This has been a presidential election campaign like no other, where both sides are cynically exploiting identity politics and the loathsome nature of their opponent to try to seize political capital. In this episode I try to offer a new take on the election and outline a concept I’m calling ‘Rorschach politics’ where the candidates are little more than ink blots onto which their supporters project their desires and dreams. I analyse the hypocrisy at the heart of the ‘liberal consensus’ and the psychological and political origins of the ‘alt right’ before tentatively offering some possible solutions to this total fucking quagmire.
In a couple of weeks voters in America will be going to the ballot boxes to elect either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the US president. This is a crossing the Rubicon moment – for the first time the population will either elect a woman or a television tangerine as their representative on the world stage. Given the ludicrous amount of media coverage any US election gets, let alone this election, it is difficult to find anything to say about this, but I’m going to try.
What is perhaps most obvious about this election is that both candidates are relying on fear and hatred of the other candidate to try to win. More people are going to vote Trump because Hitlery is an abomination than because they believe in Trump or the self-contradictory nonsense he spouts. Likewise, more people are going to vote Hitlery because Trump is an abomination than because they believe in Hitlery or the psychotic babble she spouts. There certainly are some true believers, but they are almost exclusively true believers in the candidates, not in their policies. It is difficult to see what policies either candidate stands for, for the true believers this is very much an election of identity politics rather than anything else.
Just as Donald Trump has gone from being a rich guy who inherited a fortune into being a political figure, at least temporarily, Hitlery has gone from being the wife of a politician to a politician herself, to a kind of celebrity. What the strong supporters of either candidate share is an unwavering belief in their candidate of choice, in some kind of personal identification with them. I have spoken before in the David Bowie episode about how celebrities have replaced politicians as the public figures who inspire the most belief in their fans. It is identification with the individual, rather than what they say or what they’ve done or what they promise to do, that the audience feels strongly. It is personal magnetism, or at least media coverage creating the illusion of personal magnetism, that is the most unifying, driving force in popular culture and thus it was inevitable that politicians would follow the same route.
The Contradictory Candidates
This is why Hitlery supporters ignore things like Libya – a war that she went after like a pigeon going after a chip, a war that even Obama has admitted was a huge mistake, a war that destroyed the most stable and prosperous country on the whole African continent and turned it into a failed state. As I say, quite a lot of this is the consequence of media reporting, or in the case of Libya the absence of media reporting. As soon as the war in Libya was over all the war journalists started writing and talking about Syria. Libya, like Afghanistan before it, has been forgotten. But try bringing that up with a Hitlery supporter, a true believer, and witness the ducking and diving, the rationalising, the excuse-making, the repetition of the same excuses they’ve been fed by Hitlery-supporting media outlets.
So how is this woman promoting herself as a feminist progressive? Or rather, how is she getting away with it? Her repeated bullying of other women, particularly those that slept with Willy Clinton and made any kind of issue out of it, shows that she doesn’t give a fuck about the rights of women. Her destruction of one of the few African countries where women could go to university shows the same. Likewise Libya was and still is an almost entirely Muslim nation and despite Islam’s issues with women they did quite well in Libya, certainly a fuck of a lot better than they do in The Real Islamic State of Saudi Arabia. A feminist would have zealously protected the rights of Libyan women. Willy and Hitlery’s foundation is primarily funded by rich Saudis. She simply isn’t what she is pretending to be, she is just playing identity politics.
On the other side we’ve got Donald Trump, and I was one of those people who 12 or 18 months ago said that the whole Trump thing was a joke and that he wouldn’t go the distance and it would all be over at any minute. I like to think I was one of the people who realised more quickly than most that no, he’s actually serious about this, inasmuch as The Donald is serious about anything. We see the same contradictions with his identity politics, where he is clearly reaching out to the bigots, the in-bred Bible belt evangelical fanatics, and generally to gullible white working class people.
The Donald has promised to build a wall to keep out all the Mexicans. Not only would this be a very dubious use of labour and resources, it would fail miserably. America has two massive coastlines and an enormous amount of air traffic. One wall is not going to stop people immigrating into America. Also there’s the problem of how you man the wall, because as the old saying goes ‘show me a fifteen foot wall and I’ll show you a sixteen foot ladder’. Unless the whole thing is guarded from end to end it won’t take long before people realise which bits you can climb over without getting shot. Likewise, the great Trump construction empire was largely built by immigrant labour, including quite a lot of illegal immigrant labour. If he cared so much about the rights of the indigenous working class then he could and should have hired them to do the job.
Likewise Trump appeals to right wing morally conservative or reactionary Christian types. They see him as a candidate who won’t take any guff from the gays or the feminists or the liberals, who won’t make concessions to the progressive or politically correct agenda that they fantasise is destroying America. However, Trump is good friends with Jeffrey Epstein the paedophile billionaire (who is also friends with Bill Clinton) and Trump himself is being sued for apparently raping a 13 year old girl. Likewise Trump makes frequent remarks about how sexually attracted he is to his own daughter.
He also manages to appeal somewhat to isolationists. In the early days Trump was all ‘I’d bomb the shit out of them’ but once the Republican primary was down to him and a couple of other guys also saying that he changed his rhetoric. Now Trump is implying that he’s a non-interventionist, talks about the Iraq war being a massive mistake and how he would never do anything like this. So Donald Trump is in fact Donald Gump, he’s a box of chocolates, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. But try bringing up any of these contradictions with his true believing hardcore supporters and they will do the same ducking and diving and evasive manoeuvres and use the same excuses they’ve been fed by Trump-friendly media, just like the Hitlery supporters.
So what we are experiencing is Rorschach politics, a kind of politics almost entirely driven by psychological identification between the supporters and the candidates. It doesn’t matter if they contradict themselves. It doesn’t matter if they commit terrible crimes completely at odds with their stated agendas. People are, like with a Rorschach test, projecting onto the candidates what they want to see. Whether that makes sense logically or empirically or politically does not matter, because it’s about psychology, emotions, feelings.
Of the two candidates I would argue that Trump has done this more successfully, in that he has managed to appeal to a wider array of people with mutually conflicting political beliefs or moral views than Clinton has. Clinton mostly appeals to the liberal consensus, which is something that doesn’t really exist. While a great many academics and journalists and others pay lip service to this consensus, none of them properly define what it is. It’s a bit individualistic, but also a bit feminist, pro-gay rights, sort of pro-immigrant rights but only up to a point, kind of objects to racism but usually the sort of racism that has no great consequences rather than the institutional racism which imprisons and kills large numbers of people.
In the academic world this is especially obvious to me in the division between Hegelians and Progressives. In the Hegelian liberal view of the world we are gradually moving towards an end of history, an ideal state where we create either the perfect liberal society or the best realistic version of the liberal society. In the Progressive view there is no end state, there is only the incremental struggle to make our society that bit more liberal. However, the Hegelians never define this end state, they never describe the criteria by which we say that we have reached our goal, the standards by which we measure the success of liberalism. Likewise the Progressives never describe the criteria by which we assess if we’re headed in the right direction, the standards by which we measure our society as more liberal than it used to be.
Admittedly, this is very difficult from a philosophy of history point of view, especially in the 21st century. The rate of societal change over the last 200 years has been so rapid, largely because the rate of technological development has been so rapid, that there aren’t that many things that are constants between our present society and that of 30 or 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. So what things have been present in our societies for that whole period that we can see getting more liberalised over time, whether in a progressive or Hegelian fashion?
So, neither the idealists nor the incrementalists are explicit in what kind of society they think we’re trying to build, or how we know whether we’re getting it right or not. As a result the liberal consensus tolerates or even excuses (or just fails to oppose) all kinds of illiberal things. The War on Terror is deeply racist, massively destructive and violates all meaningful human rights when it targets a group of people or a specific place. And yet large swathes of the so-called liberal media and so-called liberal academia make excuses or try to argue that if only we fought the war with greater rationality that it would somehow be OK. It won’t. The War on Terror will never be OK, but the liberal consensus is divided on this precisely because loads of them don’t really believe in it and the ones who do aren’t particularly sure of what it is they believe in. So the liberal consensus is a kind of Rorshach political/historical philosophy where everyone sees in it what they want to see, whether that be friends or enemies.
Trump, of course, makes a big point of claiming to not be part of the liberal consensus, talking about political correctness and making out like he’s just saying whatever he thinks when in reality he’s quite calculated in trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. People say he’s a businessman and think he’ll solve the financial problems because he knows how stuff should be run, but in reality he’s benefited from inherited wealth and neoliberal economic policies. Likewise the so-called liberal media have granted Trump a huge amount of free advertising in the form of coverage of his campaign outstripping any other Republican candidate’s. While things may be turning a little now, for months I saw so-called left liberal outlets downplaying his racism or his claims that women who have abortions should be jailed as mere ‘controversial statements’ rather than what they really are. They soft-balled criticism of him, granting him permission to go further and further in his rhetoric.
The same easy pass has been given to Clinton, who has openly stated that if elected she will pursue a ground war in Syria. The so-called liberal media have welcomed this expansion of the War on Terror, just as they have welcomed her aggressive line towards Russia. How can we be progressing towards a more liberal or an ideally liberal society if we’re regressing and reinstating the Cold War? We can’t be, that’s the simple truth. But the liberal consensus avoids this quandary because it doesn’t further their status or their career opportunities. Everyone just sees what they want to see, picking only those facts and ideas that are psychologically desirable and reinforce the right feelings.
Trump, Ron Paul and 9/11 ‘Truth’
Among the various groups that Trump has managed to somewhat attract the support of is ex-Ron Paul supporters. In the run up to the 2012 election when Ron Paul was the only candidate that the internet-based media endorsed, I was one of the few who had serious reservations. I saw Ron Paul as just another right wing Christian reconstructionist masquerading as a libertarian. This is a man who claimed to be anti-war but voted for the extremely wide ranging 9/11 resolution that granted the government permission to pursue terrorists and the states that harbour them all over the world. This is a man who expressed concern about the rising security state but wanted to ‘reclaim control of the borders’ and did nothing to cut the massive budgets enjoyed by the military and intelligence agencies. He also voted for the legislation used to prosecute former CIA officer Jon Kiriakou.
Indeed, if we go down the list we see a lot of parallels between Ron Paul’s platform and Donald Trump’s platform. Trump says that women who get abortions should be prosecuted. Paul wanted to repeal Roe vs Wade. Their policies on immigration are very similar. Their foreign policies are equally ambiguous. Trump’s campaign slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’. Paul’s manifesto for both 2008 and 2012 was called ‘A Plan to Restore America’. Both of them used the politics of reaction and the politics of nostalgia, promising to halt the apparent destruction of their country and bring back the good old days.
One issue on which their similarity is particularly curious is 9/11. Ron Paul was heralded by the 9/11 Truth crowd because he made the odd statement about needing a new investigation. I say that given that he voted for the post-9/11 policies, or at least some of them, that it’s a bit fucking late and hypocritical of him to be going down that route, but because of the power of identity politics most people just ignored that and acted like he knew it was an inside job or a false flag by the Israelis or whatever other simplistic fantasy they wanted to believe. Ron Paul also made a big issue out of the notorious 28 Pages – the redacted section of the Joint Inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence and intelligence failures.
Donald Trump has been less sophisticated but has gone down the exact same route. He said, ‘It wasn’t the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center. It wasn’t the Iraqis. You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, ‘cuz they have papers in there that are very secret. You may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.’ There is something very Hollywood about this, promising that if you keep watching you’ll find out the truth. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, but keep on watching and supporting and you’ll get the narrative payoff, the plot twist.
Curiously, neither man has said much on the topic since the 28 Pages were actually released, partly because that was one of the biggest anti-climaxes in media history. After years of being told that these 28 pages were crucial to understanding 9/11 they contained hardly any new information, and contrary to some people’s expectations said nothing about Israel and were not being kept secret because of the Jewish Zionist global conspiracy or whatever. All they really did was confirm that there was clearly a Saudi state-sponsored support network in San Diego that assisted Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi, two of the apparent hijackers of Flight 77. Anyone who looked into those two men knew this already, and while the 28 pages fleshed out a few details it was not the game-changer it was predicted to be.
As is so often the case I find myself in a minority of a minority – I never believed in Ron Paul, I never believed he was a 9/11 truth candidate and I never believed the 28 pages were critical to solving this crime. This caused a lot of friction between me and various truthers, alt media types and 9/11 sceptics. Because I refused to engage in the Rorschach politics and just see what I wanted to see, I didn’t psychologically reinforce the myths that many around me wanted to believe in and this caused and still causes the collapse of friendships and a lot of accusations to come my way. I don’t especially care about that because to me it’s more important to be truthful about what I really think than it is to get along with people whose opinions I don’t respect and who don’t seem to have much in the way of personal or intellectual integrity. But I’m not going to bitch about anyone specific, this is more about the psychological effect of a candidate dropping hints about 9/11 and how that still, to this day, guarantees that a certain audience will forgive them all other transgressions because they believe in the Hollywood fantasy of 9/11 revelation. I don’t mean to upset people but the simple truth is that the chance has gone, if it ever existed, and it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they are not going to reinvestigate 9/11 and do it properly. They’re just playing identity politics for those who made 9/11 part of their identity.
The Alt Right
It is impossible to talk about the rise of Donald Gump without talking about what is labelled ‘The Alt Right’. I hate this term because it’s a euphemism that excuses the responsibility these people have for holding themselves to any standard of decency. I also think it’s a misnomer – this movement is not a new thing nor is it alternative or fringe, it’s been around for a long time and seems to be getting more mainstream and more influential as time goes on.
There are two ways to look at this phenomenon that I think are actually useful. A lot of people waste energy on being reactionary about this movement, wringing their hands and trying to alert others to the danger through social media memes and otherwise thinking that talking is enough to deal with the problem. This is one of the main problems of the postmodern Left – they think everything can be solved with words. If only we can find the right way to talk about a problem then we can resolve that problem. I’m not denying that the way we talk about a problem gives a structure to the way we think about it and hence influences potential solutions, but ultimately it’s only real world change that ever makes a difference however much that might have been precipitated by words. I am sometimes guilty of this even to this day so I sympathise and understand, but I’m trying to grow up and I encourage others to do the same.
The two ways to examine this phenomenon are psychological and political. Let’s start with the psychological. Almost every single person I know, or have known, or have met that sympathises with the ‘alt right’ fits into the same category. They are almost universally male, white, working class or lower middle class, single, and unemployed or under-employed. At it’s simplest it breaks down like this: ‘I am unemployed or under-employed because of all the immigrants and I’m single because all the women are feminists’. At heart, this is what an awful lot of these people, if not all of them, feel and believe. They feel that they are somehow owed more by the world and that it isn’t their fault they don’t have it, they are smart and talented and capable but because of the liberal agenda causing trouble for them they’ve never managed to prove themselves. Likewise the hostility towards homosexuals and gay rights – ‘how dare gay people be allowed to marry when I can’t find a wife or even a girlfriend’.
In my experience these people, almost exclusively men, are almost entirely motivated by resentment and more accurately ressentiment. For those of you unfamiliar with this term I’ll take the definition from Wikipedia: “Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one’s own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.”
Think of all the people you know who complain about feminism, multicuturalism, the liberal agenda, gay rights and so on and ask yourself how many of these people are white males without a girlfriend who aren’t achieving as much with their lives as they feel they should and are looking for something to blame. My guess is that it’ll be at least 95%. Not that it is that simple, I also know a reasonable number of white single males in unsatisfying jobs or without jobs who don’t go down this route, but who are just mildly depressed. I have a lot more time for them because I feel their pain. I do also feel the pain of the alt rightists, I just think they’re immature idiots who spout a lot of racist, sexist nonsense as an excuse for avoiding their own problems and need to man up and just get on with it rather than looking for something external to blame for their failings in life.
And herein lies the most fundamental hypocrisy. For a fairly long time black and female identity politics has played the victim card, to which the conventional right often responded that they just needed to get of their ass, stop complaining and work hard to get the things they want in life. Now we have a significant number of white men also embracing identity politics and playing the victim card, and ignoring the same advice they have given to others for decades. Much as I dislike and have suspicions about Black Lives Matter, the response of ‘white lives matter too, you racist’ is moronic. Intellectually it’s like going to a charity fundraiser for people with AIDS and protesting that they aren’t raising money for people with cancer. Politicially it’s like going into a cancer ward and protesting that people with sunburn deserve medical treatment.
However, that is not to reduce the so called ‘Alt Right’ to psychology. That would be ignorant and in some limited ways unfair. There are real world political and economic and social factors leading to this reaction. Most of these white males do live in societies where meaningful employment is hard to find, and one of the factors in that is immigration. Here in Britain we have ludicrously high house prices, unaffordable for most working class people unless they strike it lucky or work themselves into an early grave, and two of the factors pushing up housing prices are high immigration and lots of women coming into the workforce in the last 60 or 70 years. Likewise there are a lot of single people, a lot of sexually frustrated people and one of the factors affecting this is a kind of capitalistic media feminism that tells women that men are there solely to give them what they want and that any man who doesn’t isn’t worthy of their time. We’ve all read Agony Aunt columns which constantly advise women with relationship difficulties not to assess what’s really important or work through their troubles with their partner, but to ditch them and find someone else who is up to the required standard.
However, these are not the only factors, not by a long way. They are the only factors isolated for scapegoating and hostility by the so-called ‘Alt Right’ and they are real factors, but there is a lot more going on here. As per usual the elephant in the room is globalised capitalism and the cultural capitalism that comes with it. Virtually no one talks about this, and that isn’t a coincidence. In reality, high immigration is a consequence of globalised capitalism, which creates vast disparities in wealth and opportunity, motivating immigration into richer countries, and provides mass transport systems which enable this migration of people. A century ago you probably couldn’t get from Afghanistan to Britain if you just some ordinary peasant looking for something more than you had. Now you can, but no one even considers this. For the so-called ‘Alt Right’ this is all some plot by cultural Marxists and the liberal agenda and multiculturalism and basically any word except capitalism is to blame.
Likewise the sense of dislocation that people feel, the loss of identity, the alienation from others especially those in whom we have a romantic interest are all profoundly affected by cultural capitalism. Some of this influence is direct and overt – a lot of the dating advice columns are sponsored by Match.com, whose entire business model comes from making lasting relationships impossible. But there is also the more broad atomising effect of a culture where everything is commodified, including love and romance and sex. This can be practical – when people are concerned with working to earn money so they can pay bills then they don’t have much time or inspiration to go to the park or the pub where they might meet someone. As a result, the two biggest places where people meet partners are work and the supermarket, neither of which are particularly romantic settings.
I recall being rather obviously approached by a young lady when I was in the supermarket, who struck up a conversation about the relative merits and demerits of different brands of hot chocolate. Frankly, I should have asked her out and I didn’t and that’s on me. Part of the reason is that it isn’t particularly romantic talking about hot chocolate, it’s just a product and whether we like the same product isn’t a sound basis for a relationship. But in that context what other choice did she have for trying to talk to me? In most contexts what choices do people have for topics of conversation that aren’t about consumer products? When our attachment to each other is primarily defined by whether we buy the same stuff or go to the same location to consume something it is not surprising that the result is a lot of single people who want to get laid but can’t find a way to make it happen.
So, while there are real political, economic and social phenomena that do create or sustain the frustrations that lead to sympathy with the so-called ‘Alt Right’, most of these are primarily consequences, not causes. They are the consequences of globalised capitalism and the culture of consumption. The so-called ‘Alt Right’ responds to these in a resentful way that provides no solution to these frustrations because they’re misidentifying the root cause, the source of the frustration.
The solution to Rorschach Politics
So what is the solution? We’re going into an election dominated by a form of identity politics where most people are seeing what they want to see in their candidate of choice, most prominently that they are not the other candidate. And unlike most elections in most countries, this one has implications for the whole world.
There are potential solutions to this. Honest media coverage produced by people with integrity could make quite a difference, but it is virtually non-existent no matter which sector of the media you look at. I have attempted that here, you can make your own judgement as to how successful that has been. A third party that doesn’t just seek to carve out its own crowd of supporters that are usually just disaffected former supporters of major parties could also help, but I don’t see one and I doubt that one will arise. Political candidates with large scale support running as independents and people being willing to vote for them is another possibility, but I am not holding my breath on that score either.
Short of the collapse of the globalised capitalist system, or its wilful destruction by anarchists, I’m not sure that the underlying issues can be resolved in any permanent way. However, we could do a lot better than we’re currently doing without overthrowing the whole applecart. For example, a candidate that believes in smaller government and lower taxes, especially for the poor, and that more of government should be about providing services people want rather than imposing on them systems they neither want nor need would be better than we have now. They would also probably be quite popular – what Trump and Ron Paul before him have shown is that there are a lot of people on the Right who want something different and Bernie Sanders has shown that the same is true on the Left.
As such I’m calling for the accurate identification of Rorschach politics and candidates and parties who oppose it. I’m talking about people and organisations that don’t simply tell people what they want to hear and play to their pre-existing prejudices and frustrations with how things are. I’m talking about people who are brave enough to abandon the conventions of mainstream politics because those conventions are so destructive and poisonous. Where, for example, are the genuinely Libertarian Socialists, or the genuinely Compassionate Conservatives? They seem to be relatively silent, but there are quite a lot of them out there and they agree that less war, less overall government and more focus on looking after vulnerable people would make for a better society.
I would like to encourage all of you listening to try your best to extricate yourself from Rorschach politics, from projecting personal feelings onto candidates that don’t give a fuck about you aside from getting your money and your votes. Stop looking to public figures, be they celebrities or politicians or something in between, to solve these problems. In reality there isn’t a huge amount they could do even if they wanted to because we’re talking about mass trends, population-sized behaviours that we all engage in to some extent. The less we engage in those behaviours the less definitive they will become and maybe that will apply the right kinds of pressure at the right points of our system that constructive change will become more normal, rather than a spectacular dream sold to us by people who don’t really believe in it.
If that fails then the only other thing I can suggest is to set up a dating website for the so-called ‘Alt Right’. You’ll make money and provide a beneficial public service.