Dual Rhetorical Banjos in Campaign 2016
Several struggles emerged during the primary season this year, each undermining the rhetorical rules of American politics erected by the political class largely without challenge over the past two or three decades. These rules, while disguised as norms of etiquette, actually protected the overall political and policy outcomes achieved--but never publicly articulated--by the political class. In challenging conventional rhetorical rules both Trump and Sanders took the very first steps toward a launching serious challenges to the underlying outcomes of the political system as we find it today.
One important battle was Trump's blasphemy in exposing Kelly Megan as part of a cabal of biased insiders within the highly privileged private sector profit-driven media, posing as sacred and neutral gurus of the public airwaves but actually shading things in not-so-subtle ways to conform to their bosses' preferences. Voters of all political persuasions were secretly delighted and grateful to Trump--regardless of our views about his suitability to be President--at the sight of Fox news executives scrambling to deal with Trump's attack on Kelly's obviously loaded-for-bait questioning when he threatened to boycott the next Fox debate unless he was treated fairly. It was all the more delicious because the struggle was not between Liberals and Conservatives but inside the sacred, stuffy temple of Conservatism known as Fox News, where Republican presidential candidates are supposed to genuflect at the alter of Fox CEO Roger Ailes, self-appointed guardian of the sacred Republican flame. Until this attack, the game played by Republican campaign strategists was to prepare a campaign battleground designed to prove one's stronger commitment to "Conservative" values, and to justify all policy stances as motivated by a desire to adhere to deeply held "Conservative" principals. Trump made it clear all of this was contemptible nonsense: networks are driven by profits, not political rituals or a search for conservative truth, and Fox News is no exception: you may not like my blasphemies, he seemed to say, but you don't treat me fairly, I rain on your parade. Trump one, Fox zero.
This battle alone opened up an enormous hole in the highly constricted edifice of allowable "Conservatism" creating a much larger space for debate than has been the case for at least twenty years. The possible paths this space might take sometimes seem very scary indeed--especially when you think about Trump's electoral base--but removing fetters to honest discussion is a sign of greater democracy, not less.
Sanders' battle with rhetoric was to introduce the terms "rigged" and "corrupt" into American political discourse. Until Sanders, Democrats had to skirt around these terms, avoiding them at all costs. Perhaps afraid to take on the sacred cow of the Scalia Court (Citizens United), political rhetoric had to imply that campaign finance reform was simply another Liberal policy reform, at the same level, say, as stronger investment in mental health care. Nonsense, Sanders thundered: it was political corruption that deprived most of us from enjoying the benefits of US economic growth over the past forty years. And the rhetorical rules of politics, which restrain us from challenging corruption, are simply part of the corrupt and rigged package. Like Trump, Sanders expanded the square footage of what is possible in American political discourse today. Hillary, whose husband participated fully in the rigging of the system when he was President (Trump has called him on this), has not come up with an adequate answer to this rhetorical shift. Until she does, Trump will be perceived as the more honest of the two.
It is extremely difficult to reform an entrenched political class that has greatly increased the capabilities of the dominant classes. But as Confucius said, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name. And in insisting on doing so, both Trump and Sanders have--so far--done all of us a major favor. Trump tells his voters it should be OK to ask why we seem to be losing ground to the rest of the world, without being accused by the rules of Conservative rhetoric of lacking patriotism or of having bad breath; Sanders tells his voters we need to admit both parties colluded in producing a corrupt political system that expands the national pie only for the 1%.