The dawn of November 9th no doubt arrived as a shock to many, where the worst nightmares of countless adherents of the dominant zeitgeist materialized in the appearance of Donald J Trump, as President-elect of the United States. Contrary to all estimates, in defiance of all norms of civility hitherto held valid and vigorously enforced, the unimaginable had occurred and many were left without the means to account for the factors that had ultimately led to the man’s symbolically powerful election.
It can be said that the build-up of cultural and political forces that seemingly reached a summit in 2016, had led us to the point at which cosmopolitan multicultural neoliberalism had at last taken an inviolable hold over the Western mind and body politic. From the mainstreaming and establishment adoption of identity politics terms of reference, to the enforcement of political correctness in universities, and the media collusion in all these various currents of thinking- it appeared as if the magnificent edifice of modern liberalism was beyond reproach, that is, until the cracks started to show up, and show up they did. We shall reflect on certain aspects of these developments.
The mainstream media’s cycle of propaganda
Trump’s election can only really be understood in the dramatic aftermath of Brexit, and in terms of the chronology of proceedings, both events followed virtually the same pattern.
In both events, seismic shifts had occurred where a seemingly inexorable trajectory in a continuation of the status quo had been predicted. In Britain’s case we had the anticipation that the monolith of the European Union was an inescapable geopolitical destiny for the isles, that no matter its many faults from the handling of the refugee crisis, the democratic deficit of the European Commission, or its provocation of Russia to its desire for unity at the expense of national sovereignty- it was simply unthinkable that an alternative could be pursued.
In the US a similar predicament was in place, with the exception that there were indeed a greater number of alternative venues of action that nevertheless were nipped in the bud by the machinery of political parties. We had a scenario where the Obama administration had largely failed to live up to its promise, with anemic growth, a healthcare reform that left many unsatisfied, a foreign policy that looked ever more impotent and inadequate to the task, and soaring inequalities and strife at home. Yet despite this grim picture, poised to succeed Obama was Hillary Clinton, the administration’s Secretary of State and personification of the Washington establishment and its ties to corruption, who according to everyone but a few extremists, was the only viable candidate for the office.
Faced with such choices, and its discontents that ranged from the far-right, the disillusioned middle, and the far-left, the mainstream media very consciously opted for the engineering of consent of the groups who were unwilling to get with the program. Leaving aside journalistic integrity, the media went into full propaganda mode, almost universally adopting the status quo position and repeating it ad nauseum. The unanimous voice of the media then conducted a consistent campaign of defamation, aimed at shutting down debate.
In Britain we had #ProjectFear that involved all manner of character assassination and fearmongering about the prospect of leaving the EU, going as far as, in some instances, capitalizing on the murder of MP Jo Cox , and speculating wildly about the prospect of a “major European war” at one point, as to fuel suspicions of the inherent extremism of anti-EU advocates. Similarly in the US, the media gladly played along with Clinton’s designation of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” , guilty of the deadly political sins of our age; misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. Trump’s populist insurgence wasn’t the only target of this campaign of course, as Bernie Sanders’ movement within Democrat ranks suffered the same fate, being invariably dismissed, denigrated, and ridiculed.
In regards to both scenarios, where grassroots popular criticism of the status quo did surface, the media altogether abandoned even the pretense of impartiality so as to become the handmaiden of very specific dominant party-political factions. This was seen in the next stage of the cycle of the ‘propaganda mode’, where the glaring shortcomings of the status quo position were simply not reported on, initially, and only eventually had to be discussed albeit reluctantly and with the ever present hint of disingenuousness.
In the case of the EU, we had the strange phenomenon of self-identified socialists (of the champagne variety no doubt) joining ranks with liberals and free-marketeers to exhort the populace to heed to the wisdom of the financial markets , pick up a copy of The Economist and simply believe it was all going to be better in the EU, regardless of all evidence to the contrary. Concerns about secret free trade deals , immigration, or unaccountable centralization of bureaucratic power were simply tossed aside or given a favorable gloss.
In the US election we had an even more extreme and insidious version of this process. Following the internal DNC sabotage of the Bernie Sanders campaign , Hillary stood as the sole candidate every respectable person had to close ranks around. As it turned out, she became the “progressive” candidate, despite a well-known history of being the Washington insider per excellence. With a public policy record as a hawk who advocated for disastrous interventions in the Middle-East (such as the ousting of Gaddafi, and the subsequent destruction of Libya) , and a notoriously duplicitous stance of having a “private and a public persona” when dealing with market-dominating financial institutions (who funded her ) – Clinton was objectively the antithesis of what the Democratic party presented itself as traditionally standing for.
Furthermore, incriminating evidence of corruption and a ‘pay to play’ scheme of political patronage hanged over her, and Bill Clinton’s, role in relation to the Clinton Foundation and the many donations it received from tyrants around the world. This tangled web has most troublingly included the Gulf States, who, according to leaked emails, are known to be providing clandestine support to ISIS.
A significant amount of detail regarding Hillary’s shortcomings only emerged thanks to revelations by Wikileaks, rather than the mainstream media, and when the opportunity arose for the media to report on these developments, they simply were not up to the task. On the contrary, speculation had begun on the origin of the leaks, rather than their content, and the bogeyman of Russia conveniently came in for a beating instead. On the occasions that the media did raise questions over the leaks, they nevertheless did so timidly and while still maintaining their previous tactic discussed earlier, of denigrating opponents and presenting the status quo position as the only game in town.
It is no surprise that in the immediate media response to Trump’s Electoral College landslide, or Brexit for that matter, reporters and commentators appeared paralyzed and shell-shocked by the sheer dissonance of their reportage and what actually happened on the ground. The various organs of the media were caught up in their own vicious feedback loop, where the aforementioned propaganda was reflected in the polls- which mostly predicted the unthinkable was held as such by the general public. It didn’t occur to them that if powerful opinion-makers consistently depict a position as toxic, members of the public would be naturally unwilling to openly express affinity for said position, hence the unreliability of the polls vis-à-vis the actual election results.
The crisis of modern liberalism
One expected that the voices of modern liberalism would, compelled by overwhelming electoral defeat, arrive at the shores of careful re-evaluation of their stances and the rhetoric they employed. Such hopes however were largely shipwrecked on the rocks of dogmatism and civic immaturity.
To this day, “Remainers” perform all manner of mental gymnastics to contest the Brexit result, to the point of devaluing the democratic process itself ; and I as I write this, cities in the solid liberal enclaves of the eastern and western coast of America have become the sites of riots, protests, and marches against President-elect Trump. It seems as if liberals are more than content to continue inhabiting their own echo chambers rather than venture out into the world outside where their narrative simply doesn’t ring true anymore.
Many of the most vociferous voices springing from affluent cosmopolitan liberal centers have opted for simply doubling down on their characterization of any and all opponents as racists, xenophobes, etc. The revelation that for instance, Trump had benefited from more votes by the working class, women, Hispanics and blacks than Mitt Romney did back in 2012, simply didn’t register to them. The fact that so-called ‘progressives’ who self-righteously claim to hold the banner of peace justice and brotherhood have rallied behind a notorious war-monger, whose intention was to prolong a campaign against Russia, on the foreign policy front, regardless of how many Islamic terrorist groups it had to prop up in the process, again, didn’t register.
Likewise, considerations that were dear to many Americans in this election, such as religious liberty and pro-life issues were not seen as worthy of consideration, as to why the vote swung the way it did.
If we can pick a demographic for study, we can think of American Catholics for instance, a reasonably multi-ethnic bunch that could be found in all layers of the socio-economic scale. The fact that emails by Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta revealed something of a conspiracy to undermine the Catholic Church , going so far as to denigrate members and their ideas, featured prominently only in select specialist publications and hardly at all in the mainstream media. To those who observed these developments closely, it would have come as no surprise that Trump got 45-52% of this demographic, who traditionally voted overwhelmingly Democrat in previous elections.
At the root of this disconnect, perhaps is the fact that a certain obsession with identity politics clouded the view of liberal commentators as to not only the merits of the status quo position they aligned with, but also the unfounded expectation that the groups they championed did think along such blindly tribal terms after all. A more troubling possibility however is also that the insistence on identity politics has unwittingly had the adverse effect, that by focusing on the lines of gender, race, religion, liberals merely served to galvanize majority groups who previously weren’t necessarily inclined to vote as a ‘group’ but who for symbolic reasons to some degree did so in this election, if only because the other side seemed so hell-bent on assaulting their ‘privilege’.
Ultimately, the repercussions of Trump’s election remain to be seen, yet it can already be considered as a grave indictment of the orthodoxy that held true for so long in the Western world. Unrestrained globalization no longer seems unquestionable given the variants of protectionism that propelled, and surely will continue to propel, populist uprisings. Political correctness no longer rings true in face of the penchant for free speech, and at times even crude speech, that have returned with a vengeance. The easy-going accommodation of all cultures no longer seems tenable in light of the reality of Islamic extremism that festers even in the heart of liberal Western democracies. The defense of establishment figures, for lack of better alternatives, no longer seems justified considering the ease with each scandals come to surface in the age of leaks and ever more accessible information concerning political elite circles.
These are all very difficult questions that can’t be easily dismissed by shutting down the debate, no matter how many mainstream media organs, or celebrity fellow-travelers, or courtier journalists may come to the rescue of the liberal narrative. “The old world is dying, and the new is yet to be born”, in the meantime, if those shocked and terrified truly wish to understand the reason why their hopes and expectations have crashed on a reality so alien to them, it’s important to consider all of these.