As the forward march of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders primary campaigns continues to defy expert predictions, the GOP and Democratic party establishments, and their corporate-media allies are busily trying to win back the initiative by sabotage and intrigue. Their efforts have already had an effect and are likely to intensify as the summer nominating conventions draw closer. It makes for a fascinating case study of how established power works not just to maintain the status quo but to manage and channel change into directions that do not fundamentally endanger, but strengthen, the structure of power, but this is a long-term project. The immediate tools at their disposal include playing the ‘race’ card, malicious legal challenges, creative misuse of party resources, denial of media air time, voter exclusion and fraud. In the long run, they have the capacity to reimagine and promote reform that might dissipate demands for more radical change. But use any metaphor you like - holding back the tide, keeping a lid on a boiling kettle, fact is that the US elite has been up to now largely unsuccessful in halting the mighty movement for change and against inequality of power and wealth in America. The popular tide shows little sign of abating but that is not for a want of trying. Elites are throwing everything at it but the anti-establishment tide is proving too powerful at the moment.
The GOP convention is already being framed as likely to be violent by GOP ‘pollsters’ like Frank Luntz who predicts violence and maybe killings at future Trump rallies. While this is a possibility, Luntz’s GOP establishment credentials suggest that this is another dangerous game playing on people’s emotions – his particular speciality, honed over decades. That does not make violence any less or more likely but it shows how seriously the GOP and its supporters are taking Trump now. Luntz is well known for mind games. Luntz’s way of politics is part of the reason why there is such disrespect among American political opponents nowadays – he plays with words and word association to colour perceptions through language manipulation. In the 1990s, it was Luntz who taught the likes of Newt Gingrich that associating the Democrats with “corrupt”, “greedy”, “sick”, “devour”, “hypocrisy”, “liberal”, etc… was essential to changing popular perceptions of the GOPs opponents. He is also credited with, among other things, replacing the term ‘global warming’ to describe global warming with the neutral-sounding ‘climate change’, now part of the conventional political discourse. From Luntz, predictions of violence at Trump rallies express a desire for that very violence, to discredit Trump’s campaign and boost both Ted Cruz and John Kasich and, thereby, ensuring a contested convention.
Luntz’s intervention came on the heels of several other GOP initiatives to ‘derail’ Trump – Mitt Romney’s call to Republicans to shun his former friend and campaign donor – which backfired; the open letter from over a hundred ‘respectable Republicans/conservatives’ – many of whom were implicated in disastrous support and planning for the Iraq War of 2003; the suggestion from a former head of the CIA and NSA that the US military would likely disobey commandeer-in-chief Trump; and GOP Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, preparing ‘down ballot’ congressional and senatorial candidates to disassociate themselves from the Trump presidential campaign, should he manage to win the nomination in July 2016.
There is a cumulative effect on the Trump campaign: Nate Silver, the US election expert, suggests that the Republican convention is likely to be contested, a prediction made more likely by Ted Cruz’s victory in the Wisconsin primary. At this stage of a ‘normal’ contest, the front-runner would usually be expected to win the nomination with a delegate majority. But not this time. Trump’s chances of winning the nomination are now below 50% from a campaign high of over 70% just a few weeks ago. He no longer has a majority of delegates once Marco Rubio’s delegates are accounted for. And it is becoming apparent that the actual delegates from each state are not duty-bound to vote for Trump even if he’s won the state. Most delegates – members of the party machines in each state – are anti-Trump and could already be campaigning informally to overturn pro-Trump sentiment. That could lead to delegates calling for a rule-change at the GOP’s Cleveland nominating convention and deciding to permit a free vote. This would be highly controversial but remains an option to the GOP establishment. There are also rumours of greater backing for Ted Cruz as well as pushing John Kasich or, possibly, Paul Ryan, to derail the Trump machine. And Trump’s threat to renege on his pledge at the North Carolina primary, among others – where he won all 50 delegates – to support the eventual GOP nominee should he lose the vote, has further damaged his chances.
But according to Nate Silver’s 538 US election website, Donald Trump is exposing some key weaknesses in America’s political institutions, including the GOP. He’s also shown that America’s neither post-racial nor post-racist, as some claim, that racism and nationalism remain potent political forces. He’s also shown up and benefited from the corporate media’s complicity in establishment politics. 538 argues that whatever happens to Trump, “ the problems he’s exposed were years in the making, and they’ll take years to sort out.”
Trump has benefited from media coverage more than any other candidate. He has certainly played his cards well and managed to inflame public opinion with outrageous statements against minorities, Muslims and women. Yet, surveys of media coverage show that Trump managed to secure far more air time as compared with other GOP candidates. And the type of coverage also suggests greater focus on his polling data than on the content of his messages, a critical dissection of his racist, Islamophobic and murderous suggestions for how to tackle terrorism.
The principal reason for such coverage is that Trump’s thunder is right-wing, in a country which has no Left and whose politics is variations of right wing ideology – every tenet of conservative ‘Americanism’ militates against any form of leftist or even centrist ideas. The emphasis on extreme individualism, individual liberty, free enterprise and the market, rejection of the very idea of the welfare state or socialised medicine, the worship of the gospel of wealth – feeds the Right, normalises it and makes other thoughts almost unthinkable. And the media – owned by corporations and soaked in the same version of Americanism - privileges Trump’s basic political outlook, even where it smirks at his boorishness rather than conducts a thorough critique of what is appearing as an increasingly extreme right-wing racist appeal based on hate and resentment against practically everyone else. Trump’s racism, misogyny, and encouragement of violence at his rallies, have hardly been called out in media coverage let alone his calls for illegal torture methods and killing of women and children as US foreign policy. And his unpopularity ratings among key sections of voters, including women, have hardly received attention, severely affecting the possibility of his election in November 2016.
Nowhere is the structural corporate-media bias more glaringly demonstrated than in its coverage of Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialist campaign. Sanders has, in contrast with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, been virtually ignored by the corporate media. Even establishment candidate Hillary Clinton is usually covered in a negative light despite her lead in the polls and generally high favourability ratings as compared with Trump’s. Trump’s free media coverage is equivalent to around $2 billion while Sanders received $321 million, and Clinton secured $746 million. And the bias against Sanders is not confined to the right wing media. The New York Times has adopted a mocking attitude to the socialist candidate, showing its ideological attachments and political support for Clinton. Up to December 2015, ABC World News had devoted 81 minutes to covering Trump and just a single minute covering Sanders even though both candidates attracted between 20-30% support in opinion polls.
Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labour, summed it up well: “The major media have come to see much of America through the eyes of the establishment. That’s not surprising. After all, they depend on establishment corporations for advertising revenues, their reporters and columnists rely on the establishment for news and access, their top media personalities socialize with the rich and powerful and are themselves rich and powerful, and their publishers and senior executives are themselves part of the establishment.”
This is not a free market of ideas – it’s the politics of a corporate media in the hands of a narrow section of American society that is saturated in a right-wing, anti-socialist version of Americanism.
The most formidable opponent facing Sanders, complementing the mass media is the Democratic Party machine. The range of tactics has included attacks on Sanders' credibility by Clinton allies in the media, denial of access to the party's voter database, scheduling fewer debates (just 6 in 2016 compared with 26 in 2008) and restricting them to unpopular times, opaque ballot counting procedures, permitting corporate donations directly to the Democratic National Committee (DNC, Obama had stopped that), and limiting voter registration.
The veteran civil rights campaigner, John Lewis, in endorsing Clinton claimed that he’d never seen Sanders on a civil rights march, undermining the candidates actual record on the question. Other Clinton allies among mainstream economists challenged Sanders’s economic programmes while defying mainstream economics logics about the necessity and effects of large scale infrastructure investments in the United States. The Democratic party has not focused with great vigour on voter registration drives leaving large numbers off the rolls, especially young voters on college campuses. Party leaders – mayors, congressmen, senators, governors – have endorsed Clinton and are hardly making an effort to mobilise young voters the vast majority of whom have backed Sanders in the primaries. And the DNC has lifted all restrictions on Wall Street and other corporate funding of the DNC itself, which is jointly raising funds for the Clinton campaign. Wall Street – overtly opposed by Sanders – has moved to the very heart of the Democratic party, raising millions of dollars for Clinton. And the system of super-delegates – loyal to the party leadership – was designed by the DNC for the specific purpose of stopping the likes of Sanders, as DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained: "Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists."
President Obama has briefed against Sanders and for Clinton despite the fact that were, at the time, over 20 primaries and caucuses to come. Democratic senators have suggested Sanders either step down or discuss matters that unite him and Clinton against Donald Trump, as if the latter is a safe bet to win the GOP nomination. The Clinton machine, with the full support of the DNC, media allies, Washington, DC, lobbyists and labour organisations, is trying to make a Clinton win appear inevitable, despite the results of recent primaries and the increasingly strong position of Sanders in national polls (one of which actually puts him in the lead).
The real story is as American as apple pie: the battle of a relatively obscure candidate, with few links with the US establishment, to speak truth to power and rally a popular movement against the corporate takeover of American politics. Yet it’s a story that’s hardly been told because the powers that be who define what’s American control the levers of power.
It was hardly ever the case that ordinary Americans overwhelmingly rejected socialism: socialism has been smeared and misrepresented by corporate elites and their political and ideological allies and, in combination with that, through outright state and state-authorised violence through ‘red scares’. Socialism remains the biggest threat to the American establishment today, even the relatively mild social democratic variant offered by Bernie Sanders. So we should expect to see more dubious tactics from party and media elites to maintain the boundaries of thinkable thought. And longer term moves to incorporate, domesticate, and ultimately extinguish, the politics of mass dissent.