Letter From America

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: February 27, 2017 Last modified: February 27, 2017

We can disrespect Donald all we like, but we can’t afford to be dis­missive. In the world of the Donald, dystopias rule. George Orwell’s 1984 shot back to the top of the US bestseller lists after White House press conferences reintroduced “alternative facts” to a waiting world, not to mention breaking news of hitherto unrecorded massacres in Bowling Green and Sweden, or his (not) record electoral vote. Trump’s massive ego is a big asset. He, and his pod-people spokespersons do not blush when reality impinges. They genuinely see five fingers when they hold up four, they see and taste the chocolate ration increasing from thirty to twenty grams. And they have always hated Eastasia.

However, we should also look at another Dystopia, Jack London’s Iron Heel. Trump’s early appearance with a select group of union leaders brought back memories of the pivotal scene in London’s book that had the Labour aristocrats signing up for the deal that would keep the Oligarchy in power for centuries, abandoning the unskilled proles to ruthless exploitation.

Trump’s chummy union leaders came from the construction industry, where Trump had famously employed, underpaid and then stiffed undocumented immigrants when he was building his fortunes. Implied as part of the deal was that they separate themselves from the strongest part of the union movement – the public-sector workers. In return they get a carbon belching oil pipeline through tribal lands and promise of bigger infrastructure spending.

But union bosses notwithstanding, Trump’s entourage includes Republican luminaries whose legislative efforts at both state and national level have reduced union density in the workforce to its lowest for a century. And those government workers are the target of particular animus by the Republican governors.

Is this just his immature desire to be loved by everyone, or is it a cunning plot to bestride the stage as the champion of the common man while positioning the oligarchs for unprecedented assaults on ordinary people’s income? I suspect it is an indeterminate quantum state, where either or both can be true at any one time, but if the people around him have their way, Oligarchy is the way to go.

Part of Trump’s caste appeal is that he is genuinely vulgar, tasteless, bullying and blustering. He lives like a billionaire but talks and acts like a redneck, and the more the “elite” on the TV talk shows mock and pillory him, the more his base backs him. The over-hyped revulsion of the punditocracy validates his attacks on them. Of course, Hillary’s term “deplorables”, was one of the many factors why the people she derided would support him.

Just as during the campaign, there is a sense of parallel universes, neither particularly well grounded in reality and rarely touching each other. But consider where they do impinge upon our world. Those plans for America’s infrastructure have been intellectually denied by the orthodox economists, media, and politicians since the days of Reagan and perpetual government austerity. Trump announced them anyway. Interestingly, Obama put a lot into infrastructure spending after the crash but kept it quiet for fear of neo­liberal attacks from both sides, so it was a stealth stimulus. He did not openly challenge the Washington consensus on economics.

To be fair, the outrage of the much vilified “Mainstream Media” – the lügenpresse (“Lying Press”) as Trump supporters loyal to his Teutonic roots call it, has something forced about it. These crusaders for journalistic standards mostly went along with all the canards about the Iraq War, and sharing the same socio-economic bubble as the Clintons, they did overlook the support for both Sanders and Trump out in the sticks. For decades they pandered to Trump’s own myth of business success, overlooking his recidivist bankruptcies. They parroted the neoliberal myths against austerity and for the banks and certainly failed to identify those pillars of the political and financial establishment who brought about the crisis of 2008.

However, those pillars are much in evidence. One does not have to subscribe to conspiracy theories for wondering how Goldman Sachs, which did so much to bring about the financial disaster of 2008 was simultaneously behind both Hillary Clinton in the election, and then could happily spare so many of its executives to fill Trump’s Washington swamp.

A crucial question is whether Trump and his team have method in their madness. Trump himself is no ideologue. Insofar as he has a world view, it’s a collection of petty prejudices which makes him the perfect partner for Nigel Farage’s taproom truisms neighed over the top of a pint glass. Despite the understandable fears of xenophobia and authoritarianism, he has shown some interesting ability to walk back on the rhetoric, precisely because his utterances are flexibly reflexive and populist and not held in place by any ideological framework. To confuse the issue, if Trump on Mexicans and Muslims worries you, do not delve into Jack London on Asians and Africans!

While we join protests at the airport in the big cities, out there in the sticks, the overlooked deplorables can legitimately wonder, “Where were all these urban egg­heads when we lost our jobs, healthcare and homes?” We can disrespect Donald all we like, but we can’t afford to be dismissive.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent