Pick Your Poison? Presidential Politics and Planetary Prospects


I have more than once heard fellow U.S. leftists describe the choice between dismal Democrats and rancid Republicans as like a choice of how one would like to be executed: firing squad or hanging; electric chair or gas chamber; guillotine or liquid injection. With the official range of selection narrowed to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for U.S. President, we might extend the metaphor to all of humanity (and to the other species homo sapiens hasn’t already eradicated) and ask: which is your preferred near-term path of extinction, accelerated anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) global warming (AGW) or thermonuclear world war?

If one wants to work with the dichotomy of “greater” and “lesser” evil, Trump is quite probably the “greater evil” on climate change, whose existence he denies. If president, he says, he would “deregulate [American] energy.” He would help the nation’s fossil fuel firms and their customers extract, sell, and burn as much coal. gas, and oil as they could (and the executive branch can do quite a bit in that regard). Noam Chomsky is right that this could signal “almost a death knell for the species.” We are speeding to ecosystem collapse with AGW in the lead of numerous interrelated “ecological rifts.” A stepped-up carbon orgy under a Trump administration could well seal the tipping-point deal.

But Hillary Clinton is the greater evil when it comes to World War III. She is showing signs that she would view a landslide victory against Trump as what the left analyst Glen Ford calls “a mandate for war with [nuclear] Russia.” The nuclear “dice on humanity’s future” (Ford) are already being shaken by the Obama administration. Consistent with Obama’s long-time commitment (shared the Clintons, Madeline Albright, and the rest of the Council on Foreign Relations crowd) to the Zbigniew Brzezinski project of humiliating Russia, Washington has helped install a vicious right wing and pro-Western government in Ukraine, a key state on Russia’s western border (one that past European invaders have marched through on a path to Moscow). Last May, Washington announced the installation of a so-called European missile defense system in Romania – a deployment that Russia naturally interpreted as an attack on its nuclear deterrence capacity. The White House disingenuously claimed that the system was meant to protect Europe from Iran, something that Moscow immediately and reasonably denounced as a lie. Russia suggested that it might retaliate by placing nuclear missiles in Crimea and Kaliningrad, its exclave on the Baltic Sea, between Poland and Lithuania.

The key hotspot in the U.S. and Western-led “new Cold War” now is of course Russia- and Iran-backed Syria, where U.S. and other Western airplanes “mistakenly” killed 62 Syrian troops one month ago. The attack effectively blew up a Syrian “ceasefire” Washington had arranged with the Syrian government’s key ally Russia just a week before. Now, Pepe Escobar reports, “the Pentagon – supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff – …is peddling ‘potential strikes’ on Syria’s air force to ‘punish the regime’ for what the Pentagon actually did; blow up the ceasefire.” Washington disingenuously claims to have deep humanitarian concerns for the 250,000 or so civilians who are trapped on the eastern side of the city of Aleppo, a rebel/al Qaeda-controlled territory under siege by the Syrian army and Shia paramilitary forces from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. This follows a provocative Washington Post story leaking reports that the Obama administration is thinking about undertaking a direct U.S. covert war on the ground against the Syrian state.

All of this has quite naturally elicited a stern response from Moscow. The Russian Ministry of Defense telling Washington to “weigh the consequences” of its schemes. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov informed the world that it was ready and willing to use its state-of-the-art air defense systems to shoot down U.S. war planes attacking Syrian troops or Russian military installations. If and when that happens, Konashenkov added, things will be moving too fast for the Russians to use the “hotline” to give Washington the “exact flight program” of its air defense missiles in Syria.

This is all bad enough, but Hillary seems to want to up the ante. Listen to her language in her second “presidential” “debate” with Trump. “The situation in Syria is catastrophic,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And every day that goes by, we see the results of the regime by Assad in partnership with Iranians on the ground, the Russians in the air…when I was Secretary of State, I advocated and I advocate today a no-fly zone and a safe zone.” All because she wants to protect “the rebels,” most of whom are radical Islamist jihadists, and the mass of civilian noncombatants under jihadist control in Eastern Aleppo.

Forget for now her absurd disavowal of Washington’s and her own leading creating the Syrian calamity by backing barbarian jihadists in their war on the (undeniably murderous and repressive) Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad. If she wants to see a much bigger catastrophe she should try as president to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. The Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has told Congress that the Pentagon trying to control the airspace over Syria would “require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.” As Glen Ford notes at Black Agenda Report:

“As punishment for saving Syria from being entirely overrun by western-backed jihadists…, the Russians now face direct attack from the United States. It could come any moment, and is highly likely if Clinton wins what she can claim is a resounding ‘mandate’ in November. The ‘no fly zone’ that Clinton wants to impose over Syria would mean war with Russia from the very second it was implemented since, under U.S. military doctrine, it requires the immediate destruction of all ‘enemy’ air defenses. That was a relatively easy assignment for NATO forces in Libya, in 2011, but Syrian airspace is now guarded by the world’s most sophisticated defense systems, manned by Russian operators, guarded by Russian Marines, and backed by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Will Washington risk nuclear war to protect al-Qaida? Isn’t it insane to have to ask such a question?”

To be sure, Hillary’s chest-pounding belligerence should be taken with at least half a grain of salt. As the intrepid British Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn reported last week, “The West is not going to risk a war against a nuclear power and its Syrian ally in order to help the 250,000 to 275,000 civilians trapped there.” Cockburn’s comment should not to be taken to mean that “the West” – really in this case the Obama administration – could care less about the fate of civilians in Syria or anywhere else. Its real interest is in protecting the not-so “moderate” rebels it has been deploying as horrible proxies in its great imperial game in the Middle East. Still, it seems unlikely that Obama or even his more rhetorically hawkish successor (almost certainly Hillary Clinton, that is) would really risk going to Strangelovian lengths in service “to protect al Qaida” (well, its Syrian incarnation the Al-Nusra Front, the so-called moderates holding East Aleppo). I think the answer to Ford’s question is almost certainly no.

But presidential and presidential-candidate words matter, especially to Moscow. The Russians have reasons to be alarmed by Hillary’s anti-Russian/anti-Putin and NATO-expansionist rhetoric, which matches the record of the original, Serbia-bombing, Russia-humiliating, and NATO- expanding Clinton42 White House and her record as Secretary of State. Mrs. Clinton has even likened Putin to (who else?) Hitler, suggesting that the “Queen of Chaos’s” wild regime change dreams extend to the Kremlin itself. Such rhetoric provides fertile ground for dangerous confrontations, paranoia, and accidental missile and bomber launches across the world’s great oceans and the Arctic, not just the Baltic Sea or Syrian air space. Hence the properly chilling title of Ford’s latest reflection: “Apocalypse Hillary.” (Maybe the Trump campaigns should run a remake of the Lyndon Baines Johnson campaign’s infamous anti-Barry Goldwater commercial during the 1964 presidential campaign – the one that showed a little girl counting daisy petals while a military commander counted down to the launch of a nuclear missile. Hillary is probably still proud of the fact that she was a teenage “Goldwater Girl” in 1964, for what that’s worth).

By contrast, the noxious eco-cidal bigot and man-child Donald Trump sounds relatively rational on the subjects of Russia, Syria, and Middle East jihadism. Contrary to the doctrinal beliefs of what Escobar smartly calls the “neoliberalcon” wing of the richly bipartisan U.S. “War Party” (Hillary is its top figurehead), Trump wants “a normalized working relationship with Russia” (Escobar). Imagine.

The Clinton machine, the Democratic National Committee, the New York Times and most of the corporate media portray Trump as Putin’s poodle because he says reasonable things like this: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS.”

Well, I don’t like Trump (or Assad or Putin or the Iranian regime), but he’s curiously right about all that.

The mostly preposterous Trump has committed three unpardonable sins is the “neocon/neoliberalcon War Party’s” book. First, he has dissented from the imperial “elite’s” determinations to humiliate Russia, demonize Putin, and expand NATO ever further eastward. (Trump has even rightly refused to denounce Russia’s perfectly understandable, defensive, and Crimea-backed seizure of Crimea). Second, he has lacked proper enthusiasm for regime change in Syria, citing the Assad regime’s role alongside Russia and Iran in defeating the Islamic State (IS). Third he has taken seriously the notion that civilized nations would want to join together to prioritize “crushing ISIS” and the Al-Nusra barbarians and other jihadists and the U.S. has been backing (along with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni oil fiefdoms) as proxy forces in the Muslim world since the 1970s.

None of this is to deny that Trump says crazy and dangerous things on nuclear weapons (though he did momentarily reject the United States’ longstanding policy of reserving the right to “first use” of such weapons during his first debate with Mrs. Clinton) – or that Mrs. Clinton has made some promising indication of wanting to roll back Obama’s insane nuclear weapons “modernization” program. Just as Hillary promises to advance AGW-led ecological exterminism in her own ways (including perhaps a reversal of her current campaign-driven opposition to the environmentally disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership), Trump promises in his own mad ways to continue and advance the threat of nuclear exterminism. Of course. Still, Hillary is top dog in the horrid presidential race when it comes to generating the geopolitical tensions that could spark thermonuclear Armageddon.

Recently I argued that climate change had surpassed nuclear war as the greatest threat to humanity and to life on Earth because of the issue of time. We can potentially survive a generation more of the existence of nuclear weapons without consigning ourselves to an inevitable nuclear war, my logic went, but Earth science shows that we need to cut back carbon emissions dramatically during that time if we want to avert environmental catastrophe. But on second thought, I’m not so sure which is worse. We don’t have a concrete sense of just how horrific life will be if and when we pass the next terrible climate benchmarks Earth scientists are urgently warning us about. How could we? It’s an experiment that’s never been run. We are running it right now to no small degree (no pun originally intended), potentially turning the planet into a big Greenhouse Gas Chamber. Still we simply do not know for a final and certain fact that humanity could not at some degraded level manage to adapt and even (as ridiculous as this sounds) make some “fixes.” Nobody can precisely demarcate the point of no return.

There’s no comparable mystery about the consequences of a nuclear war.   That would be game over, overnight. Boom, kiss it goodbye. Think Slim Pickens whooping like a cowboy at the end of Dr. Strangelove as he rides a bomb to the end of life on Earth. So long, it was nice. Remember Albert Einstein’s admonition on how the next war will be fought with after WWIII: “with sticks and stones.” There’d be no chance for any surviving scientists (or anyone else) to come up with something to reverse or even slightly mitigate that damage. All of which raises a nauseating question: could the ridiculous racist, sexist, nativist, and eco-cidal Donald “You’re Fired” Trump actually be a “lesser” danger to humanity and life on Earth than Hillary “It Takes a Village” Clinton?

Of course, as nobody in the so-called mainstream corporate media wants us to know, Americans don’t actually have to pick presidential and planetary poison in the voting booth. We could sit the election out, preferring to save all our political energies for the more urgent and essential politics of grassroots citizen action and popular movement-building beneath and beyond the quadrennial big money big media major part candidate-centered electoral carnival that is sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. Or, as one can barely detect from “mainstream” election coverage and commentary, we could reject the hideous Halloween season choice between either extinction by Greenhouse Gassing (Trump being probably the Worst Evil on that) or extinction by nuclear war (Hillary likely the Worst Evil there given her mad imperial ferociousness towards Syria, Russia, Iran, and China) by voting for the Green Party’s (GP) presidential candidates and social movement activists Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka. The GP’s proposed Green New Deal (GND) would drastically slash the giant exterminist U.S. Pentagon System (the world’s biggest carbon emitter and the source of nearly half the world’s military spending) and introduce genuinely progressive taxation to pay for an environmentally sustainable economy (built with a giant Green Jobs program) based on renewable resources, not exterminist fossil fuels and nuclear power – this while introducing genuinely social-democratic single-payer health insurance (Medicare for All), dramatically increasing the minimum wage, re-legalizing union organizing, and making college education free.

Yes, both forms of apocalyptic exterminism stood down from in one policy agenda – imagine. It’s on the ballot. It really is. Activists fought hard to put if there. You don’t have to view presidential voting (which can take as little as five minutes in my experience) as a way of selecting the least awful method of collective self-annihilation. You could vote for peace, justice, and environmental sanity.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless quadrennial presidential extravaganza grinds on to the final high holy electoral day with the “mainstream” media focused to an absurd, Aldous Huxlean degree on the silliest and ugliest imaginable matters of (major party) candidate personality and character while the two most pressing threats of our or any time – climate change and nuclear war – are pushed to the deadly margins of permissible public and political discourse. It is truly insane – I don’t know any other word for it.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).