I loathe the term ‘wholesome.’ Not as much as other faddish and (and no doubt poorly future aging) era defining phraseologies like ‘problematic’, ‘gaslighting,’ or ‘yikes’. But what once was an ironic word me and my fellow teen friends back in the dark Bush days used to mock the 50s sensibilities and nostalgia of then ascendant American cultural conservatism has now migrated into common parlance in progressive discourse in a very unironic way.
This is a just a minor symptom of a greater phenomenon. Remember, if you will, how until about the mid-2010s it was common for progressives to use the 50s as a cultural punching bag of everything in the past they hated and feared? This was a cartoon image of course. Postwar prosperity, the New Deal, and the U.S. being on top of the world created a then previously unimaginable rise in living standards and social mobility. A more conservative turn under Eisenhower still kept most of the past two decades reforms and restructuring, leading Ike, his massive upper end tax rates, and his commitment to national-level cutting edge infrastructure to be a far more progressive figure than almost any democrat today in quantifiable material terms. But people had made it through a Great Depression, a period of rampant crime, social upheaval, and the world’s largest and most globally destructive war and just wanted to ‘be normal.’ This was of course utterly culturally stifling to anyone born into it who did not know what came before.
And the culture was insufferably corny, even knowing all that context. Hence why fake 50s style parodies of conservatives used to be such a big thing until quite recently.
You don’t see that anymore…and last night it suddenly occurred to me as to why. Because the preachy, scolding ‘The More You Know’ type infomercial that dates so poorly in retrospect are back in fashion…unironically. (These also existed as Very Special Episodes of sitcoms in the 70s and 80s, which its also worth noting was a time of intense 50s nostalgia). From corporate human resources to how the majority of left-of-center people and beyond interact on social media, the Church lady Informercial Hour is back! And with added overlap, it even often comes with a hefty dose of reborn McCarthyism to boot. People who have no business to lecture others now primarily interact with the rest of humanity through a self-righteous prism of the good and wholesome life, one every bit as stultifying and consensus-upholding than that of the 50s. We have yet to emerge from our unstable times (though nothing in the present, not even Covid, compares to the 30s and 40, sorry) and already the return to normalcy is pined for. It is gay friendly and filled with white liberals self-flagellating to atone for historical collective sins, but its clearly the herald of an attempt to recreate Howdy Doody Wholesomeness in a a new era. You see this in the constant bombardment of missionary style lectureporn webcomics of dubious quality with a pastel color aesthetic and a CalArts-infused tweeness that just makes everything look safe and childlike. Add on the concerted attempt to crush counterculture and force assimilation into the greater monoculture, and you have so many overlaps it becomes hard to ignore. So hard to ignore, in fact, that the whole ‘make fun of the 50s by progressives’ trend just suddenly died lest they see themselves reflected back in it.
There is, for the first time in all of modern history, a desire to couch literally everything in a ‘think of the children’ framework by those who are still young and should be rebellious rather than conformist. That same mentality that led to past obsessions with prosecuting a punitive carceral state and Satanic Panics coming back once again to be used not by conservatives but by their opponents. And, anecdotally, it seems more popular with the young than the old. For now anyway. I’m still waiting for the woke version of ‘Boys Beware’, which we saw teased in the Alex Morse primary race recently. Perhaps this could be called ‘Xzhirs Beware.’ Already, the way the present day left talks about sexuality seems suspiciously like that of ‘Perversion for Profit,’ where a deep fascination with sex combines with the clear personality traits of the easily offended incel made uncomfortable by the thought that they are missing out and thus must regulate the behavior of others. Sex Cop! Now not just for rightoids!
We’ll have the 50s, but without any of those good things like a well regulated economy, the viability of home ownership for a huge swathe of the populace, and a strong industrial policy. There will be a House of Un-American Activities community but it will be superficially progressive and decentralized to your local H.R. compliance officer. We won’t ‘defend the free world’ from the communists but ‘liberal and intersectional values’ from an even more vaguely defined ‘totalitarian and reactionary bloc’ of countries who don’t share our Wholesome Values.’ Such a situation cannot stand unchallenged.
But lest this sound too doomer, this situation will *not* stand. I feel fairly confident in predicting that. American culture is free-wheeling enough that rebellion is always inevitable. And that the kind of neo-50s lectureporn of today will in due course become, like the 50s-early 60s infomercials before them, the laughing stock of future generations to (rightly) mock our current era. It is merely a question of when. Personally, I am hoping for sooner rather than later. The Woke Era, like Fonzie, has already clearly jumped the shark.
You have heard it for four years: ‘Trump is a fascist. Trump is a dictator. Everything is different now. This is not normal.’ Meanwhile, while this rhetoric reached fever pitch literally all of those points were provably incorrect. Trump is a right winger, but far too lazy and non-ideological to be a fascist. Trump is a bully, but was too weak and scatterbrained to be a dictator. Everything is different now, but in the same way that things are always changing and history in America is getting over its long postwar boom and, thus, returning to normal.
Despite the incredible obnoxiousness of Trump’s fan base and their cult like loyalty to his person over any kind of political platform, they are not the ones who surprised me these last few years. Anyone capable of paying even a modicum of attention to American conservatism since Gingrich could have seen this coming. If anything, the ideology being somewhat loosened from its evangelical and libertarian pieties into atavistic nationalism makes it more bearable than its formerly sanctimonious moral-majority and market-fundamentalist basis.
No, what surprised me was just how rapidly the opposition to Trump degenerated. Certainly, being a liberal in the Twenty-First Century is very much akin to staying behind to run the Heaven’s Gate website after the rest of the cult got whisked up to the comet above. The prophecy of the End of History failed to come true which means the followers do not do the rational thing and realize they believed in a lie, but rather double down and blamed everyone but themselves for the failure. If only every one else had supported them then this would all be fine. And so the liberals have become more obsessed with American Exceptionalism and culture war, becoming the new woke version of what the republican party was in the aughts. They now expresses valorization to intelligence agencies and giant corporations and prioritize pet causes based in their stifling moralism rather than in measurable material gains.
This happened because they let themselves be driven mad by a clownish president. But that president was as weak if not weaker a political leader than Jimmy Carter. Despite having two years of one party unified government his only accomplishment was a standard Bush-style tax cut for the wealthy. The kind of thing that would have happened under a Rubio, a Romney, or a Cruz. Likewise, the only lasting institutional effect of this supposedly-norm-breaking presidency will be to fill the ranks of the judiciary once again with the strange Opus Dei-like cultists that can always be found in the Federalist Society. Also something that would have happened under any other republican president. The only meaningful difference between Trump and these others is that he is less warlike. He is also, it is worth noting, less warlike than many democrats these days too. Not to give him too much credit here. His Iran policy is utterly unhinged and did immense damage to U.S. interests, and he managed to make his prior presidents look positively independent of Saudi influence. But compared to his GOP rivals in 2016 or Hillary Clinton, we almost certainly dodged a bullet in Syria and Venezuela. After all, the best news story of the now famously dismal year of 2020 had to have been that whole Silvercorp USA thing.
That’s right. With hindsight I am now saying that Trump was the lesser evil to Hillary in 2016. Sure, her Covid response would have been better, but not too much better as the USA was always going to take a pandemic the hardest of any developed country given its poor health systems infrastructure and employment based benefits that fail under economic downturns exacerbated by lockdowns. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated refugee crisis brought about by more regime change operations across the world would not only have facilitated the spread of the disease, but also of reactionary politics at home and abroad. In this alternative world something far worse than Trump would now have just won the presidency in the 2020 election, possibly Tom Cotton. We would have the Iran Deal at least, but far worse relations with North Korea. Besides, what is the point of an Iran Deal if we still stumbled into a conflict with Tehran through the Syrian backdoor? Three separate times in the 2016 election, H-Bomb stated that her first priority in office was regime change in Syria, what was by then obviously a recipe for the black flag of jihadism to fly over Damascus. I remember because I was watching, determining if I could pull the lever for her as a lesser evil. I couldn’t. Still glad that I didn’t today.
Of course, two bombing runs later Trump invoked The Curse himself, ending up a one termer. If ever you are thinking about uttering the fateful words, don’t.
Meanwhile, Trump’s terrible relationships with most governmental institutions actually weakened the process of centralizing power behind the imperial presidency, something that had been growing nonstop for decades. Trump’s transactional understanding of politics was brute and often misplaced, but it was a real unmasking moment for a country used to believing itself and its system to be exceptional and widely admired around the world. Trump unintentionally undermined even domestic faith in American Exceptionalism, and I will take it. So too did his horrific immigration policies finally force a discussion on Obama’s immigration policies as well, showing this to be a bipartisan issue. Trump will leave office having deported less people than Obama did.
It may seem dour that the era of Trump paradoxically removed any remaining vestigial feelings I once had about there being any lesser evils in the two party system, but it is actually quite liberating. I know, going forward, that if I support someone in public service that it will only be because they offer a platform that provides real alternatives. And if there are no such people to support, that is fine too. Change does not, in fact, come first from voting but by what you write for, organize for, and take part in directly. Giving up on any sense of being able to rely on a political party is giving yourself a greater level of independence and agency, and thus potential critical thinking. Something definitely needed in our moralistic dark age.
For all the problems Trump exacerbated, none of them were new to him. He is an accelerant rather than the spark. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Junior all had a much greater role in building the world that we presently live in. Obama too, though he at least took the foot off the gas even if he resolutely refused to apply it to the brakes on this car hurtling towards a cliff. And it is his surveillance apparatus we live in now more than anyone else’s.
In the end, Trump will be remembered by historians as a grotesquely fascinating era that symbolized our societal decline, but was too late in the game to be its cause. He might also be the first person since Grover Cleveland to pull off two non-consecutive terms. A wet sack of potatoes could defeat Kamala Harris in a debate after all. She better hope someone far less charismatic than Trump runs against her in the future so she stands a chance. But whether he will be back or not he leaves us with an attitude and an aesthetic and little else.
A truly ineffective presidency. Which I suppose at this state of the game could almost be considered damning with faint praise as much as an insult. The spectacle was certainly something. Whelp, enjoy some Clown Core.
I am writing this before the end results of the 2020 election are known. You might think that, like last time I did an election post-mortem, I should wait for a conclusion. But what I have to say changes very little whether Trump or Biden is in the driver’s seat. What matters right now is that once again the U.S. media predicted a blowout, and once again they have a close election that will be decided by razor thin margins with a game show host. Once again, the democrats sought to challenge a supposedly unconventional candidate with the most conventional establishment group of people imaginable, and once again this led to a shocking under-performance. The simple fact that elections are popularity contests seems to have gone unnoticed by these extremely well paid givers of poisoned advice. The kind of people who, like the recycled Bush neocons of the Lincoln Project, spent tens of millions of dollars to sway republicans in race where the republican share of Trumps votes went up by 3%. Sadly, it is these people a Biden administration will likely pivot towards rather than anyone to the left of their mainline. The present election is a contest to determine which faction of the republican party has the most say in governing the country. The other obvious point that people are tired of candidates who promise nothing but to ‘go back to normal’ and willing to take big risks to shake things up is one the consultant class is paid not to notice by their masters. If Biden wins it will be by a squeaker when it should have been a big margin. He will have no mandate and will play defensive against McConnel for four years while getting cleaned out in the mid-terms and probably flubbing re-election. If Trump wins the Democrats have a better shot next time but at the cost of who knows what damage to their prospects and the mental health of liberals in the meanwhile. No matter who wins here is a prediction: the winner of this cycle loses the next.
It didn’t have to be this way. This election could have been a referendum of Trump’s many failures with an actual positive alternative shown for comparison. But unlike 2016, where I think a strong case that ‘Bernie would have won’ was an argument with a lot of merit considering the economic history of the states that turned out to be most critical, Bernie clearly was a dud this time around. One gets the impression, when seeing his lackluster performance in the primary, that he was pressured into running by his new fan base. But his former independent-leaning fans were increasingly turned off by his movement being colonized by the downwardly mobile rump managerial class who brought with them all their normal-human-alienating woke language policing and hyper-fixation on culture war. Bernie was a class candidate and could only run well with a class-first campaign. That didn’t happen in 2020. Despite class being more important than at any point in American history since the Great Depression, low information partisan news cycles have instituted a kind of postmodern dark age where people focus on identarian issues as their very standard of living and their country at large physically rots around them. This is not an accident, as powerful actors have sought to shift the attitudes of critical thought in directions beneficial to the status quo. That we swim in dark tides is undeniable. But as anyone who has spent time at the beach knows, you escape being ensnared in a rip tide by swimming with the current parallel to the shore until it weakens its hold on you to the point where you can break free. Go with the flow until the flow weakens.
Marianne Williamson was the person who could have won a general election. And she shows a potential path forward while we find ourselves in this trap. She was not my first, second, or even third choice of preference in the democratic primary, but despite my solidly realist and materialist bona fides, I found her more and more likeable as the process went on. By the time it was over for her campaign she had booted out Warren to become my third overall. In retrospect, she should have been my second choice. But to understand why I have come around to the Marianne Way, we first need to go back in time a bit for context of the dark age we find ourselves in.
When I look back at the dominant themes of my writing on here for the past two years, there is one thing that keeps re-occurring: That we live in a dark age. Contrary to so many of the commentariat, I do not believe that this dark age began in 2016 with Trump and BrExit. The seeds of it were sown in the 1980s with the rise of the neoliberal austerity state, confirmed as more than just an era specific fluke in the 90s when many of these market fundamentalist reforms were locked in by Clinton outflanking Reagan from the right making the demolition of civil society a thoroughly bipartisan affair, and then full germination occurred when the disastrous Bush Junior presidency showed how incapable such a society was at responding to crisis or adapting to challenges. It was right after 9/11 when Bush, being looked to by the entire public for leadership, encouraged the American people to keep the economy strong by going shopping. Surely, there has never been such a quintessentially neoliberal response to any crisis as that.
As I have mentioned previously, I personally became aware that I was living in an era of terminal American decline in 2005, when the dismal response to Katrina piggybacked on the collapse of the Iraq occupation after the re-election of the clearly already failed presidency of W. Bush. The thing that pushed him just over the threshold of re-election? Weaponized electoral homophobia. It seemed that there was no going back, and there wasn’t. Bush would leave office with around 20% approval ratings and Obama would be elected in the closest thing the 21rst Century has yet to provide us with that could be described as a landslide. He was elected specifically to undo the failure of the Bush years. He ended up expanding the very out of control surveillance and endless war state he had been elected to curtail. The welcome receding of the Christian culture war of the previous government ended up being the only positive as Obama proceeded to move on to his own Iraqs in Honduras, Libya and Syria, went on to clamp down on internal critics and whistleblowers of a growing surveillance regime that would have impressed East Germany, and deport more immigrants than any president before…or since.
Rhetorically, this acceptance of the failed Reagan-Clinton-Bush consensus by the Democratic Party was papered over by another Bush Era import: that of weaponized identitarian culture war. Except that this time the values were inverted. Now, it was people outside the evangelical tent rather than in it who were the saintly elect. A theology of nerd culture, kale, and getting one’s views on politics from West Wing re-runs rather than actual history. The professional managerial class were going to set things right after the recession. They did so by bailing out the banks who had caused the crisis and promising a Heritage Foundation approved healthcare plan that was a gift to private insurance companies. What is interesting here is that it is now clear that culture war does not in fact work very well, at least not for the side most aggressive about using it offensively. The American people rejected Bush evangelism and liberal wokeness alike, because while the professional ideologues of our society might be obsessed with re-enacting various interpretations of the protestant reformation, most people want to be left alone by such struggles. Even just looking at the currently available trends, it is now undeniable that there were many Obama-to-Trump voters. This may not be a rational ideological path to take, but in both eras it represents a clear rebellion against contemporary moralizing trends by establishment actors. The states that have become the most competitive today are the states who were most hollowed out by offshoring, NAFTA, and neoliberal policies in general for the past four decades. Its not a partisan thing so much as an establishment/anti-establishment thing.
Many deluded liberals seemed to have worked themselves up into a frenzy in the past four years that Trump was some kind of unprecedented phenomenon. His rhetoric and unpredictability are outliers, but what really matters-his policies-are not. Unfortunately, he governs less like he said he would on campaign in 2016, ignoring infrastructure and criminal justice reform for standard Romney/Ryan tax cut-and-spend policies. While those who fell for his rhetoric as independents are fools, those republicans who dutifully lined up behind him are not. They got exactly what they wanted. The goofy antics of the administration are just that. The policies are standard U.S.-republican-right wing. Trump is no fascist nor even of the alt right, even if he has fans from such groups. He is simply a Cholesterol Caligula. Berlusconi, not Mussolini. His only meaningful heterodoxy seems to be in trade policy and making NATO allies pay more, and this could simply be a desperate rear-guard action by the smarter right-neoliberals in order to cover up the extent of their multi-decades failure. In this way he is a continuation of the inevitable process of American decline that began arguably with Carter and definitely with Reagan.
Trump would have won this election handily and easily without Covid simply because of what Biden has represented for decades in the senate, and he would have blown out a major victory had he broken with his own Mnuchin-creatures and instituted universal basic income for at least the duration of the pandemic. Likewise, had Biden promised an expansion of downward cash transfers, I believe his victory would have been assured and extremely telling on the electoral map too. But such bipartisan commitment to austerity colors both of these candidates, much to the misfortune of the country at large. Maybe Andrew Yang was much more important for our future than anyone thought. Certainly more than media-loved supposed brain geniuses like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg ever could have been. The two candidates that extremely highly educated but not deeply political people and literally no one else loved.
It has already become apparent that Trump’s racist rhetoric has not hurt him with minority voters. Though most minorities skew heavily democratic still, Trump is the first republican to make consistent gains with non-whites in my lifetime. It is also obvious that the tokenistic and foolish decision by Biden to pick Kamala Harris as his running mate has had no positive effect for his campaign and perhaps even had a negative one when all things are said and done. What a shocker, a mass incarcerating creature who surrounds herself with establishment lanyards to help her figure out her policy views turns out to once again be a dud of a VP choice. The DNC really seems to struggle with VP choices that boost a ticket. Gore, Lieberman, Edwards, Biden, Kaine, Harris? Its like a retinue of the worst choices possible. And considering Biden’s age and obvious past-prime nature, it mattered more this time than at any time before. That they chose Harris of all possible options is another damning indictment for how out of step these people are. So out of step they tell an immigration activist to ‘vote for Trump’ if they didn’t like Obama-Biden’s demonstrably awful record of detention and deportation policies. Meanwhile, the identity politics that are increasingly the tent revival religion of the democratic establishment are clearly failing as the only demographic group Biden seems to be expanding his appeal to are the great satan of contemporary liberalism itself, white men. Exit polling indicates more than just an ideological re-alignment is current going on. A Biden victory is a stop-gap measure in this process, not a reversal of it. Him winning a victory means little considering the unpopularity of the present incumbent, and his loss would be simply damning.
Even if Biden wins, this race will be close. Far closer than the media predicted (but about as close as I thought it would be). It shouldn’t be. Trump’s awful response to Covid alone means he deserves to lose and lose big, to say nothing of his other failures. But the Democratic Party spent the past four years sabotaging any candidate who could have been a viable alternative for both their own past failures as well as Trump’s. They have shown, time and time again, that they will fight to the death with an admirable ferocity against any challenger to their left, but barely squeak by when faced with the blackpilled horror of McConnel and company. The reason for this is simple, American parties are controlled by their large donor classes. Large donor classes are always fiscally right wing. The bottom line demands that while they may prefer the less obnoxious rule of the democrats, liberal elites as a group will still throw anyone under the bus who is going to tamper with their private family hoards. But despite this clear materialist cause of our problems, the mood of the public-no matter what their political allegiance, has long since left the quest to pursue material objectives, and has moved firmly into the camp of faith, belief, and cultural signifier. The press, that supposed cadre of defenders of freedom of expression, have allowed themselves to be suckered into becoming the biggest defenders of the national security establishment imaginable. Many of them openly champion the firing and imprisonment of leakers and other journalists for either minor social infractions that cross presently trendy causes or under a kind of neo-McCarthyite delusion that they are guarding the body politic from some phantom foreign threat that spreads through memes. By making such asses of themselves they have collectively abrogated their vital mission right when they were needed the most, providing solipsistic spy thrillers for ageing boomers while ignoring the very real and bipartisan domestic problems that are entirely self-inflicted by the decay of American civic responsibility, the anti-intellectualism of the public, and above all their own failure as journalists and critical thinkers. When our legacy media uses its global reporting as a trite morality play to be framed in how a liberal sees domestic politics, you know your professional class has jumped the shark.
There needs to be a hard left waiting in the wings in case the necessary push for materialism in our age of ecological catastrophe returns, but we also must prepare for the possibility that it will not do so anytime soon. In order to truly practice harm reduction in the present dark age, we need dark age candidates who actually do understand the problems we face and offer a superior alternative. People who aren’t obscurantist leftist puritans, woke liberals, or market fundamentalists. Someone who can speak to people’s emotional needs while also stating bluntly why the bipartisan establishment has failed everyone. Someone like Marianne Williamson.
At the first debate which she appeared in Marianne Williamson was someone I cheered ironically. I remember shouting ‘orbs orbs orbs!’ (a reference to a then current ironic meme about her having crystal orb powers) with a friend at the tv in the hopes we would be subjected to some pablum about using the power of positive energy to banish Trump from this dimensional plane. But my support for her right to speak only increased as she did so. She was the first candidate to bring up how Obama administration policies towards Central America had created the migrant crisis in the Americas and thus the debate around caravans and the wall. She went on to speak about how the United States had become a sociopathic nation abroad, and that this blundering bully persona had come back home to roost, infecting our domestic politics and giving rise to Trump. Sure, I am hardly a person to resonate positively towards rhetoric about ‘dark psychic forces’, but part of living in our new dark age where feelings do in fact seem to beat facts for most people, is understanding the power of rhetoric and symbolism. No one understands this better than Marianne. Not only does she get this necessary aesthetic packaging (made all the more powerful with the right Twin Peaks musical remix), she also clearly understood the structural bipartisan forces that have made our present American hellscape so intractable. In interviews too numerous to list since she was running and also after she dropped out, she has spoken of the necessity of breaking out of liberal-democratic shibboleths in order to effect meaningful structure change.
It is hard to think of anyone else with a speaking style and public persona who could have so strongly given Trump a what-for in his debates. Who could have generated headlines, positive and negative alike, at an equal level to Trump. Who is skilled at the one thing Trump is genius at and that all democrats seem to struggle with terminally…self-promotion. The kind of candidate who could be both forceful and patiently persuasive to skeptical audiences. The kind of person who, despite their background as a spiritualist with a lot of extremely questionable former views, could make this stone cold atheist and materialist take notice and come to take her very seriously. What matters, and what is overlooked by so much of the wonk class, is policy and deliverables. To get those things you need charisma and branding. Williamson is a rare person who could play both these roles simultaneously. She is hardly a perfect candidate for someone like me, but she is someone I could have supported openly to move things in a favorable direction.
The primary is, of course, over now. To the immense misfortune of the country at large and opposition to Trump in particular Biden was the clear victor. I doubt Marianne Williamson will run again. But she has shown us who seek to take the edge off of this dark age how it could be done. Should a candidate with a similar affect and set of policies tied to a shrewd understanding of the fully bipartisan nature of our present terminal decline, perhaps running in conjunction with an Andrew Yang type making the case that the covid emergency stimulus checks are proof that downwards redistribution really does work, ever again be a possibility, that candidate should be supported. The weirder a rhetorical outlier the better. She may not have won the democratic primary of the general election in this timeline, but Marianne Williamson showed us all a direction where the potential for immense political growth is most likely to lie so long as present cultural and socio-economy conditions continue. You can’t abolish the priests in a dark age, but you can start your own heresy. The alternative church might not be more rational than the main one, but it could be a much better community to live in. Its certainly a better path than tossing more money down the pit to nowhere also known as Amy McGrath.
Which is why it is so important to say it loudly and with certainty despite being such a counter-factual that could never technically be validated: Marianne Williamson could have…perhaps would have…definitely should have, won the 2020 General Election.