had heard quite enough already; it was from the likes of Huey Long, who at one point was a threat to scuttle the nominating process because he felt Roosevelt wasn’t spreading the wealth fast enough. During the economic malaise of 1977, when jobs were scarce and the country was first beginning to get a taste of the mass desertion of its manufacturing base overseas, the national anthem was Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It”. At a time when work was hard to come by, the working class sang along with the story of a man who abandoned his intentionally rather than put up with any more shit from the bosses. But now, in a historically unprecedented economic slump, the plentiful poor are invisible, unemployment elicits a shrug, and bosses and rogue capitalists are the new gods. The pop charts are paeans to conspicuous wealth; TV and movies tell us stories of the impatient rich; the new populism embraces the protection of wealth instead of the expansion of opportunity; and the ludicrous notion that success in business is not merely a requirement for running the country, but the only requirement for doing so, thrives.
America, in short, is ready to be pushed around. The sorely missed Gore Vidal noted often that our country has never gone in for totalitarianism, but in times of crisis (real or manufactured), is more than willing to accept authoritarianism. At our best, we are a nation of independents, eccentrics, free spirits, innovators and pioneers; at our worst, we are a craven aggregation of badge-humpers, general-lovers, toadies and bootlickers. This has been manifestly true since the economic collapse of 2008; ashamed to admit our complicity in its causes (having supported widespread deregulation, financial conglomeration, and the gigantic money-pit of two phony wars), we have since abandoned faith in working out difficult but reasonable solutions and instead longed for someone, anyone — European-style technocrats, New Democratic centrists like Obama, homegrown tycoons with an aristocratic sense of privilege — to step in, put some steel in their voice, and tell us all to pipe down and let them take care of everything. We have forsaken the guaranteed benefit for the conditional bribe. We’re willing to be looted as long as the men doing the looting tell us they’ll leave enough for us to steal, if we’re lucky.
No one is a better symbol for this new authoritarianism than Donald Mayonnaise. Six feet of puffy bluster topped with a bad toupée, Trump has always been a fraud: like many ‘self-made’ men of the right, he plays up his great wealth and says nothing about the role of a rich, well-connected family in attaining it. His storied genius at the art of the deal is more a matter of publicity than actual business acumen; as well-documented in the ’80s and ’90s by his late, lamented nemeses at Spy magazine, his true talent was concealing how much money he managed to lose on foolish and ill-managed investments. His authoritarian streak was noticeable early on, when he labored under the misapprehension that he was the mayor of New York just because he dumped a lot of money into its real estate market. When he decided to become explicitly rather than implicitly political, he gobbled up whatever crackpot nonsense floated past him, including birtherism, self-serving tax ‘reforms’, demonizing gay marriage, and saber-rattling at China (while favoring economic policies that reward their American partner/enablers). He now makes his money by appearing on television, playing a version of himself finally freed from the expectation of being a competent businessman; after spewing hot gas all over the 2012 nomination process just as if anyone sane would vote for him, he’s still managed to get the Republican Party to feed his galactic ego by securing this mood-marketing gig in Tampa.
It’s dismaying that the values of someone like Donald Trump, a self-inflated fake whose current claim to fame is pretending to fire people as three dozen million Americans desperately scrounge for whatever work they can get, are the ones we’ve chosen to embrace. Why anyone would valorize a heavy-breathing adult bully who takes joy in the show of robbing people of their livelihood seems difficult to understand at first, as is the attitude of those who find Mitt Romney’s role as corporate pirate, author of hostile takeovers, and job exporter/destroyer admirable rather than disgusting. But then again, maybe it’s not that hard to figure out. Any display of power — even an abuse of it, even a use of it that does nothing but enrich the wielder and harm everyone around him — at least proves that power is there to be had, that someone is in charge and throwing their weight around, even if it isn’t you. We’re stuck in the most endless, pointless war since Vietnam; we’re mired in an economic swamp where there’s no actual recession anymore, but there’s also no jobs, no money, and no mobility; we’re being outpaced in practically everything by China; and we’re not just losing the gains of the past, but the possibilities of the future. At a time like this, it’s a lot more clear why many people — not just the people who have already had an authoritarian bent, but the folks who have recently lost their jobs, their savings, their prospects, and their own sense of power — would gravitate towards a voice of command, however trumped-up. The boss was the one who fired you, sure, but maybe your next boss will be better.
Trump, of course, isn’t the only example of why I think we’re heading towards a new combination of Gilded Age and Security State. I don’t want to go into another tirade about how the Democrats of today are the Republicans of 20 years ago; let’s just focus on the values of those who have been invited to speak in Tampa, to get a sense of what the Republicans of today want to vote for. There’s the comically hypocritical RNC moneyman Reince Priebus, representing Avarice; joining him are the likes of Romney crony/kneecapper Bob White and Florida soft-money grafter Rick Scott. Anti-Clinton witch hunter Barbara Comstock reps Envy, with an assist from craven opportunist Bobby Jindal and toadying yes-man Rob Portman. Chris Christie is the honorable gentleman from Gluttony, but he’s happy to step in should the party need a shit-filled, bullying creep as well; plenty of other steak-diet millionaires can take his place. Nonsense-spouting professional legacy Rand Paul is the designated hitter for Hubris, but is joined by the likes of Jeb Bush and, well, everyone else at the convention. South Carolinian extravaganzoid Nikki Haley may or may not be fronting for Lust, though she could play backup for Avarice if it didn’t already have such a deep bench. Sloth is represented by do-nothing obstructionist John Boehner, revenue-strangling nonentity Tim Pawlenty, and strong-arm union-busters like John Kasich and Scott Walker. Voter suppression enthusiast/US attorney hatchet-man Timothy Griffin plays for Wrath, along with due-process inhibitor John Sununu, frothing homophobe Rick Santorum, and death penalty champion Ted Cruz. Some, like Bob McDonnell, Kelly Ayotte and Mike Huckabee, could exemplify any one of the seven deadlies. (Lying isn’t specifically one of them, but there’s still room for the likes of Condi Rice.)
Quite a lineup, I think you’d agree, of people who will tell you to quiet down and do what you’re told while they systematically dismantle everything a good government is supposed to do, including two freshly buffed planks for the platform: a Constitutional amendment banning abortion under any and all circumstances — particularly timely given the G.O.P.’s recent foot-in-mouthery regarding pregnancies caused by rape — and a gradual privatization, which is to say elimination, of Medicaire. It’s a rogue’s gallery of corruption, obstruction, self-service, and cruelty disguised as reform, and proof of Terence’s adage that there is always a demand for people who can make wrong appear to be right.
The question is, does any of it matter? Does this drift towards corporatism, neo-feudalism, soft authoritarianism, and the abandonment of the concept of a progressive state make any difference — if the Republicans are going to lose? It seems likely that they will; Romney is even less exciting a candidate than John McCain was, even to his own party, and Paul Ryan carries so many negatives that he didn’t even provide the kind of bump the party got from ballast like Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin. Donald Trump is rightly considered a clown by sensible people of both parties, and the worst of the Tea Party ideologues still don’t have much heft on the national stage. So who cares if this is the biggest collection of creeps, frauds and bullies this side of the Bürgerbräukeller? You should. The reason it matters is that, as the ever-insightful Tom Frank put it in an essay in this month’s Harper’s, when the party in power is devoted to triangulation, non-partisanship, centrism and conciliation, the party out of power doesn’t even have to do anything. They just have to stay put, vote ‘no’ on everything, and wait; the farther to the right they move, the farther out the centrists will be forced to reach in order to keep up the illusion of cooperation. When one team keeps moving the goalposts, the other team has to either move their own just as far in the opposite direction, or accept that they’ll have to run twice or three times as far to score a victory.
This is what conservatives have understood for the last few decades, and that liberals have failed to understand for just as long. Unless you establish yourself specifically and not generally as a party of opposition, you are playing by the other team’s rules. ”What the public really wants is not someone who is going to reach out across the aisle and shake hands with the other side and say that ‘we aren’t red states and we aren’t the blue states, we’re the United States,’” Frank notes; “They want an answer to the problem at hand.” This is how the Republicans keep winning even when they lose, and how the Democrats keep losing even when they win.