Despotism in Demo Mode: The Ruling Class and the End of the Trumpish Age

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As the squandered summer of the coronavirus dribbled out to a sadly unsatisfying end, three of the most familiar mouthpieces of the ruling class—Anderson Cooper, Bill Maher, and Trevor Noah—produced their own unimaginative commentary on the so-called phenomenon of Q-Anon. None of them had anything enlightening to say about this political subculture, one which I am loath to write about for fear of unjustly magnifying further, but the synchrony of their feeble offensives was one of the more unvarnished examples of the manner in which the mass media produces propaganda, the intended effect of which is to convince the public to develop a specific, artificial opinion. I am still kicking myself for declining to draw contemporaneous attention to this instance of informative coordination, but there will be all too many opportunities of a related sort in the imminent future, especially if Joe Biden ever enters the White House.

Much like the Obama Administration before it, the Biden Administration will seek to amalgamate the American media and the American state. In the previous decade, this process commenced with former politicians and governmental officials finding employment at corporate media outlets, but the interinstitutional messaging will become even more uniform in the coming years. After much bemoaning of the menace of “foreign misinformation”, which may or may not be responsible for the “radicalization” occurring online, the American political establishment sees an opportunity to guarantee that the “official” perspective or narrative shall be the only one permitted in the public sphere. “Hyperbole,” you may say, but you ought to know that Biden has already selected Richard Stengel to direct the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The same Stengel has written on his wish to repeal the First Amendment outright, and in the spring of 2018, he classified “Russia, Wikileaks, and Julian Assange” as “the new axis of the abhorrent”.

Read more about Stengel’s authoritarian tendencies here.

While such sentiment is disquietingly common among the increasingly insecure political elite, the neoliberal bourgeoisie have inherited their paranoia and learned to parrot their threadbare talking points. Having followed a relentless diet of digital fearmongering for more than five years running, the lethargic middle class is convinced that the Trump Administration is a nightmarish singularity, one which can be overcome only through proscription—and the first politician to acquire enough power to enforce that proscription simply must be granted the authority to do so. Presumably, this politician, whoever it may be, will have pledged his or her loyalty to the Democratic Party, and in the interest of maximizing that unknown individual’s prospective success, the public must pledge its loyalty to the Party, as well. Every media outlet will necessarily be required to do the same, and if one refuses to cooperate, then it ought to be dismantled by decree—or, even better, acquired by the state and repurposed to serve the interests of the Party.

An awful lot of work is undertaken to control the electronic content to which the public is exposed, but if the fruits of this labor were unworthwhile, then why would the ruling class pursue them? If the oligarchs resume their mastery of the airwaves, lost for the briefest of moments at the dawn of the twenty-first century, then they will have regained their exclusive power to stimulate the masses and direct them toward a desired state of thinking. This is the intended function of mass media as it currently exists, but the efficacy of the process is impaired, however slightly, by the endurance of independent media—of which this website is but a single example. The ruling class has not yet realized the absolute potential of unmitigated dominance in the information apparatus, and if the rise of intellectual authoritarians like Stengel is any indication, then the ruling class appears to be tiring of these unnecessary limits.

However, those limits cannot be surpassed or abolished until a majority of the public is willing to surrender its own freedom. The Obama Administration was cognizant of this, hence its reluctance to directly prosecute Julian Assange, even as it happily imprisoned scores of other whistleblowers, and even as the neoconservative bourgeoisie would have welcomed news of the journalist’s death with a visibly erogenous delight. Only after the affluent neoliberals, devastated by their vicarious humbling in the election of 2016, had come to share in the popular bloodlust could the ruling class consider it safe to take Assange into custody and, in effect, abolish the same First Amendment that Richard Stengel so vocally loathes. In retrospect—and in recognition of the American people’s spiritual sloth—it strains credulity to suggest that a massive uprising would have broken out, had the American Empire claimed Assange a few years too soon. This is not the first time that I have considered this, and it certainly is not the first time that the ruling class has, either.

Even if the masses, inadequately pacified by the indulgent comforts of domestic life, had expressed their consternation for Assange’s imprisonment, then they would have denounced Trump and his Administration for encroaching upon the freedom of the press; and if the public criticism grew too intense, then the ruling class would have blamed the same unusual entity, a motley roster of outsiders and oddballs who, rest assured, never represented the establishment or its ambitions. This has been the theme of the Democratic Party for the last several years, to denigrate Trumpism as an unfamiliar and preternatural form of malfeasance, an alien ideology unpalatable to professional politicians. Trump’s utility for the Party is obvious, but have we considered how he benefited the ruling class—and the establishment that this class manifests—by granting it plausible deniability? In the unlikely event that the masses ever became truly hostile to the lawmakers who inflicted so much suffering upon them, then Trump would bear the brunt, leaving the political establishment unbruised.

Because he is a disposable political figure, Trump has afforded the ruling class carte blanche to do whatever it pleases, to push the proverbial envelope as far as it is currently comfortable. Occupying the unglamorous office of the presidency, Trump has experimented with despotism in demo mode, providing invaluable practical insight into what the powerless peasantry will and will not tolerate. The preliminary results of this sadistic survey are exceedingly encouraging to the elites and deeply dispiriting to the revolutionaries; indeed, one could argue quite seriously that nothing will stir the Americans to rebellion, although this premise will not undergo its final test unless the impending homelessness crisis comes to fruition.

In the meantime, there is ample evidence of the public’s passivity, though most of it was acquired under circumstances decidedly less intense. It is now undeniable that the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were staged to assess the people’s tolerance for the denial of due process, perhaps the quintessential characteristic of any truly fascistic system. The proceedings revealed, much to the satisfaction of the ruling class, that the masses would, in fact, tolerate such a fundamental injustice, provided that it was their perceived political opponents who were wronged. More to the point, the masses have no intrinsic expectation of basic equity, at least not for anyone but themselves—and even the most sophisticated of propagandists cannot rid us of this latter compulsion to defend one’s self. Though the Kavanaugh affair transpired several months before Assange’s arrest, our interpretation of the former certainly supports our analysis of the latter.

Needless to say, the official narrative did not accommodate our reading of either of these cases. In both instances, the establishment orchestrated an illusion, a non sequitur intended to persuade the public that something very different—the event as it appeared to be—was actually taking place. It should not astound us, then, that a similar attempt at prestidigitation is being attempted at this very time—think of it as Trump’s last act, the final opportunity that he will have before his time as the president is up. Doubtless you have heard that Trump is accusing the Democratic Party—the same Party that rigged its own primary system not once, but twice, to thwart Bernie Sanders and to deny him the presidential nomination—of rigging the general election. He has yet to issue any specific allegation, but he has suggested that the Democrats conspired with “election officials” to grant Joe Biden a victory that he could not earnestly claim. Hitherto, we have retrieved multitudinous proof of voter fraud, a quotidian occurrence in our sacrosanct democracy, but evidence of a unilateral reversal remains elusive. In any event, the “official results” declare that Biden is the winner, and the mainstream media has described Trump’s denial of this “decision” as an attempted coup d’état. Lamentably, the pundits have not yet watched my interview with Daniel Burke, in which he argued that even a “legitimate” victory for Biden would constitute a coup against Donald Trump.

We are not here to parse the proof or lack thereof, be it of the “official results” or of the president’s challenge. In September, I suggested that the Democratic Party’s immeasurable glut of dark money would propel Biden to victory, but I have witnessed more than enough field-tilting over the course of the last several years to teach me skepticism of American political institutions. For the nonce, I believe our focus ought to be on the insistence wherewith the corporate media dismisses Trump’s complaint as an authoritarian measure. The same corporate media continually commends the social media companies for censoring Trump’s unfounded allegations of electoral interference, yet it sees the need to report on those supposedly malicious allegations innumerable times daily. This, we are told, is the same kind of volatile “misinformation” that necessitates an official repeal of the First Amendment, yet it appears to be perfectly acceptable for the mainstream media to broadcast it to a global audience—and reaching an audience far larger than any that I could obtain with this little website.

The counterintuition calls to mind the misguided approach to Q-Anon: if the intellectual material is really so dangerous that the helpless masses must be protected from exposing themselves to it, then why did the corporate media find it necessary to dedicate considerable airtime to a plethora of treatises on the topic? As is invariably the case in the corporate media, the goal was to develop, introduce, and reinforce the “official narrative”, one which is perfectly suitable to the machinations of the ruling class. The publicization and simultaneous demonization of Q-Anon was, obviously, meant to discourage independent research into Jeffrey Epstein and his multilayered connections to the political elite, while the scandalous scrutiny of Trump’s contest will gauge the public’s patience for an autocratic usurpation of the presidency—or, at least, that which is described as an autocratic usurpation of the presidency. The validity of that description is just as irrelevant as Trump’s claims of an unfair election: the point of this exercise is to determine what, if anything, the masses would do if a tyrant were to claim illegitimate command.

It may be too early to form any definitive conclusions, but the initial findings should be supremely encouraging to the ruling class. A sizeable share of the president’s supporters are perfectly content with him exploiting whatever underhanded or illegal methods he has at his disposal, as long as he can keep the Democrats out of the White House. Meanwhile, the neoliberals are preparing for the return of this political bogeyman in four years’ time, and if the Biden Administration, or the Harris Administration, must declare martial law in order to keep him away from the highest branches of government, then so be it. Those who continue to believe in the integrity of government, or in the integrity of those who seek its power, and who maintain their partisanship must acknowledge their own thankless role in the subjugation of the peasantry. They would do well to remember Roberto Chiesi’s description of the pornographic, self-deprecating spectacles depicted in Salo: “The audience there listening is the mass of corrupted and deformed TV viewers, the passive consumers of an indoctrination against which they cannot, or do not want to, rebel.”

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