How does it happen that a right-wing billionaire, campaigning on a promise to entrench the privileges of the white and male, comes to be perceived not as the candidate of society’s most dominant, with a handful of working-class zingers along with tax cuts for those as rich as himself, but as an enemy of the establishment?
Blame certainly lies, tautologically, with the established order: It allowed a real estate mogul to become a maverick, and then president. But not in the way conceived of by legacy pundits and online reductionists.
The establishment, like the deep state, is not a monolith, meaning that, as vulgarly conceived, it does not exist, and it never has. Karl Marx understood as much. In his analysis of the French coup that brought to power a “caricature of the old Napoleon” by the name of Bonaparte, “whom even his enemies do not make out to be a sorcerer,” Marx observed that it was only through divisions amongst the ruling class that a classless usurper—with his “childishly silly proposals”—was able to consolidate control over the state.
First as tragedy, then as farce, then as Donald J. Trump. In the 21st-century satire that is real life, we once again saw an establishment divided, but few perceived it as such. Writers left and right saw the winner of the most votes, Hillary Clinton, as the singular expression of establishment interests, and the former first lady who gave $100,000 speeches at Goldman Sachs, found it hard to shake off that descriptor.
Some pointed to the neocons, noting that the architects of the Iraq War (John Bolton aside) had expressed a desire for a competent manager of empire; some even took this to mean that Trump, an avowed and increasingly accomplished militarist, was, if not a dove, at least not a hawk. WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange, once considered a fellow traveler by many on the left, offered pro bono campaign advice to the greater but “anti-establishment” evil, telling a sympathetic John Pilger that Hillary, by contrast, was the candidate of “what we call ‘the establishment,’ or the ‘D.C. consensus.’”
Asked if he was pulling for Trump, which we know that he was, Assange said his “answer is that Trump would not be permitted to win.” The establishment is “all united behind Hillary Clinton.” And many took that as comfort, the all-powerful safety valve justifying a near-total focus on pillorying the person who they believed must, by systemic design, be the next president—ignoring that the self-funded billionaire had billionaire patrons of his own and, at the time, the top-rated cable news empire, Fox News, explicitly propagandizing on his behalf.
But the establishment/anti-establishment binary is not just a dull, inaccurate framing, one that obscures intra-establishment division and, indeed, significant elite acceptance of a dangerous buffoon so long as he can deliver a signature on corporate tax cuts. It’s a real politics, one fueled by pop-political analysis that has forsaken “left” and “right” for pro- and anti-status quo.
And what is that politics?
It is Julian Assange collaborating with fascism to deal a blow, if one’s generous, to U.S. hegemony; it is writers of the left, to this day, defending the world’s most powerful man from the judgments of the intelligence agencies he controls, which say he benefited from a right-authoritarian foreign government trying to elect him (that Pilger interview aired, obviously, on RT); it is a social media anti-cop activist turned Kremlin-backed writer going from BernieBro to Trump Train, not seeing an emotional difference between social democracy and white supremacist revanchism; it is angry white men blaming a 17-year-old with a Tumblr and a theory on gender for their embrace of reaction; and it is perhaps most visible with respect Syria, where alt-right and the syphilitic left agree that Ba’athist fascism is the lesser evil that liberalism never was.
“Skepticism of all official claims is essential,” writes The Guardian’s George Monbiot. But with respect to crimes committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, skepticism is not the proper nomenclature; it’s knee-jerk denial, conclusions arrived at based on their being the opposite of official, establishment claims. It’s the victory of a principle-less, anti-liberatory and “anti-establishment” conspiracism, “the narrative platform,” Monbiot writes, “from which fascism arises.”
Take the most recent sarin attack, which the United Nations has now confirmed was carried out by the Syrian government. But to those whom politics is an anti-establishment posture, and forgetting their dialectics, it was a jihadist false flag believable only to those drunk on MSM disinfo.
“This effort began with an article published on the website Al-Masdar news, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel,” Monbiot noted. Fadel first gained infamy after a Hungarian fascist was filmed tripping a Syrian refugee; Fadel went on the attack, against the refugee, falsely claiming he was a supporter of al Qaeda. His website, a favorite of the pro-Assad left, was also until recently co-edited by an Australian Nazi, Paul Antonopoulos, ousted only after a critic revealed he was a regular poster on the white supremacist message board Stormfront.
The far-right performance artist Alex Jones then ran with the story, adding touches picked up from elsewhere on the fringe. His Infowars website, Monbiot wrote, “claimed that the attack was staged by the Syrian first responder group, the White Helmets,” the target of frequent attacks from the right and the RT-friendly left; a blogger for Alternet, a popular liberal aggregator, once suggested their slogan, “To save a life is to save all of humanity,” was ripped from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the implication as clear as the Hollywood sign on a smog-free day (it’s in fact a verse from the Koran).
Late-career Sy Hersh, as is his wont, likewise chimed in with a theory of Syrian regime innocence that was profoundly lacking in coherence; asked to comport his reporting with subsequent UN findings directly contradicting it, he would not, he told me, having “learned to just write what I know, and move on.” None of those who shared his work felt betrayed, and to assume they would betrays an unfamiliarity with the times: the posture, of challenging officialdom, is the politics, the actual content superfluous.
The danger of lazy binaries is that some come to believe a false dichotomy actually explains a multipolar, multidimensional world—one where critic and supporter alike believed the current commander in chief of U.S. decline would not be permitted to win. If the establishment keeps racking up losses—unable to defeat Trump nor capable of affecting regime change in Syria, despite the alleged false flags—then it’s time to accept it’s not a useful descriptor in 2017; indeed, it’s a dangerous one.
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The American Prospect, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter: @charliearchy