Monday, March 5, 2018

Trump: Populist, fascist or opportunist? Pick one.

In America's inflamed political environment today, and arguably in much of the world, complex problems have been reduced to generic political labels, and Donald Trump has become the leading exponent of something called "populism". In Britain one has Nigel Farage, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi and in France, Marine Le Pen, each offering their own version of populism.

Among hyperventilating American liberals, of course, Trump is also called a "fascist," a Hitler-in-the-making and a number of other things not suitable for a PG-rated blog like this. 

So for my own enlightenment I set out to look into the meaning of populism, which at its most basic turns out to be a political strategy to rally segments of society that feel screwed over by oppressive elites, be they snooty academics, Hollywood actors, Wall Street billionaires or bureaucratic leeches inhabiting Washington's political swamp.

Populism is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon either. Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader, for example, have run on us-versus-them platforms, though offering different solutions than did George Wallace or now Trump.

Today there are reasons for class resentments. Growing economic inequality caused by the near elimination of certain employment sectors, such as manufacturing and coal mining, has relegated millions of formerly economically secure Americans to the margins of the job market—Walmart-type gigs—or to shrinking or stagnating wages.

"The Thing is coming!" he said. "Honey, go make more coffee." 
Societal dislocations have compounded such anger. A week ago Stew and I saw a 1951 sci-fi movie called (yes!) "The Thing from Another World." Despite the title, it has nothing to do with Trump and is instead set at a scientific station in the Arctic, where a dozen or so scientists bump into Someone who apparently had arrived aboard a flying saucer and lain dormant in the ice for years.

Aside from the cheesy special effects—so bad they were fun to watch—the movie is an interesting snapshot of 1950s America. The principal cast members were all white males except for two women whose peripheral roles seemed to be to making coffee to keep the beleaguered male crew from freezing. 

If the movie were remade today it might feature a politically correct rainbow of white, black, Asian and Hispanics playing leading roles, and maybe a lesbian driving the snowplow, all working under a brilliant and fearless woman climatologist who wouldn't know how to plug a coffee pot.

And outside the igloo there would be a knot of angry white males, some of them wearing "Make the Arctic Great Again" baseball caps, cussing about "reverse discrimination"

The danger is that populist movements easily turn toxic as their leaders strive to keep their followers agitated by resorting to racism and xenophobia and other lower instincts.

Say what you may about Trump but, probably because of his experience in reality TV and 24/7 self-promotion, the guy is a genius at manipulating his "base" with just the right taunts—truth or logic notwithstanding. He's invented Twitter politics, which distills complex policy dilemmas down to 280-character rants.

Trump may seem distracted or impatient at policy meetings, but put him in front of an adoring crowd of people fed up with the banalities of establishment Republicans and pinko Democrats, and he'll have them climbing up the walls in no time at all.

He is also a master at diverting public attention away from personal or political scandals so much so that people anymore don't seem to be fazed by revelations, for example, that Trump—the President of the United States!—apparently paid $130,000 hush money to a porn star with unnaturally large breasts. Chaos has become the norm. Meh.

Except Trump's populism makes no sense at all. He's the ultimate false idol of the aggrieved working classes. He proclaims allegiance to the little guy who lost his manufacturing job to a dollar-an-hour Chinese widget-maker, following a free trade agreement that shortchanges American industry. Yet his top governing lieutenants are mostly a mafia of billionaires—including relatives— shameless grifters and shady operators with scant or no history of concern for what Leona Helmsley used to call "the little people."

How's, for example, a tax reform obscenely skewed in favor the wealthy going to help those left behind by the trade, economic and technological dislocations of the past thirty years? Warren Buffet has figured his conglomerate alone stands to save $27 billion dollars, which is surely more than what coal miners and other aggrieved workers combined and are going to receive.

Yet Trump's core minority constituency remains rock-loyal at around 36 percent, perhaps because they have no alternative. Democrats certainly have no banner-waivers at the moment and Republicans are squabbling among themselves. 

Not nice: Some unkind liberals crossed Mussolini and Trump and
came up with "Trumpolini." Others call one Il Duce and the other
Il Douche. That's not accurate or fair to either one.  
In their fury against Trump, some liberals conflate populism with fascism, which is another fallacy. Fascist-style leadership is all-powerful or nearly so—Putin, Mussolini, Franco and even Hugo Chávez—because opposing forces and institutions have been neutralized.

In the U.S. and Britain fortunately that's hardly the case. Opposition parties continue to function, along with civic organizations and aggressive media voices that have been energized, if nothing else to drive Trump nuts when he turns on the TV in the morning. Congress doesn't seem inclined either to eliminate presidential term limits, as China's congress has just done, and make him president for life. God help us. 

And Trumpism has no consistent ideology or political philosophy to bind it together as a movement, other than feeding his ego and net worth. During his lifetime he has been pro-choice and pro-life, a Democrat and a Republican, pro gun control and against. Anything to make a buck.
So what have we in Trump? Certainly a person so dishonest, about matters great and trivial, that one wonders if he knows where the truth lies.

I don't think ultimately there will be any proof of direct collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. But I strongly suspect that his personal record of bankruptcies, shady deals and financial brinkmanship, and compromising ties to Russian money, when uncovered, will be the key to his downfall. If Trump is anything it's an operator, a consummate con artist, a shameless opportunist who'll stop at nothing to protect his money and make more.

I don't see any logical reason, for example, why Trump would be railing against friendly countries, particularly in Europe, and so furiously avoiding laying a finger on Putin or Russia, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Russia tried to meddle in electoral system of the U.S. That is, of course, unless to do so would threaten his bottom line, not to mention his political future.

Assuming that Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to "follow the money" before Trump tries to fire him, I remain confident the Trump presidency is not going to end well—for Trump—but OK for the U.S.

It's too bad the country, though, may have to go through a dark tunnel of months, perhaps a few years, of the circus known as the Trump administration. 
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