Robert Mueller, Roger Ailes, Justin Trudeau, Jeremy Corbyn. This is the story of four famous political figures, whose biographies explain the history of politics over the last fifty years. They represent the path we have trod since the Seventies—and suggest where we might be going.
Mueller is where we begin. Mueller is, properly speaking, Robert Swan Mueller III, appointed by your Justice Department as Special Counsel in the Russian interference probe. Mueller matters because Trump, showing the restrained judgment which is his hallmark, fired Jim Comey. The Powers That Be had no choice but to whistle Mueller. Mueller opposes Trump in every sense: legal, political, and biographical.
The third Mueller was formerly the sixth FBI Director. During 9/11, he oversaw the awkward morphing of the Bureau from crimefighting to terrorist-hunting. He has all the faults, and all the filigree, of his class. He went to Vietnam, private school, Princeton, lacrosse, law school, the U.S. Attorney’s office—not in that order. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes Starbuck as being a “long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit.” Mueller too is a condensed, abridged man—the endurance of New England embalming through the decrepitudes of the 20th century. There is a just poetry in the appointing of Mueller as the man who might take Trump down. All his life, Trump has hankered for the love of the Best Old People … and Mueller symbolizes this group. The guy is an old-school WASP, the kind of person the country was rigged in favor of. Mueller stands for the institutions of gathered and fortified power which oppose our semi-functional President. The Special Counselor marches out of another era, a Flying Dutchman of the Fifties and Sixties. Mueller is process, Mueller is the system. He is also all the compromises of that system. The time of Mueller, of the grand consensus, collapsed during the Summer of Love and Vietnam, and Roger Ailes is what came crawling out of the wreckage.
Roger Ailes. The founder of FOX News—excuse me, the former founder of FOX News—recently left us. Since his death, much ink has been spilled over Ailes. In truth, Ailes was a shoddy peddler of falsehoods, and encouraged defectiveness wherever he could: in thought, in practice, in ethics, in personal relations. Ailes was a saint of the second-rate and poorly-made. Conservatives should be madder at him. Their ideology was in dismal straits before Ailes, but he somehow found a way to make it worse: he reinvented conservatism as desperate trolling, with no greater goal. By the time of Ailes’ passing, FOX News perfectly mirrored its audience; a collection of confused and terrified people in motorized carts, circling aimlessly in a cul de sac, screaming to the empty night about Muslims and pant-sagging. Mueller is a living relic of the old East Coast Establishment. Ailes was the night-terror that followed: the ragey backlash to the starched coldness of the postwar culture. He is the Seventies.
Justin Trudeau represents what came after Ailes: the Clinton hustle. The Canadian Prime Minister, though younger than everyone else on this list, is an embodiment of what used to be called the “New Democrats.” After the rise of Reagan came the rise of neoliberalism, and the enshrinement of austerity capitalism as the only acceptable political position. Trudeau is a representative for all the closely-shaved strivers who came after; the well-graduated and well-groomed who had never organized a strike but had polished a resume until it shone. They started taking power in the Eighties and Nineties.
The neoliberals believed in nothing, really—nothing that a Stanford grad interviewing for a job at Google wouldn’t believe. They had a single delusion, meritocracy, and a single hope, the system. Trudeau is the beau ideal of the ambitious upper middle-class of the 21st century: handsome, woke, fit, famous. And, of course, powerful. Trudeau’s fans are people who thought politics could be done by app, and universal health care would be achieved if everyone would just eat free-range chickens. Neoliberals believed in centrist bullshit like cutting welfare and deficit hawking, and vaccinated their children against believing in the class struggle. They were the generation that inherited the Earth; what Nietzsche called the Last Men. With the abandonment of the left, the neoliberals declared that History was over. No need for justice. The stock market would solve everything. Of course, inequality was growing. The huge profits of the Reagan and Clinton years were just bubbles. But this seemed not to concern the Trudeaus of the world. After all, the people who were complaining hadn’t gone to Harvard, so what did their opinion really matter, anyway? Trudeau is just a placeholder here for a kind of political class. Honestly, you could swap Trudeau’s name with twenty other buzzed-about young politicians, and nothing in this paragraph would change.
And that’s appropriate: neoliberalism, like the God of St. Paul, is no respecter of persons. In the negative sense of the word. During their salad days, the Neoliberals did Appropriate Things but none of the Right Things. Replace the face above the tailored suit, and you’d still have the same suit: a smiling centrist, probably a nice guy, with zero interest in changing the world. Obama, Blair, Trudeau, Clinton, Milliband: whatever name they went by, their idea of revolution was adding green tea as an option in corporate boardrooms. The Trudeaus were in power right up until November 2016. They were ready for nothing, and handed the world over to Trump.
Corbyn is the last of this quartet of men—and the unlikeliest of conclusions. Jeremy Corbyn, leftist, is the leader of the British Labour Party. Like the Prophet Sanders, he is an anomaly. Men like Corbyn were exiled during the neoliberal years. Their beliefs—of economic justice, of a non-hierarchical world—were supposed to be dead, buried beneath the foundations of the bridge to the 21st century. But as a wise man once said, History has a funny way of popping back up, like an old mole, where you least expect it.
Like Sanders, Corbyn isn’t really a socialist. But Corbyn and Sanders are the most left-wing politicians that our current system will allow. Corbyn, and all the Corbyns of the world, were supposed to be removed from play. The Corbyns believe in awkward positions, ideas that aren’t considered cool on the cocktail circuit: fighting corporate power, agitating for unions and a social safety net, opposing military intervention. These beliefs were not polite dinner-party conversations in the Nineties. Terribly rude, utterly gauche. But Corbyn, and the Corbyns of many nations, have returned to life, in defiance of all the storytellers of the neoliberal order. Like the Prophet Sanders, Corbyn is free of anything which could roughly be called charisma: the homespun prophet come to dinner. With nothing of the salesman about him, as earnest as your model-train-having-uncle, Corbyn is a ghost of politics that was, and may be again.
The neoliberal narrative (and therefore the mainstream media’s narrative) is that the left died in America in 1972 and in the U.K. in 1981, and it can never rise again. Since that time, our governments have been held hostage by a series of right-wing dunces, and centrist sell-outs pretending to be progressives. Nobody in power thought to try out real progressivism. And so, when the rank-and-file of Labour elected Corbyn as leader, the powerful were aghast. The elite of Labour, and the press, and the pundits, wrote him off. The Labour Party was supposed to be smashed by its regrettable lean to the left. Yet its popularity is growing in the polls, and they are now within striking distance of the Tories.
The British Electorate votes on June 8th. Conservative British Prime Minister May called a vanity election. She thought she’d increase her ranks to secure Brexit. What she’s discovered is something very different: she may not have enough Members of Parliament to form a government. And so, the world waits to see what the United Kingdom will make of Jeremy Corbyn, and what he will make of Labour.
This is the record of four men, but it is really the tale of billions of people who have been hostage to a world where elite opinion governed, and governed poorly. It is the story of what was, what is, and what could be. The names are specific, but the outcomes are general. No surprise there. We read the newspaper to learn the course of world, which, after all, is a way to better see what lies in front of our nose. These four men, and what they symbolize, form the outlines of our lives, and suggest where to go from here. We study individual biography to learn the history of everyone, and learn the tale of them to better understand the story of us.