There is an interesting article in The Guardian that highlights the divided political loyalties of an American family — “My parents, the Trump voters: a Sanders-supporting son attempts to understand.” I can certainly relate to it from my own personal experience. And it does provide some degree of insight into the factors making for “Brand Trump”. Many of those same factors went into the making of “Brand Harper” in Canada and the attractions of authoritarianism also in my own family.
Nostalgia, resentment, and ignorance — the three prongs of the devil’s trident, as it were. Separately, they are harmless affectations. Together, however, they are incendiary in their synergy. All three are fairly evident in James Lantz’s article as the reasons that divide his views from those of his parents.
First, nostalgia: it’s pretty evident even in Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. There is an idealised past — a lost world of past national greatness. Typically, this period is associated with the twenty years or so of the post-war economic boom — from about 1945 to 1965. It was an era of national pride and euphoria following the defeat of Nazism, an era of conformity where everyone knew their place (confused with notions of national unity), when there was a mass migration to the suburbs, when advertising and TV shows portrayed an idyllic suburban life and harmonious families.
None of it was particularly real. Most of it was a media fable and fabrication.
Second, resentment: Bitterness and resentment are directed against “leftists” or “liberal elites” presumed to be the reason for the end of the idealised past and the lost world — the rise of civil rights and anti-war movements, the beats, the counter-culture, the environmental movement. Those born during this same period — the “boomers” — often questioned the unreality of the idyllic suburban life portrayed as utopian ideal in commercials or serialised TV shows. These groups challenged the complacency and delusions of suburban life, the “comfortable pew” as Canadian critic Pierre Berton described its religious life. Allen Ginsberg exposed the idyll as masquerade in his poem “Howl”. Rachel Carson further popped the bubble with her book Silent Spring in 1962. The complacency of suburban life began to appear hollow, empty, deadening, soulless. The realisation that serious and even deadly social problems underlay the idyllic facade and masquerade began to mount and intensify.
Third, ignorance: instead of responding adequately to the underlying problems, it became a case of “kill the messengers”. Most important of all, there seemed no understanding at all that the implicit logic of capitalist production and consumption, in terms of “creative destruction”, doomed that same suburban idyll to eventual obsolescence itself. Capitalism progresses by perpetual substitutions, most especially of human labour with machine labour. Capitalism is indeed dynamic. But that dynamism is called “creative destruction”. It not only makes entire industries or handicraft economies obsolete, but annihilates entire ways of life. This is perhaps the foremost contradiction of conservatism — that it idealises capitalism and the “free market” without regard to the inevitable social consequences of that adulation. Not understanding or appreciating what Daniel Bell described as The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, they cast about for scapegoats as “cause” for the consequences of creative destruction. And they are encouraged in this ignorance by the principal beneficiaries of the capitalist system of production and consumption. With capitalism, everything, and all ways of life, become dispensable and disposable.
This convergence of nostalgia for a lost world, resentment directed against those deemed to be “cause” of that loss, and ignorance of the socio-economic dynamics of “creative destruction” generates an intoxicating witches’ brew of reactionary sentiment that is seldom coherent or articulate. That’s Brand Trump.
And if Hillary Clinton is “the devil”, it’s because she represents the status quo. Reactionary nostalgia or the status quo. Hell of a choice. Can’t say I blame people for being upset.
This issue isn’t unique to America either. Politically, socially, culturally, the Modern Era has reached an impasse — an impasse where neither reactionary nostalgia nor the status quo are acceptable or even workable as alternatives. That impasse is called “end of history”. Neither pathway leads to a regenerative transformation. Bernie Sanders saw the essential problem. But it’s doubtful that even his “political revolution” could have done much to surmount and overcome the impasse, although revolution has traditionally been the only recourse and resolution of an historical impasse.
The surprising success of Mr. Sanders’ campaign can, I think, be attributed to a yearning, particularly amongst the young, to transcend the impasse and escape the “end of history” through a leap of faith — the alternatives being either the dreadful on the one hand, or the dreary on the other.
And dreadful or dreary — that is just another way of saying “impasse”.