August 13, 2015

Trump This!

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look ...

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look better on her knees, he’d be sent back to Canada.

So why is that from the billionaire candidate Donald Trump, wide-open narcissism, sexism, and anti-Mexican racism are accepted, even applauded? Maybe because Trump fits so comfortably into a mood of malcontent skepticism. Think George Wallace and Curtis LeMay before him: crazy or cynical, maybe, but in a familiar, American way.

So this week we’re looking for the many meanings in the Donald’s for-now popularity, and asking what his long candidacy might mean a new understanding of what America’s looking forward after Obama. So with historians Rick Perlstein and Heather Cox Richardson, and a chorus of voices, let us count the ways. 

1. Trump’s a TV brand.

Trump has brought a certain televisual atmosphere with him — the look of entertainment news, The Apprentice and advertising, roasts and resort vacations — into an otherwise stale and overcrowded horse race. Our guest Jeet Heer says the Trump candidacy works like professional wrestling — it becomes scripted battle, and spectacularly vulgar. (We shouldn’t forget Trump himself has thrown a few punches at Wrestlemania.)

2. He’s a high-school archetype.

The novelist of Election and screenwriter Tom Perrotta told us that Trump’s a kind of callback to high school: the entitled-and-he-knows-it prom king who has the car, the girl and the grades (despite not working). And all he sees around him are losers. Look at Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times: at age 27, already with a monogram license plate on his Cadillac.

3. He’s an aspirational figure.

Through it all, says Mark Singer of The New Yorker (who’s gone ten rounds with Trump), Trump represents a hypercharged version of the American dream that appeals to blue-collar voters, what Rick Perlstein called “a poor person’s version of a rich person”: he bet on himself, against the odds, damned the doubters, and built what they call a “personal brand” long before that was mainstream. Now he flies a jet with his name on it, and he’s willing to lie or go bankrupt to keep the show going.

4. He’s a truth-teller in a corrupt country.

 Trump is leveraging Citizens United the way Stephen Colbert did before him: slamming our “broken” system and at the same time proving it’s broken by his mere presence. Trump donated to the Clinton Foundation, so the Clintons came to his wedding (see above). Before they were adversaries, Gov. Scott Walker gave him a thank-you plaque for his support — now Trump won’t let him forget it. 

5. He’s a populist clown — and some clowns are scary.

Trump’s not alone: he’s part of a global class of outré anti-political politicians. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, once the Senate’s hippie scold, has preached socialism to a hundred thousand Americans on the trail.  Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, remains a city councillorFor now Italy’s second-place pol is the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, and Geert Wilders, a xenophobe with almost Trumpian hair, is way up in the Netherlands.

But Buruma conjures prior clowns with a caution: Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin were all laughingstocks before they won power — on an aura of emotional connection with their people and a promise of national resurrection. All this, Buruma’s clear, is not to call Trump Hitler, but to remind us that outrageous demagogues can turn serious in a hurry. The dynamics of The Great Dictator are in play:

Podcast • December 21, 2010

Mark Blyth (2): 2011 Will Be Worse… and Life Will Go On

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong ...

Mark Blyth is back in the pub tonight, played by Sean Connery, as usual, and demonstrating again how far a man can go in political economy just by talking fast and infallibly with a strong Scots’ accent.

The Democrats in Washington have taken up again their modern mission: cleaning up a Republican mess in America, for which they will get no thanks in 2011 or 2012, says our corridor mate at the Watson Institute. The Tea Party rebellion demonstrates anew that American voters are crazy but not necessarily stupid: when they see debt and deficits skyrocketing and unemployment still climbing, the Republican campaign writes itself, and wins. “You don’t get any credit for putting an emergency floor in the building when the roof is still falling into the basement. That’s what the Democrats have done for the last two years, and will keep doing.”

Mark Blyth is a man of rough opinions, as you’ve gathered, on top of learning and experience. The civilized expert world has decided, he notes, that “austerity” is to be the bad idea that governs economic policy in 2011. “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working,” is the rule. It won’t work, Blyth says. It won’t even be sustained, because democracies (like Ireland, maybe even the US) have discovered that they’re paying twice for the meltdown: first through the bank bailout, second through service cuts on the altar of the austere. Sooner or later, he says, the holders of sovereign debt will “take a haircut” but that day of reckoning could yet be years away. At the end of the day, he is telling us, the American economy has staying power that a lot of nervous Americans forget. This sounds like the Mark Blyth version of the line attributed to Bismarck, that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” Is not the empire at risk, I am asking…

MB: It depends on what you mean by “empire,” right? This is the funny thing about American Empire. As an immigrant to the United States, along with hundreds of millions who have done it over the past hundred years, it’s this funny empire that people keep wanting to join. It’s a really weird thing. The Italians are the best at this, they got six US military bases on their soil that fly unimpeded missions to Afghanistan and God knows where else, whatever the Americans want to do, and then they come over here, probably flying Business Class to get here, and then moan about the American Empire. It’s a strange creature, this one.

CL: Some of them come here to get out of range of American foreign policy.

MB: When the British had an empire you knew where you stood. You had no rights, you had only responsibilities. We owned the stuff and you got shat on. When the French had an empire it was even clearer. This is a very odd empire where you get preferential trading agreements, better access to markets, technology transfers, and then all the sort of benefits that go along with hanging around in the dollar club. Oh, and then we’ll also do this thing called NATO where basically we’ll bankroll your militaries for 35 years and we’ll keep it going 20 years after the Cold War because it’s just a good idea. If you had to design an empire from scratch and you could do whatever you want, this would not be it. This is a seriously funny empire.

One example of this. So let’s go into Iraq for oil, right? Okay… But if you went out in 2002 and went on the spot market, and basically bought oil future contracts at about $36 a barrel, you could have bought the entire Iraqi oil stock for one quarter of what we spent on the war. This is the stupidest empire the world has ever seen. If there really was an empire, it should have fallen years ago.

Next time, perhaps: Mark Blyth on the post-bubble blues, reflecting on the ruins of the equity and tech boom (1987-1997) and then real estate and housing (1997-2007): “There’s a whole conversation we could have sometime about whether the model for investment banking is bust. I personally think it is, and it’s not coming back. So saving the banks was maybe wrong for different reasons than people thought.”

Podcast • October 28, 2010

Noam Chomsky: the American Socrates on an Upbeat

Noam Chomsky, after all these years, retains the power to shock — in the bright title of his new collection, Hopes and Prospects, and with what sounds like good news in this conversation. It’s Professor ...
Chantal Berman photo

Chantal Berman photo

Noam Chomsky, after all these years, retains the power to shock — in the bright title of his new collection, Hopes and Prospects, and with what sounds like good news in this conversation.

It’s Professor Chomsky’s cheerful conviction, drawing on his own trials in the Vietnam War resistance, that anti-war understanding and feeling run much deeper and stronger today in a freer, more humane America. It’s because of that popular war opposition today — inarticulate and ill-led, perhaps, but nonetheless verifiable — that the US assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan have not incuded the saturation bombing and chemical warfare that were standard fare in Vietnam and Cambodia.

He is sure that the anti-incumbent rage reported in the Tea Party overlaps substantially with his own chronic dismay at elite manipulations and moral corruption in our politics. The larger part of the Tea Party, he says, is built on real grievances in longer hours, shorter pay, ever-rising job insecurity.

In short, there’s a vast pool of discontent out there to be organized by the Left, he says, if the United States had a functioning Left even as it did in the 1930s. As we say, “If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs — if we had eggs.”

Noam Chomsky does not pine idly, as I do, for the Anti-Imperialist League of a century ago — when Mark Twain, the biggest rock star in the land, declared: “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land;” and the impeccable William James, father of philosophical Pragmatism, fulminated Jeremiah-Wright-style: “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct” in the Philippines, as James put it in 1903. Nor is Chomsky compelled, as I often am, to reach back to the Transcendentalist purity of the great Thoreau, who withheld his taxes and went to jail during the war with Mexico and roared in protest, in the Tea Party spirit, “Why the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life!”

No, Professor Chomsky is inclined to believe there is more and stronger anti-imperialist sentiment today than in Concord, Massachusetts in 1846, when Thoreau spent his night in jail, or even in 1967, when thousands of young men decided to leave their country rather than be drafted, and Chomsky himself risked a long prison sentence for counselling them.

We live in the gravest of emergencies — nuclear and environmental. Our country is led by a president that Noam Chomsky never much celebrated. And still he observes that “general consciousness has changed” in his time, fundamentally for the better.

General consciousness has changed on all sorts of issues. There are lots of things that were considered perfectly legitimate in the early 1960s that are almost out of the question now.

Women’s rights, environmental concerns, gay rights, civil rights for blacks… a lot of things have changed in the country. It’s gotten a lot more civilized. And one part of that is anti-imperialism. Take a look at polls now. The majority for some time has been in favor of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Now that didn’t happen in the case of Vietnam till it was way beyond the level of any fighting now. So it’s important, it’s real. The Anti-Imperialist League was an important pocket of American intellectual history. It did not succeed in impeding the war effort [in the Philippines]… In the case of the Iraq War, it’s probably the first time in the history of imperialism, the only time I can think of, when there was massive popular opposition to the war. My students here, for example, insisted on calling off classes and joining a big demonstration in Boston, and it happened all over. This was before the war started, before the war officially began. There was massive protest, and that’s one of the reasons why, awful as it was, it was somewhat constrained, certainly as compared with Indo-China. Well, these are signs of anti-imperialism. You’re perfectly right that they’re not organized, but we shouldn’t romanticize Thoreau and Mark Twain. They were important. It’s good that they did what they did, but it was nothing like the scale that we take for granted now.

Professor Noam Chomsky with Chris Lydon in his MIT office, October 19, 2010

Noam Chomsky is the closest thing we have to Socrates in the American public square: a scathing questioner of virtually every common premise about who we Americans are and what we’re up to in the world. We’ve never heard him as mellow as this — ever wary of a hemlock ending, but good-humored about that, too.

Podcast • October 14, 2010

Jill Lepore: Tea Party Time… and the Death of Compassion

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jill Lepore (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3) There’s more religion than politics in the 2010 Tea Party, Jill Lepore is saying. There’s less of 1776 about it than ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jill Lepore (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

There’s more religion than politics in the 2010 Tea Party, Jill Lepore is saying. There’s less of 1776 about it than of 1976 — that dyspeptic post-Vietnam, post-Watergate bicentennial moment remembered for Gerald Ford and school busing fights in Boston elsewhere. 1976 marks a time when we discovered that the story of the American revolution is that “there is no story,” as the Common Ground journalist Anthony Lukas put it. “What there is is a political free-for-all about the story.”

“That’s where we are today,” Jill Lepore observes. “The whole question: ‘what would the founding fathers do?’ comes out of evangelical Chistianity, as in ‘what would Jesus do?’ … Glenn Beck talks about having had a conversion experience… The Tea Party movement presents the Constitution as a revealed religion.”

Jill Lepore is one of those historians who draws gladly on “the archives of the feet,” in Simon Schama’s phrase. For her sprightly New Yorker Magazine pieces and now for The Whites of Their Eyes, her hard-cover take on the Tea Party movement, she has been out among the tri-corner hat crowd at the Green Dragon Tavern facing Faneuil Hall. She was with Sarah Palin on Boston Common. She extends civic respect to the pitchfork patriots, but her judgment is unsparing: the tea partiers are misled by heritage tourism and pop biographies of the 18th Century revolutionists into supposing “I’m just like them,” or that “I’m in touch with them ’cause I’m wearing one of their hats.” Their founding favorites draw on celebrity culture, not history: there’s too little in their heads about the crucial anti-religious Thomas Paine of “The Age of Reason,” and too much Paul Revere (not much known for the Midnight Ride before Longfellow wrote the poem in 1861, a Union rallying myth during the Civil War). So what are they, and this moment, really about?

JL: These are people who want to have a dream. And what they have is a nightmare. Instead of looking at the now — which you were suggesting is an intolerable present; think about the moral complicity of our foreign interventions, the economic woes, these present day problems riven with strife; everything’s kind of a mess, it’s a very yucky present in many ways… What people want is a dream that is forward-looking, and what the Tea Party is is a dream about the past. I don’t think a historian can offer a different dream about the past. That’s not our job. It is the job of politicians to offer a dream about the future. Wasn’t that what Obama’s Dreams of My Father meant — it’s about the dreaminess of America. You’ve got to keep talking the dream.

CL: In the rise and fall, or rise-again kinds of trajectories that are always pretty clear a thousand years later, two thousand years later, whose job is it to tell anxious people what our direction might actually be?

JL: Well it’s clear that right now who’s doing it is Glenn Beck. And that is what’s so appealing for people who want that. It’s clear that Obama is not doing it. And people expected that he in fact would… This animating, forward-looking, reform-minded compassion that he was attempting to offer is not something that is coming out daily from the White House. I talked yesterday to a bunch of retired people, and one woman asked: ‘are we looking at the death of compassion?’ And I thought that’s a great question. That’s as good an interpretation of the current political moment as I can think of. It’s a very thoughtful remark.

Jill Lepore with Chris Lydon in her Harvard office, October 7, 2010

Podcast • September 16, 2010

Arianna Huffington: who will change the conversation?

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America ...

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America to ask her, as queen of the media transformation: why does our public chatter in a campaign year sound so idiotic? So full of mis- and dis-information, so full of untethered rage?

We got into it by way of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century’s great conservative English Parliamentarian who put the worst malefactors of the British Empire (the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Bushes of his time) on trial.

CL: You mention Burke… I didn’t realize we were on the same fan-page, but Edmund Burke is to me the missing voice in America today. He believed in empire, but in responsible empire — empire that cared as much for Indian people and Indian prosperity and Indian welfare as it cared for the English…

AH: America is in many ways acting like a declining empire. If you look at Afghanistan for example, only a declining empire with a perverse sense of priorities would be spending hundreds of billions of dollars conducting a war which is unwinnable, which is not in our national security interests … I quote Arnold Toynbee in the book, who said that empires more often die because they commit suicide rather than from murder. Imagine what would happen if that 2 billion dollars a week that we’re spending in Afghanistan were brought here to help rebuild the country and get jobs for people and rebuild our infrastructure. You mentioned Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. There’s no question that the fundamental mistake the Obama White House made was to appoint people whose view of the world was so Wall Street-centric to run economic policy. It was a little bit like having pre-Gallilean people, who believe that everything revolves around the earth, produce navigation maps. It wasn’t going to work, the ships were going to sink.

CL: I want to ask you the media question. Who are we going to believe to tell us this story? Who’s going to confirm in a kind of fundamental American narrative that we’re in the gravest risk of facing a kind of terminal imperial moment?

AH: Well, it’s not a Who. You see that is really what is different. That’s a very important question, because what is different is that we’re not waiting for some Walter Cronkite voice to tell us this is how it is. This is what is new and what is exciting: we all have to tell the story. We all have to tell the story of our time, and people are saying it online. So our job is to collect these thousands of stories and create a mosaic.

CL: I do want Walter Cronkite in a way to announce this. I still want the gods of my youth — Walter Lippmann, and James Reston, and page one of the New York Times — to confirm what we all know, but know in isolation. I’m still looking for a figure that’s vaguely authoritative, in touch with the historical narrative, with a base broader than one, who also can write commanding prose. I want someone not just to tell a story on a video screen, but to change the overall narrative. The overall narrative that people say is going to prevail in the elections this fall is that we’re taxed too much, that the government takes our money and throws it away, or that Obama’s a Muslim, or that some guy in the South wants to burn the Koran. We are awash in these basically idiotic narratives that are fundamentally out of touch.

AH: Chris, Chris, Chris, let me hold your hand. Get over it. There isn’t going to be a Walter Cronkite to tell us how it is.

CL: There is one, and his name is Glenn Beck —

AH: No, that’s the point. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement is responding to the incredible abuse of power by our establishments. Their response is potentially dangerous, but there is a lot of legitimate anger out there… If you scratch the surface of whatever the Tea Partiers are saying, underneath it is this incredible anger at the bailout. Right now, there are going to be two forces: the Tea Party response, which very often becomes anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, basically the scapegoating that we’ve seen throughout history. And then there can be a constructive response. Yes, the system is screwed up, we need to try and fix the system, while we’re fixing it we need to see what can we do in our own communities, in our own families, to turn things around. If we don’t do that, we are basically ceding the future to the forces of anger that are really creating these idiotic narratives to make sense of what has happened in their lives.

Arianna Huffington with Chris Lydon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, September 13, 2010