Left Is Right: Double-Thinking About Donald Trump.
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…”
–George Orwell, 1984
Official American politics, the spectrum that runs from “ultra-liberal” MSNBC to infrared Fox News, operates only on the right side of reality. From pro-capital, warmongering PBS and NPR to pro-capital, warmongering presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the official American Left is a con played by corporate elites on middle-class social liberals and at the expense of the American working class and poor. The con works by using doublethink.
One of the most politically astute concepts in George Orwell’s 1984, “doublethink” amounts to the self-deception of the true believer. It involves telling yourself a lie and then forgetting that it is a lie. It is easy to do. Liken it to those dreams of convenience we have on mornings when it is especially difficult to get out of bed. We dream that we are already up and in the shower or eating breakfast and, in order to complete the desired effect, we are wholly unaware that we are dreaming. Just such a dream of convenience is American liberalism with its insistence on identity politics and on the reality of democratic choice, all the while ignoring class conflict and the reality of the corporate control of our lives.
A recent reinforcement of this dream comes in the form of a New York Times op-ed piece by liberal pundit Bryce Covert, with the hard-working title “Make America Great Again for the People It Was Great for Already.” Covert is a blogger for The Nation, a once-respectable magazine that for years now has been an organ of the big-business, warmongering Democratic party. Her column, a fish-in-a-barrel attack on presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters, doth protest too much, revealing the avoidance of class issues at the heart of the Democratic party’s comfy, middle-class liberalism.
“If you ask [Trump’s] supporters,” says Covert, “they say life has gotten worse for people like them over the last 50 years. It seems safe to assume that, in the eyes of Mr. Trump’s overwhelmingly white male fans, America was greater a half-century ago. Indeed, it was pretty great—for them.”
The author goes on to recount the undeniably racist economic policies of the twentieth century, citing undeniably racist elements of the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act, both of which in their original forms excluded farm laborers and domestic servants, two occupations common among African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the South.
It is true that Trump’s supporters are primarily white and male. It is also true that real wages for working class white males were higher fifty years ago than they are now (and it is working class whites who make up the bulk of Trump’s supporters). What does not follow is that advances for women and people of color over the past fifty years are the cause of the economic decline of the white working class, though Covert’s argument invites such a conclusion. Indeed—and here comes one instance of liberal doublethink—the suggestion that economic prosperity is a zero-sum game in which one race or sex must succeed at the expense of another is a notoriously backward and right-wing idea.
Another implication of Covert’s liberalism is that the economic distress of white males—whether or not they support Trump—is irrelevant. This too is a reactionary position, and it is one that those who vote for Trump correctly resent. The liberal self-delusion of moral rectitude, identity politics, is thus exposed as a moral dead end.
To indulge oneself in the easy self-righteousness of identity politics, reading history and economics as primarily a struggle of race against race and sex against sex, involves an even greater and more harmful act of doublethink. I have no doubt that Covert believes that she is performing a critique of Trump and his supporters, laying bare the racism and reaction in Trump’s advertising slogan, “Make America great again.” On one level, we can fault Covert for mastering the obvious, as Trump does little to conceal his reactionary views. But racism and xenophobia, both mainstays of Trump’s campaign, must be called out, and Covert is not wrong to do so.
More importantly, though, Covert’s critique of Trump’s racism is itself race-based. Intentionally or not, she promotes the same divisive politics that power in the United States has employed to weaken the working class at least since black Americans were brought north to work as scabs and strikebreakers. Covert goes only so far as to condemn Trump’s followers for being white males—surprisingly she does not even detail the racism in Trump’s rhetoric, such as the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim nonsense he spews. By participating in the fake-leftist focus on identity politics, and abandoning questions of class, Covert does the work of the right. Not the reactionary, racist right of Trump’s working class followers, but the corporate elite, that fascistic death cult of capitalism to which Trump ultimately belongs.
That is, Covert does the work of the Democratic party. She feeds a dream of convenience to those middle class Americans who wish to think of themselves as “progressive” and enlightened. In its apparent anti-racism, identity politics soothes the sleeping leftist with an unassailable position. All the while, the real work of the real left, the work of freeing everyone from the grip of capitalism, goes undone.
The dream is breaking up, however. From the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who have embraced a candidate who has called himself a “socialist,” to Detroit schoolteachers and 40,000 striking Verizon workers, the issues of class—economic inequality, absence of opportunity, the power of solidarity—have asserted themselves in spite of the best efforts of the Democratic party and the media.
Covert and her middle class readers make a grave mistake by dismissing the reality of Trump’s supporters, their declining circumstances and their despair. They are not simply “white males.” They are an increasingly desperate class of people who are tempted to their own brand of identity politics and who are susceptible to the authoritarianism represented by a demagogue like Trump. According to a survey by the RAND Corporation, the number one identifier of a Trump supporter, ahead of race and sex, is the feeling of being without a political voice.
The problems of Trump supporters are real, and so are the problems they represent. To dismiss either set of problems is to take a right-wing position while dreaming all along that one is dutifully working for the left. It is to unwittingly invite the world where war is peace, slavery is freedom, and ignorance is strength.
Photo source: america.aljazeera.com