Back in 1992, I watched from the UK as Ross Perot came from nowhere to capture a significant share of the vote in the Presidential Election campaign.
While I liked a lot of the overall approach of Perot, it was very easy to see, even from 5000 miles away, that he would have made a poor President. Like many entrepreneurial builders of corporations, he saw government as just like a business, only bigger, and relished the chance to impose his own brand of “business discipline” on it, not realizing that the US governmental system is not built to facilitate command and control by a single person. He would have been a miserable, frustrated POTUS.
Now we have an even more extreme example as POTUS, and it is every bit as bad as I feared. Donald Trump makes Ross Perot look like a genius every day.
However, Donald Trump is not some left-field aberration. His appearance on the national political scene is the end result of over 40 years of progressively more strident resentment politicking from the GOP.
Which brings me to a more detailed consideration of what is known as “grift”.
A lot of the promulgation of resentment politics has been via talk radio, and other forums dominated by aggressive, contentious commentators at the authoritarian end of the political spectrum. Those kinds of channels require money to operate, and there is plenty of money fuelling that communications process. Some of it comes from rich donors, some of it comes from advertising, but some of it comes from old fashioned grift. Call it begging or pleading, or call it the selling of snake oil, asking for money is as old as the hills, as organized religions show us.
The history of grifting by authoritarian groups affiliated with the GOP and other organizations in that area of the political spectrum is a long and sometimes sordid one. Almost every crackpot website that I read by End Times proponents, and SovCits, contains some variant of the crawler at the bottom of the browser window saying “send money”.
In some cases, the money is not going to any useful political activity. There is an entire infrastructure of web sites and movements whose leaders are living off of grift, just like the televangelists, whose tactics they often adopt. They trade in FUD and demand money to “protect the USA from evil”.
Unfortunately, as we have seen in the USA since 9/11, fear sells.
The obsession with persuading supporters to cough up money is interesting on another level however. It shows that authoritarians, unlike many progressives, realized a long time ago that if politics runs on money, they should be collecting as much of their own as possible. In politics, money is always very useful.
A lot of the issues that the progressive end of the political spectrum has with messaging are due to lack of money, which is in turn fuelled by a conviction that politics ought not to be driven by money, so they will refuse to go grubbing for dollars.
This is somewhat self-defeating.
The current alternate universe information dissemination echo chamber in the authoritarian area of the internet has become pervasive due to the application of large sums of money over a very long period of time by rich individuals and PACs. The contrast with progressive communication channels is an instructive one. There is no progressive talk radio infrastructure worth a damn in the USA since Air America ceased operations. At one time, by virtue of having progressives in the IT innovation space, progressive organizations knew how to use the internet better, but those days are gone, and there is a lot of evidence that outside authoritarian entities have learned how to manipulate the online world in order to distort messaging and simulate popularity.
The reason for a lack of progressive channels has a lot to do with both lack of money, but also the lack of a progressive power structure that matches the networks of authoritarians. Authoritarian followers are always more cohesive than progressive followers, since many of them are happy to be told what to do. Progressives are, almost by definition, mostly freethinkers. Think “herding cats”. Many of them also believe that money is grubby and that ideas should speak for themselves.
There is a somewhat complacent worldview in many progressive groups that believes that America is undergoing a demographic transformation which will see the regressives die off. This is a flawed analysis. It assumes the continuation of a level electoral playing field, and as we are seeing, the GOP is not interested in a level playing field. It wants to tilt the playing field in its favor, distorting the electoral process at all levels to enshrine a permanent GOP majority. (The ends justifies the means as far as the GOP is concerned, since they see progressivism as an existential threat, and are often unable to distinguish between dissent and disloyalty).
The 2016 election should have been a wake-up call to progressives in the USA. I fear that the message has still not been properly absorbed.
In order to avoid the permanent distortion of the electoral process, which will lead to decades of authoritarian rule, progressives need to be able to do several things that they have shown themselves to be poor at doing in the past:
1. Organize around a simple set of coherent, short, appealing messages
2. Repeat the messages and not get trapped into using the other side’s terminology (see Lakoff, George)
3. Be prepared to FUND FUND FUND. Call it grifting if you must, but money makes the political process go round.
4. Be prepared to use economic power in other ways such as boycotting corporations who align themselves with their opponents, or do not behave equitably. If there are 60 million progressives in the USA, and 6 million of them stop buying goods from a major corporation, that will have a significant impact.