The results of the New Hampshire primary are in, and the big winner is the new populism: that mysterious pro-“outsider” phenomenon that has the political class in a panic, and which no one has adequately defined – including its current practitioners.
Donald Trump’s vote total of nearly 35 percent is impressive enough, but his two-to-one margin over the closest runner-up, John Kasich, underscores the triumph of his brand of Jacksonian populism over both the Romney-esque center right (Kasich-Bush) and “movement conservatism” (Cruz-Rubio). In spite of a concerted effort by the conservative punditariat and the mainstream media to marginalize Trump as toxic, he handily crushed them, and is now in a position to barrel into South Carolina and beyond, steamrollering the “Establishment lane” candidates who are as divided as ever.
Even more stunning is Bernie Sanders’ victory over Hillary Clinton: while the polls told us that the former was headed for a win, the numbers – as I write Hillary is barely holding on to 40 percent – augur trouble for Mrs. Clinton’s much anticipated coronation. While the Clintonian “firewall” in the south is supposed to be impregnable, one can easily imagine it turning into the electoral equivalent of the Maginot Line. It’s that kind of election year.
The other big story of this election is the implosion of Marco Rubio, the fair-haired boy of the neoconservatives. His third place finish in Iowa was touted so loudly by his fanboys in the conservative media that one would have thought he taken first prize. Yet his cringe-worthy performance in the debate – it looked like his neoconservative handlers programmed him with the wrong software – and now his relegation to a humiliating fifth place in New Hampshire has almost certainly sunk his campaign. He will probably continue into Super Tuesday and perhaps beyond, but that’s only because he doesn’t seem to have an “off” button, or maybe it’s just stuck: in any case, it’s far too late to send him back to the factory for repair.
So much for the numbers. Now let’s look at what they mean.
Ideologically, what New Hampshire tells us is that the “centrist” anti-“extremist” political paradigm that has restricted our political perceptions – and choices – for lo these many years is obsolete. For months, voters have been told that someone who defines himself as a “democratic socialist” could never mount a credible challenge to Queen Hillary, and that the victory of the Clinton Restorationists is inevitable. Now, however, nothing seems inevitable, as voters ignore the media and its version of the conventional wisdom, and the “political revolution” led by Sanders seems fully capable of upending the Democratic party.
On the Republican side of the equation, it’s much the same story – only more so. While the Sanderistas are a movement of the “left,” Trumpism is less easily categorized as a rightist phenomenon. On domestic economic issues, Trump is all over the place: he wants to lower the tax rate, but penalize the financial speculators: he opposes Obamacare, and wants to allow competition between insurance companies over state lines, but he also wants to take care of the indigent. He is protectionist on trade, tough on crime, and even tougher on immigration – all stances one would normally associate with the paleo-conservatives. And yet when it comes to defense spending and foreign policy, on close inspection he is remarkably “left”: he opposes a new cold war with Russia, doesn’t’ want us in Syria, highlights his opposition to the Iraq war, and has recently declared that he opposes hiking the military budget. He wonders aloud why we are pledged to defend both South Korea and Japan while they “screw us over’ on trade.
Indeed, when it comes to foreign policy he is a lot closer to Sanders than to any of his Republican rivals. And on trade policy, too, the Sanderistas and the Trumpists sound eerily alike: both movements are protests against the hollowing out of America’s industrial capacity and the rise of paper-pushing financiers as the robber barons of a New Gilded Age. The divide between them is not so much ideological as demographic: Sanders holds the loyalty of the under-30 crowd, while Trump garners the allegiance of their parents and grandparents. What unites them is their rebellion against the political class and a system built on cronyism and perpetual warfare.
What the twin victories of these two protest movements prefigure is the rise of a new nationalism in America. Not the outward-looking aggressive militaristic nationalism of pre-World War II Europe, but the introspective insulating “return to normalcy” nationalism of prewar America: wary of foreign adventurism, almost exclusively concerned with bread-and-butter issues, resentful of a “meritocracy” that rewards anything but genuine merit, and in search of a lost greatness they may never have experienced but only heard about.
This represents a deadly challenge to the regnant elites, who can be expected to fight both Trump and Sanders to the bitter end. The stakes are high: at home, a system that enriches the politically connected at the expense of ordinary folks, and abroad, an empire that spans the globe. The beneficiaries of the status quo won’t give up their position easily – and yet they are clearly losing their grip on power. It’s quite a sight to see: the only analogy I can think of is the mass extinction of the dinosaurs in prehistoric times.
The liberal corporatists who have, up until now, controlled the Democratic party can be expected to use every trick in the book to derail the Sanders campaign, and the smears are already being circulated by the Clintonians, who are experts in the field.
In the GOP, the neoconservative faction, which has had a hammerlock on the party up until now, has already unleashed its venom on Trump and his followers, but have been unable to mobilize a “Stop Trump” movement: the “Establishment lane” is too split to mount an effective opposition, and is likely to stay divided until at least after Super Tuesday. With the humiliation and looming final defeat of Rubio, what we will shortly be witnessing is the end of neoconservative dominance in the Republican party. The neocons have been shown up as generals without much of an army: surely this is a development that anti-interventionists can only welcome with open arms.
Yet the looming victory of Trumpism is very far from an unmixed blessing. Trump is an erratic personality, to say the least, and can hardly be trusted to be consistent in anything but his own egotism. His populist Jacksonian patter could just as easily veer from an inward-looking “isolationism” to an extroverted ultra-nationalist militarism if provoked – and from what I can see, it wouldn’t take much to provoke him. Sanders, too, is hardly consistent in his anti-interventionism: he has particular blind spots when it comes to “humanitarian” interventionism, and US-Israeli relations.
However, the peccadilloes of these two individuals, while not entirely beside the point, matter less than what their ascendancy tells us about the seismic changes that are transforming the American political landscape. The political and corporate elites that have ruled, unchallenged, since the end of World War II, and whose perspective is globalist, imperialist, and mercantilist, is facing a serious insurrection: the peasants with pitchforks are gathering in the shadow of the high castle, their torches illuminating the twilight of the West. Whether they succeed in penetrating the fortress and violating the inner sanctum matters less than the destructive effects of the battle itself. Does our ruling class have the will to fight and win? We’ll have the answer shortly.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN