Politicians Are Clowns, But The Circus Is Capitalism "(Now Former) Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich" by Taekwonweirdo is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Politicians Are Clowns, But The Circus Is Capitalism

Rod Blagojevich is a clown. As the Trump campaign desperately tries to find a means—any means—for salvaging his political loss to President-elect Joe Biden, Rod Blagojevich felt it necessary to opine on the accusation of election fraud. Of course, he not only validated the delusions of Trump’s followers but decided to take them to the next level. He told the conservative Newsmax TV that he does not believe the election fraud is confined to Philadelphia. No, his “instincts” tell him that election fraud is happening in nearly every swing state’s metropolitan region. Flouting his identification as a Democrat, Blagojevich told the news outlet, “Coming out of the Democratic Chicago political establishment I know how they operate.” 

Only in the Trump era could an unrepentant grifter who tried to sell President Obama’s senatorial seat claim that he “knows how they operate” when it comes to political corruption. Blagojevich’s transformation from a respectable politician to “Dancing with the Stars” D-list celebrity is almost the exact inverse of Trump’s political journey. In both cases, the situation is absurd, utterly absurd: their personalities are absurd, their alliance is absurd, their recent accusations of “election fraud” is absurd, all of it, so absurd. Absurdity, though, can serve a political purpose. 

In many ways, the Bush administration’s relentless effort to remake the world in its War on Terror image predetermined our contemporary politics. In the context of the invasion of Iraq, an anonymous high-ranking official claimed, “we create our own reality.” With Trumpism, the chickens of “creating our own reality” came home to roost. When everyone’s default attitude is cynicism, political contests are determined—not through reasoned debate—but the sheer force of will. In that situation, political absurdities move from a liability to an asset. The greater defense of the absurd, the more powerful the will. Only an idiot would believe that “Sleepy Joe” and the Democratic Party were able to organize a grand conspiracy of massive voter fraud that denied Trump the Presidency but gave House seats to Republicans. However, an idiot who continually repeats the absurd accusation, against all better judgement, must be a person of immense will. Material conditions allow for the possibility for power, but it is will that determines it. Conservative intellectuals in the United States know this well. They encourage their movement to own its absurdities, and by unabashedly owning them, they end up “owning the libs.” Respectable Democrats deny themselves the gusto to transform their politics into reality. Doing so would demand they expand their base to include a more significant portion of the working-class. That is a bridge too far to the party’s donors and suburbanite professionals.       

The fact that these cascading absurdities would eventually be intertwined with a disgraced Illinois politician should not be surprising. In many ways, Illinois’s political bosses perfected Trump’s brand of thuggish showmanship decades before he arrived on the political scene. Mass cynicism is nothing new to Illinoisans. For decades, the intricacies of the Democratic Party’s machine forced the population into a political malaise. Everyone knew it was corrupt, but they did not believe anything could be done. Trying to change the system was futile, and—even worse—attempting to do so risked a loss in personal gains and status. In their cynicism, people lazily turned to personality cults. For Chicago, this phenomenon was epitomized by Richard J. Daley, who—like an insecure bully—insisted on plastering the city with artifacts of self-aggrandizement. Mesmerized by the pomp and circumstances, people seemed to forget—or just stopped caring—about the rot at the center of it all. And, if they insisted on pointing out the rot, Daley dealt with them through political or police thuggery. 

Trump, or at least the people around him, obviously took note. Like Daley, Donald Trump lusted over the possibility of becoming a political boss. Trump’s entire public persona is that of someone trying to assert his machismo bossiness in every situation. His credentials for acting as commander-and-chief were based on his years of experience as a private sector emperor who ruled over a kingdom of real estate, hospitality, and branding. Many of these enterprises were failing, but that was not important. Trump’s genius was in acting like he was a dog with a bladder infection trained by Harvard’s Business School. Everywhere he went, he would mark his territory in the hopes that it would somehow become profitable. And, through the magic of market efficiencies and electoral antics, it did. When Trump moved into politics, he and his people—proudly and openly—set out to establish a clientelist political machine to enrich themselves. Chicago’s old political bosses would have been envious. Jobs went to his friends and family. To curry favor, foreign diplomats stayed at Trump hotels. Congressional budgets were accommodated to his financial interests. And, as with Daley, he had a legion of supporters convinced that he would reward their loyalty with patronage and graft.   

Of course, good government liberals found this appalling. They thought the waves of scandals and eventual impeachment would oust Trump. They were wrong. Even after a lost election, followed by a humiliating recount tantrum, Trump appears to be going nowhere. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he plans on converting his political machine into a for-profit digital media empire that will allow him to return to power in 2024. No doubt, Trump News—or whatever it will be called—will be a bastion of conservative absurdities, guaranteed to ratfuck any of Trump’s opponents. Again though, the greater defense of the absurd, the more powerful the will. In 2024, he will undoubtedly be a formidable candidate. 

Trump’s political machine could only exist within the context of contemporary capitalism. In the United States, political machines proliferated during the Gilded Age because politicians completely internalized the mindless adulation for free markets. It was not a coincidence that the leaders of political machines were referred to as “bosses.” Instead, it was an implicit acknowledgment that the capitalism’s hierarchical workplace should be brought into government. Politics, like market exchanges, were expected to operate through quid pro quo agreements based on self-interest. The immense inequality that existed during this time made people susceptible to clientelist regimes. Good government liberalism was a virtue of the middle class because the middle class was never put in a position of having to choose between a corrupt job or no job. A pious mind always sits on top of a full belly. 

Under neoliberalism, Americans have brought back the Gilded Age with a vengeance. As before, political elites have completely internalized their free-market adulation. Politics is not about public service and supposedly quixotic notions of the common good but about finding opportunities to enrich yourself. The only difference is that today’s political machines can rely on the gaudiness of mass marketing and reality TV. If you get indicted for selling a senatorial seat, become a reality TV star; if you are a reality TV star, get elected president and make money off your hotels. Oh yeah, and do not forget to pardon and commute your friends, including the guy who sold the senatorial seat.  

As with before, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor fuels this cycle. Even the most inadept and opportunistic politicians must first build a political base. Usually, that is done with outrageous promises to supporters. People today are willing to accept such promises because their lives have honestly gotten that bad. Capitalist inequality not only deprives the majority of people resources but imposes on them a sense of humiliation; it convinces them that their deprivation is their fault. The greater the inequality, the deeper the sense of humiliation. To escape that humiliation, people do foolish things, including supporting politicians they know are idiots, who are absurd fools, but who appear to have the will to power to get them out of their situation.

Most people recognize that Rod Blagojevich is a clown. They also acknowledge that Trump is a clown. They know that most politicians are clowns. What they fail to see is that the circus is contemporary capitalism. It encourages everyone to treat all interactions as an opportunity to make money; it throws people into an anxiety-inducing way of life of constant gamesmanship. In that environment, the solidarity necessary to achieve significant social change is impossible. Americans have a healthy distrust of their politicians. That is not a problem. The problem is that they have an unhealthy distrust of each other. They know politicians are idiots, but they assume that everyone else, including themselves, is one as well. In that muck of suspicion, people default to a cynicism that makes them vulnerable to that antics of strongmen and showboats.

Near the Soviet Union’s collapse, a standard description of Communism among jaded Russians was a system where “the people pretended to work, while the government pretended to pay them.” America’s contemporary system of state-capitalism has an equivalency. Politicians and pundits pretend to spout absurd statements, and the American people pretend to believe them. In both cases, everyone knows it is a charade, but they go along with it because they hold out the hope that the system’s underlining justification will prove to be true. People are willing to believe in absurdities, but no one wants to believe it is absurdities the whole way down. In the short-term, such beliefs are comforting, even energizing, but in the long-term, especially in the age of Trumpism, the adage of Voltaire rears its ugly head: “If I can get you to believe absurdities, I can get you to commit atrocities.”