Autonomy, the State, and Authoritarianism in the United States Presidential Election of 2016

castoriadis-in-paris

     After the first week of the Trump administration and its rapid succession of executive orders to overturn the Obama legacy and set a right-wing, demagogic tone for the next four years, liberal Democrats, leftists of various stripes, moderate Republicans, and even some neoconservatives are currently speaking loudly and publicly about the new administration’s prerogatives on the domestic and international fronts. The political forces and party faithful on the liberal-democratic and traditional American Left currently engage in the best traditions of democracy and the project of autonomy in responding to the rightward trend of political events. They have organized mass protests such as the country-wide Women’s March and instantaneous mobilizations at our nation’s airports to support detained foreign visa and green card holders against the Muslim immigration ban. These radically democratic mobilizations show what Cornelius Castoriadis called “magmatic social imaginary significations.” This is a political praxis or social action that crystallizes the thoughts and democratic, political principles of a mass of citizens into direct social action, and both safeguards and realizes democracy from incursions on autonomy (in Greek, meaning “self-law,” one who gives oneself one’s own law in relation to common life) and authoritarianism. Magmatic social imaginary significations, or democratic social action, cannot emerge among conservative or right-wing citizens and social movements, since the content and basis of their social and political principles aim to restrict democracy, freedom, and liberty to deprive it from other citizens, rather than promote its expansion and growth to cultivate an open society where autonomy can flourish. The term for right-wing and conservative social and political mobilizations is thus known as “false consciousness” that falls under “mass persuasion,” or the manipulation of citizens by political demagoguery. The Trump campaign has told its supporters that things must get worse before they become better, that the need for restricting freedoms and the lack of governmental transparency will lead to its growth. Their political message lacks serious thought and belies ethics. Or in the words of political theorist John Homer Schaar, “Giving thought to what we are doing might reduce damage and confusion. Remember that US officer in Vietnam who said ‘We had to destroy Ben Tu in order to save it.’ When standard ways of thinking and acting reach such depths of bewilderment and destruction as that, then it is time for rethinking.” The United States currently has a new Republican administration that is promising the American people that they must suffer worsening conditions before those conditions become better. This is nothing less than demagoguery and deceit.[i]

As heartening as these political mobilizations appear, they are the same political strategies employed by the liberal social movements of the 1930s and 1960s, which in the last 60 years have been a history of key victories but also a “semi-failure” to create a rights-based social welfare state. Perhaps this is simply a brief socio-historical period of an open society in a longer history of human autonomy. Liberals and Leftists must hope this current mobilization of mass protest does not result, again, in the lack of political imagination to move beyond a postmodern political conformism that has governed the two-party system in the US since the 1960s. It has allowed a non-GOP party candidate to win the 2016 presidential election, backed by a shadow party of SuperPacs and far right-wing political operators from the fascist, “Alt-Right” that is actually a fascist, political and social formation. For liberals and the left, this has been an adherence to the fundamental precepts of globalized, free-market capitalism in either its liberal-democratic or conservative-traditional form. The embrace of unrestrained and lightly-regulated capitalism is the main problem of the Democratic Party and the liberals and leftists that constitute its party faithful and leadership. However, it is true that Obama’s democratic legislative agenda from 2011 to 2016 was blocked by the GOP majorities in Congress, and Democrats cannot blame the administration or the Democratic Party for this unhappy fact. Liberals and the Left must translate current Liberal-Left political action into Social Democracy rather than a variant of the reigning Liberal-Democratic order that emerged from the New Deal in the post-World War Two Era; a corporatist, semi-welfare State governed by Labor, Business, and the State predicated on a permanent, war economy.[ii] The Democratic Party must prioritize “economic security” policies as the primary-core party principles, replacing its emphasis on “social mobility” policies since the Party mid-term convention in 1978, which saw the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council that moved the party to the center of the political spectrum. In the “liberal-democratic international order” the United States is at the very bottom of the social mobility-economic inequality index, followed upwards by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and then the social democracies of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway at the very top where both social mobility is high, and income inequality is low. Despite the gains of the rights revolution of the 1950s to the 1970s, the United States has the lowest rate of social mobility and the highest economic inequality in the liberal-democratic order.[iii]

In 1989, Castoriadis wrote that of liberal-reformist political and social movements “none of them have been able to propose a new vision of society and to face the overall political problem as such. After the movements of the 1960s, the project of autonomy seems totally eclipsed” and might seem only a short-term, conjunctural development socio-historically. This has been exacerbated and grown worse since Castoriadis first formulated the problem, particularly the economically unstable and authoritarian political systems that emerged in some countries of the former Soviet Bloc during the new era of free-market capitalist globalization after 1989. This is likely due to the current neoliberal consensus around multinational capitalism that supports a global “race-to-bottom,” where corporate enterprises and the very wealthiest citizens drive a global economy predicated on declining wages, pressure on suppliers and manufacturers for highest net margins, evasion of corporate taxation, and seeking the greatest influence for their interests in the political process of respective nation-states that inhibits the project of autonomy. “But the growing weight, in contemporary societies, of privatization, depoliticization, and ‘individualism’ makes such an interpretation [for autonomy] most unlikely,” and Castoriadis noted this was due to the intellectual pauperization of the liberal-democratic and socialist left, as well as conservatives in the embrace of economic liberalism. The corrosive shift to liberal-democratic ideas of social mobility as core political principles is described as well by Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher: “The transition from traditional class cultures to modern culture was destined to give birth to the most violent generational conflict modern men and women had ever known, and this dramatic process repeats itself wherever there are still traditional class cultures.” With social mobility embraced as the core party principles of both the Democratic and Republican parties, it is no wonder that voter discontent is high, voter participation is low, and the electorate is susceptible to demagogic and polarizing political rhetoric in the face of great income inequality and elusive social mobility. The Democratic Party’s central message was one, albeit minor, problem in an election of multiple, detrimental factors that led to electoral defeat. These key factors were Russian hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, and email and document disclosures on Wikileaks; interference by FBI probes into Clinton’s private email server and announcements of new email revelations (of Anthony Weiner’s) one week before November 8, 2016; the spread of fake news and allegations against the Clinton campaign by non-credible news organizations and individual fake-news trolls; and potentially by uncorroborated reports of assistance and coordination of a misinformation campaign against Clinton between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services. Taken together, these contingent developments in the last six months of the 2016 election disallowed the Democrats to position their message effectively with voters and kept its voters from the polls on election day.[iv]

The essential transformation of liberal and leftist political strategy must radically move beyond its nostalgia for its reformist, liberal-democratic, and New Deal past given its historic defeat by a non-establishment Republican political campaign. The Trump campaign defied both the GOP “shadow parties” and RNC party discipline by its own shadow party of fascist political operatives coming from the fascist “Alt-Right” and its right-wing racist, Neo-Nazi, and isolationist-nationalist core constituency.[v] This is crucial given that Stephen Bannon, the chief political advisor to the Trump Administration, is a far-right-wing political extremist with fascistic strategies and misinformed social and political philosophies. His overblown claims that the Trump presidency involved a “populist” political resurgence around patriotism, jobs, security, and traditional values was a ruse and belies the reasons for its actual triumph. Rather, the Trump victory was solely a case of political demagoguery that entailed the myths and mysteries of a “corrupt Establishment” that spread fears among the electorate that the amorphous “Establishment” (read Congress and the federal government) would ship jobs overseas, close U.S. factories and mines, promote an immorally open-society, and allow immigrants and political refugees into the country that posed internal security threats as well as job competition for white workers.[vi] The Trump campaign pitted its supporters against the very institutions that sustain and cultivate their fundamental well-being through the variety of government services at the municipal, state, and federal level. In the most general of terms, the primary message was that the “Establishment” had sold out the interests of the “American people” across the political spectrum. With the spread of non-credible news organizations and individuals that produce journalistically sub-standard “alt-news” or “fake news” without the standards of truth, and Russian cyber-interference through trolls littering the internet with precisely-directed fake news misinformation about the Clinton campaign, the 2016 presidential election met the criteria for a phenomenon of “mass persuasion” towards both conservative and liberal voters that echoes the conclusions of earlier studies of authoritarianism and political demagoguery by scholars in the Frankfurt School for Social Research after World War Two.[vii]

Bannon is currently consolidating his power and driving policy formation in the Trump Administration aimed at going to war with the federal bureaucracy, the entire Democratic and Republican political “Establishment,” and civil society, particularly the nation’s free press and credentialed media. With much ignorance, he has described himself a “Leninist”[viii] who, in his poor understanding of Lenin, hopes to “destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” He also recently told the media in a New York Times interview, “You’re the opposition party…Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” He also said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and listen for a while,” deriding the media and liberals as having “no power.”[ix] He now sits on the National Security Council with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, since a Trump executive order recently removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from the NSC. There is every indication that his misinformed views in domestic policy formation, international trade, and foreign relations will prove to be destabilizing, illegal, and dangerous to US interests. He is a disturbing figure with an astonishing contempt for the political institutions of the United States, however, it shows him to be a master, political strategist that must not be underestimated by any means and given no more power. This entails an entirely new, Democratic political strategy based around core principles of economic security and the growth of a social democratic and fully-developed social welfare state that provides basic entitlements such as full employment policies, free higher education, and free health care. Such policies will give successive generations of young, adult Americans a sense of well-being and financial security as they embark for employment in the occupations and professions of the 21st Century.[x]

The Trump Administration, under Bannon, has devised prerogatives ranging from anti-immigrant and political-refugee sentiment and restrictions; the assault on multiculturalism and racial equality; wresting reproduction rights from American women to control their bodies; and state-levels bills to restrict peaceful protest and the right to assembly, free association, and free speech. On the international front, the Trump administration is re-evaluating its long-standing alliance with NATO; realigning trade policy towards bilateral rather than multilateral free trade agreements; stepping up efforts on the “war on terror” through new military alliances and nativist immigration restrictions on Muslim countries and Mexico; and sending warm signals to right-wing and right-leaning governments like Britain, Russia, and Pakistan. The Trump administration admires these countries for their racial-nationalist political agendas, and a return to a political and cultural traditionalism that runs counter to the current liberal-democratic international order and are hostile to open societies and the individual rights revolution across the West.[xi] With so many actions and messages coming from the White House, this is nothing less than a “divide and conquer” strategy devised to confuse American liberals and the Left around the various aspects of the “legal and individual rights” revolution with each executive order, to inflame the Democrats’ many diverse constituencies and cause infighting and chaos in its ranks. The Trump administration has also been under the pall of a U.S. five-agency counterintelligence investigation looking into Trump campaign-Russian diplomatic and intelligence coordination against the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hilary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian-Trump campaign communications, spearheaded by Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham.[xii]

The five-agency counterintelligence investigation definitively found that the Russians engaged in a covert misinformation campaign against the Clinton campaign and hacked DNC headquarters. The Russian intelligence services hired internet trolls to spread misinformation and fake news about Hilary Rodham Clinton in order to damage her credibility as a presidential candidate and to favor the Trump campaign. The hacked DNC and Clinton campaign emails revealed internal communications from John Podesta, HRC’s campaign manager, and the DNC, released on Wikileaks. More alarmingly, a day after the Director of National Intelligence’s report, a 35-page campaign intelligence dossier surfaced publicly through Buzzfeed, which alarmingly detailed alleged kompromat (compromising information) against Trump by Russia’s FSB (its federal security bureau) indicating sexual blackmail through video tapes of sexually-perverted escapades. The dossier recounts uncorroborated allegations of secret meetings between key Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials that guarantee close diplomatic and economic relations between the countries by lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama administration after Russia’s unlawful invasion of the Ukraine, and its support for the repressive Assad regime in Syria. The assessment findings were issued by the DNI’s task force and the dossier was compiled by a well-respected and credible US intelligence asset, a former senior MI6 intelligence officer working first for anti-Trump Republicans, then anti-Trump Democrats, and then by himself after October 2016 because the intelligence he received was both astonishing and disturbing in its treasonable implications. The former MI6 officer went underground after his identity was revealed because he feared for the safety of himself and his family, given the FSB’s penchant for assassinating its opponents abroad, similar to the KGB from the 1930s to the 1980s.[xiii]

Unfortunately, this turn of events has manifested in intense political polarization initiated by the Trump administration towards both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, sowing political discord within both parties. For Democrats and the American Left, unfortunately, this has devolved into intra-party strife and finger-pointing on the election loss, and untenable conspiracy theories about Trump campaign-Russian collusion in determining the election, which amounts to succumbing to mass persuasion. Such gullibility deters Democrats from the critical need for realigning party priorities in the face of the fascist, far-right political operation in the White House under Stephen Bannon. Democrats have engaged in party in-fighting by claiming the DNC and the Clinton campaign was corrupt, the DNC “Establishment” sold out the party faithful, or that Clinton was not a viable candidate for the Democrats. The appalling amount of Democratic “anti-Establishment” rhetoric and perceptions of “corruption” within the party resembles the same bogeyman typology of “anti-Establishment” rhetoric espoused by the likes of Bannon and other far-right extremists. In fact, there is no indication that campaign strategy, campaign planks and public speeches, or overall  Democratic National Committee campaign strategy revealed a corrupt “shadow party of money” existing outside the DNC during the campaign to sever the demands of the Democratic Party faithful from the Clinton campaign’s message.[xiv] Democrats blame Clinton’s campaign strategy nationally for being weak or ineffective in reaching white, working class and lower middle class voters, the voters that emerged as the “populist” resurgence allied behind Trump through mass persuasion. The Clinton campaign spoke very directly to America’s working people and how the Democrats planned to attend to their grievances and expectations. Clinton immolated Trump in every single, televised debate on all political issues. Some commentators have erroneously termed this a “working-class political movement,” when in fact those voters existed primarily in the $50,000 to $99,000 income bracket and signals that the lower middle class (petty bourgeoisie) overwhelmingly voted for Trump in those rural counties. The Trump campaign also spent less on voter communications than the Clinton campaign, but hired the “big data” company Cambridge Analytica to precisely target both GOP voters and Democratic voters with psychometrically-designed internet and social media campaigns to either mobilize voters, or deter them from the polls. Russian trolls and their cyber-interference of misinformation also did the same. This strategy signals a shift of the use of voter demographics as a campaign tool by internet social profiling on social media platforms. It is this strategy of targeting that caused a phenomenon of mass persuasion to confuse swing voters and spread doubts about Clinton’s candidacy among Democrats. The Trump campaign also took all income brackets above $99,000 in the election, indicating that the Democratic Leadership Council’s “suburban strategy” also did not work in swing or contested states as well. This class of voters turned out in significantly higher numbers in rural counties in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida to tip the electoral vote to Trump. The Trump campaign also took Pennsylvania and North Carolina, traditional Democratic strongholds, with this out-sized rural, Republican vote. Hilary Rodham Clinton took the popular vote by close to 3,000,000 votes, but the demographic distribution nationally of Democratic voters could not stanch the losses in swing and contested states, losing the electoral vote to Donald Trump and thus the presidency. Given the reliability of our political polling institutions and their social scientific methodologies for forecasting both the popular and electoral vote, the Clinton campaign led by 6% to 11% in the most well-respected polls into late October 2016, until the FBI claimed it had additional Clinton emails one week before the election, and then called the investigation off shortly thereafter. This kept Democratic voters away from the polls due to the perception of a Democratic Party win, polarizing intra-party rhetoric of corruption by the elusive “Democratic Party Establishment,” and the susceptibility of Democratic voters to intentional misinformation against the Clinton campaign through the phenomenon of mass persuasion.[xv]

In the end, the Democrats lost the election due to multiple factors that had less to do with the strategies and message of the Clinton campaign or the DNC, and more to do with the realpolitik actions of the FBI and its director James Comey, the massive proliferation non-credible news organizations and individual “fake news” trolls, the untruthful claims against Clinton from the Trump campaign, and Russian interference in the presidential election in the form of a campaign of propaganda and misinformation. The Democratic Party’s core platform of a suburban and big labor strategy around social mobility rather than economic security could not cut through the multiple factors to mobilize the party faithful effectively to the polls on election day in key swing states and Democratic strongholds. With the encouraging mass mobilizations of Democratic voters in the past week, now is the time for a realignment of party strategy against a wholly new political animal and fascist shadow party that controls the White House.


[i] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1987), 340-373; Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (Harper Brothers, 1949); Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition (WW Norton, 1978), 594-617; John Homer Schaar, Legitimacy in the Modern State (Transaction Books, 1981), 9.

[ii] The New Deal initiated the Democratic Party’s embrace of the international financialization of the US economy, leading to its post-WW2 hegemony of international monetary policy and global trade. See Thomas Ferguson, “Industrial Conflict and the Coming of the New Deal: The Triumph of Multinational Liberalism in America,” in Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, ed., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1989), 3-31; Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (Verso, 1986), 231-313; Mike Davis, “What’s Wrong With America?,” in In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2007), 42-60

[iii] Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, 256-261; Tony Judt, Ill Fare the Land, (Penguin, 2010), 14-21; Angela Monaghan, “US Wealth Inequality – Top 0.1% Worth as much as the Bottom 90%,” The Guardian UK, 13 November 2014..

[iv] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Retreat from Autonomy: Postmodernism as Generalized Conformism,” in David Ames Curtis, ed., World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (Stanford University Press, 1997), 36-38; Oxfam International, An Economy for the 99% (January 2017); Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition (Columbia University Press, 1988), 136-137. Heller and Feher note that modern cultural movements are embedded within three modes of generational political praxis, existentialist, alienation, and postmodern in the post World War Two era, giving rise to a weak sense of political identity and praxis in liberal-democratic systems.

[v] Heather Gerken, “The Real Problem with Citizens United: Campaign Finance, Dark Money, and Shadow Parties,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 159.1 (March 2015): 5-16.

[vi] See Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, revised edition (Cornell University Press, 1998); Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin, ed., Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[vii] Lowenthal and Guterman, Prophets of Deceit; For an earlier period of anti-Communist demagoguery that shows continuity with the 1930s, see Ellen Schrekcer, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton University Press, 1998), 42-153; David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (Simon & Schuster, 1978), 41-110)

[viii] Bannon’s ridiculous remarks about Lenin and Leninism show his ignorance of Russian and Soviet history. See Stephen Cohen, Buhkarin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (Oxford University Press, 1980); see also the highly-biased biography of Lenin by Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin (Simon & Schuster, 1964). Lenin’s NEP and Buhkarin’s basic continuation of NEP through the “market road to socialism” expanded rather than destroyed the State. Payne notes the rapid expansion of the Soviet bureaucracy through centralized planning and state industry working within the private sector; see also Tamas Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press, 2015).

[ix] Ken Stern, “Stephen Bannon: Trump’s New CEO, Hints at Master Plan,” Vanity Fair, 17 August 2016; Ronald Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy, Told Me He Was ‘A Leninist’ Who “Wants to Destroy the State,’” The Daily Beast, 22 August 2016; Michael Grynbaum, “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media ‘Should Shut its Mouth,’” New York Times, 26 January 2017.

[x] Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” New Left Review 83 (Sept/Oct 2013).

[xi] In particular with Russia, Bannon and Trump are enamored of their nationalist “Eurasianism.” See Marina Mogilner, Homo Imperii: A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 185-296; Anton Weiss-Wendt and Rory Yeomans, ed., Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938-1945  (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 1-34.

[xii] Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, “US Counterintelligence Officials are Examining Possible Ties between Russia and Trump Associates,” Washington Post, 19 January 2017; Abigail Tracy, “The Trump Presidency Begins Under the Pall of Russian Intrigues,” Vanity Fair, 20 January 2017; Jordain Carney, “Senate Committee Moving Forward with Russian Hacking Probe,” The Hill, 24 January 2017; Gareth Davies, “Ex-KGB Chief Who Helped Compile Trump Dossier is Found Dead in Car, Daily Mail UK, 28 January 2017.

[xiii] The Office of the Director of Intelligence, Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution, 6 January 2017; Orbis Business Intelligence, 35 page intelligence dossier, at Buzzfeed.com.

[xiv] Gerken, “The Real Problem with Citizens United; Heather Gerken, “Slipping the Bonds of Federalism,” Harvard Law Review 128, no. 85, 85-123; “2016 Democratic Party Platform,” 21 July 2016, The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, available in PDF online.

[xv] John Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, and K.K. Rebecca Lai, “Election 2016: Exit Polls,” New York Times, 8 November 2016; Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Grogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard/Vice Magazine, 28 January 2017.

4 thoughts on “Autonomy, the State, and Authoritarianism in the United States Presidential Election of 2016

  1. Two stages.
    1. Beat back and eventually defeat the immediate evil. For that, the protests are very helpful.
    2. Begin building a better system. For that the demonstrations can offer courage and political pressure, but not policy guidance that needs to precede it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s