Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
So began an essay written by Karl Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century, as the glare of revolution dimmed to a cheerless glimmer. The subject was one Louis-Napoléon, the nephew of a man for whom our history books ensure a mononym would suffice. On 18 Brumaire an VIII (9 November 1799, as per the revolutionary calendar), the first Napoléon had put the brakes on the First Republic; his nephew would do the same, half a century later, to the Second. Within a year of that second coup, Marx understood the imperial usurpation of Louis to be a farcical repetition of his uncle’s—a sort of fool me twice lesson for those who put their faith in bourgeois revolution, and were surprised when the whole thing bungled over. Well, shame on you. If Marx were living still today—on the 217th anniversary of the coup d’État du 18 Brumaire—I think he’d have a few choice words to say about our present disposition.
Jorge Luis Borges once said that we invent our own precursors: the beauty of hindsight is in its patterns and prefigurations. But it was rather easy—too easy, in fact—to make the subliminal association in my mind between the 18th of Brumaire, whose anniversary is today, and the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton. After all, the octennial changing of hands between the Bush and Clinton dynasties—punctuated by a troublesome Obama interregnum—would have been the perfect illustration of Marx’s thesis. First as tragedy, second as farce. Look back as well to the Democratic National Convention, when the “centrist” Clintonistas put to rest those pesky Bernie Brocialists once and finally. The date was July 27: a date recalled to history for the Thermidorian Reaction, when a “moderate” counterrevolution overthrew the leftist Jacobins of France. Does this sound familiar? The historic parallels were too delicious to pass up. Hillary Clinton, House of Rodham, First of All Ladies, Queen of Wonky Moderation, Exterminating Angel of the Left. Who would have thought our dearest Hillary would go to bed last night not with eardrums ringing with applause, but with a whimper?
In England, there was Brexit; in Ukraine, Svoboda; Israel has Netanyahu; the list goes on. The results are in, and all the world confirms: the nationalist right-wing is back in style. As if to affirm the age-old saying that fashion comes to the U.S. late, we find ourselves today with a petty fascist of our own. Before he led the blackshirts in his famous march on Rome, Mussolini was a dyed-in-the-wool Italian socialista; before he rode roughshod over the mainstream G.O.P., Donald Trump was a New York Democrat. When history repeats itself, it does so with a laugh.
A lot of ink and sweat is being spilled in the newsrooms of our courtier press, asking no one in particular, How did Trump win the election? Rest assured, we will be given our consoling diagnoses. Some admixture of white privilege, racial prejudice, ignorance and hate—and misogyny, of course, it’s always misogyny. Anything to pathologize and displace responsibility, anything to score another round in the Trumpbait media machine. Keep an eye on these grim moralists—or better yet, ignore them altogether. These were the same thought merchants and spin doctors who once said that Trump was sui generis; these were the Very Serious Experts who declaimed that Trump was different from the rest. So while our pundits and our experts tried to score cheap jabs at Trump, they gave free pass to a whole history of Republican reactionaries, and let the party establishment rebrand themselves as “moderate” and “reasonable” for having not upset the table manners of the ruling class. Yeah, yeah. Good feelings all around. Here’s another question, then, for the pundit class whose task it was to obscure our country’s crisis of legitimacy to sell a feel-good message of Clinton’s personal C.V.: How do you still have jobs?
I’m not quite sure if it’s more thuggish, or merely desperate, when some liberal doofus blames Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders for the chronically unelectable Hillary Clinton’s loss. There’s a very simple explanation for the rise of Donald Trump, and it is this. Since the Seventies or so, every U.S. President and Congress backed the so-called Washington consensus, while the two parties split the difference between cultural concerns. This meant that there was no one left to address the genuine crises caused by economic financialization and globalized trade, and the astonishing pace at which public expenditure was disemboweled was matched only by liberals’ willingness to hold the knife. Meanwhile, as the nation’s main export became our jobs—as well our imperial interventions—and our country was reduced to a sprawling parking lot of strip malls and payday loan sharks, liberals grew complacent on the modest crumbs from the culture wars. So while our Serious and Pragmatic liberals congratulate themselves for their “historical achievements,” they left a big wide opening for an authoritarian prick to storm right in and pick up where the liberals left off.
Any fool can see how the con job works. The push-and-pull of the culture wars, whose arc bends ever toward liberals, all but guarantees that reactionaries must be always on the lookout for new lows. This leaves the Democrats a captive voter base of anyone not intent on turning back the clock on civil rights and sodomy, as well as the working class for whom a managerial technocrat is better than a blatant corporate rule. But soon enough this precious strategy starts to yield diminishing returns. The unwashed masses getting rowdy? Cracks in the bourgeoisie’s consensus? Let them eat—wait for it—the glass of a shattered ceiling! It’s her turn now, and don’t you dare stand in her way, after all she’s been through…It remains to be answered whether being so “woke” has made the unemployed feel any better.
It didn’t help that the liberal candidate had nothing new to offer, except for (1) not being Donald Trump and (2) being, well, herself. It was a politics of being in a crisis-ridden era of becoming. Her policies, slapped together by a coterie of think tank wizards and insufferable wonks, reeked of the clipboard stench of focus groups according to whose whims she flipped and flopped. And she went into this, knowing full well she was reviled to her left and to her right, and that she stood more than precariously between a blithering man-baby and the nuclear codes. But still she ran, with all the grace of an overweening middle manager and the gravitas of a scornful Boomer, as if the essential issue of our time was to reward her résumé. She’s so damn qualified, after all. (Or else electable, to use another term in the glorified sports-bar chitchat that comprises our political awareness.) To see the palanquin on which she rode—escorted by a gang of Wall Street bankers and war criminals, in a parade of horrible celebrities chanting Yaaas Kweeen Slaaaaay—was to be filled with a tender, dreary, almost soothing sense of dread. All this, to crown the next successor of the ruling family who put the liberal in neoliberal? It’s enough to make a fat cat laugh.
Once you peel away the muck and mud that forms the stuff of our election year critiques, you find a very elementary case of factional struggle in the ruling class. One egomaniacal billionaire, against a megalomaniacal millionaire, vying for the biggest corporate office. Trump’s politics is a false consciousness, but a consciousness no less: he tapped into the subliminal rage of a petite bourgeoisie that struggles to compete on the global market, and a working class left out consistently to dry. And he channeled their resentment to a narrative of terrorists and immigrants and degenerate elites—the most superficial symptoms, but symptoms all the same, of neoliberal decay. Thus it is, a buffoonish New York sleazeball became the Ur-conservative, as well as the only radical: the great repudiation of the Washington consensus by those who know they’re being screwed but can’t articulate beyond a middle finger. Make America great again, whatever that means.
The Democrats were doomed the very moment they decided to bring a technocratic knife to a populist gunfight. All the power-brokers and fixers and donors in the world could not pretend that putting lipstick on the neoliberal pig was really that appealing. Whose bright idea was it to fight the populist right-wing with a stultifying liberal elitism? Were they trying actively to prove their skeptics right? The whole campaign of Hillary Clinton was premised on obscuring the class dimension and reducing politics to a question of management. In point of fact, liberals did their very best to shame the populist left candidate, gaslight the working class and thumb their noses at the undeserving poor. And the smug and simplistic dismissal of Trump as being fueled by pathological hatred alone allowed the latté-gulping liberal to give up the basic task of economic awareness. It was also a political dead-end. This was an anti-politics, of course, but it was also its own class ideology—the politics of the oblivious elite. The message sent by liberals’ contempt of the “economically anxious” (to use their own vocabulary) was rather simple: join our Queen, or get left behind by history (her story, ha!) in the dustbin of deplorables.
For the working and middle classes left to wait upon our rulers’ awful pleasures, the choice was that between a bloviating demagogue who vowed to make our country “great again,” and the ostrich-headed wonks who think it always has been “great because we are good.” The blatant bigotry and quasi-fascism are not to be ignored—and I have written about them here—but how much do they explain? Nearly a third of Latinos voted for the man with the plan to build a wall. “The African-Americans” voted more for Donald Trump than for the moderate Mitt Romney. The Sun and Rust Belt whites who clamored for a pussy-grabbing creep were also they who voted Hope and Change eight years before. Meanwhile, 72% of those who said that their financial situation was “better” than four years ago voted for Hillary Clinton; 76% who said that theirs was “worse” had voted for Donald Trump. The 2016 election was a class war pretending to be a race war and calling itself democracy. And liberals lost, because they ditched the only class-conscious candidate who could wage that war, for a perpetual careerist hack whose only narrative to offer was her own success.
Historians of the early 21st century are tasked with answering the following question. How did the party of Hope and Change become the party of diminished expectations? To ask that question is also to impugn the past: how did a generation that used to say, “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible!” go on to shorn their catchphrase of its operative clause?
The fall of the Clinton dynasty at the little hands of a T.V. game show mogul is the parodic culmination of the Baby Boomers. The Boomer-incarnate Clintons and their old friend Donald Trump are from the generation that had sex, drugs and revolution, and left us only contraception, pharmaceuticals and political correctness to show for it. (This was a point, I must admit, that Hitchens made in 1996.) Theirs was a generation that seemed poised on liberation and revolt, that yet regressed into a “candified, soft-centered, massified and mushy narcissism” (to cite Hitchens yet again). They were the ones who chanted, You will end up dying of comfort; who went on then to intone, from within their gated suburbs, about “getting in touch with your feelings.” These were the folks who turned rebellion into indulgence, counterculture into consumerism, and free love into free markets.
Ever since the vertiginous events of 1968, most of these free spirits sort of settled on being lapsed leftists, with two competing brands of selling-out to split the difference. If they weren’t lured into the halfway home of neoconservatism—or being rounded up or neutralized by the state—jaded Boomers hung around the margins of a splintered New Left discourse that was ripe for neoliberal recuperation. In place of the bread and butter of trade unions and solidarity, the “left” became synonymous with identity politics, multiculturalism and personal lifestylism. The spirit of anti-authority was recast into a mode where the personal is the political, where representation and consumption are empowerment, and where individual grievance or success is the measure of social justice. In the Seventies of Richard Nixon, the journalist Tom Wolfe would nominate this fatuous era as the “Me Decade,” which lavished in an “unprecedented post-World War II development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self.” Is it any wonder that the following decade would be remembered for the maxim—as declaimed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—that “greed is good”? Knowingly or not, the cultural turn of liberal politics went hand in grubby hand with the neoliberal turn of the economy.
And thus it was, in true Boomer fashion, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton peddled what amounted to a vanity campaign. All the worst features of the individualistic Sixties—the faux-rebellion, the disillusion, the personal merit, the pathology, the kitsch and the excess—were to be unified in both. But the sinister genius of Donald Trump was to capitalize upon the grievances of those most disenchanted by the Boomerocracy. He aimed his little finger at the multicultural urban towers, built upon the sandcastles of neoliberal rot, and in doing so indicted those whose fingers were too busy wagging at the middle of America. The moral posturing of the posh: easy targets. It’s all a sham, he seemed to say. Believe me—I know them best. So the industrial bourgeoisie and their miserable proletarians applaud with groveling bravos their billionaire dictator. Now the Democrats who offered nothing but Woke Thatcher wonder why the working class deserted them in droves? In a presidential race dictated by the spectacle, the liberals offered them C-SPAN when they demanded a reality game show.
Donald Trump is not an atavism, but a parody of one. If The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon can tell us anything, it is this: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But Donald Trump, in his own deplorable little way, has done us all a favor. He has blown the gold-encrusted lid right off the edifice of neoliberal orthodoxy, on which our limp and cardboard liberals grew drunk and gluttonous with blood. The Democratic Party failed because their vision of the future was one gigantic gentrified Brooklyn riding around in Ubers to a multicultural hackathon after brunch. Now that a querulous, bullying man-child has called out the empire’s wretched nudity, liberals can either join the left-wing movement they attempted very hard to smother in its crib, or they can whinge away to the dustbin of Boomer history. Sad!
Los Angeles, 2016.