[I emailed an attached version of this viewpoint piece to the editor as inclusion as a backpage editorial.]
Trump’s Breadless Circus and the Strategy of Mass Distraction
While you watch Trump carry out his racist, misogynist, xenophobic, know-nothing antics, along with the various media outlets that provide non-stop coverage of his offensive and demeaning performance, you should know that behind the scenes the Republican party and their plutocratic constituency are happily advancing their right-wing agenda and continuing the seemingly endless warfare against the working class.
Trump is currently serving two valuable functions for the corporate elite and, accordingly, the Republican Party – what I call “supportive distraction” and “oppositional distraction”.
On the supportive side, Trump is continuing what is now a long and successful Republican tradition of getting working people to vote against their economic interests. Through his words and deeds he ensures a base of support among a segment of the American population that has been ginned-up and cultivated for the past fifteen plus years by both mainstream and Tea Party elements of the Republican party, but whose economic interests do not coincide with the corporate elites and country club billionaires that are the true beneficiaries of Republican policies.
This project of engendering false consciousness among a significant portion of this mostly white working class is the signal political achievement of the Republican party (assisted by a Democratic Party more interested in chasing corporate dollars than representing workers). But this Republican tactic had been losing its effectiveness as economic prospects continued to dwindle for these working-class, erstwhile Republicans. Therefore, a more blatant form of distraction was required, and Trump has been willing to feed this beast – throwing red meat to the base -- through his more direct and crude attacks on blacks, immigrants, women, liberals – a heady brew combining cultural chauvinism and economic nationalism.
Trump’s success with this strategy explains the reluctance of mainstream Republicans to criticize the President. They can retain a core of electoral support, that was in danger of slipping away, while at the same time catering to the needs of their true constituency – the 1%.
The net result is what some have labelled, appropriately, “pluto-populism”. The anger of the masses after thirty plus years of neoliberal political-economic policies generating wage stagnation, deindustrialization, and economic insecurity (that is the short list) could no longer be ignored. Populism, in this case of the right-wing variety, acknowledges the pain but exploits and directs this anger toward, and at the expense of, other peoples (e.g. immigrants) and other nations (e.g. China) while advancing plutocratic economic interests.
On the oppositional side, the sizable but fragmented and unorganized opposition and “resistance” to Trumpism is devoting most of its energy and vitriol reacting, on a daily basis, to each and every idiotic statement made by the President or his spokespersons; or, worse, endlessly fixating on the “Russiagate” conspiracy, in the hope that some revelation of collusion will topple the President. MSNBC (aka MSDNC) is emblematic of this feckless and perpetually distracted oppositional and partisan approach.
With the Mueller Report having concluded that there is no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, this journalistically (and politically) irresponsible practice should be terminated. Nonetheless, the network, and most of the Democratic establishment, continue to beat this dead horse. The goal is to turn public opinion against, and remove from office, Donald Trump, rather than covering and exposing the actual policies and programs that are being rolled out and implemented in service to the corporate elite and then offering a radically different vision.
An appropriate description of this ineffectual opposition, dredged from the annals of critical social theory, is “artificial negativity”. Liberal Democrats oppose Trump, but not the political-economic system or the class-based policies that have given rise to Trumpism in the first place. The negativity will remain artificial as long as the only option are anti-Trump Democrats who have no interest in challenging corporate class power and the current arrangements on which it is based.
In short, the Trumpian burlesque circus is working beautifully. It is manipulating both supporters and opponents while providing material bread only to Trump’s plutocratic cronies.
But, in the meantime, here are only a few of the Trump administration’s anti-worker accomplishments:
• Regressive tax reform benefiting disproportionately the wealthiest Americans increasing further what are already record and Third World levels of income and wealth inequality
• Dismantling the environmental, consumer, and occupational safety and health protections that benefit workers but are opposed by corporations
• Opposing the expansion, and proposing the rollback, of social welfare and government programs designed to relieve workers facing economic insecurity and distress
This is just a small sampling of the myriad ways in which the Trump administration has actually accelerated the war on workers. One would think this would provide an opportunity for the so-called opposition to advance policies and programs that would not just halt these Republican policies but replace them with an aggressive pro-worker agenda.
But the Democratic Party has never been a labor party, though at one time they had some connection to the labor movement. Today, that connection is almost entirely severed. The only class they seem capable of mentioning is the mythical and disappearing “middle class”. But the middle class is a working class, and they have been, and continue to be, getting screwed by the existing corporate dominated system.
When Democrats say they do not want to engage in class warfare they are ignoring the fact that a class war has been raging since 1980, systematically redistributing income and wealth from the bottom and middle to the top. Trickle-up economics. This did not start with Trump, and it won’t end if he is removed from office.
The United States is a capitalist class society. It is time to call it what it is and confront the issue of class domination and privilege head-on. And, as it turns out, while Americans are not necessarily class conscious about their own economic position, recent survey data indicates they are quite conscious and opinionated about differences between the rich and the poor. Political scientist Spencer Piston’s comprehensive analysis of survey data concludes ”…that majorities of Americans view poor people sympathetically, that majorities view rich people resentfully, and that under predictable conditions , these attitudes toward the poor and rich shape Americans’ political preferences.”
These findings have obvious implications for a political strategy aimed at gaining support for a progressive pro-poor/working-class program. This involves not just explicitly linking the policies of Trump and the Republican Party to the preferences of the rich, but also offering counter policies designed to directly address widespread economic insecurity.
This will likely prove more politically productive than responding to the endless barrage coming from the weapons of mass distraction.
David Jaffee is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Florida.