Elexistential dread: final thoughts on a spectacle to forget

As most Americans go to the polls today to elect the nation’s forthcoming representative of an empire-in-decline, the curtain will finally be drawn on what has been an election cycle like no other in recent memory. The ugly invective, dull blather, and incessant moralising that it generated siphoned away all that might have once been redemptive in the world. If only it were illegal to present the electorate with such wretched binaries.

Hillary Clinton, whose campaign logo signifies where on the centrist spectrum she tilts (whether intentionally or not), is a known product. Yes, she is a card-carrying neoliberal (shocker, considering she represents a party which is structurally aligned towards the interests of US capital), and yes she has hawkish military instincts (and certainly plots late at night on how to make drones intersectional). No one is under any illusions that she represents an intransigent, shitty status quo; but one with a hint of (domestic) progressive manoeuvrability under the best of circumstances.

Bernie Sanders had mobilised a vast segment of progressives, much of whom were first politicised during Occupy Wall Street and many who continue pushing for socio-economic transformation under the Black Lives Matter movement. They will have to be a diverse future bloc that forges local alliances, lobbies for and against legislature, elects state representatives, and builds pressure on the Democratic Party apparatus while independently organising long-term structures to ensure a viable third party emerges in their lifetime – considering the hollow shell of the Democratic Party is not one that contains the interests of the working class, and never will.

Forced to incorporate progressive positions she otherwise would never have been publicly obliged to take, Clinton understands when to bend and when to stay firm. That she has not been able to cleanly distance herself from a decrepit, crypto-fascist, orange hued man-child speaks volumes to the appeal of authenticity and integrity that voters desire. Emailgate plagued her at every turn, to the point that the FBI director James Comey decided to reactivate the investigation a week before the election. Amongst the accumulating virtual transgressions, the Podesta email leaks revealed much more. As Thomas Frank puts it, the Wikileaks hacks are “a window into the soul of the Democratic party and into the dreams and thoughts of the class to whom the party answers.”

Trump, on the other hand, is a phenomenon that capitalised on a topography of burgeoning white rage, which liberals saw as articulating an anxiety in the verbiage of economic disenfranchisement and class antagonism towards metropole elites. Economism was rife amongst the commentariat, pitching Trumpians as primarily white-working class who happen to be the pugnacious residue that globalisation left behind. Their racism was to be crudely characterised as an ugly symptom. However, Zach Beauchamp draws attention to a vast universe of academic research that suggest that the anxiety inhabiting the cultural plane – one dominated by a fear of difference and social change – is the overwhelming source of the far-right’s ethnocentric appeal. The research illuminates those driving factors that animate Trump’s constituency with their cross-Atlantic brethren is unequivocally one of anti-immigration mixed with a toxic blend of racism and religious bigotry rather than any simplistic appeals to economic reductionism.

Some of the most rancid voices of right-wing media which hosted the most insipid discourses of reaction during the Obama presidency were given a massive boost by Trump. Breitbart News, the bastion of the kooky libertarian/paleo conservative/alt-right, actively abetted his candidacy from the start and emphatically endorsed him. The formal merger of the most strident elements of conservative news media was evident in Trump’s decision to make Stephen K. Bannon – chairman of Breitbart News and self-proclaimed Leninist – his campaign’s chief executive, hoping to leverage their boisterous coverage which incubated and fostered his rise. Matthew Phelan keenly observes that this fusion signalled something much more symbolic:

The elevation of Breitbart’s unique brand of lightweight, gossamer junk to the status of national news tells — in part — the story of what gets dredged up by the low-friction vacuum of journalism’s protracted financial collapse. By tapping Bannon, Trump not only acquired a reliable conduit to Breitbart’s unruly community of libertarians, paleoconservatives, and alt-right brown shirts. He also acquired access to the GAI’s well-financed lawyers, data scientists, and forensic investigators — an opposition machine that the cash-strapped majors in the news media have already proven desperate to cut deals with.

And who could forget Alex Jones, bless our dear sweet baby reptilian overlords. The raspy proprietor of Infowars.com and great white hope before Trump came along, Jones found the perfect candidate to ventriloquise his schizophrenic disdain for the establishment, while disseminating his virulent (and extremely well-branded) tonic of conspiracy-baiting and NWO nuttery with ceremonious vigour. Ever the astute marketer, having the Donald on his show easily cemented brand loyalty that will live beyond the election. The biggest conspiracy might just well be that Alex Jones is really (deceased?) comedian Bill Hicks pulling a fast one over us. How else do you explain such comedy gold:

Then again, when you care as much as Alex does, you just can’t hold back that righteous indignation (which also the happened to be the title of the late Andrew Breitbart’s notorious tome on the liberal media complex). The apex of this rambunctious political theatre culminated when Jones stormed onto a set of a The Young Turks RNC broadcast and got into a verbal spat with insufferable liberal mouthpiece Cenk Uygur. For your viewing pleasure:

I will admit there is a fair amount of schadenfreude to be garnered from such degeneracy. What both Infowars and Breitbart share in common is that they gesture towards prejudices and beliefs on the margins: they play to those constituents who do not trust ‘big government’ and its decidedly liberal media landscape. They instead offer up alternative narratives; libidinal fantasies that shock and satisfy in equal measure; a muscular opposition to nefarious technocratic ‘globalists’ and their ‘cuckservative’ bedfellows.

Which brings us to the memes. The alt-right as a movement was primarily located in the nether regions of webspace, and so it made sense that a mischievous trolling disposition sprinkled with a generous serving of white supremacy, antisemitism and misogyny, would be their calling card within a newly invigorated conservative movement that saw to eliminate the bogeyman of ‘political correctness’ wherever they imagined it to be. The figure of Pepe the Frog, in becoming an unofficial mascot, was exploited during the contentious election cycle by those who supported Trump, and slowly mutated into something much more sinister. Those who dared to paint Trump in a negative light, were on the receiving end of the triple parentheses ‘echo’ punctuation – used to specifically single out Jewish journalists. Pepe the Frog memes have entrenched themselves in the iconography of this identitarian (gaming) subculture, used as in-jokes and references amongst its alt-right activists. For those not initiated in the vocabulary of the alt-right, their worldview goes something like this:


That the structurally victimised alt-right goon squad probably disseminate this pyramid without the slightest hint of irony goes without saying.

Meanwhile, most liberals preferred to find solace amongst familiar faces in the media. MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and other late night cohorts chimed in with occasional nod towards Bernie Sanders, but it was no secret who their money was on and it was not the democratic socialist neo-New Dealer. Vox’s Ezra Klein meanwhile, thanks to the Podesta emails, was confirmed to be a Clinton surrogate (surprise surprise!) while also revealing that he demands a mind-boggling $30k speaking fee with the rare exception. The founder and chief editor of FiveThirtyEight, data wizard Nate Silver (whom upon second glance could pass as the lovechild of Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias) has also figured prominently as the go-to pollster of choice, who derides Washington punditry of being devoid of data seemingly every election cycle. Having consistently underestimated Trump, Silver’s buttons became susceptible to being pushed, and sure enough a tweetstorm ensued after HuffPo Editor Ryan Grim accused him of tampering with polls to fit his assumptions, to which Silver became unhinged.

What has been obvious is that much of the Republican party machinery and their Democratic counterparts are inseparably fused together in selecting the candidate who can best manage the reigns of empire amidst the choppy waters ahead. The Obama Doctrine was a mixed bag, but on the whole one which peppered with symbolic achievements (Assassination of Bin Laden, Iran deal, Cuba). Undoubtedly the manager of choice is Clinton; Trump’s isolationism, Putinophilia, and anti-free trade rhetoric is precisely the sort of policy prescriptions that Neocons and Neoliberals would be repulsed by. This explains a chunk of the establishment Republicans jumping ship to endorse Clinton. It has also been fascinating to see a polarising schism develop within the intelligence community on the operable character of the internal-external enemy construction: the optics suggesting the FBI with a soft spot for Trump, and the CIA resolutely behind Clinton. Such has been the divisiveness of this election.

Nevertheless, Clinton maintains an ace up her sleeve: the ‘reality’ card. Alain Badiou has argued, the welding of ‘reality’ serves first and foremost as a disciplinary function. He observes that in liberal capitalist nations, it is the economy that was the guarantor of ‘the real’: at once invoking a Hayekian epistemology whereby the market is a superior information processor and therefore ‘knows’ more than the capacity of human rationality could ever allow. Populism in this instance is pejoratively conveyed to describe a disruption of business-as-usual by irresponsible outliers, whereby ‘common sense’ becomes harder to sustain as the established two-party oligarchy erodes, bereft of the ideological purchase they once had.

The obsessive-compulsive news cycle, late-night celebrity politicking, alt-right memes, and tweetstorms displayed an enthralment with a spectacle that has been both horrifying and stultifying in equal measure. It is no surprise then, that electoral anxiety is engineered from over 18 months of consuming and analysing every conceivable angle of the 24 hour electoral circus show. This anxiety has been further emboldened by a very recent traumatic kernel: Brexit. Philosopher Simon Critchley in an op-ed for the New York Times invokes this underlying civic angst and repackages it into a concept termed Brexistentialism.

The Brits went to the polls on June 23 this year and voted to leave the EU, defying conventional wisdom and opening up the socio-political terrain to a toxic, xenophobic underbelly which had been long festering. UKIP’s Nigel Farage (who following Brexit went across the pond to lend ideological support to Trump) politically harnessed anti-immigration sentiment and playing on the nativist tendencies of Little Britain, much like how Trump did with the Tea Party base, allowing him to hijack the GOP. Whether or not Trump electorally succeeds is in some sense cannot yet be entertained, but rather the thought of him getting support from such a substantial stratum of the electorate. What is revealed is a subterranean discomfort: we don’t share the same value system as millions of others who have been constructed as fellow citizens under a symbolic body politic, which we are supposed to share comradely fidelity to in the abstract. Brexistentialism has been converted into elexistential dread on this side of the Atlantic.

The invocation of a begotten era of pristine homogenous cultural sedimentation, law and order, and traditional gender roles coalesce as driving libidinal forces are sublimated into a pernicious nostalgia, masking resentment and symbolic displacement due to a perceived loss of status. The gains of peoples of colour, women, and non-heteronormative orientations intersected to create an oceanic reservoir of straight white male tears. The cultural rehabilitation of fascism, was never necessary, but always latent. Trump’s poujadist campaign, rife as it was with racist dog-whistling and braggadocious hyper masculinity, littered with misogynous language and scandalous sexcapades, has set in motion the coordinates from which the rest of the GOP establishment will have to agilely recalibrate towards or risk being left behind. Win or lose, the structural factors are in place for a Trumpism that will last beyond Trump. Two material factors that contribute to the far-right’s increasing popularity are the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks on western soil, and such events are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

What these 18 months have reinforced, if anything, is that old Marxist canard: we do not make history under circumstances of our own choosing. It is nauseating in every sense of the word which Sartre would understand it. It is in the context of a decaying (and increasingly authoritarian) neoliberal centre, where any avenues for contestation must be activated from in order for historical change to be realised. It is in that spirit where we should hope not the lesser evil wins, but the greater evil loses.


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