The Casual Villainy of Feel-Good Neoliberal Bullshit

A few nights ago, a very kind friend took me to a private screening of a film about homelessness, under the presumed theory that my own homeless experience from four years before might be of help to the filmmaker. This filmmaker, who I should point out was an extremely tall and quietly affable man (affable, at least, to anyone who he detected was very much like himself!), believed, like many myopic neoliberals, that he was doing the right thing with his film. But he wasn’t. He was, in fact, contributing dangerously and cruelly to a repulsive dehumanizing myth that has become as seductive as catnip to most of the American population.

The film played. The affluent crowd that gathered in the basement of this tony Manhattan restaurant cheered as some talking head boasted about delivering forty pairs of socks to the homeless. The socks, said this starry-eyed subject, were a way to give the homeless an identity. But I knew damn well that what these people really needed, as I once so desperately begged for, was food, a shelter that wasn’t committed to daily debasement and that actually did something to protect residents from random stabbings, and a stable job that permitted someone who had nothing to save enough resources for first and last month’s rent. This preposterous subject also bragged on film about taking homeless people to a comedy show to cheer them up. Never mind that this is a risible impossibility, considering that shelters impose a draconian curfew each night, usually sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, that you must hit. If you don’t make this curfew, for which you must factor in a lengthy line in which security guards pat you down and tear through what little you have, you will lose your bed and have all your possessions, meager as they are, thrown into a huge plastic bag and tossed into the street. (This happened to me. And I was forced to haul a very heavy bag with fragile lining, half of what I had damaged and dingy, on a subway, where I could feel the eyes of every commuter looking the other direction.)

I watched as a shoeshine man on-screen bought into the lazy, drug-addled homeless stereotype who never seeks out work (oh, but they do, even when they have a substance abuse problem!). It was a trope no different from the way Reagan had used Linda Taylor, an incredibly rare and unlikely figure hardly representative of homelessness, to establish his staunch conservatism and needlessly demonize the welfare system in 1976. And I was shaking with indignation as the filmmaker, who appeared himself as the film’s first talking head in a bona-fide act of artistic narcissism, bragged about how he had talked to a homeless person, believing her sad face to be an act. He refused to acknowledge her real pain and true fear as he painted himself as a champion of the underprivileged. I looked to my right and I witnessed the filmmaker himself sitting in his chair, responding to his repugnant untruths and counterfactual bromides by bobbing his head up and down to every cinematic cadence he had manufactured.

The film I saw, or at least what I mostly saw (because I bolted after about thirty minutes of this: I was so enraged after one “well-meaning” audience member laughed at a homeless stereotype and chuckled over the film’s bootstraps bullshit, which presented poverty as a “choice,” an emphasis that greatly overshadowed, oh say, examining the details of a rigged system or humanizing the people who are often locked into a nigh inescapable abyss and who are rendered invisible simply because they lost their jobs at a bad time or suffered any number of setbacks that could happen to anyone (hell, it happened to me!), and because this was a “celebration” for the filmmaker and I knew that if I stuck around, I would have gone out of my way to fight fiercely with ruthlessly truthful invective and I am really trying to live a more peaceful life and let things go more — but goddammit you see puffed up privilege like this and it’s not easy!), angered me beyond belief. It was a superficial glimpse of what at least half a million people in this nation go through (and this number is rising): an absolute lie that refused to address vile welfare-to-work realities, the shameful bureaucracy of standing in line for a day arguing to some underpaid heartless stooge why you should get a mere $150 each month to eat (and under Trump, these already svelte and insufficient benefits are in danger of being cut further), the violent and depressing culture within homeless shelters that causes so many to give up and that causes smart people (and let me assure you that there are many smart people who are homeless) to throw in the towel when they shouldn’t have to.

As many have argued (including Thomas Frank, whom I interviewed about this significant problem here), the Democratic Party has completely divorced itself from advocating for working people and those who need our help. The Democrats haven’t seriously championed for universal aid since Mario Cuomo’s inspiring keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When principled progressives stand against this milquetoast centrism, they are — as this incredible episode of This American Life recently revealed — urged to push the reasons why they are running into the middle if they want access to funds that will help them win elections. And when candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually stand for something and beat out long-time incumbents in a primary, they are, as the disheartening replies to this tweet reveal, declared “a piece of work” and “arrogant” by middle-of-the-road cowards who have never known a day without a hot meal and who refuse to address deeply pernicious realities that people actually live. These weak-kneed and priggish pilgarlics still drop dollars with their colicky hands into the room rental till for their Why Isn’t Hillary President? support groups. They are more interested in wrapping themselves in warm comforting blankets rather than surrendering their bedding to someone sleeping on the streets. They are so enamored and ensnared by this ugly and unsound marriage between capitalism and humanism that they adamantly refuse to listen to the very people they’ve pledged to cure. They ignore any fresh new voice who has the steel to launch a political campaign based on the truth. Their shaky tenure is out of sync with the robust reform we need right now to address our national ills.

I now believe neoliberalism to be just as much of an evil cancer as Trumpism. It needs to be fought hard. Because any ideology that prioritizes supremacy (and neoliberals can be a smug and oh so certain bunch) is a call to dehumanize others.

So how did the film screening conclude? Well, I apologized to my friend, told her that I couldn’t take the film anymore and that I knew this was triggering deep rage in me because it denied and invalidated the horrors that I personally experienced and that I had somehow found the resilience and strength to overcome. I took my leave, tipped the bartender far more than these moneyed types did, and saw that the filmmaker was watching me. What? A man fleeing his unquestionable genius? Why yes, you imperious insensitive clueless dope! So I went up to him and said, “My name is Ed Champion. I was homeless four years ago and your film is a terrible lie. You should be ashamed of yourself.” True to form, he went back to cheering on his own film, paying me no heed whatsoever.

The Silver Lining: A Potential Bipartisan Senate Blockade to Stop Trump

Many agonized observers have been so paralyzed by the shocking appointment of white supremacist Steve Bannon as Trump’s key strategist, to say nothing of a potential paleoconservative Cabinet and the renewed commitment to xenophobia, deportation, and anti-choice sentiments that Trump expressed in an aloof appearance on 60 Minutes, that it has been difficult to remember that politics is a game that Trump may not quite know how to play. Sure, he can whip up the fury of a thoughtless mob to reenact Nuremburg, win votes, and inspire a spate of hate crimes after the election. But being a successful demagogue does not necessarily make one a successful politician. And while the House of Representatives and likely the Supreme Court appears to be on a fearsome rightward trajectory, there is one silver lining to this despotic cloud that Trump and his cohorts have not considered: the power and dynamics of the United States Senate.

As it presently stands, the Senate is likely to be composed of 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats. However, that number could change. There remains a chance to reduce that number to a 51-49 split in favor of the Republicans. The opportunity presents itself with an experienced Louisiana fighter for the people named Foster Campbell. Campbell is running for a Senate seat in Louisiana in a runoff race with Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy (no relation to the 35th President) that is scheduled to take place on December 10, 2016. If Campbell can win, that means the Republicans will only have one majority vote.

That one vote may seem like Trump can push anything he wants through a Republican-controlled Senate, but don’t be so certain. Liberals (myself included) may be looking at this situation the wrong way. Because we keep forgetting that the American political landscape isn’t what it was last week. The new normal isn’t Republican politics as usual, but old Republican politics locked in a potent and quite volatile struggle against the alt-right extremism that Trump and his willing lieutenants will usher in, a strain that a good chunk of the population, including those who voted for Trump, will come to reject once they realize that the “outsider” is a man hobnobbing with insiders and a man who may be unable to deliver on his promises. This brand of right-wing politics is so utterly beyond anything we have seen before, even with Mitch McConnell’s hijacking of the Merrick Garland nomination or anything plotted by Grover Norquist, that we have failed to consider that some Republicans may very well reject it, especially if their phone banks are jammed with constituents regularly calling them.

Politics, as we all know, makes strange bedfellows. And while a moderate Senator created gridlock with Democrats in pre-Trump times, there’s a greater likelihood that moderates will side with Democrats if the full monty of Trump’s extremism streaks through the Senate chambers. There may be some bipartisan options to not only deadlock the Senate on key bills, but that could prevent the Senate from confirming one quarter of the 4,000 new positions that the Trump administration needs to fill before January.

Senator Susan Collins may be a Republican from Maine, but her positions resemble a more conservative Democrat. (Indeed, Newsweek called her one of the last moderates in the Northeast.) She’s pro-choice, willing to raise taxes on any income bracket, supports gun restrictions and same-sex marriage, and, according to someone who called her, was willing to support the DREAM Act (a key piece of legislation for immigrants) as a standalone bill. Senator Harry Reid has cut bipartisan deals with her in the past. So there may be a possibility to work with her in the future.

Another dependable moderate Republican-Democratic alignment may be with Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who expressed dismay over the radical direction of the Republican party in 2012 and has also expressed a desire to do something about climate change. Like Sen. Collins, Sen. Murkowski has some progressive positions. She supported the DREAM Act and she did reject Trump’s call to deport Muslims last year. She also had tough words for Sarah Palin and Joe Miller.

Politics is a numbers game. And if Senators Murkowski and Collins are willing to work with the Democrats in an age of Trump extremism (and I think they will, provided the alt-right doesn’t get to them), then there’s a possibility that many Trump-inspired bills and confirmations will receive a 51 nay with 49 Democrats in the Senate. This does leave Collins and Murkowski in positions of great influence, and they will certainly use this to their advantage, possibly playing both sides against each other, but it’s a two year buffer that may just hold somewhat if the Democrats can succeed in winning back the Senate during the 2018 midterm elections. Historically speaking, there hasn’t been a tie-breaking vote cast by a sitting Vice President since March 13, 2008. (Joe Biden never cast a tie-breaking vote.) It’s possible that Vice President Mike Pence will overturn John Adams’s 28 tie-breaking vote record under a Trump Administration. This is, after all, an unprecedented moment in American political history in which anything can and will happen. But if Pence does this, this may create friction and animosity between the White House and the Republican Senators, who in turn may revolt against the Trump Administration’s autocratic tactics.

Everything I’ve suggested here is contingent upon Foster Campbell winning the Louisiana Senate seat. A Senate composed of 48 Democrats will create stalemates. A Senate composed of 49 Democrats will create possibilities for a formidable blockade with one or two moderate Republicans on their side.

So can Foster Campbell become Senator? For one thing, he’ll need donations. But here’s the math based on the November Senate race:

Republican candidates received the following votes:

John Kennedy (25%); Charles Boustany (15.4%); John Fleming (10.6%); Rob Maness (4.7%); David Duke (3%); Donald Crawford (1.3%); Joseph Cao (1.1%); Charles Marsala (0.2%).

TOTAL REPUBLICAN PERCENTAGE: 61.3%

Democratic candidates received the following votes:

Foster Campbell (17.5%); Caroline Fayard (12.5%); Derrick Edwards (2.7%); Gary Landrieu (2.4%); Josh Pellerin (0.4%); Peter Williams (0.4%); Vinny Mendoza (0.3%).

TOTAL DEMOCRATIC PERCENTAGE: 36.2%

This is quite a margin of voters for Foster Campbell to win over. Trump won 58% of the state in the election. However, the Times-Picayune reported that there was a dropoff this year in African-American voter participation. Polling expert Edward Chervenak pointed out in the article that voters in overwhelmingly white precincts were more likely to vote than voters at overwhelmingly black precincts. If African-American voters (and other Democrats) show up to vote for Campbell in droves during the December 10, 2016 election, then Campbell may stand a chance of winning this seat and creating a quasi-blockade in the Senate. And if it can be done, and it does appear to be a Hail Mary pass at this point, then there remains a very good possibility that the Democrats can stop Donald Trump from enacting his extremist policies with the help of a few moderates.