WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/14/17

Despite several previous posts, many in the mainstream press continue to focus on the President’s gaucherie. Sad! His populist style is not the best point of attack; it’s not practicable, since this is his armor. He looks good in the eyes of quite a few Americans when he looks like a straight-talker. The center will hold onto Trump when he’s an Andrew Jackson: a rough-cut hero whose “so-called” atrocities evidence his resistance to Washington’s refinement, otherwise known as “bureaucracy.” For a shrinking but no doubt sizable population, his nominations from the private sector are what “draining the swamp” is supposed to look like. Plus, hey, he’s a New Yorker. We like ‘em rough around the edges. We’ve been giving New York cabbies, thugs, cops, and corporate raiders a pass on rudeness since at least Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Stephen Crane, 1893). Furthermore, these critiques of style  implicitly seek to reform the spectacle, without tackling the more dangerous and abhorrent nature of his populist logic.

Trump’s brutality isn’t personal. He doesn’t deserve credit for his vulgarity. His world view emanates from the small but robust and well-situated culture: the eighties playboy. This subculture, nurtured by magazines, movies (not all of them porn), and daytime TV, continues to be the forest for trees in coverage of Trump’s foolishness. His attitude or demeanor, his projection / rejection of personal space (from pussy grabs to ugly bro handshakes), belongs to a macho subculture that thrived in the late 80s, early 90s. As the this video [WATCH BEFORE CONTINUING], from 1993, makes clear, this strained, uncomfortably jocular, overheated form of masculinity was a direct response to the AIDS crises, a celebrity-news backlash to Act Up.

 

The performance of true feeling exhibited here is painful in several ways. Trump performs his part poorly. The whole subject is embarrassingly handled, played for the cheapest of thrills. No one seems to know what they’re doing. The appropriate words escape them, so they thrive on innuendo. This style is ideological; it performs a macho world-view that continues to organize the Donald’s perception / response. Two phrases seem particularly salient today:

Trump: I don’t know. I tend to like beautiful women more than I like unattractive women. Maybe that makes me bad . . .

Mullet-headed Dick Interviewer: Join the club!

What’s Trump’s key-card here? How has he joined the club? The password’s not hard: women are beautiful or unattractive; sovereign feeling is the source of judgment. Trump knows it when he sees it. His access to the club is granted when he confesses this password: a public intimacy that responds to a crisis in confidence a few American men thought they were facing in the 80s, stuck between “gay-cancer” and “pus([s]h)y broads.” The logic of Trump’s responsivity is beautifully travestied by SNL when they send him to the original reality TV, The People’s Court. This sensibility belongs to the CDC (Celebrity Dick Culture) of the period when Trump, Arturo Ui fashion, began his rise.

Today, this logic dictates Trump’s response to court rulings on the short-lived immigration ban. He likes any judge whose rulings are attractive, and finds the rest “so-called” and “political,” i.e., “bad” or unattractive. Short-lived personal attraction actually forms the basis for a so-called “personality” here. It’s what I like, what I don’t like, that founds, like a cheap cement pile, the girders of his “reasoning.” This form of idiocy is not endemic to men. We find it also in rat creatures.

more-stupid-rat-creautres-dialogue

A second, equally pernicious phrase occurs a minute later in the interview:

Trump: AIDS, AIDS, can I tell you what?

MDI: AIDS attacks everyone.

Trump: AIDS is a disaster. It attacks everybody, and who knows.

The interview gets more gross and stupid, but I’m struck by this early use of “disaster.” Trump’s wall, his bans, his “extreme vetting” are condoms, it turns out. Trump views “threats / others” hygienically. This explains the attraction between him and the far right, for whom “cleansing” is also a national project. He wants to fuck (over) a clean nation. The border wall is a diaphragm, which is why he thinks it appropriate that our southern (as in under) partner pay for it. Extreme vetting is an AIDS test, free at airports near you.

This is what a puncture in an inflated public figure looks like. A slow motion disaster, only it’s not so slow for those hit by the falling infrastructure.

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/7/17

“A wimpy commute tonight,” the radio sighs. The late-afternoon dj, late in the afternoon, sides with the traffic jams and accidents. They’re ‘strong’; they give her something to report. A downgraded, democratized media increasingly finds itself siding with the disaster. Or if not that, with itself; disaster and celebrity collide in Trump, but these forms of publicity are brought together by a more general (yet not more diffuse) structure of feeling.

Later in the same episode, WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, reported on a speech Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave to “MBA students.” It wasn’t the speech so much as honest answers that were delivered “a bit more freely” than normal, that our reporter observed. For good reason, as they revealed a stance toward politics that’s worth observing:

Winning’s everything. If you don’t win, you can’t make the public policy. . . Sometimes, you just gotta win, OK? [Cheers and applause.] . . . And our party likes to be right, even if they lose. . . I’ve never lost an election. It’s about winning because if you win you then have the power to do what you need to get done. If you lose, you can write this book about what happened. Great. That’s really exciting. . . . Schisms [in the Republican party] have to be wedges, wedges have to be divides and divisions. . . Take a chill pill, man, you’ve got to be in this for the long-haul.

Our Mayor is the exemplary neoliberal technocrat. The long-haul means, among other things, the closing of an unprecedented number of public schools. He’s Betsy DeVos all the way. A professional politician who’s never lost a race because he doesn’t care what it takes to win. Regarding politics as a contest (therefore a spectacle, in which nothing’s at stake) is akin to regarding traffic jams as news. Consequences are foreclosed upon as “tough choices” and “difficult decisions.” It’s not that politics shouldn’t / doesn’t require these bold words; it’s that politics must also be played for stakes. Rahm appears to borrow from Saul Alinsky’s playbook when he insists that “If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy,” but despite what the neo-fascist right may assume, Alinsky wasn’t writing a playbook. He wasn’t an NFL coach, plotting spectacular action because you gotta win and when you’ve won, you’ve won, so you gotta win, right? Right! That’s why we went out there and won that game. We wanted to win it, so we won it. You gotta do what you gotta do and what you gotta do is win that game, so you win it, am I right?

Structures of feeling, as the above sentence painfully enacts, depend upon certain grammars to set them free. The so-called “Trump Era” (as though everything were going to go as expected already) is built. in part upon the neoliberal relation to political events that Rahm describes. Politics as spectacle, stripped of cause and consequence. When people call this “politics as usual,” they don’t refer only to the obvious entanglements of capital and politics (such as the pass Trump’s been given on taxes, or the foul that sent Illinois Governor G-Rod to jail), but to a larger sense of politics as a gladiatorial battle.
miller-300

 

Frank Miller’s best-selling graphic novel, 300, supports this feeling’s structure. A rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae that  loves the spectacle of macho cunning and brutality more than its consequences. A small group of white, technologically elite warriors make heroic stand against dark-skinned Muslim hordes. The episode is constructed with a loving attention to the dramatic image. It’s the complexity of the cinematic scene, the angles and arrangement and postures that justify the slaughter This is the auteur’s approach to comic-book realities. 

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/3/17

One possible positive outcome of this fiasco would be public realization of just how easy it’s become to make money with money these days. The fat cats are back.

the_subsidised_mineowner

In the progressive era, they were rotund men in formal wear, usually with cane, top-hat and cigar, as pictured here. Accumulated wealth was figured as an excess of appetites, accumulated in flesh and elite commodities; the gentleman’s club was the scene. They were corpulent because labor was doing the work. The same cultural scene frequently depicted the laboring class as, in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, “bo-hunks”: muscled titans, in lumberjack shirts and overalls. Here’s one on the cover of an Anarchist pamphlet by Mary E. Marcy, printed by Charles H. Kerr Press, which employed Sandburg until it was raided by authorities during World War I, it’s presses smashed and editors arrested.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since about the 1980s, U.S. tastemakers and social critics have preferred to imagine capitalists as trim, but over-indulgent go-getters. These new “titans of finance” are sleeker, hipper cats. They prowl through enviable offices and hotel rooms, sinuous and grossly obsessed or distracted.

michael-douglas-wall-street

In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas sets the mold. He reprises it in the more interesting, The Game (1997). In The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Martin Scorsese casts Leonardo DiCaprio in this role. The runaway capitalist is still well-dressed and likes his cigars (or coke, whatever), but he’s the product of accumulated productivity, not wealth. He works hard, plus he’s brilliant. He’s on the phone with banks of computers to look at and rows of buttons to press. His appetites are voracious, but they provide a continual athleticism. This virtuous, heroic figure has been prowling the American imagination throughout the Trump years (1980s-present); our President is the latest ghastly embodiment of this figure.

steve-jobs-the-young-thinker

Steve Jobs plays the role with a little bit of Hamlet thrown in.

Current ideology would have it that these guys deserve big bucks because they’re smart and work hard. On the terrain of images, capital has stolen the previous era’s signifier of labor. They achieved this in the 1980s, when working out became a form of work. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an insane experimenter in this genre of capitalist machismo. (Mel Gibson a close second.)

arnold-celebrity-apprentice

He will terminate you!

Now that we’ve got a Wall Street Wolf in the White House, a bona-fide billionaire (so he says), we might begin to realize that these guys are totally clueless. They’ve worked out but never worked hard. They’re idea of making decisions is to select their favorites among absurdly simplified options. The curtains and portraits and tile. The terrorists and migrants and Patriots.

They “run things,” but moving millions around is about a million times easier than the work the 99% do every day. Such as finding a daycare center that opens at five and is on the way to Au Bon Pain, and still greeting customers with a smile. Such as whacking the hell out of a frozen lump of steel for three hours with the wind from the north and no global warming in sight. Such as negotiating the intricacies of medical and auto insurance while negotiating the intricacies of maintaining a visa while teaching 18th C. British literature to students who have never thought of the 18th C., never mind Britain. Such as convincing rushed shoppers to purchase a newspaper because you have to pay for shelter in Chicago, in the winter, at night, no matter how minimal.

Nope. These guys don’t know work. They think a phone call takes an afternoon, and they never sit on hold. They don’t know “push back”; they don’t know tantrums and bureaucracy and getting onto the bus again today. They are creatures of appetite because the road to their desires is so easy. The imagination grows in the body; the fatcats don’t have it. They’ve been living in / submitting to celebrity realities. The spectacle is a vampire; it gives you life everlasting in exchange for corporeal reality.

Mainstream criticism of Trump falls into two camps: observations of his boorishness and observations of his incompetence. These are two sides of the same billion coins. But assessments of Trump’s temperament risk attempting to reform him, as though he could somehow get it right (because he’s a brilliant / hardworking businessman after all). Far better to discuss his incompetence, I think. He’s never worked a day in his life. He doesn’t know what it takes because he only taken. Even bankruptcy is a win-win for the idle rich. Time to observe what it takes to make it in corporate U.S.A.

 

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/2/17

“This is the heart of the American idea…” the radio croons. “One of my favorites is actually President Reagan . . . that’s the America that I know and love and believe so many of us want to belong to.” Trump’s not looking back to the 50s; he’s thinking of the 80s, when coke was queen and Letterman king. Trump’s interviews on late-night and day-time TV, and stories about him in the New York Post are more revealing than the Pussy-grabbing tape. Like the latter, they narrate the core issue: we’re not dealing with an ordinary human, folks. Trump’s the most advanced form of celebrity ever to occupy the Presidency. He’s a virtual entity that’s temporarily assumed human form. Celebrity, when regarded, as Cintra Wilson does, as a “grotesque crippling disease,” consumes the brains and bodies of those in inhabits. Many celebrities kill themselves, others die from too many pain-killers, or go insane. Trump’s madness is a symptom of 35 years of getting himself on TV. 15 minutes just isn’t enough for some of us; twice 15 years isn’t enough for a narcissistic (homicidal) few.

Trump isn’t the first celebrity President, of course. But he’s way up there.

The Hill:

President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office on Tuesday, The New York Times reports, an apparent nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.

Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.

andrew_jackson_head

Check out the double-collar on this guy. Check out the hair. A romantic, like Napoleon… 

Bannon’s Jackson is the patriot who put Indians in their place (several thousand miles away) and opposed the central bank. Breitbart reports that

Jackson did all this while accomplishing something almost equally rare in the advancement of nations: he intentionally decentralized the government, vetoing wasteful infrastructure projects and sending them back to the states where they belonged.

Sounds like he approved the contemporary Republican opposition to Obamacare. As Raymond Williams observed, traditions unfold backwards in time; they are made in the present. Lacking this present reconstruction, that fail to exist in the present, therefore fail to be active traditions. Trump is not resuscitating ancient verities. I suspect that his Jackson is someone else, someone more “present-tense”: our first celebrity President. He would appreciate the simultaneous rise in fame and power exhibited by that half-literate land-speculator and militia leader who parlayed his spectacular victory in New Orleans into public office.

jackson-at-new-orleans

Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower did the same. But Reagan was Jacksonian in a new way. He wasn’t in the war, exactly, although he filmed the hell out of it; it was B-movies and cigarette commercials that put him before the public eye.

regan_cigsjpg

A culture-industry celebrity who parlayed his status in the virtual nation (plus strong ties to the anti-communist unions, later the Christian Right) into public office.

Trump outdid them both. His ability to catapult from Reality TV to within Electoral Advantage of the Presidency should tells us something about our relation to televised drama.  
doc6q772xwz0gk7vedc6n2
In Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Superman responds to Reagan’s warning. Trump regards himself as such a man.

See also Joseph Stalin (Wikipedia):

Like other Bolsheviks, he became commonly known by one of his revolutionary noms de guerre, of which “Stalin” was only the last. “Stalin” is based on the Russian word сталь stal, meaning “steel”, and the name as a whole is supposed to mean “man of steel”.[344] Prior nicknames included “Koba”, “Soselo”, “Ivanov” and many others.[345]

In bridge, that game of the New York elite since the Gilded Age (Dummies.com),

When a suit becomes the trump suit, any card in that trump suit potentially has special powers; any card in the trump suit can win a trick over any card of another suite

stupid-rat-creatures

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/1/17
In populist times, political battle-lines are redrawn: “old” arrangements (however new) partially erased. Borders blur; people switch foxholes; the terrain’s rearranged by new weaponry: heavy shells, grapeshot, gas. Populist moments challenge “official culture,” “politics as usual,” the “mainstream,” but what this means depends upon where you stand. The new culture wars are coming. Multiple terrains revised, others reactivated. Law v. order. Migrant v. resident. Environment v. resources. Love v. hate. Everyone enjoys the disorder (enjoyment v. fun).

In populist times, heroes emerge. Cowardly lions; bold Suffragettes. Anarchists give beautiful speeches; fat cats capture the headlines. “For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,” sings the radio’s vaudeville. “If you zoom out, this is a strategy that seems woven into the fabric of the cosmos,” the so-called rational voices croon.

bagge-lisa-leaps

Peter Bagge predicted this condition in Hate and related titles. His ordinary working-class partial dissenters suffer the contortions of cartoons. They don’t explode, except when they kill themselves. Alive, they bend and bulge, bounce, bubble, fold, collapse. Comic-book realities: bodies subject to extreme forms of fantasy. The airports are full, but it’s not the Thanksgiving rush.

In populist times, the spectacle overwhelms rational discourse. It wasn’t so rational to begin with; it just got worse. When, in the face of this, we fall for rationality, we justify the old regime. Already, numerous critiques of Trump stack him against Obama AND Shrub, legitimizing the latter. George W. Bush, a ‘normal’ president. The “alternative facts” mostly bend us; sometimes we break. A new puncture replaces the old, but leaves the tire weaker. Fortunately, human culture isn’t my bicycle. We get to do more than absorb our punctures. More kicks than pricks; more pricks than kicks: everything’s reversible.

How avoid the spectacle? The marvelous helps. A marvel is like a miracle, but made by us (the world), not god. The OED: “such as to excite wonder or astonishment (chiefly in a positive sense).” We need more of that in Trump’s Twitter Empire, I think. The marvelous distracts us with the glamour of our own creation. It may be rude; it may be graceful. The marvelous is like an angel of indecision that confronts us in the garden of our betrayal and delight.

bone-winter-soltice

 

Notes toward Understanding Donald Trump’s Market Populism (Part I)

The fourth estate increasingly acknowledges that Trump’s appeal owes more (everything?) to his evocation of emotions than any policy statements. Back in September, Domenico Montanaro argued that “Trump’s supporters aren’t with him because they want to hear the wonky details. They want someone to channel what they feel.” He concluded that disgust was the most important emotion. According to Thomas B. Edsall, Trump has “tapped into” an evolutionary (!!!) dynamic of disgust and purity . In New York Times editorial that’s almost as nonsensical as your average Republican debate, Edsall patches together observations by political scientists and evolutionary psychologists to conclude that anxious conservatives are motivated by a deep-seated desire for conformity to social norms. Trump is a political “alpha male” because he’s a marketing “genius” who knows how to communicate with fearful voters seeking an authoritarian leader who tells it like it is.

There are several problems with the liberal media’s approach to the Donald. For starters, taken as whole, the press response does little to diminish Trump’s standing. They’ve been pouring water on his duck’s back. Months ago, pundits on the left and right predicted that his campaign, which the candidate himself didn’t appear to be taking seriously, would soon flame out. The opposite happened; as he continued to lead in (largely meaningless) polls, the rest of the candidates attempted to “trump Trump.” As a result, his current closest rivals (Cruz and Rubio) increasingly resemble him. Those candidates who continued to pursue their own loopy paths (Fiorina, Carson, Paul) began to lose traction as the spectacle become Trumpified.

Following are a few observations that may help to explain the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump.

Populism is ubiquitous. Populism names that part of political discourse that is grounded in public feeling, otherwise known as common sense. Populism shouldn’t be confused with racism, fascism, or demagoguery. Racist, fascistic, and demagogic politicians often deploy populism, but it’s a mistake to regard them as enjoying privileged access to political feeling. All political candidates use emotional appeals. Some of the nation’s more progressive political leaders are widely acknowledged to be populists: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK… (Trump’s closest historical predecessors may well be tough-talking East Coaster Kennedy and the first true “market populist,” Bill Clinton.)  President Obama was populist on the campaign trail, as was Jimmy Carter. This doesn’t mean that politicians must necessarily be populist. Appeals to reason, technocratic authority, and objectivity can also be attractive. The problem emerges when reporters and analysts align populism with fear, aggression, and disgust, and associate these emotional states with right-wing agendas. This alignment strengthens right-wing populism. Public optimism (hope) and contentment (complacency) are regarded as weaker forces. “Progressives” (as the name suggests) are imagined to be motivated by these weaker feelings, and in the process are denied access to public feeling more generally. (This doesn’t say anything about the neoliberal’s embrace of technocratic rationality, which is another problem…)

In the U.S. two-party system, populist movements pose a greater threat to the party that endorses them then the party that opposes them. In the 1890s, the People’s Party was a genuine “third party”; it’s supporters included Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans. Ultimately, the People’s Party joined the Democrats to run William Jennings Bryan as a “fusion” candidate; Bryan lost. The merger failed because the populists were genuine in their opposition to the two-party system, and wouldn’t vote for a Democratic candidate, and because until the merger both mainstream parties had reviled the People’s party as full of anarchists and bums–that mud stuck, and strengthened Republican opposition. Something similar happened in 1912, when Roosevelt’s Progressive or “Bull Moose” party split the Republican vote, handing the election to Wilson. Remember Ross Perot? Running to the right of George H. W. Bush, he helped bring Bill Clinton to Washington. Today, the Republican party is suffering the consequences of it’s greedy effort to gobble up Tea Party opposition. In our fast-paced, historically myopic mediascape, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party originally opposed the second President Bush. They formed in opposition to his fiscal irresponsibility and interventionism. Almost immediately, the Tea Party was bought out by the Republican establishment, which sought to incorporate it as a new, more ardent and fundamentally conservative “base.” Trump benefits from the chaos this caused. The good news is that any Democrat will probably beat him–Bernie Sanders has a chance. The bad news is that his spectacle will likely benefit the most mainstream elements in the Democratic Party, leading to a Clinton victory. (Katha Pollitt, for example, endorses H.C. as the more “electable” candidate. My opposition to Clinton stems from  my fear that, like her husband or Tony Blair, she’ll promote a “centrist” strategy that will continue many of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberaism.)

Trump’s “market populism” is not a political aberration. Despite a lack of political/military experience, Trump’s not ‘outside’ the political estabishment because the establishment is three-fourths spectacle. He televisual popularity, so often passed over without comment by the press, has everything to do with his front-runner status. In a public sphere that is almost entirely organized by mass media, the President IS a mediated image. The nation publicly conceded that point when it elected Reagan, the actor-President. Furthermore, the particular kind of celebrity that Trump presents is The success of The Apprentice is not remarkable in itself: it was only a variation of a currently popular genre, which casts the successful entrepreneur as public hero. In recent years, Hollywood’s invested heavily in biopics of billionaires: The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and so forth.  In the Gilded Age, they were termed “titans of industry”; today they’re called, more simply, “the job creators.” The postmodern synthesis of ‘big business” and populism (which, years ago, Tom Frank termed “market populism”) seems contradictory until you consider the common sense understanding of globalization. Titans are enormous, powerful, ‘larger-than-life’ figures who nonetheless can relate to mere humans. When competition over labor (jobs sent overseas) and resources (global climate change) was scaled up–from nation to globe, the creators and manipulators of the public imagination (the spectacle makers) promoted the concept that us mortals would need help from the titans in order to survive. Trump is no more of a savior than the Transformers or Marvel’s Avengers. He recently compared his proposed border wall to China’s great wall. His wall, he said, wasn’t nearly so big. The implication is obvious: by appearing so confident about his large-scale projects that he can refer to them modestly rather than ambitiously, he confers superhero status upon himself.

The People is a phantom. The “silent majority” is a ghost, or projection. This doesn’t mean that populism isn’t effective. It’s effective precisely because it’s misunderstood. The most troubling aspect of the commentary on Trump I began with is the use of verbs like “channel” and “tap into.” The implication being that somewhere “out there” in “heartland America” there were a lot of people who already felt disgusted, angry, xenophobic, etc. Yes, of course, such feelings existed–but they didn’t exist as people. They existed as feelings. Feelings are misunderstood when regarded as dormant or latent; they must be felt, named, acted upon in order for them to exist. The feeling wasn’t there until it was. When the mainstream media, in an effort to understand Trump’s popularity, imagines that he represents a segment of body politic that was always there but unnoticed, they produce the very thing they wish to understand.

As I said: preliminary notes. Part II applies some of these general observations to more specific aspects of the phenomena.

WATERSHED Poems

In the year following Michael Brown’s murder on 9 August 2014, I wrote poems that attempted to reconfigure events of police violence directed at people of color between the day Trayvon Martin was killed and Brown’s death. My accounts work against the mainstream press accounts, which tend to make the police and their private-sector stand-ins the narrative subjects, and the victims their objects. Drawing on news accounts, I flip the official script, revealing the unjustified, racist nature of state violence.

Brian Holmes recently created WATERSHEDS, an interactive map that uses some of the poems to chart police violence against people of color on the Mississippi watershed. In this context, the poems help to intensify his point: that Political Ecology begins when we say Black Lives Matter.

His project is available here.

Brian’s introduction to the map, and a pdf of my poems, is available on the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor’s Compass website.