Caged: repetition compulsion and the political news

You may have noticed, it’s been a month of radio silence here at “My Correct Views,” and I’ve got no real excuses. Sure, there’s been a certain amount of practical business to fuss about, plus a couple of conferences and some teaching issues. But having been away from North America for two months (I got back April 4), I was expecting the return to poke me back into blogging action. Isn’t that what travel’s supposed to do, get you to see your old haunts with new eyes, ask new questions, de-familiarize your surroundings? You’d expect an extra dose of that now that we’re in the Age of Trump, with everyone telling us what uncharted waters we’ve sailed into.

But the poking effect didn’t happen, just as it didn’t happen when I got to France back in February.

Instead of which, both my travel moments have mainly conveyed a baffling feeling of things being over-familiar, in the Ground Hog Day/Déjà-Vu-All-Over-Again mode. That’s not the whole story, of course, there are plenty of completely unexpected things going on as well, many of them very cool. But lately it’s the weird repetitions that have been most on my mind, just because they seem so extreme. It doesn’t put you in the mood for blogging when you start imagining the world as a giant hamster’s exercise wheel– there’s lots of action, but it’s all happening inside an iron cage.

Right now my fave examples come from politics– or at least, that’s where the cage thing seems most visible. I’m starting to see it as a more general phenomenon, visible in many parts of modern life, and maybe next week I’ll try to explore how that works. But for now, just two political examples.

Example 1 is our own Donald Trump’s screeching-180 on foreign policy. The guy got elected partly because he said sensible, non-warlike, outside-the-box things about Russia, Iraq, Syria, and humanitarian war– basically, that we should spend our money rebuilding the US rather than intervening in other countries. He mocked George Bush for invading Iraq, horrifying all the other Republicans; he said it was stupid to pick fights with Russia and to overthrow anti-ISIS governments like Syria’s. Yet here we are three months into the Trump presidency, and we’re back at the same old idiocy we’ve had the last fifteen years, denouncing Russia, bombing Syria, sending troops to Iraq; there’s even some of the old Axis of Evil talk, with denunciations of Iran and North Korea.

That’s what I mean about the iron cage thing.   We’ve got an ultra-powerful loud-mouth, who prides himself on non-conformity and made it to the top by sneering at American conventional foreign policy wisdom– and basically his first act is to knuckle under to the same conventional wisdom he spent a year mocking. Of course it’s also relevant that the conventional wisdom has been a real-life disaster, but the point here is Trump knew it was a disaster, and yet he’s still replaying it.

You’ve probably heard explanations for Trump’s knuckling-under– like, that he’s ignorant, insecure, and easily influenced by whoever wanders into his office; or, the Deep State really runs things, so it’s almost impossible for elected politicians to change policy directions; or, like other incoming presidents, Trump has now learned various top secret info about world affairs, and it’s made him suddenly more “realistic” about policy changes.

Even if all that’s true, though, it doesn’t change the basic caged-hamster impression. If a possibly-unhinged, seventy-something billionaire can’t shake lose from Deep State inertia, who can?

Example 2 comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum– it’s the moderate French politician Emmanuel Macron, who’s one of the two candidates facing off in next weekend’s French presidential election. In lots of ways, the run-off itself sounds like a replay of our own Trump-Clinton showdown, just with the gender roles reversed. In the Trump role, there’s Marine Le Pen, pushing a nationalist, police-friendly, populist line; like Trump, she’s accused of being soft on Russia and borderline antisemitic, but also like Trump, she’s shown some real campaign-trail genius. Meanwhile Macron plays Hillary Clinton. He’s liberal-minded on ethnic and lifestyle issues, and he’s very big on education, entrepreneurship, and globalization, all the new economy buzzwords. Just like Clinton, he’s accused of being too cozy with Big Finance (he’s a former high-level banker); also like Clinton he’s entering the campaign’s final lap with a big lead, partly because so many French voters find Le Pen truly frightening.

Given how different France is from the US, it’s already a little weird that the French scenario sounds so familiar. But it’s really the little things about the Macron campaign that bring on the déjà vu feeling. Just like Clinton, Macron needs to attract left-leaning voters whose candidates lost in the first round– and also like Clinton, he keeps doing small things designed to irritate them. His first act after winning the first round was to hold a celebration dinner at a fancy restaurant in central Paris– not only making a statement about his money and fancy tastes, but also doing it where the paparazzi could peer through the windows, photograph the scene, and make sure everyone knew about it. Then three days later, he managed to blow a slam-dunk photo op, on a visit to a factory threatened by globalization– in his home town, no less. He hadn’t even planned on talking to the angry workers there, just to some of the power players. But then Le Pen made a surprise visit, the workers applauded and took selfies with her, so he came by as well– offering nothing beyond globalization talking points and promises about unemployment benefits.

I’m assuming this guy hasn’t been off-planet the last six months, and that he knows what happened to Clinton. With less confidence, I also assume he’s intelligent; certainly he’s been through some top schools. If you buy those assumptions, the iron cage hypothesis starts to look pretty good.  Faced with what everyone says is a crucial election, in which the far right could actually sweep to power, Macron seems unable to stop doing the self-destructive things, in fact doing the same self-destructive things that busted Clinton. He may squeak through regardless, but all the polls have his lead shrinking.

We’ve had a lot of talk lately about working class victims of the big economic forces, but the real news seems to be how high up the food chain the helplessness extends.