Fear Level Trump

I remember a time when a cabbage could sell itself by being a cabbage. Nowadays it’s no good being a cabbage – unless you have an agent and pay him a commission. Nothing is free anymore to sell itself or give itself away. These days, Countess, every cabbage has its pimp.
― Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot

This election seems to have traumatized the usually, and increasingly, somnambulant public in the US to the degree that a number of various mental affects are activated, and maybe even some old wounds finally surfacing again, but most of all it has generated a new level of panic among the bourgeoisie.

There was a piece in the New York Review of Books on Trump, the candidate, written by Jonathan Freedland. And it touches on the strange almost surreal resiliency of the Trump campaign. There was another odd bit of fluff at the Guardian (where fluff is becoming the norm) on Claire Danes bottled and excessive tan at the Emmy awards show, which the author attributed to, or equated with, Trump and his sun lamped skin. One TWEET (quoted by the Guardian) went…“Claire Danes’ bronzer is threat level TRUMP”.

The NYRBs is, of course, a pretty reactionary rag these days, notwithstanding my fondness for the minor esorterica it includes (Mesopotamian art exhibits or reviews of obscure medieval history books, etc). But Freedland (arch liberal though he is) pretty cogently summed up Trump and the seething anger that drives his followers. Or the visible followers anyway. For there may be more. And if Trump, as even I have wondered, isn’t in it to win, then he could well be playing out the political version of Mel Brooks The Producers. And the possibility of polls being wildly wrong this election is, I’d say, very high. But Trump the candidate is now, at the least, part of American folklore.

Trump’s tan is the semiotic read for success — gold, Vegas, penthouses and fake tans. Claire Danes was only looking to enhance her brand, even if unconsciously, or subconsciously.

Now, running through all of this are questions of pedagogy for perhaps the most glaring deficiency of contemporary life in the West is education. For this is now a generation (and maybe it is more like the second or third generation) that no longer reads. I’ve had conversations both in person and on social media with students from Oxford and NYU and in all cases (for there are others) there is shocking inability to reason. Fifty years ago Debord suggested the Society of the Spectacle was creating a generalized autism. And in a sense I think this is true and that it is almost the opposite of schizophrenia. People read text as if it is code. They are stunningly blind to tone and metaphor, to irony (it’s only “irony”) as well as simply employing a not very expansive vocabulary. They cannot make distinctions. And this is true on the left and the right.

This election has revealed as never before the ugly reactionary core of white American liberals. Their silence on Clinton’s crimes is shocking. And one suspects there are two explanations involved. One is that their hysteria about Trump is fueled by seeing far too much of themselves in Trump’s racism and bigotry and even style. For while they abhor his vulgarity, they also know this is the aesthetic endgame for America. And they are, or think they are, the gatekeepers of those aesthetics. The other reason is that they fear the losing of their own bourgeois privilege if Trump wins. These are white educated liberals who support gun control, and were shocked at the Brexit vote, support same sex marriage, and have exactly no idea why the lumpen proletariat in the US is so angry. Or why workers in the Eurozone are so angry. Or what it means to be poor and black in the US today. Because if they did, they would fear Hillary just as much as Trump. More. No, Hillary represents their own privilege. She is the candidate of the status quo. And in a weird kind of meta ironic metaphor, her illness and perhaps mental incapacity, is the perfect expression of the morbidity of the Democratic Party today. The DNC is an unbalanced aging wreck on the verge of collapse.

So, the white liberal bourgeoisie is voting Clinton. And the pretext is to save us all from Trump and fascism. But this is the strategy for the Democratic Party every four years. There is always a bogeyman. And there is always the demand to not *waste* votes on third party candidates (the metaphors and similes of popular culture always reflect finance capitalism). And the result is that the Democratic Party continues to veer to the right. Today Nixon would seem a liberal Republican if not a moderate Democrat. The lesser evilism strategy is simply capitulation. And even those who encourage voting for Jill Stein tend to see in Trump something genuinely fascistic. And I am afraid I don’t.

Firstly, it is impossible to know exactly what Trump believes because he contradicts himself weekly and sometimes daily. One of the reasons so many neo-con Republicans are voting for Hillary is that they fear what Trump would do to the economy. None of them care about U.S. foreign policy, certainly, or an intensified domestic authoritarianism. And 99% of Americans don’t care either. Ask the average American about the Saudi war on Yemen and you will get blank stares. But, in fact, the U.S is deeply complicit with the crimes of the Saudi military in their attack on Yemen. There are U.S. military advisors who meet daily in Riyadh with Saudi military personnel to coordinate the attacks and bombing on Yemen. Attacks that targeted schools and hospitals. It is now estimated that over 320 thousand children are severely malnourished in Yemen. The U.S. sold 90 billion in weaponry and aircraft to the Saudi’s over the last five years. The UK has done the same. There are U.S. advisors in Yemen. But nobody cares.

Secretary of State Clinton has all but put a hit out on Bashar al-Assad. And has openly suggested attacking Iran, and supports the most extreme policies of Israeli aggression. She has a long and close relationship with the Saudi monarchy. But nobody cares. This is all far away. But Trump, the Donald, is right here. On TV, with this ridiculous hair and outrageous pronouncements. And the liberals, and many on the left too, and many I admire, are warning of the dire consequences environmentally if Trump is President. Except, Clinton is a cheerleader for TPP and TTIP (and the back up TISA agreement) and most of all is the most hawkish candidate for president in history — and the U.S. military is one of the world’s great polluters. Ask the people of Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia, or Libya. Ask how depleted uranium has effected their lives. She also supports fracking. So neither major candidate is exactly green.

And while in the purest sense, all reform is bound to fail in the end, the landscape has changed over the last forty years. When millions went out into the streets in that period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, there followed a sense of numb resignation when the U.S. invaded anyway. The state, this pretend democracy, had utterly ignored them. Many blamed Bush. And sure, the neo-con cabal was awful and fascistic, but then Obama was elected and nothing at all changed. In many ways most everything got worse. Deportations increased, the military expanded and even more military bases were built on foreign soil. Draconian trade agreements were written in secret and drone assassination was normalized.

And now, after eight years of Obama, the Clinton machine has returned. Like the return of repressed material, like a foul nightmare, the unbalanced (literal and figurative I guess) war monger that is Hillary — after a disastrous stint as secretary of state — is the democratic nominee. Like a dog returning to its vomit. After stealing California from the fraudulent loud mouthed Bernie Sanders, the only thing standing in her way is Donald Trump. And Trump is the most contradictory and strange phenomenon in the history of US electoral politics. All of which is to say, there is much in this current climate to applaud about concrete reform. Real people are provided with, at least, some temporary relief. And those at work with prison reform and anti penalty work, as well as BLM activists are the only positive coming out of the current U.S.

Trump is not Hitler. He is Berlusconi. And aides like Roger Stone are right when they point and say ‘the factories are closed’. But most liberals don’t work in factories and many sort of just don’t work. What do liberals fear so much from Trump that they seem not to fear from Hillary? A wall? There is already a wall. Deportations? They are already at record levels. What exactly? Reproductive rights and the Supreme Court? Okay, I suppose women’s rights is a valid point…sort of. I mean, the women murdered and the families destroyed in Honduras after Hillary’s coup might argue this. Same in Haiti, and Libya or Gaza. But here is where the liberals start a campaign of shaming those who want to vote for Jill Stein.

Firstly, the binary vision of politics is deeply embedded in the liberal class today. More so than on the right even. A vote for Stein/Baraka is seen as a *wasted* vote. Why? Because there can only be two candidates. Ever. Period. Two parties ensures there is only one party. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, if the cost of killing off neo liberalism is a Trump victory, so be it. And Margaret Kimberley said she will vote Stein and hope for the death of the Democratic Party. And I am with that sentiment. But for the white bourgeoisie, this election is about much more than a fear of the guy with the bottled tan. It is about their sense of impending loss of privilege. And that privilege is baked into the erosion of education, the growing police state (which does not patrol affluent white neighborhoods) and with an expanding permanent war state globally. And most of all because WINNING is what matters. Period. Full stop.

Hillary Clinton has called Putin a new Hitler. This is hardly the language of mature statesmanship. Does none of this sink into the brain of the white liberal? I think it is simply a matter of not caring. White educated liberal America doesn’t give a fuck about the rest of the world. They care about their own position in a failing America. Now, it is scary on one level to watch a Trump rally. But not for the casual racism, because that is everywhere everyday in the USA. No, it is the sense of suppressed rage in the lumpen working class finally coming out. And how long it must have been festering. And this brings me back to my first point, really. The sense of things surfacing — and in a way it’s like Vietnam. The trauma cut across all classes. Everyone was hurt. This election is for a variety of reasons reactivating old traumas, guilt, shame. Pain.

The hostility of this culture. The angry snarky bitchy self involved narcissistic hostility. The only places I find deep comradeship is in the social justice movement. In BLM and in prison rights. Not on the left, not in left parties or left intelligencia. Mostly I find a tacit policing of thought on the left.

The largest prison strike in US history is going on but there is a media blackout. I don’t hear much about it in left circles. There is new death penalty legislation being overturned. But I hear little about it in any media, left or right. These things have to be taught. Milosevic was exonerated (even if it was to justify a bogus conviction of Karadzic..also innocent) and the media ignored it. What was once the trial of the century, the trial of the *Butcher of the Balkans* is now simply ignored. Claire Danes’ tan mattered more.

And that is the Trump phenomenon. He is a vision of success to the masses in 2016. He is the kitsch King of Success. Never mind his deep ignorance (and his sons….oh geez….) or his crude bullying. He IS success for the New America. Flashy, vulgar, and loud. That makes him rather perfect in a sense. I don’t care. I fear Hillary much more is all I know. A Vegas President? Who cares. Kennebunkport becomes Atlantic City. The logic of finance capital results ….after everything…in Donald Trump.

Andrew Levine wrote recently…

If the debates this year were run, say, according to the old League of Women Voters rules, Stein and Johnson would be in.

Even if they were, Clinton would still win the election – she has too much media support and too many political machines working for her to lose, no matter how awful a candidate she is. But the quality of political discourse would improve a hundred-fold or more.

The benefits tof that, especially after the election is over, would be incalculable.

Pedagogy. Levine goes on to make one of the best observations of this entire election season. And that is, when speaking of Trump … “What comes out of his mouth are not policy prescriptions at all; they are emotive utterances. He is not voicing ideas; he is conveying an attitude.”

And that is the heart of this. The King of Success, gold tan, gold hair and gold checkbook. And finally, ignorance. He has already picked the vile James Woolsey for his team. So the same guys will run things whoever wins. Which is why it makes sense to vote commitment and vote Stein/Baraka. At least, at the very least, you can feel less complicit in the final solution looming for Gaza or the nuclear confrontation with Russia, or the destruction of Syria when Clinton wins, or the total destruction of Yemen. For Hillary will make regime change the national pastime. And I suspect that deep down most Trump supporters know their man is an ignoramus. But they are angry. And nobody, on a deep instinctual level, could get behind Ted Cruz. His hips were wider than his shoulders. There was something deeply unwholesome about Cruz. And actually the same might be said of Rubio. Or even Sanders. This was a charisma vacuum. And in walked the mack daddy of Atlantic City. Mr Trump Towers. The man with the tan.

The fact that Trump is so deeply ignorant and yet so popular is sort of unsurprising. I mean Bush was ignorant. Reagan was ignorant. Is Trump dumber about world affairs than Reagan? It’s too close to call. The problem with most discussions of Trump vs. Clinton is that such discussions are reductive. Pick any issue you want. Gun control? The U.S. is the world’s leading exporter of weaponry. The defense industry is the biggest in the world. Can one really separate that fact from guns on the streets of America? Especially in the hands of the police. Many police are returning Iraqi or Afghan vets. But it is more than that, it is the ideological vision of conquest and class segregation. The U.S. authority structure treats the poor, especially the black poor, as colonial subjects. Poor neighborhoods are viewed much as the U.S. military views towns in Iraq. There is a need for pacification. One cannot be the world’s leader maker of guns and bombs and bullets and expect your own streets not to be infected with the same violence you impose on the poor of other countries you invade.

Take the environment. No major candidate save Jill Stein has said anything remotely coherent about the environment. You cannot support destructive trade deals and militarism, not to mention the defense industry, and then say you want to protect the environment. So, no, Trump is disturbing in his off handed misogyny and bigotry. He is a mean spirited creep. But at the same time he said he wants to talk to Putin, not attack him. So there is that. But none of this is, finally, relevant. Because Presidents are not Czars. They do not rule by decree or fiat. It is a system of rank exploitation and naked corporate fraud, of a racist judicial system and a growing gulag with the most prisoners in the world. How much worse, even domestically where presidents traditionally have little real power, will life be worse under a Trump? Will he amp up the surveillance state? Perhaps. Although it’s acutely bad already. Can he unleash the National Guard on protesters? I sort of doubt it. And who will either of these two candidates pick for their cabinet? Trump tapped Woolsey already. Clinton is eyeing Michelle Flournoy and already picked Ken Salazar. These are horrible choices. Neo fascistic choices. Does that sound good? More of this same Imperialist blood letting globally, and more of the police state violence domestically. This is why it matters to vote with a conscience. Vote for Stein and Baraka. It’s not about winning. Because electorally you all have already lost. It is about a vision for a future without these ghouls running things.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He’s had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation.

Read other articles by John.