Marx and Hegel remark upon the repeating phases of history. On the Eighteenth Brumaire (9 November) 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France. Louis Napoleon did the same in 1851, and Marx wrote about the farcical character of the repetition. First as tragedy, then as farce, he said. Tragedy and farce and much more — with vastly greater consequences — have taken place on the Eighteenth Brumaire 2016.
History’s repetitions are not as cleanly tragedy then farce as Marx claims, but it does repeat, and it repeats each time with more tragedy and more farce. And economic development brings with each repetition more powerful technology, more powerful institutions, and greater means to inflict damage on the world.
It is surely true, as Marx wrote then, that people make their own history — voters vote for who they do with an intentional conscious choice — but they do not make it under self-selected circumstances. The circumstances are given and transmitted from the past — the heritage of left and right, of boom and bust, of global recessions and resentments and racism and nostalgia for supposed national glories. And so short are their memories, so influenced are they by the ideas and ideologies that infect culture and psychology, that history’s repeats carry increased tragicomic impact each time.
After the tragedy of Kennedy’s escalation of the Vietnam war and his near-destruction along with Khrushchev of the world in the Cuban missile crisis, came the carpet-bombing tragedy — enacted in farce, but not for the victims — of Nixon, merely one of whose crimes was to drop more bombs on Cambodia than the US did on Japan in the second world war. Then came the murderous menace of a terrorist and senile Reagan, the destruction of the threat of post-cold-war peace by Bush the Elder and Clinton, and the criminal invasion of Iraq, and more, by Bush the Younger. After eight years of war as usual by Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Libya, we now have a thin-skinned lying vindictive narcissist with his finger on the nuclear button.
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Usually the character of a politician is the least of their problems. Discussion of candidates’ character is usually used to deflect attention from policies. In general most politicians will follow the agenda of their backers — lobbyists or their party. They might follow their party’s policies or the whims of their latest focus group — the usual cynical machinations. But their character is more or less irrelevant — the amount of overt lying may vary, but the outcomes not so much.
But with Trump it is different. The level of vindictiveness, the impossibility of compromise, the outright pussy-grabbing misogyny, the outright racism, the encouragement of violence, the twitter meltdowns, betray precisely the temperament that disqualifies a leader — if only because that sort of temperament of a man with his finger on the nuclear trigger augurs poorly for civilization.
But enough has been said about the disqualifying tendencies of Trump. By rights he should have been eliminated from the electoral field long ago. But enough voters wanted to burn the system down that they voted for him.
One generally hopes that conservative governments are incompetent; and the further right, the more incompetent. There is little one can ask or expect of a far-right leader, but at the very least one might hope that they be sane enough not to destroy the world as they destroy their political enemies. It is not at all clear whether this is true of Trump.
The traditions of all dead generations still weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Trump is too ignorant to know the half of it. But the worst of it still lives on in our culture, as racism, as xenophobia, feeding our resentments and, when exploited by politicians, when whipped up by media and — let us not assume voters have no agency — when chosen by voters, it creates monstrosities.
Who said that history has ended? It has just swung into the most unpredicable, dangerous waters since the 1930s.
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Sometimes one wonders why people vote the way they do. Those who vote for the right, or the far right, may do so out of resentment, out of ideology, out of misogyny, out or racism, out of ideology, out of genuine conviction, the cult of personality, or out of a mere desire to burn the system down and root out the corrupt establishment. Surely all of these factors are present in Trump’s election. Those of us on the left will surely point to the failures of an economic and political system that have left the working and middle classes of an enormous nation with little to show for lifetimes of hard work and effort. The anger of voters at a decadently corrupt and self-serving system that crushes unions, destroys hope, depresses wages, and which at its best delivers a meagre improvement in health insurance coverage, is surely justified. We can hope that a half-decent left could win over such voters with a half-decent programme that at minimum restored some worker rights, delivered some improvements in health and welfare, alleviated extreme inequality, and stimulated jobs and growth. And perhaps it could have — polls suggest that Sanders would have done much better against Trump than Clinton did.
But the results do not indicate economic resentments as the only factor in Trump’s win. Trump’s support skewed towards higher income brackets, towards whites — the classic constituency of fascism. A majority of white female voters voted for him and against the first ever US major party female presidential candidate. All of this is speculation — little more than reading tea leaves — but there is no doubt that the ugliest sides of politics, stirring up the ugliest sides of human nature and of the not-so-distant past, have played a role too.
My own view is that human nature is simultaneously so dark and so good that almost any result is possible in varying circumstances. It can soar to the most beautiful heights of compassion and humanity; but also, there is no limit to how low it can go. Trump, carrying in his rhetoric, if not consciously, the dead weight of history’s far right — the fascists, the authoritarians, the segregationists, the slaveowners and yes also the Nazis, for he did not earn his neo-Nazi endorsements for nothing — has taken it to depths not seen in the West for a long time. The spectacle of the first African-American President handing over the keys to the White House to a KKK-endorsed candidate is nauseating, and the nausea is no less for the fact that Obama will likely do it with grace, while Trump clings to his hateful resentments.
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Of course, such depths of depravity have never really gone away. They have been plumbed, conspicuously, by US governments continually for a long time — at least they are conspicious to those on the receiving end of foreign policy. Casual bombing of people and places far away from the US, but able to be regarded as sufficiently evil, terrorist, Muslim or crazy, is bipartisan and par for the course. Obama bombed seven countries and the US establishment never batted an eyelid, unless to berate him for being too weak. Whole provinces of Pakistan suffer trauma from random drone bombing death; liberals applaud Hillary Clinton’s sensible defence of such policies, indeed expansion of them with her more hawkish stance; conservatives rail as to why they are insufficient.
Talk about Clinton being a progressive or “liberal” candidate should never have been met with anything but derision. She was instrumental in creating the tragedy of Libya, which in turn established conditions for tragedies across the region. She would have provided much of the same as President, probably with slightly more death and destruction. Those depths would have remained well plumbed.
To be fair, some conflicts may well ease or even end under a President Trump. Relations with Russia might warm; life might become easier for Syrians. My understanding is that by and large Syrians would prefer Trump.
But the overall threat to the world of a Trump is vastly greater. Calls for carpet bombing, expanded torture and mass killing of “suspected terrorists” and their families means, if it is to be taken seriously, a vastly expanded war machine. The US military industrial complex is a killing machine constantly primed to bomb some enemy, and Trump will turn the machine up to a higher kill rate. One can hope that it is merely rhetoric, but the consistency of his advocacy of war crimes and international terrorism, combined with his macho aggression, reduce that to hope to a very slim one.
So let us not talk of a turn to savagery. The savagery has been present in US government policy for a long time, and there is no doubt it will continue. But while Clinton was bad and would have provided a predictably worse, outcome, Trump is completely unpredictable and irrational, and the worst outcomes under him are global catastrophes.
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There will be enough finger pointing. Clinton was a terrible candidate, and part of the reason she lost was because she was so: more comfortable with bankers than ordinary workers, coldly cynical, no less corrupt than the rest of the system, and murderously hawkish, even as she genuinely pushed a slightly more progressive economic policy, together with gender equity and liberal feminism. She lost because she was a terrible candidate, but no doubt she also lost because she was a woman. Australians do not have to go far into the past to remember the incredible and irrational level of hatred displayed towards former Prime Minsiter Julia Gillard, in order to understand the misogyny directed at Clinton.
Clinton lost for many reasons, no doubt, including these and many others, that are impossible to untangle because every voter has their own mix of incoherent reasons for voting the way they did.
Sanders may have done better; polls seem to suggest he would have. Sanders pushed a mild form of social democracy; he garnered a following under the banner of the word “socialism” that one might have thought scarcely imaginable in the US. He probably would have done better because he also opposed the establishment. He probably would have done better because misogyny does not apply to him. Stein was a far better candidate again. And with a half-decent voting system, and a a half-decent chance at media airplay, who knows how far she might have gone. But all this speculation is of no use now.
The establishment may burn, and in that case good riddance. If the Democratic establishment, that at every turn undermined and sabotaged Sanders and his supporters, falls apart then that is no great loss.
No great loss, that is, as long as a serious and half-decent alternative can be built in its stead.
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The left should be, of course, terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But it should also be emboldened at the inroads made by a self-proclaimed socialist. In an alternative universe not so far from our own, a socialist might now have been the most powerful person in the world.
What is to be done? I can only offer my own thoughts, meagre as they are.
Here in Australia, we are not unaffected by the result. We are affected by US politics just like the rest of the world. And just like much of the rest of the world, we have our own strain of Trumpism, as it adapts to local conditions.
The Australian Labor Party has long possessed many of the worst tendencies of the Democratic Party: a decaying culture, disconnection from the grassroots and ordinary working people, corruption, moral cowardice, and a long historic retreat from the progressive values it was supposed to stand for. The Liberal Party has a faction no less conservative, no less ignorant, climate-denying, racist or misogynist than the Trumpists, to which the Prime Minister is beholden. And the far right of One Nation is newly empowered and welcoming Trump with open arms.
But Australia has already enacted some of the main planks of Trumpism. The equivalent of Trump’s wall with Mexico already exists in Australia, with cruel turnbacks of boats ensuring that all hope of refugees arriving safely in Australia is destroyed. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, a policy which also has significant support in Australia. And not even Trump has advocated holding refugees in offshore jurisdictions where they are sheltered from legal liability in conditions amounting to torture. Australia does it as a matter of course and it is accepted bipartisan pollicy.
If Australians want to fight Trumpism, the fight starts at home, against xenophobia, racism, sexism, and all the ugliness which in many ways is no better here than in the US. It also consists of a fight for better working conditions and against inequality, which is creating a divided country, even if not quite so starkly divided as the US.
If we are scared of an Australian version of Trump, the fight begins, in the short term, by taking on the cultural and economic pillars of support for the far right. It should underscore the urgency to close refugee camps on Nauru and Christmas Island, to redress historic wrongs against Aboriginal people, to promote progressive economic policy, and to stand steadfastly against xenophobes, racists, and misogynists.
But in the long term — not just in the US, not just in Australia, but everywhere — surely the task is the same as always: to build serious progressive left movements. The movements of the disaffected, of the oppressed, the marginalised, minorities, and all those crushed by racism, by capitalism, by sexism, need to build a serious infrastructure and a serious programme for a better world.
One might have thought that, faced with Trumpism, it was enough to not be as crazy as a Trump.
On 9 November 2016, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump, we have learned that it is not.