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The Age of the Demagogues

Posted on Nov 29, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at FreedomFest on July 11 in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

The increase in nihilistic violence such as school shootings and Friday’s lethal assault on a Planned Parenthood clinic, the frequent executions of poor people of color by police, and the rise of thuggish demagogues such as Donald Trump are symptoms of the collapse of our political and cultural institutions.

These institutions, which once made possible piecemeal and incremental reform, which sought to protect the weak from the tyranny of the majority and give them a voice, acted as a safety valve to ameliorate the excesses of capitalism and address the grievances of the underclass. They did not defy the system of capitalism. They colluded with the structures of privilege and white supremacy. But they provided some restraints on the worst abuse and exploitation. The capturing of major institutions by corporate power and the moral bankruptcy of our elites, especially members of our self-identified liberal class, have shattered this equilibrium.

A faux liberal class, epitomized by amoral politicians such as the Clintons and Barack Obama, has led many disenfranchised people, especially the white underclass, to direct a legitimate rage toward liberals and the supposed liberal values they represent. Racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, homophobia, sexism and vigilante violence, condemned by liberal, college-educated elites, are embraced by those who have been betrayed, those who now speak back to liberal elites in words, gestures and acts, sometimes violent, designed to denigrate the core values of a liberal democracy. The hatred is the product of a liberal class that did nothing to halt corporations from driving tens of millions of families into poverty and desperation as it mouthed empty platitudes about rights and economic advancement.

The Republican business elites, which declared war on the liberal class’ call for cultural diversity, allied themselves with an array of protofascists in the Christian right, the tea party, groups such as the National Rifle Association and The Heritage Foundation, the neo-Confederate movement, the right-to-life movement and right-wing militias. The elites in the Republican Party, who needed an ideological veneer to mask their complicity in the corporate assault, saw these protofascists as useful idiots. They thought, naively, that by demonizing liberals, feminists, African-Americans, Muslims, abortion providers, undocumented workers, intellectuals and homosexuals they could redirect the growing rage of the masses, sending it against the vulnerable, as well as against the only institution that could curb corporate power, the government, while they greedily disemboweled the nation.

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But what the Republican elites have done, as they now realize to their horror, is empower a huge swath of the public—largely white—that is gripped by magical thinking and fetishizes violence. It was only a matter of time before a demagogue whom these elites could not control would ride the wave of alienation and rage. If Trump fails in his bid to become the GOP presidential nominee, another demagogue will emerge to take his place. Trump is not making a political revolution. He is responding to one.

The corporate state was never threatened by the liberal class’ myopic preoccupation with cultural diversity or the right wing’s championing of supposedly “Christian” values. This was anti-politics masquerading as politics. The culture wars did not challenge imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization. The dictates of the market, the primacy of corporate profit and the military-industrial complex remained sacrosanct. The mounting distress of the underclass was ignored or manipulated during the culture wars. Liberals who embraced cultural diversity did so within a neoliberal framework. Feminism, for example, became about placing individual women in positions of power—this is Hillary Clinton’s mantra—not about empowering poor, marginalized and oppressed women. Post-racial America became about a black president who, as Cornel West says, serves as “a black mascot for Wall Street.”

The preoccupation with cultural diversity, as Russell Jacoby writes in “The End of Utopia,” was nothing more than a call to include a broader spectrum of people within neoliberal elites. It was, as he says, about “patronage, not revolution.”

“The radical multiculturalists, postcolonialists and other cutting edge theorists gush about marginality with the implicit, and sometimes explicit, goal of joining the mainstream,” he writes. “They specialize in marginalization to up their market value. Again, this is understandable; the poor and the excluded want to be wealthy and included, but why is this multicultural or subversive?”

Jacoby argues that cultural diversity among the liberal class represents “power devoid of a vision or program.” He goes on to say that the call by multiculturalists for inclusion within the power structure does nothing to challenge the deadly “monoculturalism” of corporatism.

Jacoby’s point is important. The liberal class failed for decades to decry neoliberalism’s assault on the poor and on workingmen and -women. It busied itself with a boutique activism. It is not that cultural diversity is bad. It isn’t. It is that cultural diversity when divorced from economic and political justice, from the empowerment of the oppressed, is elitist. And this is why these liberal values are being rejected by a disenfranchised white underclass. They are seen as serving the elites, and marginalized groups, at the expense of that underclass.

The academy, the press, the entertainment industry, the arts and religious institutions have been purged of those who do not sing to the tune of neoliberalism and bow before the glories of corporate capitalism. The destruction of the liberal class, something I explore in my book “Death of the Liberal Class,” has created a closed political system crippled by polarization, political gridlock, crushing austerity, unchecked pillage by financial elites and a carnival of meaningless political theater. It has shut out genuine voices of dissent. The failure by liberals to confront or even name what Sheldon Wolin called our system of “inverted totalitarianism” made them complicit in the destruction of our capitalist democracy.

The gains made by minorities and the oppressed within the society, whether on college campuses or in the workplace, are being rolled back. The culture wars, used by the political and economic elites to divert attention from the ascendancy of corporate power, have escaped from the hands of their manipulators. A destitute working class knows the feel-your-pain language of the liberal class and the Democratic Party is a lie. And it knows the “compassionate conservatism” epitomized by the Bush dynasty and the Republican establishment is a lie.


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