Last year, when Bernie Sanders and billionaire Donald J. Trump announced their candidacies for the Democratic and Republican nominations for the U.S. presidency respectively, few believed that they would have any success. But what followed was a series of surprising victories which saw Trump declared the winner and President Elect of the USA.
Like George Souvlis in his piece of June this year, I say few are more appropriate to explain such developments than the American philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West who is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. His work on the role of race, gender and class in American society, and his political experience as prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America gives him an insightful understanding of today’s political development in America.
According to Cornel West, Americans were at a crossroads in their country’s history where they had to choose between a neo-fascism in the making (Trump), neo-liberalism in the decaying (Clinton), and a neo-populism in the ascending (Sanders).
West argued that the establishments in both the Democratic and Republican parties were disintegrating and that Obama is the last gasp of the neoliberalism that emerged under Carter: a massive response to the structural crises of the global economy in the mid-70s which attempted to privatize, and militarize America’s way through deep problems—from the economy, education, incarceration, security and communication—has produced vast wealth inequality, cultures of superficial spectacle, and pervasive corruption in every sphere.
West views Trump as a billionaire pseudo-populist with an autocratic sensibility, narcissistic personality, and hence a neo-fascist in the making. “His project brings together a lethal mixture of big banks, huge corporations, xenophobic scapegoating (Mexicans, women, Muslims, Blacks, etc), economic anxiety and national malaise tied to militaristic aspirations abroad. This is what US-style fascism looks like—echoes of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), the classic novel of American fascism,” says West.
According to West, despite Sanders’ self-definition as a democratic socialist, his platform was vintage neo-populist: principled use of the government to come to the rescue of working and poor people crushed by Wall Street greed and upper middle-class indifference to the disappearing opportunities of vulnerable citizens. However, West warned that Political campaigns are not social movements. “We must distinguish between social momentums, social rebellions and social movements. Given the massive national security state and the pervasive carceral state, social movements are rare—past, present and future,” he argued.
So why did Trump win overwhelmingly despite his remarks on African-Americans, the Hispanic or Latino voters, the Asian minorities, immigrants, disabled, women, other countries and the fact that he wants to do away with Obama legacy and was fully endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan?
As the Republicans gathered in Cleveland to nominate Trump as their presidential candidate, a public policy and social action forum dubbed IMPACT took place at Mount Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest African-American congregations. The forum featured Cornel West, the “provocative democratic intellectual,” as he bills himself, as its keynote speaker.
According to West, despite Downtown Cleveland enjoying a robust revitalization, there are also vast swaths of the rest of the community in which factory buildings lie vacant. There are close to 6,000 zombie homes — homes their owners believe are in foreclosure, even though the bank that holds their mortgages never completed the legal process to foreclose — a physical legacy of the foreclosure crisis which is still felt there. Some 20,000 have already been torn down, and for the homeowners in the poorer part of town, property values have dropped by as much as 80 percent.
For West, the welfare reform and crime bills President Bill Clinton signed into law helped set the stage for the mass incarceration of African Americans, and the loss of a generation of parents to the penal system. “Now people say, ‘Brother West, she’s better than Trump.’ That’s true, but Trump is about as low a bar that anybody could ever have,” West told his audience.
“We are in a tough situation. Of course, you know this is a swing state, so you have to make judgments in very wise ways,” West said. “But you don’t want to lie to yourself. Hillary Clinton comes on and says, ‘I have been fighting for children all my life.’ Which children do you have in mind?” People on welfare, West explained, are “primarily women and children.” The welfare bill Bill Clinton signed, which ended the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with block grants to the states, West said, “was a bill Ronald Reagan would have not signed.” He added, “It was only signed for political purposes.”
“Now, of course, Sister Hillary is very clever because what does she do, especially with black folk?” West continued. “[She says,] ‘I am the only one that represents the legacy of Barack Obama.’ Of course, Barack Obama is an historic figure. We can never take away the symbolic breakthrough of having a black man in the White House built by black slaves.” “But they bailed out Wall Street without Main Street that upset me. Drones dropped on innocent civilians. How many children so far?” West asked. “Press won’t tell you: 231 children.”
When West was asked by a member of the audience for his election predictions, he said “I think Trump will be a neofascist catastrophe and Clinton will be a neoliberal disaster,” he answered. “So we are between a rock and a hard place. We have to gird ourselves, fortify ourselves for serious struggle. They are both tied to Wall Street. They are both dangerous in that way.”
In a word, West was saying he understood why so many African Americans admire President Barack Obama, but urged them not to lose their critical discernment. “It is the most wonderful thing that my child sees a black man in the White House. I understand that. I got kids too; I have grandkids they have been empowered by Michelle [Obama]. They have been empowered by Barack, in example, at the symbolic level. I don’t just live life just symbolically. I live it at the level of substance too. Black child poverty is higher now than it was in 2008. That isn’t symbolic. That is substantial.”
In essence, West was saying, the neoliberal ideology comes in a number of different colours. It could be Bill Clinton, it could be Barack Obama, and it could be Hillary Clinton. And that neoliberal hegemony means that to trying to raise the issues of poverty, it’s hard to get fellow citizens to look at the world through a very different lens as opposed to a neoliberal lens.
Through a neoliberal lens, recovery is measured by how well the stock market is doing, and how well corporate profits are doing. And they have been doing very well. Suffice to look at the QE2 — the quantitative easing — coming out of the Federal Reserve…because that’s the benchmark and it is not what is the quality of life of everyday working people, and there has been no recovery there, not in the real economy. So you miss the social misery that’s out there, and of course, Trump’s win is part of the backlash. He is part of the deeply right-wing populist backlash because so many of white working-class are hurting, and that hurt is real. But unfortunately it’s not geared toward accountability toward elites at the top; it’s scapegoating the most vulnerable on the bottom.
Thus, West correctly predicted why the American Empire was more ripe for a counter-revolution than revolution, for right-wing movements than left-wing ones. This is so primarily because of the deep xenophobic roots in the country and profound militaristic sentiments in the culture. The good news is that there is a magnificent moral, spiritual and political awakening taking place among the younger generation in the midst of the American empire. The Bernie Sanders campaign was a great example of young folk coming alive, becoming involved because what they have lived has been more and more the underside of massive unemployment, decrepit education, unbelievable student debt. My wish is for politician everywhere to learn a lesson never to ignore the deep rooted issues of the vast majority of the poor due to political arrogance but listen to their issues.
• Paul T. Shipale is a Windhoek based civil servant. The opinion expressed here is solely his personal views as a citizen.