After three debates and a hallucinatory succession of politically unsurvivable outrages, Donald Trump is still standing.
“Impossible” is a marker we blew past long ago. After a year of Trump’s gleefully insulting the economic intelligence of angry whites, spitting in the faces of people of color and women and Muslims, consorting with the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis, denying the continual catastrophe of climate change, pandering to the worst in foreign autocrats and domestic brown shirts, and magnifying at dizzying speed the reasons he cannot be trusted with house keys, let alone nuclear weapons, Trump has capped his wickedness with boasts (and 11 allegations so far) of sexual assault, “nasty woman” rasps at Hillary Clinton, and defiance of a popular vote before it even happens.
And yet, close to half of the electorate remains willing to vote him into the presidency. Pundits are aghast. Mainstream news outlets, for whom quote-without-question false equivalency has become a rote practice in reporting “both sides” of issues like politics and climate change, now dare to use the word “lie” to describe Trump’s fictional claims. Now, just days before the election, one can feel a rising mainstream hysteria on the airwaves, in print, and in overheard conversations: He will not die! How is this possible?
There is a very good reason, and it is one that corporate journalists and corporate-fed politicians continue to deny: America is broken, from the bone outward. And only Trump, an amoral opportunist, and Bernie Sanders, a progressive firebrand who the managers of corporate reason were unwilling to tolerate, have dared to mouth those words.
Let’s take the corporate journalists’ denial first. From The New York Times to CNN to NPR, until these final shell-shocked days the unspoken subtext of news stories has been, If we journalists simply put on display Trump’s daily outrageous claims, which are transparently untrue, citizens must surely see through them and reject them as antithetical to the truth and fairness of the American experiment. But this is a false assumption. Unlike prosperous national journalists who earnestly publish books and who vacation in inspiring places, the millions of white Americans who make up Trump’s base long ago gave up on any pretense of meritocracy in this country. They know that access to political office is bought with money. They know they are behind the eight ball on a slanted plane of play. They expect to be ceaselessly lied to. And they have learned well, at the punishing hands of global conglomerates and purchased politicians, that the only remaining game is a dirty one. Black and brown communities trapped in poverty, poor schools, and a pipeline to for-profit prisons? Too bad for them, and keep them away from us. Refugees fleeing the wreckage of a global post-neocolonial regime of cheap raw resources and wars of control? Wall them out. We have our own hell here. War-zone zealots whose remaining desperate sense of redemption is in wearing a bomb belt? Screw their reasons and don’t apologize for our methods. Bomb and torture them back to carbon. For uneducated white men – the core Trump electorate – the corporate media have been speaking Greek for decades.
Then there is the corporate political denial. As the longtime sole arbiter of what passes for progressivism in nationally “realistic” politics, the modern Democratic Party has – since the rise of Ronald Reagan and the Dems’ defensive descent into increasingly cruel corporatist platforms and policies (welfare reform, NAFTA, draconian sentencing laws, obscenely weakened oversight of banks, polluters, low-wage conglomerates and other public predators) – effectively erased the party’s credibility with suffering whites for whom the crumbs of white privilege have become starvation rations. Republicans have, since Nixon, peddled flavors of the “what’s good for rich people is good for white people” seduction. But today’s Democratic – and increasingly, Republican – Senator Silverhairs have become, to many whites amid the remaining shreds of a middle class, a bitter mockery of representation. Mainstream news correspondents may still dutifully repeat these professional politicians’ vacuous declarations as if they are newsworthy. But many ordinary working white Americans stopped listening years ago. It’s what Cornel West has accurately called the “niggerization” of American working people. We black folks and other people of color have borne it for centuries. Now, increasingly disenfranchised whites, feeling their own (decidedly race-softened but awful) version of the pain, are staging a political riot. (For a deeper understanding of how and why Trump profoundly appeals to white voters who are by far his moral superiors, go to The United States of Anxiety, a devastating podcast produced by The Nation and WNYC.)
That is why Trump can serially lie with impunity to his base about his disproven claims, boast about his evading taxes, contradict his nationalist rhetoric with his anti-American-worker hiring practices, and brag about sexually assaulting women – and still claim roars of approval from the very voters he betrays. This is neither nonsensical nor insane. It is a brutal, wicked consequence of corporate media and mainstream politics having abandoned the clear populist imperatives of our era. The error of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their humanistic side of the corporate establishment is that for the past eight years they have left the defiantly progressive field wide open for any takers. They left it vacant, in fact, until Sanders proved it had clout. (Have you wondered, as I have, what the campaign would now look like if it were Democratic Socialist Bernie bellowing back at fake-rebel Trump in the three presidential debates?) Trump, the consummate opportunist, has filled the white blue-collar populist void with his brutal audacity and dishonesty. It doesn’t take much to swim upstream when the flow is so feeble.
So Hillary Clinton – who embraced energetic progressive rhetoric only after Sanders proved it might win – is now our last barrier between a bad political landscape with footholds for progress and an abyss plunging into unknown depths of depravity, repression, and potential nuclear and ecological ruin. She was far from my first choice. But I am one of many who will vote for her with fierce resolve.
For those who have failed to call out betrayal of progressivism over its decades-long cooptation by corporate expediency, the old adage still applies: you break it, you buy it. That shattered mess on the floor is what is left of the myth of white meritocracy preached since World War Two. White people left behind by the corporate version of white privilege need somewhere else to go. Trump is a temporary refuge. He may or may not lose the election. But either way, the tide of betrayed collective white ego he has loosed is not retreating. That dam is busted, and the flood plain will extend far beyond Election Day.
We can blame Trump, an amateur fascist, for cashing in on this with his come-on to a beached white electorate. Or we can ask, What happens when the enraged hungers of disenfranchised white people start to merge with the centuries-old hungers of black and brown ex-slaves and the desperation of those who now flee global poverty and slaughter?