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Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism

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My first introduction to Donald Trump as a public figure took place in the early 1990s. At the time I was working as an editor for a non-profit association in Chicago. Trump was already a well-known public figure, but not one I had paid much attention to. One day an editor I worked with came up to me with a transcript of a speech Trump had recently given at some real estate industry event.

I can’t remember any specifics now about that transcript, other than my co-worker’s incredulity at the unpolished sensibilities on display in the so-called mogul’s remarks. A quick glance at the transcript left me with the same impression: Trump’s tone was crude and laughably self-important. This was not a man of subtle thoughts.

I felt then as I do now: If ever there was an argument for a 100 percent tax on inherited commercial wealth, Trump is it. Actually, not to get carried away with one individual’s importance, but Trump is an argument for an end to capitalism altogether. But of course there are many arguments for an end to capitalism, starting with the small matter of the endemic state-sponsored violence, economic exploitation, and poverty that plagues a global society dominated by the privilege and power of the corporate 1%ers. There is also the matter of capitalism’s increasing incompatibility with genuine democracy, as clearly revealed in the dismal drama of the current presidential elections.

Democracy This is Not

Indeed, as the long, labored march to the November presidential election nears its final weeks, irony is leaking from every corner of this specious exercise in “democratic” choice. It starts perhaps with the list of old-guard Republicans steadily lining up to endorse “liberal” Hillary Clinton’s Democratic candidacy.

“Compared to four years ago, twice as many Republicans say they’re going to vote for the Democratic candidate,” reports a spokesperson for the Quinnipiac University poll. The list includes such sterling figures of Republican orthodoxy as John Negroponte, former Reagan-era U.S. ambassador to Honduras, and Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush’s presidency. Let us also not forget former President George H. W. Bush. Of course, the real question is why shouldn’t these old guard Republicans support Clinton?

Consider Negroponte, who played a pivotal role in U.S. support for the vast Central America horror show of 1980s human rights abuses, Contra death squads, and other nightmares carried out by the region’s military criminals. It’s likely a veteran Republican statesman of Negroponte’s caliber, a Georgetown scholar of diplomacy, can’t quite abide the possibility of the crass Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Then again he may just be impressed with Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State in abetting the Honduran military coup of 2009?

Then there’s Wolfowitz. He urged Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, assuring the President that Iraqis would eagerly greet the American invaders as “liberators.” It is hardly news that Clinton was all for the invasion. Nor should we forget President Bill Clinton’s earlier near decade-long imposition of economic sanctions against Iraq (punctuated by periodic bombing campaigns) that left the country’s infrastructure in ruins and contributed to rampant disease and death among the Iraqi people. It was a seamless extension of the first Iraq War started by George H. W. Bush. Hillary Clinton had no objection to any of it.

Who Will Not Lose the Unpopularity Contest?

But while Clinton today actively courts the war criminal vote (are you listening Henry Kissinger?), the more significant story is the apparent degree of popular disaffection for both major party candidates. Indeed, the public seems less enthralled than largely wary, frightened, frustrated, and angry. Much of that anger has toxically morphed into support for Trump. But many voters are also likely just weary. Inspiration among the electorate is definitely in short supply, at least since “Feel the Bern” turned into “Feel the Bern(out)” for Sanders’ now aborted Democratic primary campaign.

Tellingly, the largest single voting block for years has been the eligible voters who choose not to vote at all. Eligible voter turnout has fluctuated from a low of 54.2 percent in the 2000 election to a high of only 62.3 percent in 2008. Obviously, there are many reasons why eligible voters don’t vote, but one compelling reason is that they just see no damn good reason to do so. The liberal do-gooders with their condescending “If you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain!” mantra are way behind many of these abstainers. It isn’t even necessary to hear Sanders excoriate Wall Street for many people to recognize, at some level, the illegitimacy of elections rigged for the wealthy, whose political “choices” have little positive impact on their lives and zero impact on who actually owns and runs the country.

Indeed, there is an epic quality to the current mood of dissatisfaction. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reports Clinton and Trump to be “the two most unpopular presidential candidates in polling dating back more than 30 years.” Both earn disapproval ratings among all adults near 60 percent. Obviously, it remains to be seen what the turnout will be this November. If the unpopular Clinton were running against a conventionally unpopular Republican (e.g., Jeb Bush), we might expect an exceedingly low turnout for an election that didn’t involve an incumbent.

But in the 2016 election Trump transcends unpopularity, evoking loathing and disgust among almost everyone who isn’t captured by his right-wing demagoguery. As a friend recently observed, this is the ultimate “Anybody But….” election, with millions of Americans in revolt against either Trump or Clinton, or both. The question is more who is not going to lose the unpopularity contest.

Obviously, Clinton’s great advantage is that she is not Trump. She may be a center-right corporate neoliberal, but few are having serious discussions about whether or to what degree elements of fascism inform her campaign. But one lesson of the Sanders campaign is how problematic it is for the Democratic Party leadership to even pretend to be New Dealers, offering as they do nothing more than a barren, corporatized version of progressivism. This is why Trump could possibly win the election.

How Does Social Change Occur?

One argument for a Clinton vote among her left-wing critics is that she will just do less damage, kill fewer people, than a Republican extremist like Trump. After all, Trump the wild man might use nuclear weapons irresponsibly! (as opposed to Democrats who only threaten their responsible use). Besides, it will supposedly be easier to organize for social justice with Clinton in office. In other words, Clinton is indeed the “lesser evil.” Thus, while entertaining no illusions in this warmongering daughter of finance capital, cast a vote for her to make it easier to fight for social justice in the future.

Perhaps Clinton will kill fewer people than Trump (I wouldn’t count on it), but would the ruling elite allow Trump to run wild in the White House. Under a Trump presidency should we expect unfettered vigilante mob violence against Mexicans and Muslims, encouraged by the White House? Should we expect the Trumpian police state to physically smash all dissent?

It’s highly unlikely at this juncture the ruling elite would not find a way to rein in Trump’s more extremist or reckless personal qualities as a leader. But even so what would matter more is to what degree oppressed people also organize and mobilize to oppose political repression in the United States. That’s the more important future story yet to be written.

Even more: Why do lesser-evil rationalizers assume that somehow “liberal” Democrats are more susceptible to mass movement pressure than conservative Republicans? Does progressive political change really occur more easily when liberals are in power? Not necessarily. In fact, historic social change occurs when strong independent mass movements exist. It does not necessarily pivot upon whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, but more on what happens outside the corridors of power, in the workplaces, campuses, communities, and streets.

This is the story of the Civil Rights movement, when sit-ins and marches and growing popular dissent compelled a bipartisan power structure to finally take action against Jim Crow racism. This is the story of woman’s suffrage, the Vietnam peace movement, and labor’s quest for the eight-hour day. This is the story of the historical movement of democracy itself.

In truth, a right-wing Republican in power is not inherently less responsive to pressure from “the street” than a liberal Democrat. In 1970, for example, labor activists helped win passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which was historic pro-worker legislation. Take note: The OSHA victory occurred when Republican Richard Nixon was President. The Nixon era also saw an end to military conscription and legal recognition of abortion rights. Credit not the politicians or the judges, but the era’s burgeoning environmental movement. Credit the activism and mobilized public opinion of millions of U.S. citizens who were anti-war and anti-draft. Credit the women’s liberation movement.

As Tony Mazzochi, the long-time leader of the former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union once remarked, “When you build a big movement from down below, regardless of who’s in the White House, you can bring about change.”

Don’t Underestimate Trumpism

This is not to say there are no differences between candidates. Of course, there are always differences. Nor is this to downplay the threat Trump’s extreme right-wing politics represent. In fact, the present threat of Trump’s politics only underscores the urgency of building a mass political alternative to both political parties. But to believe that replacing Brand Obama’s version of corporate neoliberal politics with Brand Clinton’s will vanquish Trump’s mass base of thuggish hate politics is dangerously naïve.

With Clinton’s election certainly Trump the candidate can be defeated. But with another Wall Street Democrat in the White House the right-wing demagoguery of Trumpism is only likely to grow more emboldened, more bitter, and more menacing. With Clinton in office essentially nothing will be done to reverse the growing wealth divide in the country. Nothing will be done to create millions of secure, well-paid new jobs, based on a solid manufacturing economy. Nothing will be done to find alternatives to mass incarceration. And nothing will be done to end the permanent war economy that has made the United States the leading global purveyor of war and militarism. However, while economic and social justice will remain elusive, much White House “concern” will be expressed and maybe even a few “task forces” created. And the country will grow angrier.

The present moment cries out for new politics. Many on the socialist left have long advocated the desirability of an independent mass “third party” rooted in working class communities and unions. If it ever came to be, such a popular labor party would be a significant step forward for the cause of social justice.

For now, groups such as Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), call for a vote for progressive Green Party candidate Jill Stein. ISO, unlike SAlt, opposes in principle voting for Democrats (No, ISO is not bearing “moral witness” on the issue). It’s also possible to cast a write-in vote for Socialist Action’s Jeff Mackler, a veteran socialist activist whose anti-capitalist campaign also stands for principled opposition to lesser-evil voting.

Some think rejection of lesser-evil voting is just pie-in-the-sky thinking. But is it more realistic to continue to put faith (even if it’s just a little faith) in the modern Democratic Party, most of whose leaders by historic standards make Richard Nixon seem very, very liberal? As a conduit for progressive change, there’s just no “there” there when it comes to the Democratic Party, to borrow a phrase from that other Stein (Gertrude). Who really thinks this status quo party, defender of finance capital, can be leveraged to become its opposite, an instrument for changing an oppressive society into a liberated society?

Question Everything, Especially Capitalism

When I was 16 years old I decided I had no use whatsoever for any philosophy or politics that didn’t envision the possibility of an end to war, of an end to systemic violence, and social relations that define “power” as some form or another of coercive exploitation and control over other people. It was a decision that led me early into the philosophies of radical pacifism, anarchism, and eventually socialism of the revolutionary kind. In some sense, I still embrace the idealistic essence of what is best in all of these philosophies, not self-righteously but like so many others because every impulse in my human spirit wants to resist the violence, exploitation, and social oppression that characterizes modern society.

I am with the Occupy Wall Street activists of five years ago, and the young grassroots Sanders supporters of earlier this year, who dared to question the most basic assumptions about the social order. Why should our economy be designed to continually enrich a few, while millions more work hard just to barely get by? Why should major industries and utilities be owned by a few, serving elite shareholders first instead of the public good? Why should unemployment in any form be a permanent economic fixture? Why should poverty even exist in the richest society in human history?

Why indeed should human society be forever divided, forever violent and pitted one against the other? The great thinker R. Buckminster Fuller once remarked that it was possible for human society to “take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than anybody has ever known. It does not have to be ‘you or me,’ so selfishness is unnecessary and war is obsolete.” For Fuller, the choice was Utopia or Oblivion. As a creative designer and intellectual, he came to this conclusion from his own premises. But it was not so different a conclusion than the Socialism or Barbarism choice popularized more than a century ago by the political revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

Actually, barbarism is hardly a future threat. The historian Eric Hobsbawm deduced an estimated 187 million human beings had died in 20th century wars. Think about that! As the century progressed the victims of war were also increasingly ordinary civilians.

Capitalism is a rot upon the human spirit, a blighted thief not only of economic rationality, but also of values of compassion, solidarity, and ultimately life itself. As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who was sympathetic to socialism, once wrote, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Our full creative human potential—our full humanity as a global community—is only hinted at under a system so divided by wealth, so defined by war and social oppression. Accordingly, the current election extravaganza is ultimately designed to numb our minds, to saturate the public in noisy rhetoric and fake political drama, and to stop us from dreaming, organizing, and reaching for what the French radicals of the late 1960s once heralded as the realism of demanding the impossible.

Forget the pretend democracy, the noisy, extravagant ritualistic electoral march leading nowhere. In American two-party elections, wealth always dominates and corporations always win. Forget Hillary Clinton, enmeshed in personal wealth, fearful of what the public will think of her private speeches to the Wall Street crowd. Forget Donald Trump, court jester of capitalist cruelty, racism, and xenophobia. The American political system is a broken mess of the democratic ideal.

Let us stand instead with the fighting spirit of the Standing Rock Sioux people. Let us embrace the spirit of the courageous activists who oppose racist police violence, who declare Black Lives Matter. Let us stand in solidarity with the incarcerated victims of the American prison gulag, consigned to long suffering because of a racist—and bipartisan—“War on Drugs.”

Let us also stand with the historical legacy of the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who believed as long as there was a soul in prison he was not free. And who saw capitalism as a form of imprisonment for ordinary working men and women. In this graceless age of money and capital, let us instead remember all the great heroes, sung and unsung, who have come and gone and made their time on earth a tribute to a world beyond war and exploitation.

In doing so, let us live for the vision of a peaceful, liberated future and the possibility that revolutionary change in society is still possible.

 

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: Harris@writersvoice.org

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