A specter is haunting the 2016 presidential election. Is it the racist demagoguery of Trump or the war hawk neoliberalism of Clinton? Or beyond the tenuous threads of any ideological tapestry, is it the rigged system that passes for representative democracy when either iron-fisted or velvet-gloved oligarchy is the rule? Trying to unpack the depressing contents of what confronts us in the 2016 presidential election will require something that is often missing in the corporate media spectacle surrounding and propping up this electoral sham – a critical historical sensibility.
As many commentators and studies have already pointed out, Trump, in particular, is a product and beneficiary of the spectacle politics dominating the corporate media. However, according to Mark Danner’s article in the New York Review of Books, “he builds on and expresses loudly and clearly racist and nativist elements in Republican politics that have been central to the party’s appeal since at least the mid-1960’s but that its leaders have preferred to signal rather than enunciate.”
Indeed, the racist and nativist appeals can be traced back even further to the 19th century, making Trump the most recent example of those demagogues that have appeared periodically on the American political scene. This is why the hysteria that Trump is another Hitler or, even, Mussolini (especially in his strutting and bullying posturing) is so ahistorical. Using the Hitler, Mussolini, or fascist analogy not only overlooks the historical conditions that created them and their movements, but also misrepresents the present social-economic situation in this country. Moreover, these references to Hitler and fascism are used to browbeat anyone who would question the need to rush mindlessly into the arms of Clinton’s neoliberal agenda, an agenda that is responsible for creating the very discontent and conditions that Trump and his ilk exploit.
If one is seeking some other recent historical figure to compare to Trump, one can look no further than Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister. Like Trump, Berlusconi is a narcissistic billionaire who rallied Italians with nationalist appeals. He, like Trump, benefitted from anger with the political establishment and was seen as an anti-political figure outside of a corrupt political establishment. Both were also benefactors of media spectacle politics.
Another overlooked historical factor in the rise of Trump is the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Although that economic disaster also gave birth to Occupy which, in turn, established the political terrain for the Sanders campaign, it was, in Mark Danner’s words, “the sense that the country was looted on a vast scale and that the politicians of all stripes made sure the criminals were not punished” which provided another level of the politics of resentment that Trump is continuing to ride.
Of course, Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton are the premier political representatives of those corporate Democrats who have rewarded Wall Street to the detriment of Main Street. Whatever rhetoric Hillary now deploys to try to cover-up her collusion with Wall Street is disingenuous at best. Her fealty to neoliberalism, whether in economic or social policy, is so much part of her past positions and present donors that it does not have to be rehashed here.
Yet, many progressives, out of their hyped-up fear of a Trump presidency, a presidency that is more possible with Hillary as the Democratic presidential candidate, rely on the clichéd Supreme Court argument. While there are ideological differences that may lead to either probable conservative or liberal nominees, the recent historical record of Presidential Supreme Court nominees is replete with startling challenges to these ahistorical and hysterical arguments about voting for the so-called liberal (more precisely, neoliberal) candidate. What follows are some bracing examples of why relying on the Supreme Court rationale for one’s vote in the Presidential election is rather questionable:
1.) “Liberal” Nominees who sided with SC Conservatives on Key Decisions: Byron White was a Kennedy appointee who sided with the conservative dissenters in the Miranda and Roe v. Wade decisions; Stephen Breyer was a Clinton appointee who has consistently sided with the conservative majority on national security and policing matters.
2.) “Conservative” Nominees who became consistent liberal votes on the SC: Nixon appointee Harry Blackmun was the author of the ground-breaking Roe v. Wade decision and a consistent vote on other liberal cases; David Souter was a George H. W. Bush appointee who often sided with the liberal majority.
Finally, the assumption is that whoever wins the election will automatically get the Senate to accept the nominee. Recall that Nixon’s nominations of Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell were voted down by the Senate and Robert Bork, a Reagan nominee, was also voted down. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be browbeaten by fear-mongering arguments that neglect this historical record and the continuing political constraints.
What we do need to keep in mind, however, is the very real record of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and her monumental travesties in that office. Beyond her conflict of interest in conducting business for the Clinton Foundation with kickbacks from Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine that helped grease the wheels for procurement of military equipment, she constantly favored the most aggressive Pentagon options in wars and war games around the globe. Her active engagement in enabling the overthrow of the legitimate populist president of Honduras suggests a reversion to the worst examples of US imperialism in Latin America. Her support for the most racist Likkud policies in Israel and her apologies for war crimes in Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. is major indictment against her election. Furthermore, her embrace of NATO’s most reckless moves into Eastern Europe is frightening.
This is, of course, not to dismiss the very real alarming positions of Trump in embracing torture and calling for even more extensive use of drones. On the other hand, Trump’s calls for dialing down and cutting back NATO support might indicate that he does not see the United States as the “indispensable” nation any longer. This probably is why the foreign policy establishment and especially well-known neocons have endorsed Hillary.
While the United States military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq continues, both parties and their candidates are committed to unending wars. Indeed, President Obama has recently expanded the troops in both countries, presumably to aid in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and to prevent the Taliban from coming to power once again in Afghanistan. Blinded by the rhetoric of its “indispensability,” Washington policymakers, whether in the White House or Congress, cannot conceive of any alternative to the use of military force.
As Emmanuel Todd wrote at the beginning of the war in Iraq, “the United States is pretending to remain the world’s indispensable superpower by attacking insignificant adversaries. But this America – a militaristic, agitated, uncertain, anxious country projecting its own disorder around the globe – is hardly the indispensable nation it claims to be and is certainly not what the rest of the world really needs now.”
While Hillary Clinton has a record of sowing discord around the globe, it is unclear how Trump would manage the empire. Most likely, his shoot-from-the-lip policy-making could very well inflame events, especially in the Muslim world. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Trump would isolate the U.S. even more, advancing the death of an empire that needs to die as soon as possible to allow humanity to live.
There are other obvious policy differences between Clinton and Trump, but at this historic moment when so many in the US and around the globe are distrustful of any political establishment, we need to think beyond two representatives of an oligarchy which continues to protect the interests of the 1%. Of course, if this were a truly representative democracy, there would be a multi-party system, enabled by IRV. Instead of the rhetoric about “one person, one vote,” we would have a democratic process the does not disenfranchise millions of ex-felons and make it difficult, if not impossible, for the working poor to vote. Finally, we would have a truly accountable and transparent standardized vote without partisan manipulation and questionable voting machines.
Such electoral reform is only part of our need to think beyond the bonds of a corrupt and rigged political system. The cries for economic and social justice that Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements have raised found some resonance in the remarkable Sanders campaign. Instead of recognizing the historic moment for a clean break with the Democratic Party, Bernie and some of his supporters have abandoned the authentic “political revolution.” That road to political revolution must look beyond Trump V Clinton to an insurgent populace arrayed against any of the shams of the dominant political order.