Friday, May 27, 2016

Trump and Political Discourse in America in 2016

They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke.  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty   III-6.

Donald Trump has disregarded the rules of political discourse, lashing out against the discipline of "political correctness" as practiced in America today.  It was not enough that he violated the rules, flaunting his blasphemies time and time again.  Adding insult to injury, he openly berated powerful media personalities and the businesses they work for (Kelly Megyn, Roger Ailes) when these reminded him of the rules.  And he scoffed not only at efforts to curtail his use of language against rivals ("little" Marco, "ugly" Carly), but also at news media efforts to disavow his policy proposals (the thirty foot wall, the ban on Muslim immigration) when these fell outside the box permitted in bipartisan discourse.

The dirty little secret of campaign 2016 so far is that the Republican nominee-to-be has flipped a bird at the political class.  And the public, in gratitude, has rewarded him with the nomination for doing so.  Millions of voters have come to see this bird-flip as the most attractive idea of the 2016 election year (Bernie's One Percent is the only serious challenger),   At some point soon the public will come to focus on the content of his policies and we could just end up with the most honest debate about policies between candidates in many decades.  There is also the possibility of this becoming a farce posing as an presidential election.  But that is always the case:  was the re-election of Obama anything but a farce?  We will have to wait and see.

Are Trump's policy proposals simply part of the bird-flip, or do these have an independent life of their own?.  We will find out soon.  Until then we should probably infer only that his policy proposals are part of the bird-flip, metaphors pointing to desired policies, rather than dead serious proposals.  I suspect as we dissect his followers, we will find they want pretty much the same as everyone else:  an honest shot at a good job and a renewed sense that life in America is reasonably fair, a sense that we can reverse the recent rigging of the system at the currently obscene levels.  Perhaps more than most they also want the freedom to express in their own language and cultural style their frustrations with the dysfunctional political system we all agree we live in.  Fascism?  There are parallels to Germany in 1928, yes.  But asking a biker in Paducah to be consoled for his frustrations by the stilted jargon of a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio is about as effective as telling a black woman in 1968 that she needed to write to her congressman rather than defy an order to refrain from crossing a bridge.  And for the talking heads to tell Trump he cannot entertain the idea of building a thirty foot wall is simply an indicator of how impoverished our own stilted political discourse and imagination have become, how much we have yielded to the self-appointed censors whose greedy motivations we have no reason to respect.

The quote above from John Stuart Mill was written as Mill worried that the greatest threat against freedom in England at the time was not an overbearing government, but society itself, as the mass media of the day and the political class of the moment began catering to the socially insecure but increasingly powerful members of the industrial, as opposed to aristocratic, class.  Aristocratic norms and tastes spread throughout society mindlessly as upward mobility came to be associated with having the proper tastes.  Mill thought this trend was dangerous, as many people literally became slaves to social convention, rather than masters of their own interests.  The line "the mind itself is bowed to the yoke" is a powerful reminder of the costs to the self of adhering mindlessly to social conventions.  Whatever else we might think of Trump's suitability to be president, we owe him a debt of gratitude for not bowing at the yoke of what is "politically correct" in the eyes of those those who nearly bankrupted us less than a decade ago, who, with the full approval of the Supreme Court purchase politicians and their votes in Congress on a regular basis, and whose greed is what is truly out of bounds.

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