Sanders, Trump and the Politics of Hokum

Sanders and Trump, the caricature candidates

Politics has long dwelled in the land of make-believe, and our own political era has no shortage of hocus-pocus. Much like fun-house mirrors, political narratives tend to distort rather than distill the images they mean to reflect. And few nations, if any, dilute reality as deftly and convincingly as America.

In her sharply observed collection of essays, Political Fictions, Joan Didion assessed the ways in which prevailing media narrative(s) — good, bad or otherwise — make theoretically objective notions of “fairness” indistinguishable from what is commonly referred to as “spin’:

The genuflection toward “fairness” is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal. In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what “fairness” has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.

True to the mantra with which Didion began her 1979 opus, The White Album (“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…or at least we do for a while”), we cling to narratives as survival mechanisms, even if they are wholly delusional. To observe politics today is akin to being narcotized; our hallucinatory perceptions haunt our discourse like apparitions stuck in purgatory. It’s the myths that keep on living, no matter if they are patently false, woefully misguided or irredeemably stupid. Political fictions are, indeed, everywhere, purveyed notably, but not exclusively, by that P.T. Barnum of proto-nationalism and boorish vulgarity, Donald Trump. What’s more, our current political fictions transcend ideologies and party-lines.

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Trump = Barnum

It is inarguable that the convergence of right-wing and left-wing populism in Campaign 2016 reflects a rightfully agitated and restive populace. Wage inequality and stagnation have put the lie to the idea that economic mobility is a guaranteed trajectory and that the much-vaunted “American Dream” is, or ever was, a reality. Tell people enough lies, massage people’s fantasias long enough, and deeply entrenched disenchantment will lodge itself between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea, making a monster of our discontent. It’s an angry monster, one as ideologically divergent as the retrograde buffoon that is Trump and the self-righteous fantasist that is Bernie Sanders.

We are a nation convulsing from our own polarization, victims of our own insistence on binaries. What Sanders lacks in substance, he compensates for in fantasy. After all, economic angst and all its attendant rage finds nobility in “fairness,” which has its roots in notions of equality — and who among us can find fault with that? Yet concepts of equality and its spiritual twin, liberty, have been at loggerheads since the fractious birth of the Republic. Reconciling the two has been the sweet spot of the American dialectic, a task far more Sisyphean than readily solvable.

Sanders fancies himself of an avatar of justice, even as he promises to make it rain, so to speak, without having the funds to be a rainmaker. Apparently, Sanders isn’t much troubled with the details of governing, which ostensibly would spell out his plan for the disbursement of “free” goodies, including everything from college education to single-payer health care. As Sanders contended in an interview to Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson recently, he aims to

close the gap that currently exists between the American people over here (gestures to one side of the table,) who have needs and goals and desires, and a Congress (gestures to the other side,) which in almost every insistence is ignoring what the American people want.

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As for how he would deal with Speaker Paul Ryan and his gang of GOP thwarters, Sanders confessed:

Now, is it easy to do? No. How do you do it? It’s a good question. And the truth is, right now I’m a bit busy running for president to have figured that out, other than to tell you that it requires a mass-based political effort bringing millions of people together to stand up and fight back. Unions could play an important role. Environmental groups, women’s groups – groups that are already actively involved. We’re going to bring people together to effectively organize and put pressure on Congress to do the right thing.

In our reductive landscape of heroes and villains, Sanders, like Trump, can galvanize his apparatchiks with his own rhetorical bait, the chum of political rhetoric, regardless if the blood doesn’t come from any red meat. It’s the thrill of the message, the adrenaline of the sell, where facts dissolve or cease to exist within a narrative that reinforces itself through its own repetitive nonsense. Sanders is by no means a version of Trump, nor is he dangerously as vacuous. But his rage and that of his supporters remains as fervent, despite being rooted in egalitarianism rather than exclusion. Trump’s references to “Crooked Hillary” share a narrative foxhole with Sanders’s harangue about Hillary’s Wall Street speeches. Rhetoric vanquishes ideology, as every fantasy needs a villain. At the crossroads of populist rage stands Hillary Clinton, maligned and beleaguered, whose own liberal bona fides are no longer sacred but profane. Alas, poor Hillary; the first woman to be the nominee of a major political party hasn’t inspired a cult of personality.

The end result of 25 years of media and ideological agitprop is the Clinton Nobody Knows; she’s the electorate’s blank canvas, writ large. Clinton is categorized, by turns dissonant and laughable, as feminist, hawk, Goldwater acolyte, McGovernite liberal, Wall Street champion, child advocate, Lady Macbeth, criminal, neo-conservative, manipulator, diplomat, opportunist, flip-flopper, heroine and fraud.

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Sanders, like Trump, can galvanize his apparatchiks.

According to boneheaded punditry and social media sophistry, Clinton is paradoxically all of the above as well as none of the above. Trump, who is less fascist than rampant narcissist, is best labelled not by anything other than the singularity of his stupidity (easy enough, right?), while the “Democratic Socialist” Sanders is, to paraphrase Voltaire, neither Democrat nor socialist. But he has an amen corner which brooks no dissent, especially with regard to the merits of the “revolution.” In the Marxist sense, at least socialism, of which there are varying kinds, was traditionally signified by outright opposition to capitalism, and, in turn, a post-capitalist system predicated on the social ownership of the means of production. Sanders isn’t a socialist so much as a European-style leftist. This distinction, however nuanced, may be irrelevant in the age of rage.

While Trump has unmasked the Republican right’s none-too-coy dalliance with racism and xenophobia, Sanders has demanded the first litmus test as to what it means to be a “progressive” — at least since Ted Kennedy’s ill-fated attempt to deny Jimmy Carter renomination in 1980. Yet, both candidates rankle the establishment, while still yearning to be part of it. Sanders and Trump are outsider-insiders, finding consensus within dissensus, whistling past our constitutional framework and its co-equal branches of government. They are rebels with a cause, no doubt, if not with credible plans.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts,” insisted the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But Clinton’s own progressive credentials remain suspect, despite the ideological congruence between her and Sanders their two-year overlap in the Senate. Clinton may indeed be an imperfect messenger, and her aversion to empty poetry gives off a whiff of cynicism. Rather, her message is a swelling chorus of left-wing policy positions rather than a radical verse, and that tends to obscure a political overview that is quieter, if no less vigorously liberal than Sanders’ more hectoring rendition. For Clinton, pragmatism and progressivism are tools of efficient government, but they aren’t razzle-dazzle tonics for millennial angst.

As Jonathan Cohn eloquently characterized it last month in the Huffington Post,

…Clinton’s domestic policy agenda doesn’t include one signature idea or position that’s going to dominate the headlines or get activists excited. Instead, it’s a series of proposals that, together, would fortify the social safety net, strengthen regulation of industry, and bolster public services. To the extent these programs require new spending, the money would largely come from new taxes on the wealthy.

Even with a victory in pledged delegates, Clinton’s name still elicited boos at a Sanders rally. And Sanders, for his part, did nothing to disabuse them of their disgust. He’s our resident grouch, America’s whinging prophet, a man threatening to avenge the “rigged” system that, he believes, shut him out. Like the tantrum of Trump, it’s plenty of pique and plenty of nonsense. It’s the politics of woo-woo, from sea to shining sea.