Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
All done? Good.
The part I loved most was this:
“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”
This is a highly significant point. On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.
But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.
Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express. It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.
There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016. All the major groups have their version of it. The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:
“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization. Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”
That seems pretty reasonable. But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:
“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted. This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”
This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.
The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well. It can be summarized as follows:
“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”
All of these explanations are fairly similar. In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.
Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.
But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis. If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbartor some other site. You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.
In other words, you want to know what really happened.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is based off an old essay I wrote years ago, and didn’t publish. I revised and updated it for the present.]
I think I have a better understanding of the so-called “alt-right”–which I refer to as “nationalists”–than most people do. I blame H.P. Lovecraft.
I had just read his horror novella At the Mountains of Madness, and learned that certain ideas in it had been suggested to him by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. I decided I wanted to find out more about Spengler, so I read it.
I should note that at this point in my life I was your typical college “liberaltarian”. I thought that all those people on the right on who hated gays and feminists and liberals in general were just ignorant, uneducated hillbillies; probably waving Confederate flags.
I have not changed my views on the issues that much since then, but I have changed my perception of my opponents. And reading Spengler was the cause.
Spengler was an immensely intelligent man, and his education was tremendous. I constantly had to look things up to be able to attempt to understand him–not just words, you see, but concepts, incidents in history, philosophies, even civilizations. Spengler was many things, but “ignorant” was not one of them.
And yet… throughout his work ran a strangely familiar undertone. The hostility to the cosmopolitan liberal, and the admiration of the people bound to the blood and soil. The intellectual and cultural gap between Oswald Spengler and the average Trump supporter is inconceivably vast; yet the sentiments that motivate them are shockingly similar.
This, I don’t mind saying, was troubling. For if an intelligent person, steeped in knowledge of not only his own culture and civilization, but of others, could hold these same views, it meant that one of my core assumptions was wrong. It was not ignorance which made the conservatives think as they do, but something else–something much deeper.
Spengler had done the work of a philosopher, which was to follow and articulate coherently those impulses and thoughts which motivated him. He explained, logically and thoroughly, a worldview which I could never share, but which I could now, at least, understand.
After that, I began to see many so-called “conservatives” in a different light. I sought to understand as much of their underlying motivation as I could–the unseen, visceral instinct that made some people, regardless of education or background, into what we today call the alt-right, but which might be better described as “nationalists”.
It is not easy thing to describe, and indeed I read many upsetting ideas, which I considered immoral and wrong. But ultimately, I became convinced of one thing: that this is something felt very deeply in people’s hearts, not in their minds.
This was an oddly–dare I say it–liberating moment for me. I realized that I was a liberal, and they were conservatives, and that was that.
A good deal of what is called the “alt-right” movement is nothing more than some very old philosophies, recycled for our times. The spirit of nationalism which Spengler described is not as dead as liberals believed.
I started this post with Lovecraft; so I wil give him the last word. From his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”
So, if 64,679 Democrats had been in Pennsylvania instead of California, she would have still won California handily, and also carried Pennsylvania.
That would get her to 248 electoral votes–still not enough to win. Can we take this any further?
Yes, we can. Clinton lost Michigan by 13,225 votes. So lets take 13,226 more Democrats out of California and move them into Michigan. Clinton is now winning California 5,782,810 to 3,151,821, and she’s winning Michigan and Pennsylvania as well. And she’s got 264 electoral votes. Still six shy of the number needed. Can we scrounge up those votes somewhere?
In theory, this could actually help the Democrats, since the number of electoral votes is based on the number of congressional districts, which is in turn based on population. But clearly, the size of California’s voter population is disproportionately large relative to their number of electoral votes. Moreover, the districts are only redrawn every ten years, so population changes that take place within that interval are not reflected.
The Democrats’ problem is that huge numbers of their voters are concentrated in a few states, where the marginal impact of a vote is low. If they were more spread out, they would likely have better results.
But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.
Instead, it was vindicated.
I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:
I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:
The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.
The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.
What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…
…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.
The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.
Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:
The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign. The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.
But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning. Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.
The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.
And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.
That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.
If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win. And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.
Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.
I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat. At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.
The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)
Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong. Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments. Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.
I’ll have much more later. This is going to require a lot of work.
In the Breitbart worldview, the mainstream media is just as agenda-driven and prone to bias and falsehoods as right-wing media — it’s just that the mainstream media doesn’t acknowledge it.
“This is a group of people serving the same agenda,” [Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alex] Marlow said.
Trump echoed those remarks in Thursday’s speech: “The establishment and their media enablers wield control over this nation through means that are very well known,” he said.
That agenda, Bannon and Breitbart’s fiercest partisans believe, is the advancement of open borders, free trade and progressive poliicies at the expense of American sovereignty. “Liberal vs. Conservative” no longer adequately describes the partisan divisions at play in American politics today, Marlow said. The real battle is between populists and globalists.
As my readers know, I have been sayingpractically the samething for years now. I use the word “cosmopolitan” instead of “globalist” and “nationalist” instead of “populist”, but it amounts to the same thing. Marlow even uses the word nationalist later in the same article, saying:
“It’s less about the left-right dichotomy, and more along the lines of globalists and elitists versus populists and nationalists.”
I could see myself saying that, to be honest.
So, does that mean I think that the Breitbart/Trump crowd has the right idea? No; not at all.
The saying “even a broken clock is right twice a day” is apt here. The Trump supporters (the so-called “alt-right”) have stumbled on to a fact about American politics that most political scientists, analysts and commentators overlooked. In fact, they might even be the cause of the phenomenon, since all of them take the nationalist side.
However, despite the fact that they are aware of this dichotomy, very few of them seem to understand any of the historical, political or economic reasons for it. They simply happened to notice this state of political affairs, and rather than try to understand it, they simply chalk it all up to a sinister conspiracy. This makes for a good story, but it’s not how the world works.
Globalism is popular because it works very well with ideas espoused by both the Democrats and the Republicans. It fulfills goals of diversity and multiculturalism that the Democrats historically support, and free trade, which the Republicans historically support.
The nationalists often disparage the “global elite” but it is not necessarily a bad thing that successful, well-educated people from different nations tend to find common cause and work together. This increases the probability that disputes between nations can be solved through negotiation or trade deals, rather than through wars.
This brings me to one of the reasons that nationalism is so unpopular nowadays, which is that it is considered responsible for two World Wars. As a consequence, it fell out of favor as a governing philosophy.
I’m not saying that massive wars are the inevitable result of nationalism, or that wanting to protect national sovereignty is inherently bad. I’m just saying that nationalists need to explain why it won’t cause any giant wars, since that has happened before.
There is no doubt that there are drawbacks to globalization. It is possible that its adherents have not considered these, or that they have overreached in the pursuit of globalization, or that globalism is not the best governing philosophy for the current moment in history. All these are topics worth discussing.
The problem is, almost no one on the nationalist side is interested in discussing things. They have simply decided that globalism is an evil conspiracy invented by bad people. They do not have, and do not appear to want, any context or understanding of its origins or the reasons it exists.
Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism. His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic. He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.
Dr. King’s philosophy is, among other things, a good example of what I mean when I discuss “cosmopolitan” philosophies. He preached pacifism, and that’s a major reason he’s remembered, but what’s really remarkable is why he believed as he did: he knew that violence would only serve to drive everyone further apart, and so his dream could never be realized that way; it could only lead to more division.
It is especially interesting to compare his message of peace and union among all people with Malcolm X’s nationalist message of separation. It is a good example of the difference between the two worldviews to consider two contemporaries, both trying to solve the problem of the unfair treatment of black people in the United States, and both coming up with such radically different ideas.
Malcolm X did seek to unite people to an extent: he made efforts to unite people of African descent, but, for most of his life at least, he saw no reason to extend these efforts at unification to whites. (It is often the way with nationalists: Otto von Bismarck united many various different Germanic states into a single German State, but would never have considered uniting them with, say, France.)
Not so with Dr. King. He believed in the need for uniting all groups; his was a very universalist vision. Part of what makes him such a remarkable man is that he not only had the courage to take on one of the major problems of the time, but he also attempted to do so in a way that would prevent it from recurring—that is, without sowing the seeds of a new conflict between people of different races. He knew that was the only way of establishing a liberal, diverse society.
President Obama has presided over a heyday for the gun industry despite predictions by the powerful U.S. gun lobby four years ago that he would be the “most anti-gun president in American history.” Gun buyers fear that Mr. Obama wants to restrict their purchases, especially if he were re-elected.
Now, I can remember back in early 2009, there was big increase in prices for weapons and ammunition, due to that same “fear that Mr. Obama wants to restrict their purchases”. The fact that nothing of the sort happened does not deter them from worrying about it again. The CBS news article quotes the head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, as saying “This is the most dangerous election in our lifetimes.” (It always is, somehow.)
It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here–the NRA is creating a panic to drive sales. It’s not even really a political move; it’s just a business decision–a marketing gimmick. “Let’s tell everyone they need to buy our product now, before things change.”
Considering that Obama has made no attempt to push for any firearm legislation, this looks absurd. Consider further that even if he did, it would almost surely fail in Congress, an that will be the case after the election as well. And finally, consider that the Supreme Court would probably strike it down given the Court’s last interpretation of the Second Amendment.
So, taking all that in mind, why does this fairly obvious marketing campaign work so well?
I’ve said in the past that the the two worldviews I see as motivating much of the political disagreement in this country are nationalism and cosmopolitanism. And I have also noted that nationalism tends to be the prevailing philosophy among rural populations, and that cosmopolitanism prevails among city dwellers.
When you factor that guns are owned by many in the country, but by few in the cities, you can start to see what I’m getting at: the fight is not really about guns. Rather, it is just another in a series of proxy battles fought between the two philosophies. Gun ownership is part of the rural culture, and not of the urban culture.
President Obama himself pointed this out with his famous “they cling to guns or religion” comment. (Almost no one on either side actually disagrees with the substance of this comment; only the tone.) The political fight is not truly about the meaning of the Second Amendment–that is merely a pretext on which a culture war may be fought. The real issue is a cultural one, not a legal one.
It is the same old story, over and over and over. In this instance, the weapons manufacturers and sellers are taking a page from the political strategists’ book and playing on the rural people’s fears of cosmopolitan politicians.
As I think I’ve mentioned before on here, I don’t have cable TV. I just get the major networks, PBS, a few local channels and a bunch of Christian channels. The last are mostly devoted to people on elaborate stages giving speeches and asking for money. However, the other day on one of these channels, I saw a different sort of program.
I don’t know the name of the show or the channel, otherwise I’d tell you. All I know is that it was some older fellow standing in the middle of the desert on the outskirts of Jerusalem, reading from a bunch of papers he was holding and trying to keep from blowing away. The production values were, to say the least, horrifying. If any of you readers can guess what show this may be, feel free to tell me.
What the guy had to say, however, was somewhat… interesting. He was talking about how many intellectuals, especially in the atomic age, desired a “one world government”. He dated this impulse back all the way to Nebuchadnezzar II, and said that they [the intellectuals] did not believe you could have many strong countries, you could only have one government. (I’m paraphrasing.) I got the impression he was getting towards the point that these intellectuals were wrong, and one world government was a very bad idea, and that the Bible had predicted all of this. He was taking his time about it though, and I had work in the morning, so I didn’t get to hear how it all ended up.
(The politics on these religious shows are always interesting. One day, while channel surfing I saw a show claiming that people were now placing their faith in government instead of God. What we need, according to the Bible, so they said, was less government. Smaller government. In fact, watching some of these shows, you get the impression that they feel the Republican Party platform is the word of the Almighty.)
“One World Government” is a phrase conspiracy theorists throw around a lot to mean all sorts of wild things. But I think it is true that many people would like to see more international cooperation and conflict resolution by some means other than wars between nations. I think this train of thought really started because of World War I, which showed a lot of the problems that can arise with multiple competing nations.
In Europe, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you had lots of strong, independent nations–strong empires, even–such as Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and so on. The peace among these nations, such as it was, was kept by treaties the countries made with each other. Unfortunately, this system of treaties proved to be unstable in the face of rebellious nationalist agitators and military build-ups between competing nations, and thus, through a complicated series of events, the treaties dictated that a massive war broke out.
In the aftermath, people looked around and said, quite logically, “how can we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?” That very intellectual President, Woodrow Wilson, even proposed the League of Nations, though ironically the U.S. did not join it. Of course, the League failed to prevent ultra-nationalist sentiment in Germany from igniting another, even more terrible war.
The League was replaced with the United Nations after World War II. And ever since, nationalist sentiment has opposed the U.N., fearing that it will destroy all of the country’s traditions and create a one world government. As some readers know, I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, even though I do not believe in any of them. And, as I said, there are a lot of conspiracy theories about the “one world government”, and I think the root reason for all of them is the nationalist elements’ fear of being governed by cosmopolitan intellectuals.
Having said all that, I think really all most people actually want is some international way of resolving conflicts without having to go to war. People, both nowadays and especially in the immediate aftermath of the World Wars, just don’t want to see a repeat of that. Seems hard to blame them, really.
Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite writers. He is generally called a “liberal”, though in my opinion that word does not give a very good idea of either his views or his style. “Jacobin” is perhaps the best word, though it is a pejorative which suggests he means some sort of violent revolution. I don’t think he does, but his writing is very angry and his ideas very radical for the modern Democratic party.
If you haven’t heard much about how takeover deals like Dunkin’ and KB Toys work, that’s because Mitt Romney and his private equity brethren don’t want you to. The new owners of American industry are the polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country, commercial titans who longed to leave visible legacies of their accomplishments…
The men of the private equity generation want no such thing. “We try to hide religiously,” explained Steven Feinberg, the CEO of a takeover firm called Cerberus Capital Management that recently drove one of its targets into bankruptcy after saddling it with $2.3 billion in debt.
Taibbi is wrong. The reason you don’t hear about how Bain Capital works is that it’s too complicated and too boring for the average voter to pay attention to–especially given that when Romney worked there, he was just some rich guy that no one had reason to pay attention to. Maybe they should have, but they didn’t. Romney didn’t need to go to a lot of effort to keep his activities secret.
But then, towards the end, Taibbi says something very interesting. I don’t want to post it all here, but the part beginning “Listen to Mitt Romney speak, and see if you can notice what’s missing…” is where it starts. Taibbi notes that Romney and Obama both have what he calls a “post-regional attitude”. If Obama represents the cosmopolitan worldview, then Romney represents international finance… and neither of these views are well-liked by the nationalists, as I have writtenaboutmanytimes. This, in other words, is the key to why Romney struggles among social conservatives.