Sunday, 21 August 2016

Spivs and Snake Oil

In Britain, the archetypal dodgy-dealer is the spiv. When Nigel Farage recently grew his demob 'tache, many immediately noted his resemblance to Private Walker of Dad's Army, which was a reflection of the former UKIP leader's casual relationship with the truth as much as his antique style. Despite the historical spiv barely surviving the 1940s, the type has lived on in both popular culture (Flash Harry, Arthur Daley, Del Boy Trotter) and the economy (Philip Green and Dominic Chappell are two ends of the character spectrum). Though some rightwing social historians have tried to explain the spiv's popularity as a proto-Thatcherite - an entrepreneur bypassing the dead hand of the state and creating an efficient market - his lasting fascination arises from the ambiguity of social mobility (i.e. class) and sartorial codes. The spiv's fondness for silk ties, sharp suits and the ubiquitous covert (or Crombie) coat subverted traditional cues about social station and would go on to influence teddy boys, mods and skinheads. Farage's fondness for the covert coat established him as a spiv years ago.

The 1940s American equivalent of the spiv's attire was the zoot suit, but while this was often associated with black or Hispanic criminal gang members, they were not seen as archetypal dodgy-dealers, not least because they were deemed by the white majority to lack verbal articulacy (the scat-singing of the zoot-suited Jazz musician can be seen as an ironic satire of this prejudice). The more common figure of the dodgy-dealer in US culture was the snake oil salesman - usually Anglo-Saxon and always fluent - whose sartorial flamboyance was unlikely to extend beyond a waistcoat of the sort once favoured by Mississippi steamboat gamblers. Indeed, many would adopt relatively sober attire, seeking to echo the plain dress and plausibility of the preacher or the doctor. What this distinction highlights is that the dominant semiotic channel in British politics is visual and the subtext concerns class (remember Michael Foot's coat), while that of America is linguistic and the subtext concerns race (Trump owes his success this year to insulting Mexicans and Muslims).

I'm highlighting this distinction because it helps illuminate a recent slew of articles by US liberal commentators asking: what's Trump's game? The suggested answer, stimulating both pearl-clutching horror and squeals of delight, is that the Republican Party's official candidate is more interested in furthering his media career than in gaining the keys to the White House. The idea was originally floated back in June by Sarah Ellison in Vanity Fair: "Trump is indeed considering creating his own media business, built on the audience that has supported him thus far in his bid to become the next president of the United States". This analysis included a get-out clause to head off obvious doubts: "launching a cable channel is 'nuts' because of the limited spectrum available, the declining advertising rates, and the immense start-up costs and resources required". Of course, for brand Trump these are details that someone else must worry about.

The Donald's recent turn to Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to run his campaign, and his apparent dalliance with Roger Ailes, the disgraced former CEO of Fox News, has stimulated even more claims that his real purpose is 24-hour rolling Trumpery, though this is clearly driven in part by the happy daydream of an assault on Rupert Murdoch that would damage them both. According to John Cassidy of The New Yorker, "he's laying the groundwork for a new conservative media empire to challenge Fox". Cassidy also suggests that simple cupidity drives the man: "Trump resents the fact that he has helped raise the ratings of certain news organizations, such as CNN, without getting a cut of the additional revenues". This "explainer" (which has little evidence to back it up) works because it taps into the longstanding American liberal distaste for the populist: the smooth-talking con man who gulls the small town "hicks". The traditional story ends in one of two ways: the bogus claims are seen through following liberal intervention ("howdy, Doc") or the huckster's avarice sees him bought off or tempted into a fatal error.

The idea that rightwing "movement" politics in the US is essentially an unscrupulous business, selling snake oil to "suckers" and pandering to rich bigots like the Koch brothers, has supporters across the political spectrum, from conservatives like David Frum bemoaning the corruption of thinktanks, through liberals like Paul Krugman joining the dots to the Republican Party, to Marxists analysing the political economy of the direct mail industry. While there is substance to the claim (reactionaries distrust evidence, value faith and admire "inside information" as a benign form of conspiracy), it can easily segue into the contempt for "the crowd" that is traditionally found in the liberal appetite for prurient tales of venality and hypocrisy (not to mention vulgarity and sex) among evangelicals, from Elmer Gantry to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In the case of Trump, the belief that his goal is financial betrays a fear that he won't be "found out", that even his insulting of a dead military hero won't be enough to alienate the crowd, essentially because the word "Muslim" is enough to get him off the hook with his constituency.

The media empire trope also reveals a liberal worry that Trump's personal unsuitability for the highest office reflects a more general drift towards triviality and self-indulgence in US politics, which is at root a conservative critique of decadence. For Neal Gabler in The New York Times, "The shift is from politics to grabbing attention, and, quite possibly, from winning the election to winning the defeat, which is how he has spent practically his entire career". But it's not just Trump: "Mike Huckabee used the attention he got in his losing campaign to land a gig on the Fox News Channel. Sarah Palin used hers to get a reality show and enormous speaking fees. Ben Carson used his to sell books". The dog that didn't bark here is the unease over Hillary Clinton's leverage of her stint as Secretary of State (her consolation for losing to Obama in the 2008 primaries) to pull in speaker fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs, not to mention the longer history of the Clinton Foundation in securing largesse.

There is also a sense among neoliberals that just as Trump is an impostor as a politician, he is also an impostor as a businessman. Matt Yglesias in Vox outlines this critique. On the political, "A Trump campaign that exists entirely as an extension of Trump’s persona is unlikely to win, but it’s at least a viable product. An actual Trump administration that tried to function this way would be a disaster". In the economic realm Yglesias notes that "Trump isn’t really a businessman in the conventional sense anymore, and hasn’t been for some time. He’s a television star ... a person who’s famous primarily for being famous". What is being pointed to here is a general lack of managerial ability, which is ironic given that the recent flurry of think-pieces insisting this is a media play was triggered by his firing and hiring of senior campaign management figures, which is at least decisive. If you dismiss managerial competence altogether, then Trump's success can only be explained as dumb luck.

One of the few commentators to spot that this is more about liberal bad faith than Trump as an individual, or the institutional contradictions of the Republican Party, is Gwynn Guilford at Quartz: "there’s the hint of smug delight that Trump’s supporters have basically been swindled by a con man. That’s a cue to dismiss his millions of supporters as angry nativist losers who prefer bigotry to policy - PT Barnum-certified suckers incapable of voting in their own interest". She also rightly notes that the media play story allows some uncomfortable questions to be ignored: "These Trump masterplan narratives feel compelling to people who can’t accept that, for all his faults, Trump stands for something important. His success reveals that many Americans feel their democracy long ago stopped representing their interests". If Trump isn't an evil genius, then his success is down to the failing of others, and that spreads far beyond the Republican Party.

Nigel Farage never managed to get elected to Parliament. While he fulfilled a political role - normalising xenophobia and providing a populist interpretation of euroscepticism - he was never personally trusted and nor was he assumed to be managerially competent. He is a spiv and spivs don't tend to get elected (Grant Shapps is an exception). Snake oil salesmen do get elected (e.g. Joe McCarthy) because they trade in hope and fear. The liberal cry - "Trump's only in it for the money" - suggests a lack of confidence in the people's ability to see through him, which reflects a prejudice about the prevalence of racial bigotry and stupidity among the white working class. The inadvertent nature of Trump's success (that he expected to lose the primary but lose well enough to further his media career) was thrown into relief by the Brexit vote, which has been widely interpreted as a media campaign that got out of hand. In the UK, the spiv has scarpered in the aftermath, which is what spivs do. In the US, the snake oil salesman will only leave town either in ignominy or on the next coach with a pay-off. It sounds like liberals are hoping for the latter, which doesn't reflect well on their own pitch.

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