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Sui generis November 26, 2020

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Or let’s hope so. The Guardian has a piece on how rare politicians like Trump are. There’s something in that. Consider the field of Republican candidates for nominee and how Trump scythed through them. There were many reasons for that, for a start basic celebrity was part of it. Here was a person who could present themselves as the ultimate outsider (however cosmetic that might be). He could speak in ways that others couldn’t, perhaps because to some degree he did not expect to win (there’s some fairly robust evidence to support that contention).

But does this mean that we can expect Trump-alikes? And if so can we expect any that will be any good at what they do? In a way Jan-Werner Mueller, the author of the above thesis (who is a fellow at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study) makes some excellent points about how others may learn lessons from all this and how focusing overly much on Trump may be a mistake because as he writes:

a rightwing populist playbook has emerged in the 21st century; in theory, it could be copied successfully by a competent authoritarian in the US. As we’ve learnt, neither the Republican party nor significant parts of the electorate would stand in the way of such a figure. As we have also learnt, checks and balances are much more fragile that civics textbook wisdom and liberal complacency (“We are not Hungary or Turkey!”) would have led us to believe. But rather than continuing some more or less romantic Resistance narrative and acting in a morality play with costumes borrowed from the 1920s and 1930s, liberals should learn the simpler lessons from the Obama presidency: do not demobilize on the ground, do not think that Republicans will ever give an inch – and compete not just on the field of more or less technocratic policy solutions but provide folks with a vision going beyond “at least it’s not Trump”.

In other words leftists (and liberals) cannot abandon people on the ground and must redouble efforts to work with and reach out to people who have been formerly supporters and who must be again. That’s a key point.

Comments»

1. EWI - November 26, 2020

Populism in itself is no bad thing at all. Given me a left-wing populist over an autocrat any day.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2020

Depends on the left populist. Not so mad keen on Mexico’s incumbent. But in a way Allende was a left populist and all the better for it.

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EWI - November 27, 2020

I don’t know enough about Mexican politics to comment, but I think that the ‘populist’ label is one which we shouldn’t be afraid of. A lot of very good things are populist, such as an old age pension and public childcare.

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WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2020

Broadly agree!

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CL - November 27, 2020

” Populism has a long and impressive history in American politics, a record of achieving real, tangible improvements in the lives of working people, including progressive income taxes, the eight-hour workweek, direct election of senators, and the abandonment of the gold standard….

a lot of what gets called populism is not. “Right wing populism,” with its top-down power hierarchy, is the latest incarnation of Father Coughlin or later-period Huey Long demagoguery, while the abundant use of populist language is a marketing strategy for an ideology based solidly in meritocratic deference to elites and experts….

Frank’s take on Trump during and since 2016 is dead-on; Trump is what the historian Reginald Swing called a “pre-fascist,” the type of crassly self-interested politician who desensitizes people to the language, gesture, and ideology of fascism.”
https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/thomas-frank-people-no-review/

Denunciations of populism come “from a long tradition of pessimism about popular sovereignty and democratic participation”, a “tradition of quasi-aristocratic scorn” that has “allowed the paranoid right to flower so abundantly”. Anti-populism’s “most toxic ingredient”, Frank writes, is “a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans”.

He has particular contempt for experts, including most of the academic establishment. “Millions of foundation dollars have been invested”, he writes, to promote the canard that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy … Your daily paper, if your town still has one, almost certainly throws the word ‘populist’ at racist demagogue and pro-labor liberals alike”.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/22/the-people-no-review-thomas-frank-anti-populism-trump-fdr

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/12/we-need-to-reclaim-populism-from-the-right-it-has-a-long-proud-leftwing-history

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crocodileshoes - November 27, 2020

Sarah Churchwell’s recent book on ‘America First’ populism makes a long and persuasive comparison between Trump and Charles Lindbergh, who tried to parley his celebrity into a nationalist, racist political career.

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CL - November 27, 2020

https://www.npr.org/2017/01/22/511048811/pat-buchanan-on-america-first-under-trump

“America First is best known as the slogan and foreign policy advocated by the America First Committee, a non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II, which emphasized American nationalism and unilateralism in international relations. The America First Committee’s membership peaked at 800,000 paying members in 450 chapters, and it popularized the slogan “America First.”[2] While the America First Committee had a variety of supporters in the United States, “the movement was marred by anti-Semitic and pro-fascist rhetoric.”[12]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_(policy)

This America First movement faded quickly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The liberal establishment is desperate to return a centrist to the White House in November and reestablish the country’s more stable military dominance of the world order, disrupted only briefly by Donald Trump. Joe Biden’s terrible track record on foreign policy — including his championing of war in Iraq — suggests a return to Obama-style strong military interventions abroad.”
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/joe-biden-foreign-policy-military-liberal-interventionism-obama

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2. rockroots - November 26, 2020

Trump was unique. I don’t think any career politician could ever achieve that level of devotion, but he was also a symptom of a quite specifically American psyche. He was famous for being rich in a country that admires greed and ostentation. Add to that he could be occasionally funny and self-effacing and constantly available for media appearances. Look at how he could pop up on SNL or in multiple movie cameos and you realise that the liberal parts of the American media who hated his presidency so much were far from blameless in creating the monster. So Trump cultivated a goofy-but-successful, non-political, non-threatening persona for decades, before abruptly shifting into politics and translated viewing figures into votes. It’s hard to see that becoming a blue-print for politics. Our own last presidential election shows just how ropey that can turn out.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2020

100% agree re your point about liberal America having a hand in this. He was famously a watery liberal at least on certain issues for decades.

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Pasionario - November 26, 2020

Most liberal commentators are deaf to what I would call Trump’s inarticulate articulacy.

It’s not exactly that he speaks the language of the people. Because he doesn’t really. No-one else actually talks like Trump. What he managed to do was craft a unique quasi-Hitlerian idiom that was immediatedly recognisable and understandable even though it sounded bizarre.

That there is often some genuine wit involved also gets overlooked. The way he scythed through “low-energy” Jeb, “lyin'” Ted, “little” Marco and the rest of the Republican field during the debates in 2016 was remarkable. They were totally unprepared for it.

One of the differences this time around was that the stakes were higher and attempts at bullying repartee didn’t seem appropriate in the middle of a pandemic.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2020

Yep, completely agree. It’s a cruel wit but effective as a political/personal short hand. In that way and this dovetails with croc’s comment below, his celebrity, ability to craft simple takes for tv etc, was a huge asset. And that’s spot on re liberal commentators and an inability to see how that works. Because Trump’s political programme was pretty inchoate, a patchwork, but a clever patchwork that sort of had core touchstones concealed partially behind the verbiage, about race/ambition/change/etc, which he could fix on as it was necessary, but in a clever way slightly askew so direct charges of racism/etc would slip off them. That said I do think he was underpowered this time around compared to 2016, even before he caught Covid. On the other hand absent Covid and crucially his handling of it would you feel he would have won?

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sonofstan - November 27, 2020

“. Look at how he could pop up on SNL or in multiple movie cameos and you realise that the liberal parts of the American media who hated his presidency so much were far from blameless in creating the monster”

Something similar with Johnson here: socially he’s a metropolitan liberal as much as anything, but speaks a ideolect that isn’t obviously ‘the language of the people’ but is something that some people at least find flattering and reassuring – it’s how they imagine their betters should speak, not in Guardian-speak.

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WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2020

Isn’t that weird. A sort of seeming authenticity through PR ability, though as with Trump an easiness with mass media. There was an interesting insight in an interview with Daniel Radcliffe on a meeting with Trump on US TV at one point, both were on the same show, Trump met him, shook hands, asked him how he was, Radcliffe said he was quite nervous. Trump says, ‘Just tell them you met me here’. Monomaniacal, perhaps, but also quite a clever trick in television or presentation terms to give someone something to talk about when they’re nervous (I have an equivalent – sometimes when lecturing or giving presentations in new places I find a good trick to quash my own self-consciousness or nerves is to talk informally to people in the room from where I’ll be standing so it then seamlessly blends into the presentation and the nervousness is gone).

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sonofstan - November 27, 2020

Good trick!
Have you an online eqivalent? 10 week into it, and I can’t help but start with ‘can you all hear me?’ which doesn’t inspire confidence…..

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WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2020

I don’t think so unfortunately, I think anything with multiple online zoom/other participants is too diffuse isn’t it? And as you say and that’s it, the tech side is infuriating in terms of breaking the flow.

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3. WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2020

By the way, I have hated with a passion all the rhetoric about a ‘Resistance’ in the US. It’s such a hollow chestbeating sort of a term.

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crocodileshoes - November 26, 2020

Stating the obvious, maybe, but almost everything said of Trump above – about celebrity, populism, vulgarity, being underestimated by opponents – was true of Berlusconi decades earlier. If you’re looking for the next potential American demagogue, look at the tv schedules- or maybe among the ‘influencers’ on social media. Of all the countries I’ve visited, the ones with the worst popular television were the US, Italy and Turkey. Makes you think.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2020

That’s a real comparison. And you’ve got to think there’s a few people in tv thinking precisely that.

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crocodileshoes - November 27, 2020

Maybe we should be thinking of electoral politics as a box set. Bannon or Cummings as the show runner. Trump or Johnson as the slightly caricatured ‘audience’s idea of a leader.’ See it that way and Biden and Starmer were not so much elected as cast … white-bread foils for the pantomime villains. Predictably, whoever’s running the Irish franchise has overdone things: I mean, who’s going to believe in the Healy-Rea brothers?

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4. CL - November 27, 2020

” This terrific history of strongmen since Mussolini makes it clear that despite a horrific pandemic and massive economic disruption, ordinary democratic Americans have more to be thankful for this Thanksgiving than ever before.
Comparing the gruesome, granular details of the reigns of Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Gaddafi, Pinochet, Mobuto, Berlusconi and Erdoğan to the acts and aspirations of Donald Trump, New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat makes a powerful argument that on the scary road to fascism, America just came perilously close to the point of no return….
Every authoritarian regime has seen a crucial alliance between big business and the dictator, from Putin and his oligarchs to Hitler and German industrialists and Trump and the Wall Street elite…..
The US has done so much to promote authoritarianism abroad during the last 100 years, it’s actually surprising it took so long before we had to confront it at home.”
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/26/strongmen-review-ruth-ben-ghiat-donald-trump-fascism-hitler-mussolini-franco

“Donald Trump made people ask this question for the first time in history: Is there such a thing as a lazy fascist?”
https://theintercept.com/2020/11/07/everyone-failed-during-trump-era/

” The Trump Tumor could not have oozed into the White House without the previous existence of an underlying proto-fascist, and eliminationist base and movement. As the prolific anti-fascist journalist and author David Neiwert wrote in the aftermath of the beast’s election, in a book chapter titled “Fascism and Our Future”: “This didn’t happen overnight – Trump is the logical end result of a years-long series of assaults by the American right, not just on American liberalism, but on democratic institutions themselves. With Trump the long-term creeping radicalization of the right has come home to roost.”

Trump’s relatively affluent base and movement was well into formation by the 2008 election.”
https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/11/26/no-victory-dance-eight-reasons/

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