T2B11: Obama to Trump


We live in the age of cognitive capitalism, where, among other things, corporations, political parties and ‘thought leaders’ compete ferociously for attention and mindshare, which, predictably, leads to two related outcomes:

  1. The ‘identitization’ of knowledge - terrible term, and I promise not to use it too often, but what I mean by ‘identitization’ is that knowledge is folded into identity, so that what we know shapes who we are and who we are filters what we choose to know.

  2. Virtue signalling of knowledge - once knowing is a central part of identity, it’s only a matter of time before we start showing off what we know. That could be the latest facts about climate change or inside news about children being assaulted in pizza parlors.

For example, in the US, party affiliation is a major predictor of whether someone will wear a mask or not in public. Democrats (both politicians and laypeople) perform copious amounts of virtue signalling about masks.

Note how belief in science is clubbed with other, more traditional identitarian beliefs.

That virtue signalling leads to hilarious politics. Gavin Newsom - the Hollywoodish governor of California - has been pushing mask wearing in all his public appearances but then goes maskless to a fundraiser in one of the poshest restaurants in the world - French Laundry - where a meal can set you back $500 before you crack open the champagne. Sends a signal that the Democratic party elite is posher than the Republican elite.

Any wonder that working class people are suspicious of Democratic sloganeering?

Which brings me to the real topic of the day:

How much Daylight between Trump and Obama?

The first volume of Obama’s memoirs are out. It’s making the rounds of India because of this quote about Rahul Gandhi:

Everybody loves ganging up on Rahul and the bhakts are happy the book doesn’t say a word about Modi. Not too fast! Volume one ends in 2012, before Modi came to power. Volume two might have some bad news for the man standing on the Red Fort. However, the more important snippet from the book is this one about the ex-president of Brazil, Lula:

Lula reminds me of Lalu. That’s Lalu Prasad Yadav for those who don’t know Indian politics. Like Lula, Lalu incites an enormous amount of class hatred. He’s considered corrupt, uneducated, boorish by the middle class. Neither Lula nor Lalu are innocents - they are tough politicians who rose to power in an incredibly unjust system that was stacked against people like them. Nevertheless both of them stood (and stand) for a politics of dignity. Saints: absolutely not. Better than the alternatives: yes.

Both Lalu and Lula were unseated and jailed by opponents who campaigned against their corruption and, predictably, a far more right wing authoritarian leader took their place.

Back to Obama: what did he accomplish?

He campaigned on a platform that was pro-people but handed over the keys to the treasury to the very people who stole from it. He got a Nobel peace prize while launching more drone attacks than Dubya. He showed that a person with good looks, excellent manners and eloquent speech can gain power posing as a progressive while working for the 1%.

Perception is more important than reality

Trump kept the core of that message - the importance of perception over reality while working for corporations - and flipped the other parts: replacing grace with boorishness, eloquence with aggression. Why not? When decency is merely virtue signalling to your crowd, it’s opposite - crudity - becomes virtue signalling to the other crowd. In the politics of identity and attention, they are mirror images of each other, aren’t they?

Polish can’t replace programs that actually better people’s lives.

The politician who campaigns for the common man but rules for the corporations is correctly read as a class enemy, despite the personal qualities. Both Obama & Newsom are in that category. I don’t deny they have had to play with the hand they were dealt, and as politicians seeking election and re-election, they need money from the donor class even if it means $500 dinners during a lockdown. Fine, but also recognize the mismatch between appearance and reality makes a working class white person - with a large dollop of racism, let’s admit it - invest in the guy who campaigns on a primal pitch.

Democrats need blue collar white Americans - a natural constituency who left for Trump en masse. But they won’t get them back by being the party of Silicon Valley. I am not talking about the ‘can’t we all get along’ message preached by the neoliberal crowd, for that would simply be replicating the Obama strategy of style without substance.

No emotion has been weaponized more than empathy - the neoliberal searches inside himself, feels the poor man’s pain and immediately orders a chai tea latte to recenter his being. We can do without that fake solidarity.

I am talking about the hard-nosed variety of dignity politics of which Lula and Lalu are successful exemplars.

Who’s going to do it?