If you followed the Super Tuesday primary results and suddenly felt a noticeable rumble beneath your feet, that was no earthquake. It was, in fact, the reverberation caused by Donald Trump’s gargantuan balls crashing through America’s purple mountain majesties and landing with a tremor-inducing thump into our amber waves of grain.
Trump’s dominating, if not entirely sweeping Super Tuesday victories were just the latest loogie hocked into the national Gatorade bottle during Election 2016. This is a race in which a long-festering culture of anti-politics has combined with bare-knuckled populism to create what will be the most uninspiring — and genuinely terrifying — party tickets in modern history.
Trump managed to choke out victories in 7 of 11 Super Tuesday states, including vote-rich Virginia and Massachusetts, two states where “moderate” Republicans like Marco Rubio fell short. But Trump didn’t just cruise to victory on the sheer force of his Rich Uncle Pennybags-meets Mussolini personality. He also dipped his gold-gilded bucket deep into the well of right-wing populist rage while simultaneously giving a massive swirly to the collective heads of the GOP elite.
Indeed, Trump has incurred the wrath of multiple Grand Poobahs within the conservative movement. Mitt “47 percent of Americans are leeches” Romney accused Trump of “repugnant bigotry,” while Redstate dough boy Erik Erickson declared that, “I will not vote for Donald Trump, Ever.” Most infamously, the National Review — the guaranteed employer for those kids whose parents paid the school gym teacher to ensure they’d be picked first for dodgeball — devoted an entire issue to dubiously explaining why an uncouth reactionary like Trump shouldn’t be the standard-bearer for an uncouth, reactionary political movement.
Yet The Donald has defied his GOP critics at every turn. He shrewdly recognizes that movement conservatism spent multiple decades laying anti-political eggs in the American political nest, and that all it takes for those eggs to hatch is the billowing warmth of a demagogic gas-bag with national ambitions.
Noam Chomsky has for years talked about how movement conservatism has deliberately nurtured a culture of anti-politics in America. The reasoning behind this is straightforward: get people to believe that government is an incompetent foe — the true enemy — and eventually they’ll have no interest in the actual functioning of government. As a result, government becomes a smorgasbord for corporate patronage; a wide-open trough where the big pigs gorge themselves unencumbered by the nattering participation of aspirational citizen piglets.
The notion that we need only step aside and let the big pigs feed has been key to Trump’s rise. In a world view where government is corrupt, incompetent, and, in the words of one former Jelly Belly pitch man, “the problem,” who better than a boorish, private sector behemoth to lead the right-wing charge against the very notion of politics as it’s been traditionally understood?
Yet even as Trump has piggy-backed onto movement conservatism’s anti-politics wave, he’s also benefited from the fact that many Americans do have a LOT to be angry about. That’s because, in addition to anti-politics, one of the most potent elements of the 2016 election so far has been the fierce return of populism, stoked on the Right by the Trump Train. Trump has embraced all of the standard historical trappings of right-wing populism: the xenophobia, the underlying racism, the embracing of “whiteness” as the American default.
That said, Trump is also tapping into some very legitimate concerns among the working and middle-classes; that wages are stagnant or declining, that new opportunities are being dashed to pieces on the craggy rocks of neoliberalism’s race-to-the-bottom shores, that unbalanced free-trade agreements have helped many white-collar workers but have devastated working-class Americans.
The problem is that many of Trump’s supporters are uncouth, and The Donald himself is uncouther. Like right-wing populists of America’s past, he’s placing much of the blame on minority populations rather than on the very wealthy Lords of the Universe who long ago decided that concepts like “patriotism” and “nationalism” are best relegated as mere sops that citizens can slap on their truck bumpers and hang on their porches. These sops help distract patriotic Americans from the fact that those who control this country have no loyalty to it, and that corporate tax havens, illegal immigrant labor, and financial deregulation mean far more to them than supporting the troops, boosting wages and benefits, and generally Making America Great Again.
A potent combination of anti-politics and populist outrage has also infected the Democratic caucuses. Indeed, anti-politics fuels the media and party-driven “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton’s nomination. The essence of anti-politics is that government is not to be fought over and leveraged for the greater good, but ignored to make room for elite control. Thus, Clinton has been able to rack up a huge number of Democratic party delegates, especially in the South, all while portraying Bernie Sanders as a kooky, unreconstructed Lefty peddling unrealistic policies.
The partly true, partly media-driven emphasis on Clinton’s so-called “southern firewall,” evidenced by the overwhelming support she’s received from black voters in states like South Carolina, also plays into the anti-political notion that her path to the party nomination ought to be uncontested. This narrative has been particularly devious in the way it’s portrayed Sanders as the candidate solely for white liberals who show no concern for the plight of America’s racial minorities. Heck, some people have even tarred the Sanders campaign with the accusation of white supremacy, because using white supremacy as your go-to hammer spares you from having to think about any nuanced nails.
But the idea that Clinton’s “southern firewall” will carry her through a general election overlooks the regional distinctiveness of southern politics and ignores how Bernie Sanders’ populist campaign is as much about race as it is about class.
For one thing, as I noted in a piece for Salon a while back, southern politics has long been bifurcated along racial lines, a legacy wrought by a history of slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. The White South is overwhelmingly conservative and votes overwhelmingly Republican. By contrast, black Americans inside and outside of the South overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Hillary Clinton is somehow the multi-racial candidate of 2016 while Bernie Sanders is merely the Great White Hope. After all, while black voters in South Carolina chose Clinton over Sanders in 2016, they did the exact opposite in 2008 when they backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton by a whopping 29-point margin. Does that mean that Hillary was the “white” candidate in 2008? Of course not, but it does mean that black southern voters are not immune to the call of identity politics. In 2016, the Clintons’ long-standing courtship of African-Americans finally paid off.
All that said, Clinton’s southern firewall won’t mean much in a general election where the GOP will, barring a true political miracle, carry the old Confederacy. Which brings us back to Sanders. The driving element of the Sanders “revolution” has been Bernie’s avowed left-wing populist attack on the unrestrained capitalism that defines contemporary America. Much like Trump from the Right, Sanders has led a populist insurgency against the calcified orthodoxy of his party, one that enshrines as gospel the idea that Democrats must lick the boot heels of plutocrats to compete politically in modern America.
If Trump’s anti-politics approach is threatening to blow up the GOP by calling into question shibboleths such as free trade, the wisdom of the Iraq War, and corporate lobbying, Sanders’ anti-politics credentials stem from his torpedoing the notion that neoliberalism should have replaced populist liberalism in the Democratic Party; that politics as usual will suffice in a post-2008 world. While Sanders’ lack of support among minority voters has indeed hampered his path to the party nomination, he did win the Colorado caucus on the strength of the Latino vote, suggesting that his brand of populism could attract minority voters were it marketed with, say, the actual support of a Democratic Party apparatus that wasn’t beholden like craven toadies to financial sector feudal lords.
Moreover, while Trump’s right-wing brand of populist anti-politics is monstrously detrimental to America’s non-white (and white, for that matter) populations, Sanders’ emphasis on income inequality and the problem of the wealthiest few dominating the levers of power directly targets the intersection of race and class in America in a way that Hillary Clinton’s slickly marketed “inclusive” neoliberalism simply can’t. After all, it’s hard to believe that the same Wall Street that pays Clinton to speak behind closed doors is in any way threatened by her candidacy.
Whatever the outcome of the caucuses and the general election, the biggest legacy of 2016 may be the inability of elites on both sides of the ideological spectrum to keep anti-political populism from crashing the long-standing wedding between party elites and their corporate puppet-masters. This is either a welcoming or terrifying development, depending on how American voters react to the choices they’re given. If we want to avoid ushering in the Trumpocalypse, we’d better work damn hard to present viable alternatives to a system that’s been rotten for far too long.