Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Poe's Law: The Republican Party Doesn't Have a Trump Problem. It Has a Post-Trump Problem

The most important political phenomenon of the early 21st century is the resurrection of the Western far right. This is not obvious to many commentators so far because they cannot see the forest for the trees, and because the professional commentariat is paid to look the other way anyways.  This is not the same thing as saying that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are fascists. Fascism was the core ideology the last time the Western far-right rose to prominence. This time it's something else, something we don't yet have a name for.

This inability to perceive actual problems is in itself a problem. American politics offers us the perfect example. Donald Trump is not going to become President next year. Maybe he will lose in the primaries. Maybe he will lose in the general election. But he will lose; the only question is, to whom. Senior Democrats have, I am quite sure, been praying for months now that Trump's star will continue to rise. Because even an excessively unimpressive candidate like Hilary Clinton will most definitely squash him like a bug.

No, Trump is not the problem. The real problem is hinted at by the fact that the so-called "establishment" types -- senior and moderate Republicans, journalists, and so on -- are increasingly prepared to support a demonstrable anti-government political extremist like Ted Cruz because he's a "safe" alternative to Trump.

But the real problem isn't Cruz, either: the real problem is what happens afterward. What happens after Trump goes down in flames, and then either Cruz gets beaten by the Democrats, or some other Republican candidate - maybe Cruz, maybe Rubio, maybe anybody, maybe even Trump himself - wins power and then "betrays" the "base" by behaving too much like a moderate.

Those of us who are in favour of science and of skeptical, critical thinking are quite fond of saying, smugly, that the authoritarian far right are a bunch of under-educated, ignorant fools. Now, certainly many of them are quite ignorant. And if we go by the polls, a disproportionate number of them are uneducated. Those two things more or less go hand in hand.

But one thing they are not, is stupid. Slow, perhaps, but not stupid. These are people who have been disappointed for decades now. They have a vision. It's inchoate, and inconsistent, and pretty much guaranteed never to come true. They sense that America isn't great, and they want it to be great. They sense that the economy is rigged against them, and they want to tip the scales back in their favour.  They sense that politicians lie to them, so they gravitate to politicians who seem so outspoken in their views, so willing to buck the boring consensus, that they seem "authentic" by comparison.

And they're not alone. There are people on the left, potential authoritarians, who exhibit the same manner of thinking. As I say, that shouldn't surprise us, because in the past two centuries there have been both dangerous far-right movements and dangerous far-left ones. It's just that right now the ones that are biggest and closest to seizing political power are far-right ones.

So let's say Trump loses the primaries to an establishment candidate who goes on either to lose the election, or to win but then (from these people's perspective) govern as a moderate. I don't mean an actual moderate. From the Tea Party's perspective, George Bush was a moderate and Ronald Reagan was a socialist.

This will merely persuade them that next time around they need to pick someone even more extreme, even more authentic.

And the more the rest of us tell them that they are wrong to do so, the more right, in their own minds, they really are.

So you have to wonder. Trumpism is what happened because "the establishment" drummed out people like Herman Cain and Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. 2012 is what happened because the liberal media took down Sarah Palin in 2008. McCain-Palin is what happened because George Bush promised to guide these cranks to the promised land and then betrayed them while in office.

Trump will be defeated but the political base that he spoke to won't vanish. It's worth wondering who will appeal to them next, and how extreme he will have to be in order to demonstrate his authenticity to them. It's a sort of real-life political iteration of Poe's Law.