Could it just be that, with Bernie Sanders’ 13 April endorsement of Joe Biden as Democratic candidate in November’s presidential election – see the ABC News clip above – and the 4 April ascension of Keir Starmer to leadership of the Labour Party, the ‘centre’ is making a comeback in American and British politics?
A new poll reported by The London Economic’s Jack Peat puts the centrist Starmer’s net favourability 50 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘hardcore leftie’ he succeeded. (Of course, Corbyn was not really the Marxist the right-wing media slandered him as, though his views were well to the left of Labour under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even Ed Miliband)
Meanwhile Sanders’ concession to Biden effectively signals the end of what might be termed the Democrats’ ‘hard left’ campaign to win the nomination for presidential candidate. (By ‘hard left’ here, we mean the leftie side of social democracy; again Sanders is nothing like the Marxist some on the hard right claim he is!) Biden is decidedly centrist in his politics – some might even argue right of centre – but that enables him potentially to pick up leftie Republican votes, especially those who are totally exasperated with Donald Trump. There are several small but influential groups of Republicans who are deeply concerned with the way Trump’s behaviour has become increasingly unconstitutional. One of them is Republicans for the Rule of Law whose Sarah Longwell was reported by Newsweek’s Daniel Villarreal to have summed up the issue as: “America deserves better leadership”. Perhaps more interesting is The Lincoln Project, another group of Republicans who, in a mid-April piece written for the Washington Post by George Conway et al, actually endorsed Biden on the basis that Trump simply had to be beaten. They wrote:-
“When we founded the Lincoln Project, we did so with a clear mission: to defeat President Trump in November. Publicly supporting a Democratic nominee for president is a first for all of us. We are in extraordinary times, and we have chosen to put country over party – and former vice president Joe Biden is the candidate who we believe will do the same. Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee and he has our support. Biden has the experience, the attributes and the character to defeat Trump this fall. Unlike Trump, for whom the presidency is just one more opportunity to perfect his narcissism and self-aggrandizement, Biden sees public service as an opportunity to do right by the American people and a privilege to do so.”
On the face of it, this Republican dissatisfaction with Trump comes from the BLUE vMEME’s focus on doing the right thing. By undermining elements of the American constitution, Trump’s RED is putting him at odds with many of the traditional values of his own party.
Having declared against Trump, in early May The Lincoln Project released this damning video assessment of Trump…
Covid-19: the great game changer
As the Lincoln Project ad implies, it is, of course, the coronavirus crisis which has become the great game changer. Or maybe not the virus itself but the way the respective US and UK administrations have so abysmally failed to address the devastating health, social and economic impacts the virus is having.
United Kingdom premier Boris Johnson is reported by Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott & Jonathan Leake in The Sunday Times to have been so fixated on having his way on Brexit and extricating himself from a messy divorce – and, it is clearly implied, continuing to enjoy his indulgent lifestyle – that he initially downplayed the threat the virus presented and missed 5 COBRA meetings in February. Without a leader, COBRA talked more than made any critical decisions. Under the influence of his much-reviled advisor Dominic Cummings, when Johnson did take note of the virus, he finished contact tracing (12 March) and opted for a half-baked and never clearly spelled-out policy of herd immunity, for which an estimated 60% of the population were needed to contract Covid-19. Only when Cummings was presented with modelling that showed this policy could cost 250,000 lives did Johnson impose some restrictions on public movement. Even then it took France’s president Emmanuel Macron threatening to close the border with the UK to actually spur Johnson to impose a full lockdown on 23 March. Then, of course, after boasting that he had shaken hands “with everyone” on a coronavirus ward, he caught the disease himself. Before, during and after Johnson’s illness, his government has appeared spectacularly incompetent, from the failure to supply anything like enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to National Health Service staff (especially those working on intensive care wards) to completely neglecting the highly-vulnerable care home sector. His ministers – health secretary Matt Hancock especially – have repeatedly promised and failed to deliver in dealing with Covid-19, trying to avoid tricky questions from journalists and public alike and outrightly lying on a number of occasions. The most brazen of Hancock’s lies was telling the House of Commons on 23 January that the NHS was “well prepared” for a coronavirus pandemic – a lie he repeated on LBC radio on 3 April.
Yesterday evening, in his confused and incoherent speech to the nation, Johnson stated “anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work” today (Monday). Despite all his protestations that people should still social distance in pursuit of all the new freedoms he announced, this does raise the possibility that he is toying again with a half-baked herd immunity strategy.
If Johnson and his crew have appeared to be both self-serving and unbelievably incompetent, Donald Trump has revealed himself to be both a narcissistic fantasist and a sociopath in the true meaning of the word. Like Johnson, Trump did nothing in February about the Covid-19 threat, saying the virus could “maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.” He predicted it is “going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” He also dismissed criticism of his administration’s non-strategy by Democrats as “their new hoax” (Oliver Milman, The Guardian). Since then Trumps’ administration has been accused of diverting supplies of ventilators and PPE ordered by state governors (Mia Jankowicz, Business Insider) while he has attempted to make delivery of aid from federal resources conditional upon state governors giving him praise he can use in his election campaigns (Michelle Goldberg, Chicago Herald Tribune). On 23 April Trump made his universally-mocked suggestion that injecting disinfectant and/or penetrating the body with light may be cures for Covid-19. The doctored photograph below of Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama laughing at Trump’s ludicrous suggestion is just one of many graphics ridiculing it and going viral on the Internet.
Trump has been widely criticised for failing to show empathy for victims of the crisis – eg: Chris Megerian & Eli Stokols in the Los Angeles Times – instead preferring to either deflect blame onto others or boast wildly and inaccurately of his administration’s (fantasy) successes in combating Covid-19. Trump’s real Sociopathology has been revealed in his tweets encouraging armed militias to “liberate” states where Democrat governors are enforcing the federal government’s own lockdown regulations. Max Elbaum, on Reader Supported News, identifies the danger in these tweets: “…Trump’s tweets appeared to back the rifle-carrying militia component of the protests, as the President called for defying legal authority. His ‘liberate’ message was embraced as a ‘call to arms’ throughout the insurrectionist right wing. There was an immediate surge in Twitter posts about the President and the ‘boogaloo’ (a term denoting armed insurrection in the world of the conspiracy-theory-infused right).” Trump appears to want armed insurrection and the death and destruction that would necessarily bring. A number of those who took part in the armed protests belong to white supremacist groups, some of which would have no compunction in using lethal force against blacks and Hispanics.
What the coronavirus crisis has exposed is that both the US and UK governments were horrendously under-prepared for a pandemic after years of cutting public services and either explicitly giving (in Trump’s case) or more implicitly allowing (in Johnson’s case) the uber-rich – the Plutocrats in Guy Standing’s (2009) terminology – the opportunities to increase their wealth through tax cuts, the rolling back of profit-inhibiting legislation and taking on lucrative contracts to deliver bare minimum services to substitute for the decimated public sectors. It would appear Trump and Johnson are agents put in place through the manipulation of democratic systems to benefit the Plutocracy and the Elite (the next level below them in Standing’s hierarchy, who share in the wealth the Plutocrats amass by serving their interests).
That both Trump and Johnson are unfit to govern is patently obvious. As politicians they can barely string together a coherent sentence. Just watch the Guardian video clip below where Keir Starmer dissembles Johnson at their very first Prime Minister’s Questions together.
Johnson can do no more than bluster in face of Starmer’s forensic inquisition – even making the mistake of promising a new target of 200,00o tests a day by the end of May. (Downing Street later revised that target to having the capacity to carry out 200,000 tests.)
As Trump has barred more and more journalists from White House briefings, so Johnson has barred his ministers from talking to the more probing journalists. Government ministers have been made ‘unavailable’ for Channel 4 News (Kate Plummer, Scram News) while the Daily Express’ Emily Ferguson is just one of many reporters repeating Piers Morgan’s claim that Johnson has banned ministers from appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. (Morgan has demolished both Matt Hancock and his no 2, Helen Whately, in separate interviews, exposing both as inept and deceitful.) In their desperation to avoid scrutiny, Trump has forbidden members of his coronavirus team testifying to Congress (Andrew Restuccia, Wall Street Journal) while it has been reported (Paul Lewis & David Conn, The Guardian) that members of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) have complained that the official report of their advice to the Government has been heavily redacted for publication.
In summary then, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the US and UK governments to be narrowly focused on the interests of the uber-rich and to have allowed resources to be depleted to the point where their respective health services were hopelessly under-prepared for a pandemic. As the crisis has worsened, the governments have shown themselves to be horrendously incompetent and resorting to lies and cover-ups to try to minimise fall-out from their ineptitude. As leaders, Trump and Johnson have shown themselves not only to be unfit to govern but also delusional, boasting of ‘success’ in tackling the virus when the US and the UK have the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world.
The Plutocracy and the hard right
If the centre is to make the kind of comeback the followers of Biden and Starmer would like, then the relationship between the Plutocracy (and their Elite supporters) and the hard right needs to be understood. Firstly, of course neither the Plutocracy nor the hard right are homogeneous, either as entities or cultures. Not all those in the Plutocracy – or for that matter, the Elite – are committed solely to their own benefit and that of their social class. Both the Plutocracy and the Elite contain philanthropists – eg: by February 2018 George Soros had donated $32 BN of his $40 BN fortune to justice, education and public health projects through his Open Society Foundations charities. Unfortunately, such philanthropists are the exception. Most of those in the Plutocracy (and the Elite) are concerned with consolidating and, where possible, increasing their wealth and power (Standing, 2014).
Said E Dawlabani (2013) refers to this fixation on wealth as ‘The Age of Only Money Matters’ and sees it as being driven by what he terms ‘toxic ORANGE’. There is no social conscience and no moral compass with those in this mindset.
Clearly there is a range of viewpoints in the ‘hard right’, ranging from those who actually would like to ethnically cleanse their country of those who are different to those who simply want a rigid martial law enforced. Many of the Plutocracy are of hard right viewpoints which are reflected in the media they and their Elite supporters own – eg: Rupert Murdoch’s neo-racist, anti-immigrant views are clearly reflected on Fox News and tabloids like The Sun. The hard right, though, ranges from such plutocrats down the social classes to the lower working classes who tend to think in PURPLE much of the time and, therefore, are susceptible to appeals to tribalism.
To consolidate and increase their wealth and power, the Plutocracy need to roll back employment, environmental and health & safety legislation so they can maximise their profits – as outlined in How the Plutocrats are waging War on the Bureaucrats… Thus, in nominally democratic societies, they need to swing enough of the electorate behind hard right candidates and their movements to win power. This tends to be done by creating what Stanley Cohen (1972; 1980) calls moral panics, for which folk devils are blamed. Examples of this in 2016 included Trump identifying increases in certain crimes as an issue which he infamously blamed on “Mexican gangsters and rapists” and Nigel Farage raising the alarm over a million Syrian refugees (supposedly!) about to enter the UK due to its membership of the EU.
Despite achieving only small margins in the 2016 EU membership referendum – and the 2017 and 2019 elections – and the 2016 presidential election, Boris Johnson (and Theresa May before him) and Donald Trump have pressed on with ever more extreme agendas. Those agendas have been demonstrated to be harmful to the longer-term prospects of the majority of people in both the UK and the US. For example, journalists such as Pam Leweson (2019) have reported the severe difficulties Trump’s tariff wars with China are causing farmers in the Mid-West. Although every reported Treasury forecast – eg: BBC News (2018g) – has predicted a no-deal Brexit could take over 9% off the UK economy, there is no indication that the UK is approaching trade talks with the EU with any intention of succeeding. Indeed last week EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan told RTE News he believes the UK government will blame the post-Brexit fallout on the economic shock from Covid-19.
The domination of the supportive right-wing media has largely led to the acquiescence of many voters to such policies. Few, if any serious questions are asked of the politicians and those journalists who do often get sidelined or barred – as discussed above. The hard right has invested years in building the moral panics for Brexit and Trump to address so they don’t want to see their efforts to control the thinking of the masses – what Antonio Gramsci (1929-1935/1971) referred to as hegemony – becoming undermined.
Yet it may be that Trump’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and the blatant incompetence of the Johnson government are beginning to undermine the faith of the Plutocrats and their Elite lackeys in such agents. And, from that, may there even be a questioning that the old pre-Covid-19 norms can be returned to? Elbaum writes: “Those who guided Trump to power are closely attuned to the political winds. They can count. They see that that the pandemic is sparking tenant organizing, rent strikes, job actions and worker strikes that demand protections for renters, workers and the poor way beyond anything that existed pre-Covid-19…. They see that Covid-19 fightback efforts like Bernie Sanders’ post-campaign stance and the People’s Bailout, and many others are pushing demands for structural change into the mainstream. They notice that even the major liberal media are carrying critiques not just of the disparities in the way Covid-19 is impacting different populations, but of long-standing inequalities in US society. They see handwriting on the wall as labour organizations support incarcerated people, climate justice activists rally for immigrant rights and a general spirit of ‘social solidarity’ builds among a host of vulnerable and less vulnerable sectors…. They monitor demographic change and know that their core base among older whites is declining while the country’s proportion of people of colour is growing.”
Fanciful thinking, perhaps, but could it be that there is beginning to be a recognition among some of the Plutocrats and the Elite that a return to the old ‘normality is not likely, that some sort of change is inevitable and that it is better to help lead the change and thus be in at least partial control of it…? Something like this happened with the Tories in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition, with many of them supporting the idea of creating a National Health Service (Laura Hood, 2015).
Certainly, if Republicans for the Rule of Law and The Lincoln Poject are distancing themselves from Trump and the latter actually endorsing Biden, it would seem that at least some of the Elite are breaking away from the hard right.
The challenge of creating a new political centre
From collating research, Monica Bourgeau (2019) believes that 56% of Americans fall into what she calls the ‘exhausted majority’, ranging from the moderately right to the moderately left. Having extremists as leaders deprives such people from having representative choice. Accordingly, such people end up voting for the extremists on their ‘side’ because they have no other choice and their extremists have vilified the other side’s extremists as unacceptable under any circumstances. Now, however, with Joe Biden and Keir Starmer, the moderates may have a choice other than hard right and hard left.
Given the overriding importance of wealth and power to many in the Plutocracy and their control of much of the media, getting moderate messages across may still prove decidedly difficult. This is where Biden and Starmer have to speak multiple messages – of little threat to the plutocrats and of real change to what is sometimes termed the ‘left behind’.
ORANGE-based memes around supporting business, innovation and the creation of wealth will largely ease the concerns of those in the Plutocracy and the Elite who recognise the need to dump Trumpism. But what about the ‘left-behind’?
They are the traditional working classes in the West whose jobs have been largely relocated to other countries – what Folker Fröbel, Jürgen Heinrichs & Otto Kreye (1980) call the New International Division of Labour. Most of the old manufacturing industries disappeared in the last quarter of the 20th Century – as did other traditional industries such as mining and fishing. This left behind huge numbers of unemployed workers – predominantly male – with little hope of bettering themselves – the ‘excreta of Capitalism’, as I have termed them elsewhere. Probably nowhere symbolises this more than Detroit. Once the proud capital of the US’ motor industry. It is now a notorious run-down near ghost town.
Globalisation simply does not work for most of the working classes. Much of their thinking is PURPLE-driven, wanting security – identified as the second most fundamental need in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In unregulated Capitalism, the transnational corporations will always take the work where it can maximise profits and drive down costs, without any sense of loyalty to the last lot of workers they made redundant and whose communities they have abandoned.
Therefore, to win more of the ‘left behind’ to the centre, the likes of Biden and Starmer have to sell messages of security to them. This is a memetic war for the mind-brains of millions of people who have been betrayed and manipulated. However, these mustn’t be the kind of ‘magical solutions’ would-be dictators like Trump (“build a wall”) and Johnson (“leave the EU”) offer – as Theodore Adorno et al (1951) have identified is that pattern of totalitarians and fascists. Rather, they must be sustainable and holistic solutions.
The cracking of the harder left, typified by Sanders’ concession to Biden and the harder right, with the emergence of The Lincoln Project, offer real hope of a resurgence of the centre. But it won’t be without considerable resistance and it must offer real and potentially lasting change. We cannot go back to ‘normal’. Nonetheless, getting rid of Trump is a critical first step. As a Brit, I can only hope there is a legitimate way of getting rid of Johnson.