The Great Presidential Puzzle by James Albert Wales, 1880
By Rick Moody
This is my third presidential election of keeping a close watch on Republican candidates throughout the primary and general elections seasons. (Excerpts from the first two diaries were published in Black Clock magazine in 2009 and 2013.) I started writing this diary on the day that Ted Cruz declared in 2015, though I found myself oddly mute during the summer of Trump. Those months were accurate demonstrations of Tom Wolfe’s oft-repeated observation that reality is crazier than anything a novelist could invent. However, now that the primaries are underway, I’ve gotten my dudgeon back on, my pundit, and the following are some excerpts from the last few weeks.
January 31, 2016
Tomorrow is the big day, the beginning of the election cycle, 2016. I feel certain that we know who the victors are going to be, Trump and Clinton, but there are secondary and tertiary positions to be staked out with important ramifications. Meanwhile, I continue to want to try to find ways to attach language to the horror of Donald Trump, so that his rampage of self-aggrandizement does not become emotionally or culturally routine in the coming months.
It seemed to me in this regard that it might be worth making a few remarks on the idea of “political correctness,” which has proved to be such a reliable talking point for Trump in the last few months. “Political correctness,” as I understood the term, in the early eighties, on the Brown University campus, which was a hotbed of Marxism, theory, and various other schismatic interests of the Left, was always an ironic usage. It was true then, as it was true going all the way back to May ’68 (always an historical touchstone at Brown!) that the splittist tendencies of the Left tended to erupt along the lines of supposed ideological purity. You couldn’t be a feminist and do _______________, you couldn’t be a Marxist and believe _______________, you couldn’t be an intellectual and __________________. There were always people who would support these extremes of ideological purity, but they were mostly clowns. No one was more suspicious to me and to my acquaintances than the Socialist Worker’s Party, with all their internecine battles, and their vacant and fierce college kids trying to recruit in various public locales. Here’s the Wikipedia page about the SWP in the 80s:
“A further factor in the growing divisions within the SWP was the move by Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters and others in the leadership away from the Trotskyist label. In 1982, Barnes gave a speech which was later published as Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist continuity today in which Barnes rejected Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution arguing that it failed to sufficiently distinguish between the democratic and socialist tasks of a workers’ revolution. Barnes argued that anticapitalist revolutions typically began with a “workers’ and farmers’ government” which initially concentrated on bourgeois-democratic measures, and only later moved on to the abolition of capitalism. Barnes also argued that the “Trotskyist” label unnecessarily distinguished leftists in that tradition from leftists of other origins, such as the Cuban Communist Party, or the Sandinista National Liberation Front. He argued that the SWP had more in common with these organizations than with many groups calling themselves Trotskyist.
I never believed a word that came out of their mouths, the SWP guys, and I felt that way despite feeling very close to the writings of Marx, strongly anti-Capitalist, and somewhat reverential about Trotsky. And yet: in my circles at Brown, ideological purity always seemed dangerous, and close to the “totalizing” concept that you read about in Derrida and elsewhere. To require ideological purity was to control, and controlling always had a whiff of the totalitarian about it. Control was the first wave of fascism, even though I, for one, felt like “fascist,” as a word, was somewhat hysterically bandied around in those days. Everyone got accused of fascism at one time or another.
At any rate, politically correct, was a term that one leveled at oneself or one’s friends when attempting to point out that one had failed a certain litmus test of ideological purity. Kate cooked breakfast for her boyfriend this morning: not politically correct! Jeff was primarily heterosexual, not politically correct! Denny really liked cocaine, not politically correct!
The obverse usage, in which one actually attempted to create some kind of ideological purity, and to legislate it in a particular group? Everyone has to boycott the green grapes now or else! That usage was of political correctness not particularly prevalent. Ironizing ideological purity was part of the post-modern survival techniques of the theory crowd as I understood it as Brown. Ironizing ideological purity was seeing purity as simple-minded and counter-productive.
The semantic implications of the widespread reversal of the meaning of the term, the de-ironizing of it that takes place in, let’s say, in libertarian circles, is somewhat devious and clever. It manages to create a sort of an avatar, the dogmatic and politically earnest person, and in the interest of fomenting some completely imaginary abridgment of liberty, goes far afield in order to defend against this person. In the process, it legitimizes discourses that were never terribly legitimate in the first place.
The culture war battle over “political correctness” seems to date to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, a very intellectually conservative book that I disliked, but also agree with in some ways (I think we should still study Greek and Latin!). But most of the people attempting to read that book gave up quickly, and as with most intellectually challenging social science, it was soon deracinated into oversimplifications. Among these was the idea that the study of continental philosophy had resulted in a radicalization of identity politics idealogues who didn’t give a shit about Western values, and were trying to poison the minds of the young. The whole line of thinking reeked of, well, William F. Buckley.
As with so much Republican thinking, this Bloomian jeremiad trickled down into a talking point that had none of the suppleness of the original (how many Southern congressional men and women are in favor of a Greek and Latin classical education?). Bill Maher did not help the cause. Indeed, while I am glad that Bill Maher donated a million dollars to Obama’s campaign in 2012, I otherwise think he’s merely an entertainer, though shrewd. He handed the talking point away to the Republican party, where it has been lodged ever since, the bugaboo of political correctness. And now we have Donald Trump inveighing against political correctness in order to permit precisely racist language: Mexicans are rapists, Jews are cheap, blacks are violent, etc. Saying in effect I have to say these things, because if I don’t say them then I am abridging liberty.
Back in the dawn of the ironized version of politically correct, it was understood that no matter the difficulties of being political and wanting social justice one wanted above all to be human, and that the human sympathies were uppermost, no matter how bourgeois. Indeed, it was always the really suspect ideological purists, the crypto-fascists, who would get up in your face about being bourgeois when caring about the plight of Native Americans as individuals, rather than just caring about how capitalism required the genocide. In this environment of liberal humanism, or secular humanism, one avoided racially charged language because one was capable of empathizing with aggrieved parties, with the historically victimized, whether they were African-Americans, or women, or gay people, or what have you. The ideological purists of both extremes resented this: on the hard left, because it was presumed that you could never really know the pain of the Other (as, e.g., a white upper-middle-class intellectual), and on the hard right, because it was presumed you could never really know the pain of the other (because there wasn’t any pain, or they deserved it, or they were faking in order to get government aid, or simply because on the hard right, you had no human emotions for anyone but yourself, because human empathy was a construct, not a genuine feeling).
But Trump, and those voices of the hard right supplant political correctness with their own variety of ideological purity. And the problem is the purity doctrine itself. The grassroots rage of the under-educated working class supporters of Trump (they were Tea Partiers in the last two election cycles) is precisely ideologically pure.
There has been a lot of talk about how Trump is like Hitler, and generally this is a slippery and ignorant analogy, because no one is like Hitler exactly. He’s his own genre of horror, with an unimpeachable record as regards the trauma and displacement and murder he inflicted on Europe. (Though Stalin was worse on the murder front: 20 million dead, more or less, during his rule.) Comparing everyone to Hitler only cheapens Hitler, and that does a disservice to historical thinking about what happened during WWII. But there are a couple of ways that the comparison seems accurate to me. In particular, Trump’s ability to connect with less educated voters, and to use hate as the lingua franca of his campaign is not at all unlike the Hitler of the Beer Hall Putsch and Mein Kampf. In fact, the original title of that book, Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice, very much resembles some of the rhetorical tropes that are repeatedly employed by Donald Trump. What ideological purity often does so well is reverse a certain coinage, turn it on its head, and then wear away at it, until you are not sure what you meant in the first place. The political correctness that Trump employs, along with his repeated invocation of supposed lies, stupidity, and cowardice, are just this proto-fascist linguistic deployment.
And: Hitler never had an ideological position, he was attempting pure dictatorship. He was after more power. So it is with other totalitarians of various kinds. So it is with Mugabe. So it is with Putin. So it was with Chavez, so it is with Assad. So it was with Mao. Is there reason to worry about what Trump might attempt, given his absence of actual policy positions, and his absolute belief in rhetorical control, his refusal to apologize under any circumstances, particularly as evidenced, e.g., by his spoiled brat debate performance of the other night? There is absolutely reason to worry. If the question is could it happen again in Germany my answer would be there’s more reason to worry about it happening in the United States of America.
And tomorrow keep your eye on Rubio, and, to some extent, on Kasich.
February 1, 2016
Cruz up on Trump by several points with 70% reporting. I have to say I am very surprised by this, very surprised. In a way, I am delighted, as I am sure hardcore apparatchiks on the Democratic side all are, because I continue to feel that Cruz cannot, in any way, survive a general election. On the other hand: wasn’t the Iowa caucus called for Rick Santorum in 2012? After a couple of days of uncertainty? Yes, and where is Rick Santorum now? Running on the undercard, showing up on the NYT polling tonight as other, along with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, etc. The Iowa caucuses, on the Republican side, have not been predictive at all.
What will the effect be on Trump’s candidacy? The presumption has always been that he would drop out at the first sign of difficulty, and that was why the elites on the Republican side have always nursed the hope of a more mainstream candidate. Marco Rubio’s strong showing (he’s third, just a couple of points south of Trump), indicates that the establishment Republicans are starting to weed out all the lower rung candidates in order to unite around Rubio. How will Trump spin a second place showing, if it really goes that way?
I am also surprised that Sanders has been running as strong as he has been. I am not a person who would vote for Sanders, at this point, because I believe that Hilary deserves her shot, is a consummate executive, will address issues important to Democrats, and might actually get some stuff done. Also: she’s a woman. I think if Sanders wins, it bespeaks some lingering sexism in the political process. I feel like I even hear that in the venom with which some Sanders partisans speak of the Clinton candidacy.
And: Martin O’Malley is dropping out. Which is perhaps overdue.
ABC calls the caucus for Cruz!
Democrats still close with 84% reporting.
Trump is supposed to make remarks shortly …
February 2, 2016
Huckabee is out too. I believe he first ran in 2008, flirted with 2012, and again in 2016, making him part of that peculiar class, of which Gingrich was one in 2012, professional presidential candidates. Huckabee’s expertise is widespread since he also hawks the dietary programs too. And I think he helps out Jim Bakker, the self-hating gay man (that is my opinion, at any rate), with his broadcasts. Running for president is just another media-related position for Huck, and therefore he is part of the Chayefskification of the political class, or, rather, the growing merger between political speech and entertainment speech. Huckabee comes from the same political class as Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, if from the other end. Here’s an article about his weight loss program.
Huck gave up his Fox program for the presidential run, and one can assume he will attempt to go back through that revolving door, as many others have done. (I watched ABC last night. Was I alone in finding it strange to watch George Stephanopoulus anchoring the election coverage, when he’s a former employee of one of the candidates’ husband?) Huck is not much older than I am, and now that he’s lost a lot of weight, he’s in good shape and can be around for much longer, and he will need some professional occupation, at least until the 2020 primaries.
Huck had almost no impact this time at all, and you could hear in his evangelical fulminations that the conservative populism that helped him win elections past no longer comes easily to him. He seems tired. One marvels that Santorum, the other example of a professional presidential candidate, continues on. How does he monetize the race, if he’s not allowed to use any of the funds raised for personal expenses? Paid speaking engagements?
Ben Carson is griping today about dirty tricks in Iowa. Steve King, e.g., one of those most repellant politicians in America, tweeted that Carson was probably dropping out, and inviting his supporters to pull the lever for Cruz. Sure sounds like a dirty trick to me! Carson polled at 9%, and when only eight percent or so separated Cruz from third-place Rubio, that 9% means something. Now that Carson is flying back to FL to get more clothes (according to his campaign), I expect it will begin to seem like a horrible grind to him. It is a horrible grind. He’ll be out by South Carolina, at the very latest, but maybe sooner. I expect a mass exodus thereafter.
What about Gilmore?
February 3, 2016
I’m going to contend that Rand Paul is dropping out of the race because of the heroin problem in New Hampshire. New Hampshire is a state with a relatively unique set of concerns, when compared with Iowa and other early primary states. But apparently among its most protracted and difficult problems right now is the heroin problem. This is an issue throughout the Northeast (when my house was burglarized twice in 2014, the cops observed that it was probably heroin-related), but especially in northern New England. In a way, it’s a good thing, because I think the heroin market has made it difficult for meth to get a strong foothold in the region. Heroin tends to make users more docile, and less given to violent crime. They are thieves, especially in search of pawnable items (I could give you the list from my house), and they are worthless in the workforce, and their addiction is hard to lick, as anyone will tell you who has been there. But meth causes far worse problems. Brain damage, horrific birth defects, lifelong mental illness, and so on.
Rand Paul’s libertarianism has extended at times to support for relaxing drug laws, and though while running for president he has had to walk back some of this support, his basic libertarian position is that it’s up to the states. But this is not a line of reasoning that is going to play well in a state that is facing the scourge of heroin addiction, the accelerated states costs for treatment, education, incarceration, and so on.
The Paul dynasty has never once fielded a candidate who could actually hold the highest office, but that hasn’t stopped them from repeatedly giving it a shot. That’s because when you come down to it, libertarianism is a fringe ideology. Free market absolutists are kooks, and just one step over from anarchist squatter hordes (with whom, to a degree, I identify, because they are not large corporations). Libertarianism replaces government regulation with corporate self-regulation, and we know how that turns out. Rand Paul is the ultimate example of dynastic libertarianism. He’s just what you get. The kind of frat brother who would sell you post laced with strychnine and then tell you it’s an illegal substance and you shouldn’t be smoking it anyway.
On the other hand, reduced incarceration, fewer foreign military adventures, less government intervention in a woman’s right to choose—at various points, before he began running for president, Rand Paul sounded like a guy I would know. Not one I would agree with, but a a guy I would know. His suspension of his campaign is an indicator that the ideological spectrum on the Republican side is narrowing down considerably.
Also: Governor John Kasich has announced that as president he will try to get Pink Floyd to reunite. This is like Bernie Sanders saying he’s going to institute a single-payer health care system for the nation as a whole. Pink Floyd can’t be reunited, because the keyboard player is dead, and, anyway, David Gilmour votes Labor, and he’s not going to be talked into anything by a yahoo from Ohio.
February 4, 2016
Santorum drops out. Not that the vast majority of the electorate ever knew he was running at all. The endorsement of Rubio, whose accomplishments Santorum could not name at the time of the endorsement, tells you a lot about what party regulars think about Cruz and Trump.
February 9, 2016
This “Marcobot” business is unprecedented, in my recollection. Rarely has a candidate been pilloried with such success so instantaneously. Also “-bot” as a suffix is now undoubtedly common parlance.
February 10, 2016
I want to say some more about John Kasich’s proposal to reunite Pink Floyd. This is meant to be a bit of funny business, a patent bit of exaggeration, of the sort that everyone knows is fanciful. Also it humanizes the candidate, in that way that music selection always does. Chris Christie, of whom it is generally thought that he will drop out today or tomorrow (having headed home to NJ to consult with his wife after his weak NH showing), loves Bruce Springsteen, though the Boss, himself, has not exactly solicited this attention. He has not repelled it, because the Boss is a graceful man, but he has not solicited either. Christie’s love for the Boss is a kind of play for across-the-aisle popularity. It summons up the before-Bridgegate Christie who wanted to be a man that Democrats could love. That doesn’t mean that Christie doesn’t like Springsteen, or is simulating somehow. I’m sure he does, because up to a point, who doesn’t (my particular tastes, as I have said in public before, do not extend in time beyond The River, except for certain singles, such as “The Streets of Philadelphia”), but his handlers recognize that there is a humanizing that comes with this profane love. It’s good for the image. One assumes Ted Cruz in truth knows nothing about country music, but it is good for the image.
That Kasich keeps asserting his love for The Wall is a curious variation on the theme. The Wall, you know, is kind of awful. I mean, it’s unpopular to say so in certain circles, but as a long-time lover of Pink Floyd (I even like The Endless River in some ways), I say to you: this is not the album that you want to be advertising in public.
(http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/john-kasich-reunite-pink-floyd-president-article-1.2518608) His favorite concert of all time! What could he possibly see in that show, one wonders? Does he think The Wall is about the fall of communism? Did he see one of those Roger Waters touring versions where Van Morrison sang “Comfortably Numb?” The Wall is about drug-induced low affect and post-traumatic stress, owing to the legacy of WWII, in the baby-boom generation of English musicians. It hates education, among other things, or at least the public school legacy of British education. It is deeply emotionally disturbed.
Even more, The Wall as an artistic object, is, at least to this critic, as noteworthy for the dictatorial qualities of its composition as it is for the anti-dictatorial qualities of its themes. Roger Waters, by this point, believed the hype, as he has conceded himself, and the single-minded intensity of his leadership—not allowing David Gilmour time to write, edging Gilmour out of the lead vocalist chair, harassing the constitutionally depressed Richard Wright until he was no more than a sideman on the sessions, turning a lot of the production over to a hack who had produced “Beth” by Kiss—is autocratic, and in the process of becoming autocratic, he leaves behind most of the qualities that made the band interesting in the first place. As Gilmour has said, the high points of Pink Floyd all coincide with a fully engaged Richard Wright (all the jazz chords), and the suppression thereof, along with Gilmour’s writing, makes Pink Floyd the morose, burned out, auto-repeating band they mostly became after 1979.
Even more so, however, Kasich’s Pink Floyd obsession indicates an apotheosis of the classic rock genre that also suggests its total irrelevance to continued cultural debate. If Kasich, the union-busting, zero-out-planned-parenthood faux-compassionate knucklehead likes the song “Money,” and doesn’t get that it’s an indictment of all things relating to money and power (a position that Roger Waters himself was apparently unable to continue to occupy), “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit,” then there’s something fundamentally useless about the song. Randy Newman’s parodies of rednecks still have the capacity to challenge and horrify, the satire can still produce sparks. Not so with “Money.” Kasich governs like “Money” is a pro-oligarchy classic rock number, and that means there’s not only something wrong with Kasich, but with the song as well. It’s not acute enough. And that turns out to be the case with a lot of the rock and roll anthems of my childhood. Libertarians love the Grateful Dead and Phish. (Ann Coulter is on the record here: “Somewhat contrary to the image of Deadheads as hippies, the Dead were huge in my hometown of New Canaan, CT, which is a pretty preppie town. We toyed with the idea of making ‘Truckin’’ our prom song with a ‘Long Strange Trip’ theme, but we ended up with some dorky rainbow theme instead. I tend to associate the Dead with lacrosse players and my favorite fraternities, Fiji and Theta Delt.”)
Music and its passions can transcend political differences (my dad, with whom I agree on very little politically had a period in which he was obsessed with Ute Lemper and her Kurt Weill interpretations—square that with the Club for Growth), that may well be true, but a lot of what was “good times” music in the seventies–Bad Company, the Doobie Brothers, The Eagles, etc., even Led Zeppelin—was too easily enjoyed by the America First crowd. Or so it seems to me today.
I want a presidential candidate who plays Gang of Four (original lineup) at her rallies, like maybe “Capital It Fails Us Now.”
Nice bass line, Dave Allen.
February 11, 2016
Christie and Fiorina drop out.
Wasn’t Bridgegate the crassest, most immense, most politically astounding scandal since Iran-Contra? Admittedly, it was not national in scope (unless you consider the free flow of American interstate trucking across the GWB important), but it was in terms of its brazenness utterly memorable, and the only aspect of it that remains to be accounted for is when and how Christie ordered it to happen. That there is no piece of paper or email that proves this only indicates how diabolically smart Chris Christie is. He knew there should be no paper trail, and presumably those who are taking the fall, Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, knew that there would be no paper trail, so it’s unlikely that Christie, whose very essence, who very genetic material, was so imprinted on the idea as to make it none other than his own will, will ever have to pay any price for it. But remember: at least one person died as a result of being unable to get to the hospital in a timely fashion, Florence Genova, and the day following her death, a guy with chest pains took 11 minutes to reach the hospital. Christie apologized to Genova’s family, but I hope later on, when he is busy reflecting on his failed presidential bid and looking for work lecturing on politics at a university in Jersey, that he thinks about Genova’s family, who have been too graceful to pin her death (she was 91 years old) on the epochal traffic jam, all brought about retributively to punish a local mayor who refused to genuflect.
Christie’s political instincts are admirable, and if he were a Democrat I would admire him, and to gaze upon the dismemberment of Marco Rubio on Saturday as practiced by Christie is to see a formidable talent. But the hubris has been just as staggering.
And: Fiorina was a candidate to run against Hilary if it came to that, if the women of the USA really felt their power. I hope they are feeling it, and will.
Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of the novel HOTELS OF NORTH AMERICA. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he also recently released THE UNSPEAKABLE PRACTICES (Joyful Noise Recordings).