His father’s election victory and the Brexit vote, Donald Trump Jr. wrote in a British newspaper this week, were “one and the same.” He’s not kidding. They’ll both go down in history as moments of intense reactionary idiocy from which, we hope, both countries will one day make a full recovery.
But they were something more than that. They were the two great manifestations of the false consciousness of our era: that whatever has gone wrong can be blamed on liberals—or that universal bogeyman “the liberal order”—and that only conservatives can put things right.
I use the phrase “false consciousness” deliberately. Those of you who know this sort of thing know that the phrase comes to us from Marxist thought. It’s the idea that the material comforts provided by the capitalist system lulled the proletariat to sleep and prevented them from seeing their true class interests.
The false consciousness of our time is quite different—in fact, it’s very nearly the opposite. Our false consciousness is the idea that material dis-comforts can all be blamed on liberal policies that the far right can fool millions of people into thinking have held them back, rather than on the conservative, supply-side, austerity policies that have in fact held them back.
This is the lie that sits at the center of this reactionary backlash of our age. To a liberal, it’s beyond maddening. Consider the cycle:
1. Right-wing economic policy fails to provide for the general prosperity.
2. People get understandably angry about it.
3. New, even further right-wing people come along and say, “See? Liberals have failed you, vote for us!”
That’s about what has happened in this country, and in the U.K., too, over the last generation. You take issue with this? Well, let’s dig a little deeper into it, then.
How and when did our current economic woes start? They started in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush passed two big tax cuts mostly for the rich. Wages in the United States, which had grown handsomely in the late 1990s, did not grow at all in the 2000s. At all, for the whole decade. Of course, the super-rich kept getting super-richer. A budget surplus Bush inherited from Bill Clinton, the first in 30 years, turned into a deficit.
Meanwhile, if we’re talking not strictly about economics but about America’s general standing in the world, let’s spend one paragraph recalling that the Iraq War started 16 years ago yesterday. I saw that Ari Fleischer spent the day tweeting that he didn’t lie to the American people about WMD. Whatever, buddy. The WMD stuff, which I say was a lie, was only a small part of the overall lie—that we could make Iraq a democracy in a few weeks’ time and they’d be laying rose petals at our feet. That evil buffoon Paul Wolfowitz actually said this. And no, this was not a misjudgment. It was a lie. And on top of everything else, the war has cost $5 trillion that might have been spent on the welfare of the American people.
Then, conservatives oversaw the near-collapse of the global economy. Here I mean not just Bush and his people but the Wall Streeters and the big banks and mortgage lenders that brought the system to its knees. The vast majority of these people were Republicans, and in any case they sure weren’t pursuing left-wing economic policies.
Then, a Democrat came in and tried to clean it up. He wasn’t perfect, of course; he appears to have been blindsided by the amount of anger out there in the parts of the country where the economy was stuck in neutral. But he also did want to spend money on those people and places, but the right wing blocked all that. So, no infrastructure bill. No acceptance of free Medicaid money by really poor states to give really poor people better health care, because accepting the money would have been good for Barack Obama politically. Insanity.
In other words: Conservatives created the economic crisis, and then did everything they could to prevent liberals from fixing it. Could liberals have fixed it? Of course we don’t know. Maybe not. But I’ll put it this way: If there’d been 65 Democrats in the Senate and 250 more in the House for all of Obama’s eight years, we’d have a higher minimum wage, a more expansive health care system, higher overtime pay, higher taxes on the rich, a huge infrastructure program, a better student-loan program, a rational immigration policy, and a number of other things that would have directed money toward the middle class that was instead hoarded by the rich.
But we did none of those things for the people in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Depression. And they got mad. And conservatives came around this time and said: It’s those immigrants! And all those other undeserving leeches! That’s why you’re falling behind.
Of course, the factual truth is the opposite. The economic effects of immigration on this country are overwhelmingly positive (no link; just go Google it, the results are numerous). The same is true, incidentally, of the UK. The things Nigel Farage and the rest of them said were total propaganda.
So yes, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election were the same thing. They succeeded on the basis of lies uttered to cover up for prior disastrous failures. Trump knows it: He called himself Mr. Brexit during the campaign.
And look at where Brexit and Trump’s election have brought us. Brexit’s a disaster; Britons increasingly want a second referendum and would vote Remain today. Americans strongly disapprove of their president as we await the report that will (we hope) detail for us the full extent of the links between his campaign and Russia, and congressional hearings that will lay bare the full extent of this president’s corruption.
The public presentation of this evidence will require yet another lie, one they’ve been rehearsing, that it’s all a “deep state” plot, which Donald Jr. referenced in his oped (as he well might, since it’s a decent bet he’ll be indicted). Each lie necessitates the next one. The question that we confront is, when will the people catch on?