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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

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A year ago, the November election, still a half year off, was already sucking the oxygen out of the political air.   This had been going on for months.  It happens every four years.  It’s the American way!

But thanks to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, there was more political energy afoot than anyone would have thought possible a few months earlier.  Those two “outsiders” weren’t just siphoning oxygen off into electoral dead ends; they were also pumping fresh air in.

They were feisty; they seemed uncompromising; they had the common touch.  With so many voters appalled and damaged by politics as usual, they both found enthusiastic audiences.

Our politics normally inspires indifference or despair or both.  The political polarization of the last several decades only makes the problem worse.  Democrats cross the street to avoid Republicans and vice versa.

That there is so much polarization is odd, inasmuch as there is almost no ideological substance behind it.

Talk of a “national interest” is just that – talk.  Both parties serve their donors, above all.   Their respective donor classes overlap – not entirely, but to a great extent.

The parties also draw votes from different constituencies; there is less overlap there.

These facts on the ground account for the ways in which Democrats and Republicans differ and are alike.

In a deeper sense, though, they are entirely alike.  They both unequivocally serve the same master: the capitalist system.

There can be, and currently are, acute disagreements on issues that do not impinge on capitalists’ interests.  But there is complete accord on matters that bear on the capitalist system itself.

Counter-systemic, even overtly anti-capitalist, views can be freely expressed in the political arena; in theory, anything goes.  In practice, however, because our two party system is so deeply entrenched, and because its consequences spill over into nearly all our institutions, it is all but guaranteed that electoral politics in the United States is only good for registering superficial challenges to the existing order.

Sanders, the “democratic socialist,” was no exception to that rule; neither, of course, was Trump.

Sanders was, and Trump pretended to be, on the side of the victims of capitalism’s neoliberal turn.  Sanders meant well, and his campaign did upset some high-flying capitalist muckety-mucks.  But their worries were, to say the least, overblown.  Had he been elected President, Democrats and Republicans would have hobbled his efforts at serious reform; and even if he could somehow prevail, his socialism was just capitalism with a human – or slightly less inhuman — face.  Trump, on the other hand, never gave the “billionaire class,” as Sanders called it, the slightest cause for concern.  All he did was bluster.

Nevertheless, the people who rallied behind Sanders did push the spectrum to the left, at least partly with Sanders’ help.

Trump pushed the spectrum as far to the right as possible while still maintaining a semblance of plausible respectability.  Someday we may know whether he hit on this strategy by himself, or whether he glommed onto it opportunistically once he realized how well it was working for him.

The Democratic Party plays a key role in tamping down progressive aspirations.  Inadvertently, Sanders tapped into the resulting discontent.  Thus he awakened a sleeping giant.

Trump’s anti-establishment belligerence had a ready audience too — among the miscreants of the “alt-right,” as they are nowadays called.   Steve Bannon and his minions didn’t conjure that monster into existence; all he and his people did was help Trump lead them on.

Now that Jared and Ivanka seem to be calling the shots, Bannon and the others have suddenly become so last week.  But the odor of perniciousness that Bannon exudes remains.   Whether or not he continues to be on the outs, the political scene will go on falling ever deeper into the alt-right netherworld.

Sanders advocated a twenty-first century version of New Deal – Great Society politics.  Except for his use of the words “socialism” and “revolution,” words that became anathema in America in the post-World War II era, no one would have thought his politics unusual, much less radical, half a century ago.

A year ago, however, his politics seemed off the charts.  This was a large part of its appeal to voters too young to do more than imagine how much less noxious political life in America had been before Reagan, the Clintons, the Bushes, and Barack Obama.

Trump’s appeal was that he had no politics – only a blustery and belligerent attitude and a determination to promote his brand.   He was just the man for voters who wanted to flip the bird to the whole rotten system.

But the movement that his candidacy ignited was pure throwback.  He breathed new life into an authoritarian and paranoid style of politics that had been in eclipse in the American mainstream at least since the high tide of the McCarthy era.

In this way, he, along with Sanders, added a whiff of ideological contestation to the already polarized political scene.   Therefore, to everyone’s surprise, the 2016 election took on a more genuinely political cast than any in recent memory.

But because our party system is depoliticizing, and because we have no other institutional means capable of sustaining serious political struggle, we now find ourselves again with two highly polarized but profoundly likeminded parties having at each other.  Apolitical politics is back – with a vengeance.

This doesn’t help movement-building efforts that actually can change the world for the better.   Democrats and Republicans both work hard to assure that nothing like that takes place.

On the left, however, there is movement-building activity going on – in the streets.  The Democratic Party would like to coopt every bit of it – not just to gain the votes of people fighting Trump, but also to defuse the threat it poses to their role in the status quo.

If the resistance movement only targets Trump and does not also take on the conditions that make the Trump phenomenon possible – including the Democratic Party – they could succeed, and an historical opportunity will again be lost.

Of course, it is good that, in “red” Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossof nearly won the Congressional seat left vacant by Tom Price, Trump’s choice to “deconstruct” the Department of Health and Human Services.  It is clear, though, that if he prevails in the runoff, he will have Trump to thank, not the Democratic Party.

Trump was behind Democrat Ron Estes’s strong showing in Kansas too; and if Rob Quist wins the special election to be held in May for the Montana Congressional seat vacated by Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, thank Trump for that as well.

The fewer Republicans there are in Congress, the less odious Congress becomes; and each “red” district that turns blue is a sty in the eye of Devil Don Trump.  But this is not a way to change the world for the better; electing Democrats is useless for that.

With very few exceptions, Democrats are not even lesser evils or at least they wouldn’t be if the Republicans they run against were less execrable.  This was very evident between 2006 and 2010 when they held power in both the Senate and the House.

How wonderful it would be if the Democratic Party were replaced by a genuinely progressive opposition.  That would be eminently possible in other Western democracies.  But the rules of the game in the Land of the Free effectively rule that level of (small-d) democracy off the agenda.

Therefore “third” – or shouldn’t we say “second” – party building, though admirable in intent, is very likely a non-starter.  But the “donors” who call the shots can be made to realize that if they want to hold onto their power, they will have to cede some of it to forces advancing ameliorative or, better still, counter-systemic positions.

That won’t happen, however, unless they fear that they might lose all of their power if they fail to accommodate to popular demands for equality and peace and for respect for the dignity of all and the restoration of the rights and liberties Americans have lost since the Bush-Obama-Trump War on Terror began.

It has been a long time since popular insurgencies on American soil showed any promise of developing into truly revolutionary situations.  On several occasions, however, “we, the people” have caused enough fear in ruling circles to force the authorities to drop their opposition to popular efforts to civilize the body politic.

The mounting resistance to the Trump phenomenon could put America on that road again.

However, an obstacle has suddenly arisen — again thanks to Trump, inasmuch as where he goes, chaos reigns to such an extent that even the Zeitgeist changes day by day.  Thus it appears that, in the aftermath of the turmoil that followed Trump’s election victory, resignation is again on the rise.  For the moment at least, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” has become the spirit of the age.

***

The Sanders campaign was Case Number One.

By running against the Party establishment, Sanders fanned the flames of discontent.  This was more consequential than anything he said or how he said it.

The Democratic Party establishment tolerated and even encouraged Sanders at first; they deemed him useful for keeping voters fed up with Clintonian (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) politics within the Democratic fold, and for drawing in voters who are otherwise too fed up with the political scene in general to vote at all.

Everyone who had been paying attention knew, of course, that the election was “rigged”; that the Democratic National Committee and the various state committees were doing all they could to assure that the nomination would go to Hillary Clinton.

Not wanting to alienate Sanders voters unnecessarily, leading Democrats feigned neutrality.  But there was no need to see John Podesta’s emails to know what was going on.  The emails made availably by Wikileaks only confirmed the obvious.

When it became clear that the nomination process would go the way that the party wanted, Sanders capitulated utterly.   This ought not to have surprised anyone; nevertheless, it did.

From that point on, he could have made history – by running as a Green or by splitting the party and running independently.  Either way, he would have done more good than anything he did in the campaign.  But the “independent” Senator wanted to stay in the good graces of the Democratic Party establishment.

At the time, he probably thought, like everybody else, that Clinton had no more than a negligible chance of losing.  But, just in case she blew a sure thing, he didn’t want to be blamed for Trump the way that, to this day, Ralph Nader is blamed for George W. Bush.

That charge is ludicrous, but it won’t go away – because Democrats and their media hacks find it useful.

Thus Sanders let a rare historical opportunity pass.  Many of his supporters were reluctant, at first, to follow his lead.  In time, though, many of them acquiesced.  Why would they not?  “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  If Clinton’s victory is inevitable, why not make the best of it?  Politics is “the art of the possible,” after all.

Why not indeed!  The short answer is: because the politics Clinton represents is not only part of the problem; it is what made the Trump phenomenon both necessary and possible.

It could be argued that Republicans were actually the first, this election season, to act on that principle by joining what they could not defeat.  They had, after all, made peace with the Tea Party – by adopting its views.

But that was a hostile takeover.  Establishment Republicans never quite joined forces with the useful idiots they had recruited.  Instead, they let themselves be led grudgingly along.

It serves them right.  For decades, establishment Republicans have been pandering shamelessly to populations they despise but whose votes they craved.  This was hardly an ennobling project, but it did serve them well.

This changed in 2012, in part because, unlike Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off.   He pandered as shamelessly as the others, but his sheer disingenuousness shined through.

That was the last straw for the yahoos who made the Tea Party what it was.  They aren’t good for much, but they can smell a phony from a mile off, and their obstinacy is awe-inspiring.  They were determined in 2016 to hold their ground, and therefore to hold the field of Republican candidates to account.  This made Republicans contending for the nomination easy prey for the Donald.

The Tea Party had been enabled, in part, by malign, self-interested rightwing donors pushing nefarious agendas.  However, there was a grassroots component as well.  It wasn’t until Trump got going that it became clear how little those grassroots Tea Partiers cared about the donors’ ideological predilections.   They were not exactly opposed to what the donors wanted, but they were mainly acting out their own malaise.   Trump realized this instinctively, and was therefore able to sweep Tea Partiers into his domain – for as long as “crooked Hillary,” a living embodiment of the causes of that malaise, was available as a foil.

She still is, of course; but she is fast becoming history.  When the transformation is complete, Trump had better watch his back.

There is a certain irony in this.  The Republican establishment had been working for decades to recruit the votes and loyalty of people in the Tea Party demographic, assuming that they could keep them under control.  They recruited too well — by 2016, the inmates had taken over the asylum.

And then Trump stole their thunder.  There is an even greater irony in that.  Because Trump needed the GOP to win and then to govern, if that is the right word for what he is doing, Tea Party energies were deflected back into the institutional ambit that Tea Party militants opposed.

The “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” spirit didn’t quite become manifest in the dark recesses of Republican minds until Trump had all but decimated the Republican Party.   It may not now look like that is what he did; it might even seem that he overcame the party’s cultural conditions by bringing its base together to elect him.  But that impression is incorrect.  The degree of unity that sufficed to secure Trump his Electoral College victory was nothing more than a byproduct of Clinton’s ineptitude.  Had Trump faced a more competent opponent, the GOP would now be in shambles.

But Clinton was Clinton and so, for now, Republicans are making the best of President Trump.  Why would they not?   How else could they have a chance of getting their agendas through?

Being clueless on governance and having no political organization of his own, Trump needs them as much as Republicans need him.

It is a marriage made in Hell and it won’t last because, with the Donald, it all depends on who has his ear – the alt-right epigone Bannon, the callow but well-heeled and loyal Likudnik Jared, the shamelessly mercenary fashionista Ivanka, or whoever’s star rises next.  These are not Republican establishment types, a fact that is bound to register and become consequential soon.

For now, though, the establishment types, having been among Trump’s most ardent critics a few months ago, are now in full “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mode.

Much the same is happening in corporate media circles, though in more subtle ways.  Greedy for ratings, the corporate brass gave Trump free, seemingly limitless, news coverage during the campaign, notwithstanding their obvious preference for the more biddable Hillary.   When they, along with everyone else, were sure that the Donald would lose, that seemed like a safe and reliable way to enhance their bottom lines.

They did enhance those bottom lines, and they also enhanced Trump’s opportunities to make himself an object of ridicule for comedians and hack Democratic Party pundits.  This too enhances some of the same bottom lines – MSNBC’s, for example, and CNN’s.

Otherwise, the press now seems to be taking Trump and Trumpians seriously, treating them, as best they can, as if theirs is a normal administration.  What the corporate wing of America’s Fourth Estate is good at is accommodating to power.  And so, having not gotten the President they wanted, they are now normalizing Trump – effectively legitimating his rule.

This is especially evident in respectable print media like The New York Times and The Washington Post, on National Public Radio’s morning and afternoon news broadcasts.   At first, it seemed that every media outlet this side of Fox was too taken aback by Trump’s victory to resume their usual regime-serving ways.  This is no longer the case.

The main exemplar of the latest, Trump-induced wrinkle in the Zeitgeist is, of course, Trump himself.

In the past week or two he hasn’t let up on throwing a few bones to his most “deplorable” supporters.  But he has been shedding his populist skin as quickly as he can.

Hillary the person lost, but Hillary the idea –the neoliberal, liberal imperialist, Russophobic warmonger — is therefore now being channeled through the man the Electoral College let loose upon the world.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that this was bound to happen; that the “America first” babble, coming from a card carrying member of the billionaire class, was crap.  Nevertheless, the speed of the transformation is astonishing.

It is impossible to say how long Trump will stay in his present mode.  The best guess is: not long.  The man is too corrupt, opportunistic and erratic to hold steadfastly to any position at all.

But, for now, we find ourselves in a situation in which the best hope for the survival of the planet lies with a former General nicknamed “Mad Dog,” a National Security Advisor cut from the same cloth, and Trump’s thirty-something daughter and son-in-law, a gilded, otherwise undistinguished couple for whom the White House is a cash cow.

For Jared and his family, it’s a lubricant for real estate deals; for Ivanka, it’s about selling clothes.

There are ostensibly respectable commentators who say that Ivanka is the Great Blonde Hope – a true feminist, dedicated to pursuing an intra-familial mission civilsatrice!  If only MSNBC (=DNC) had a Sean Spicer to point out how even Eva Braun never relied upon any man’s fondness for her – not her father’s, not her lover’s, not anyone’s — to obtain exclusive patents and licenses to peddle lines of schlock accessories and shoes in the emporia of other axis powers or in lands that the Wehrmacht might overrun.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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