Friday, 24 April 2020

Jonestown, USA: The Death Cult of Donald Trump

"I could stand on the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."
So Donald Trump lauded his supporters for their blind loyalty ahead of the 2016 Presidential election. His comments typically divided opinion - his detractors saying he was fomenting violence, his supporters claiming it was a joke.

Both rather missed his point: his voters, his "base", were and remain so loyal that any normal contract of mutuality between a political leader and their supporters has been pretty much suspended in these days of populist farce with the coronavirus crisis somehow the surreal icing on the most amazingly beautiful cake. Ever.

As Trump's already crowded tableau of the grotesque has expanded exponentially, many have asked how such a character has come to lead what remains in destructive terms at any rate the most powerful nation on the planet. He has comprehensively failed to deliver any of his promises to his disenchanted base, instead delivering tax cuts to the rich like himself, and plundering the White House budgets and sinecures with an unparalleled nepotistic largesse. His behaviour ranges from the bullying to the bizarre and back again, his own loyalty to his staffers as thin as his thin skinned ego.

And yet still he remains a not unlikely victor in the November elections, assuming he allows them to take place (not as frivolous a conjecture as a few short weeks ago). While many Americans are clearly terrified and embarrassed by him, just as many love him and hang on his every word, rebutting his many lies as either the Deep State forcing him to do its evil bidding or alternatively denouncing the reportage of his comments as biased "fake news", even when the man is broadcast mouthing his verbiage.

We may have thought he had reached his nadir last week when amidst his latest of many ramblings on the covid pandemic, he encouraged armed groups to go onto the streets to "liberate" themselves in States that were following the lvirus lockdown rules set his own Federal government. With the President effectively calling for an act of treason by his followers, it has to remain an open question as to what these same groups of nascent fascist militia will do with their heavily armed arsenals if Trump does lose the election, the so-called "boogaloo" insurrection fostered enthusiastically on social media by the US far right. But, incredibly, there was worse yet to come.

Recently, the medically ignorant President waxed on TV about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that a rogue French doctor briefly claimed could help cure Covid-19 based on a very limited trial. Later research has in fact indicated that it actually leads to a higher than average death rate among covid patients treated with it. But this was too late for one elderly Arizona couple who were scared of contracting the virus. They watched the President speaking on the alleged "game-changing" virtues of chloroquine and took it in the form of a treatment for fish parasites that contained the drug. The man died and his wife was hospitalised. 

At least chloroquine is a drug, approved for treating some conditions even if Covid-19 virus is not among them. But yesterday, in what must surely become a moment of infamy for the USA, Trump mused in yet another eclectically self-centred press conference on the merits of intravenous administration of disinfectant and ultraviolet light into human bodies to kill coronavirus. Dismissing the objections of a reporter as fake news, he "consulted" with a rather awkward looking, but criminally silent, White House doctor on whether she had heard of such treatments and suggested she was going to experiment on them.

 "I am not a doctor," he candidly admitted. "I am a person who has a good... you know what..." - he gestured to his head.

The reaction across the world has range from humorous disbelief to frustrated anger but Trump's supporters have rallied to him, predictably denouncing the scientists and reporters who highlighted his shocking statements as misrepresenting him or not sharing his genius-level insight, or both. Some claim he was referring to ozone therapy, an as yet unproven treatment touted by some as a potential response to the virus.  Much more likely, he was thinking of the intensive lobbying by Mark Grenon, who has been marketing a form of industrial bleach, chlorine dioxide, as a cure for cancer, autism and, now, surprise, surprise, coronavirus. Like Trump's monologue suggested, Grenon, who manufactures chlorine dioxide and sells it to be taken orally in water, apparently believes that if disinfectant kills something outside the human body, it can be taken internally as well.

Consequently, in the hours following his diatribe, government officials and cleaning manufacturers have had to scurry anxiously to the airwaves to warn people not to drink or inhale bleach or other disinfectants given the potentially fatal consequences. And yet, the very pleadings of these "experts" may well be like a red rag to some raging Trumpites to believe in their President's self-proclaimed genius and damn the advice. There must be a high chance indeed that some, out of faith or confusion or both, will be mixing dettol with their beer right now with possibly fatal consequences.

Liberals may sneer at the seemingly moronic nature of Trump's base. Social media is awash with jokes about Darwinism and faked pictures of rednecks demanding their right to die. But snake oil peddler Trump is very much a product of the society liberals created, a reaction to the bloodless pseudo-meritocracy of the Clintons, Obamas and Bidens of this world. They it was who presided over the destruction of swathes of US industry and the communities associated with it through their imposition of the free trade NAFTA framework over the 25 years up to Trump's election. As industry after industry folded, lives were ruined as liberals proclaimed a place called Hope, a comfortable Nirvana for some, but for many a distant, unreachable mirage.

It is not lack of intelligence nor some form of inherent misanthropy that drives most Trump supporters to lionise and pump up the ego of this narcissist. It is the desperation of decay, of the decline and fall of the American Dream and its transformation for many into a Nightmare of impoverishment. It is the hope of a quick and simple solution that will bring instant results - as with most forms of populism, there is no patience or planning, just a visceral desire. Trump may peddle lies, but so did Democrat after Democrat, from Clinton to Obama, and Trump's falsehoods are at least ones that chime with their sense of loss and anger. That his claims are incredulous matter little - for in this context incredulity is synonymous with hope.

It is not an isolated phenomenon in a state of social collapse, which is effectively what the USA has been in for two decades or more. History has repeatedly shown how tenuous any society is and how quickly the veneer that marks civilisation can fall away.

In the fifth century, as the Roman Empire collapsed, the astonishing logic of philosophers accurately calculated the distance of the Moon from the Earth to within a few thousand miles. Yet this triumph of rational enquiry fell away in barely two generations to a dislocated world filled with levitating saints and talking serpents. This destruction of reason in favour of the fantastic was driven by the religious dogma of Church and Emperors who closed down the classical schools of philosophy and science on the grounds that it was heretical to seek to understand or explain the God-given world. Rather it was simply to be accepted.

This has distinctly uncomfortable echoes over fifteen centuries later in the growing power of evangelical Christians within American government , which has fervently dismissed science as worthless or even malign in the covid crisis. Pastors and preachers excuse Trump's self-evident abundance of sins on the grounds that he has been sent from God Himself and publicly bless the Orange Prophet. And while Trump's definition of monotheism is almost certainly intimately concerned with placing an idol named Donald at its centre, he obviously does nothing to deter the fawning adulation of the evangelical priesthood.

Heaven sent, allegedly.
So unsurprisingly, wrapped up in a combination of existential despair and millenarian fantasy, like so many religious zealots throughout history, Trump's base in no small numbers would seemingly contemplate giving their own lives for the President. When some of his elected supporters suggested older Americans would be willing to die to save the economy from the impact of the covid lockdowns, they found an abundance of apparently willing victims. And similarly, when Trump ruminated on opening the churches for Easter in spite of the virus, plenty of pastors were happily jangling their temple keys.

Yet while his opponents detest him with a vengeance, there is a little festering Trump curled up inside every centrist: Hillary Clinton's disparaging characterisation of his supporters as "a basket of deplorables" in 2016 wasn't a one-off accidental comment. It simply illustrated how contemptuously removed from ordinary Americans the US elite has become with the same remote Political Class that plagues the pseudo-democracies in much of the rich world. They may sarcastically dismiss the demands of protesters for an end to the lockdown, but seem relatively impervious to the fact that without their next pay cheque, many of them are financially ruined in a nation with little welfare support. Work or starve: it is even today an all too familiar choice for the US poor.

And so while they will emphatically deny it, for liberals, Trump is a necessary evil, distasteful but hypocritically serving the purpose of focussing discontent on ethnic minorities, Muslims and migrants. However shrill, however embarrassingly stupid he may be to them, he keeps the line of sight well away from the real thieves of hope and helps them neutralise any true insurgency, such as Bernie Sanders' now kettled socialist movement.

Trump may or may not win at the polls this autumn, but either way, post-pandemic, the social dislocation will accentuate rapidly and new movements and leaders will emerge. A younger generation is rising which will inevitably have to face the increasingly sharp choice to be made: co-operation or conflict, Utopia or Bartertown.

But for now, the USA is hostage to a cult, one led by a man whose phraseology and thinking have become increasingly infantilised. He has no plan beyond the next cowardly boast, the next demand for praise, the next incredible, simple solution to our complex world, revealed to it by He Himself. In this insatiable quest for his personal aggrandisement, he may not shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue, but like a latter day Jim Jones with the USA as his very own Jonestown, he will happily take sacrifices in honour of the divinity he deep down believes himself to be.

The only difference, of course, is that at least Jim Jones took the poison himself.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Bernie Sanders and the Revolution to Come

Passing the Progressive Torch: Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders

And so democratic socialist standard-bearer Senator Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for US President.

With around half the primaries contested, he trailed former Vice-President Joe Biden by over 300 delegates and with surveys giving Biden a roughly 2:1 advantage in forthcoming contests, Sanders could not see a realistic way to win. Coupled with the hobbling of his campaign, which had thrived on mass rallies and town hall events, by the coronavirus crisis, the institutional barriers thrown up by the Democratic Party establishment in the form of the Democrat National Committee have yet again stopped any progressive traction within the party.

There is some evidence of ballot tampering - notably, on Super Tuesday, when Biden's campaign decisively pulled ahead after a dreadful start, data indicated something amiss in states where Sanders won the exit polls but lost the actual vote, but with extraordinary differences well beyond the normal margin of error. And from the outset the mess in Iowa stymied Sanders' momentum, although it did get moving afterwards for a short period until the sudden turnaround in favour of the previously badly flailing Biden in South Carolina. The withdrawal of all the centrist candidates in favour of the clearly ailing former VP, coupled with Elizabeth Warren's refusal to back Sanders when she withdrew, effectively handed the nomination to Biden and his vague, liberal platform.

And so, just as Corbyn was crucified by a range of tactical manoeuvring by his centrist opponents and their corporate media paymasters in the UK, so in the USA once again the Establishment has spiked and neutralised a major challenge. They may be popping the champagne in the DNC tonight, but in truth the path ahead for them is infinitely harder than the typically pompously naive centrists can imagine.

Joe Biden - confused
For Joe Biden has to be arguably one of the worst, if not the worst, candidates the Democrats have ever nominated. Aside from his self-evident health issues, which appear to be some form of dementia or Alzheimers, his provenance is poisonous.

While faced with the mercurial Trump some may still fondly remember the Obama years, when Biden served as the President's loyal deputy, many aspects of his career raise serious questions - his civil rights record, contrary to his propaganda, is poor going back decades, as has been his approval of wars and welfare cuts. A rape allegation from a Democrat activist and former staffer of Biden has gone uninvestigated alongside a myriad of other issues about his invasion of women's personal space and unwelcome touching. And while Democrats may have invoked legal process to try to impeach Trump as ineffectually as Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the incumbent President was in fact worrying a very real sore when he tried to induce the Ukrainians to investigate Biden's son Hunter over his lucrative involvement in the energy sector in their country.

Senior Democrats seem to acknowledge this and blatantly, having rid themselves of Sanders' challenge, rumour is rife that Biden will, in fact, not become their final candidate for President. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose profile has been substantially boosted by his very visible leadership of the state's response to the Covid-19 epidemic, or even former 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton, are both touted as possible replacements, in spite of neither having won a single delegate to the Democrat Convention. Taking the democracy, such as it is, finally and irrevocably out of the Democratic Party.

So what now for the progressive and socialist movement? Sanders' relentless advocacy for fully-funded public health has been completely and dreadfully validated as tens of thousands of US lives succumb to coronavirus, with poorer and ethnic minority communities disproportionately affected. His huge movement, which has effectively mobilised tens of thousands of younger people and others towards a socialist or at least social democratic platform, remains intact and vibrant, hungering for change and social justice. And with the pandemic set to utterly transform politics around the globe, the USA will be no exception.

All the inequality, the underinvestment in crisis preparation and lack of effective public health facilities and staff, as well as the low level of welfare in the USA, has never been more poignantly and powerfully evident than now. While President Trump has enjoyed, inevitably, a miniature boost in the polls as he heads up the government response to the national crisis, his veering backwards and forwards around how to respond to a threat he ignored for weeks, then played down for weeks and for which even now he declares all manner of wild and unproven solutions that never turn out leave him vulnerable to attack.

Just as Cameron and Osborne's prominent involvement in the Remain campaign handed the UK Euro-referendum to the Brexiteers, so the DNC's eagerness to put up Biden or Clinton or even Cuomo against Trump plays directly into his hands in the November poll. It is unsurprising that a leaked recording showed that he feared Sanders above all other potential Democrats - for Sanders' stance on issues like opposing free trade deals like the job-thieving NAFTA, or on tackling the influence of political lobbying in "the swamp" posed a direct threat to Trump's tried and tested card, even as the incumbent, of being in Washington but not of it. While centrists fantastically claim that Biden can reach out to supposed "moderate" Republicans who nevertheless backed Trump in 2016, in truth, it is Sanders' agenda of radical change that is far more likely to cut into the President's base of the alienated and oppressed working class and turn their anger into something more positive.

By contrast, Biden or Clinton could not appeal to such voters in a century of trying - it is precisely because of them and their betrayal of the decades' old New Deal Coalition that Trump and other populists have been able to rise and harness voters' disillusion into racism and xenophobia rather than challenging the gross wealth of the tiny elite.

With a clearly misplaced loyalty, Sanders has already lauded Biden in a show of unity, while stating he will stay on the remaining primary ballots, though inactively, in order to influence the final party policy platform in the autumn. But that is almost certainly a forlorn hope. Biden and his ringmasters have made clear that they will stick with the same unimaginative, business-as-usual Democrat agenda that left Trump catapulted into the Oval Office four years ago.

Sanders' socialist torch will now pass on, skipping a generation from him to much younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and their colleagues in the Progressive Caucus within Congress and others outside the legislature. The Green New Deal, central to Sanders' movement, will continue to inspire and attract millions of younger voters as the climate crisis eclipses by far the current virus pandemic, but it will also increasingly raise the question of how long, and why, they should persist with the institutionally totalitarian, pro-corporate, corrupt Democratic Party - or go their own way. With socialism as popular as capitalism among young US adults even before the current crisis, new routes to change will inevitably be mapped out and taken. If ever there was a time for a third party/ independent run by a credible progressive candidate, it is now.

Third parties are effectively barred from competing in the USA, a fact missed by much of a world  still dazzled by the propaganda that it is supposedly the "land of the free". While not formally banned, they frequently have to find much higher, often prohibitive thresholds of sometimes tens of thousands of electors to nominate their candidates while Democrats and Republicans enjoy automatic ballot access and even then remain excluded from the public funds handed over to the two main parties. With the media stitched up to advocate the status quo, like much of the rest of the world, voters are powerfully corralled into voting for the "right" candidates, who, contrary to myth, are distinctly not the best of the USA.

Yet the Republicans themselves once replaced the Whigs almost overnight, and strong third candidate Presidential runs have occurred as recently as 1992 when Ross Perot polled nearly one in five votes running as an independent on an anti-free trade platform. With Biden or any replacement distinctly flaky and Trump vulnerable over the Covid-19 crisis and the economic one to follow, could there be a better time? Wouldn't a Sanders-Cortez ticket, perhaps in conjunction with existing radical third parties such as the Greens, have a uniquely powerful chance of delivering the revolution he and his supporters have worked so hard to prepare for?

It sadly remains an unlikely outcome, but in a world of social lockdown, viral pandemic and economic dislocation, this may be the best and possibly last chance to effect real change to the USA, and the rest of the world, before the gathering storms of global warming, resource depletion and societal collapse hit our fragile Earth.

And while an independent candidacy is remote, the challenge will endure - the ideas and the movement Bernie Sanders shaped, harnessed and energised will go on. As the crises facing the planet and our species become clearer, its cry will become sharper, and as the vested interests threatening our survival are ultimately forced break cover, its demands will become ever more radical.
 "Not me. Us."