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Does It Matter How Trump Goes Or Even That He Does?

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Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

The chances are good and getting better that Donald Trump’s presidency will be done in, at least in part, by the most odious sector of the “deep state,” the so-called intelligence community.  Would this be something to regret?

Of course, it would.  But there are good reasons for concluding, even so, that getting rid of Trump, the sooner the better, matters more.   Even if that means relying on noxious scoundrels, the least bad option may well be to buck up.

The issue is complicated, however, because, dreadful as Trump’s presidency is  — especially for Americans from vulnerable populations – a Mike Pence presidency, which is what we would be left with were Trump to go, would be even worse on many counts.

There is, however, one consideration that trumps all others, as it were: the fear that the hyper-erratic ignoramus currently occupying the White House might take a notion, in a fit of pique, to annihilate the world.

Before the election, when it was still possible not always to think the worst of him, that concern wasn’t quite as palpable as it has since become.

That was also a time when the current obsession with Russia, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” seemed to have gone extinct, along with Soviet style Communism.  It turns out that it was only lying dormant.

Hapless Hillary awoke the sleeping monster; the villainization of (capitalist) Russia, and of Vladimir Putin, started out as a Clinton campaign ploy that was enthusiastically adopted by the broader Democratic Party and its media flacks.

Once the election was concluded, looking for something, anything, other than themselves to blame for the way she blew an all-but-certain electoral victory– and believing, no doubt correctly, that Trump’s Russophilia could be used as a weapon against the GOP in 2018 – the Democrats and their pundits have been working overtime to keep their anti-Russia frenzy going.

Its focus is alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking inasmuch as the United States regularly interferes with elections everywhere in the world where there is a chance that the outcomes might not go the way that the stewards of the empire would like, and inasmuch as there are seldom elections anywhere in the former Soviet Union that the United States does not try, often with some success, to bend to its will.

Worse still, the fabricators of the anti-Russian, anti-Putin story line don’t even bother to identify harms that they could then go on to ascribe to those damnable Russians.  They are getting away with it too; at least for now.  Given the intellectual level at, for example, MSNBC and CNN, and the self-congratulatory shallowness of National Public Radio, this is not surprising.

No doubt, the Russian government wanted Hillary to lose the election.  Since she is a notoriously bellicose Russophobe with whom they have a history, why wouldn’t they?  Many other countries’ governments also had preferences for Clinton or Trump.  Given the size of Washington’s footprint in the world, this was only to be expected.

Some of those governments also made their preferences known.   But there was little they or the Russians could do to make their wishes come true.  They could hardly fund agitators and dissidents or field hostile NGOs the way the United States characteristically does – and recently did, for example, in Ukraine.

Israeli governments can and do interfere in American elections in materially significant ways, but they are the exception to the rule.  They are able to do what others cannot because Democrats and Republicans quake in fear before the Zionist lobbies, both Jewish and Christian, and because corporate media give them a free ride.

Anything the Russian government is alleged to have done, or anything it could do, is trivial in comparison.

Nevertheless, the entire political class now vilifies Russia; Republicans of the John McCain – Lindsey Graham variety being among the worst of all.  Even members of the so-called Freedom Caucus, the current iteration of the “isolationist” Tea Party, are on board.

It is practically a tenet of the American civil religion that there is no need to justify blaming Russians; they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise, a process that normally takes years.  Neither is there any need to specify precisely what they are guilty of.  As in Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial, it is a fool’s errand even to try to find out.  However, in this instance, for those who insist, there is a remotely plausible answer – one that is so lame it is only gestured towards, and never quite made explicit.

The general idea is that Russian spies, or “cutouts” working for Russian spies, or maybe Russian freelancers, hacked into Democratic National Committee (DNC) email accounts in order to obtain evidence of collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign.  Their purpose, presumably, was to sow discord between Clinton supporters and supporters of the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders, causing Sanders supporters to stay home in November, depressing turnout enough to assure a Trump victory.

Never mind that the evidence for the existence of this Putineque plot comes from a part of the government that has a reputation for mendacity and for politicizing intelligence, or that the purported plot served no purpose, inasmuch as anyone who had been paying attention already knew that Team Hillary, working in tandem with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others of her ilk had already put the fix in.

Never mind too that while the palaver about Russian meddling never ceases, no one so far has even tried to justify the claim that the leaked emails, or anything else the Russians might have hacked into, actually influenced voter behavior in a significant way.

The anti-Russian, anti-Putin story line is lame, and the motives of those who concocted it, and of those who continue to promote it, are pathetic.  Nevertheless, the whole sorry episode could ultimately work out for the best.

The focus is already shifting – away from real or imagined election meddling to the financial machinations of the Trump and Kushner families, and to their ties with Russian oligarchs.

This could hasten Trump’s demise.  To the extent that it does, then, by all means, bring it on.  With the Donald commanding the nuclear codes, the stakes could not be higher.

***

Those of us who used to think that Trump was just a sleaze ball with noxious instincts and the temperament of an insecure adolescent — and that his election was of interest only for putting the decrepitude of our two semi-established neoliberal political parties in relief — must now concede that, in his declining years, his story will be the stuff of which historical dramas could be composed.  Psychological dramas too – of the “he whom the gods would destroy, they first make crazy” kind.

This is not because Trump’s performance in office has revealed levels of complexity in his character that had previously gone unnoticed.  Quite to the contrary, with each passing day, fresh evidence of his shallowness and unfitness to serve exceeds even his most extreme critics’ expectations.

What makes the Trump presidency drama-worthy are the problems he has brought upon himself by rattling the cages of his (ostensible) subordinates in the deep state.

Because of this, it is not only the intelligence community that has it in for him.  Foreign policy elites,  “defense intellectuals,” influential think tank experts (including some with impeccable rightwing credentials), “liberal” media personalities, academics of all persuasions, and some sectors of the Republican establishment would like him gone as well.

Of course, the Democratic Party is also against him, though this hardly matters because its Pelosi-Schumer, (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) wing is currently irrelevant; and because, for all practical purposes, its Sanders–Warren (soft left, “Our Revolution”) wing is too.  The party’s left flank is only good for defusing the radical aspirations of the party’s rank and file, and for keeping potential defectors to third party candidates on board.

The fact that Hillary Clinton, of all people, could get away with saying that she is part of the “resistance” to Trump and Trumpism establishes, beyond any reasonable doubt, just how morally and politically bankrupt the Democratic Party has become.

But as long as Republicans think they can get something for themselves out of his presidency, they will stand by him, and he will survive.

It is far from obvious, though, that the Republican establishment will stay on board for much longer – in view of the forces assembling against him.  The enemies Trump has made have ample means, motives and opportunities for bringing him down; and mainstream Republicans have ample reasons for aligning with them.

Thus an otherwise unremarkable creature of the darker corners of the New York business world and of the tabloids and reality TV effectively morphed into a tragi-comic figure in a drama that pits sad and desperate people, many of them in thrall to “the darker angels” of human nature, against the entirety of the “power elite.”

This is a contest that Trump would surely lose even if he could keep the majority of his supporters on board.  But, of course, he cannot do that indefinitely.  Indeed, his time is already running out.

It would be different if he really were a fascist, as many ahistorical and apolitical leftists nowadays claim.   Then he would have an ideologically driven movement behind him, with institutions in place capable of shaping and sustaining a collective struggle.

He would also have the backing of powerful sectors of a capitalist class at war with unions, political parties, and civil society organizations that represent workers’ interests.  Needless to say, there isn’t much of that left in the Land of the Free and, in any case, America’s captains of industry and finance would be among the last to look to Trump for salvation.

All the poor bastard has going for him is a belligerent attitude and an inclination to bully the weak and defenseless.  This earns him enthusiastic support from nativists, racists, Islamophobes, misogynists, and assorted “alt-right” miscreants.

But most of the people who are still standing by their man are not like them; they are just disempowered, alienated, mainly rural, mainly male, and mainly long in the tooth white voters.

They like the way Trump pisses off the so-called elites, but, even so, those off-the-wall belligerent tweets of his are bound to seem old, even to them, before too much more time flies by.

Indeed, once his supporters finally face up to the fact that he has been conning them from Day One, he would be well advised to jump onto the next train headed out of town.

Many of them surely know this at some level.  It is therefore odd that more of them have not already defected.   For the time being, the defectors comprise just a trickle.  How long can it be, though, before the trickle turns into a flood?

Before the 2016 election, Trump’s con had two principal foci.  There was, first of all, the idea that he would somehow improve workers’ material conditions by restoring a functional equivalent of the kind of capitalism that actually did improve the lot of most white and some black workers for three decades after World War II.

But Trump’s blather about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” and his public relations gimmicks that save a handful of jobs for a while by giving away the store to “job creators,” the favored term nowadays for capitalist exploiters, has as much chance of reversing fifty years of economic stagnation for the vast majority — and egregious enrichment for the very few — as necromancers have of raising the dead.

For many Trump voters, a comparatively benign version of white rural identity politics effectively blocked a gnawing, low-key awareness that they were being had.  It even made some of them not care.  However now that it is becoming painfully obvious that Trump and his minions are greater enemies of income and wealth equality even than Clinton and hers, not caring has become harder than it used to be.

Trump assumed the role of tribune of “the forgotten man” – not in the real world, of course, but in the con he was playing.   Hillary was more honest.  She could care less about workers too, and she showed it.  She thought, like other Democrats in recent decades, that she could get away with malignly neglecting white workers because they had nowhere else to go, and because nobody called them on it.  Nobody, that is, before Trump.

In any case, it would be fair to say that most Trump voters in 2016 did not so much vote for Trump as against Clinton and the “ism” associated with her and her husband’s name.

They voted against a politics that treats people like them with contempt – at the same time that its practitioners serve Wall Street and corporate America slavishly.

They voted against goody-goodies who salve their consciences by self-righteously – and, for the most part, ineffectively — pandering to the identity concerns of sexual minorities and persons of color, leaving workers without genuine political support.

Trump worked his con by conjuring up nostalgia for an imaginary past in which today’s forgotten men (and women), though not well off by any means, were at least better off than the parvenu constituencies that Hillary seemed to favor.

Of course, white skin privilege is alive and well, and straight males still rule the roost.  But what the people who rallied to Trump saw was only that people like them weren’t getting any respect from Democrats who need their votes to win, but who can’t be bothered actually to work for, much less earn, them.

Trump knew instinctively how to take advantage of this unfortunate, and unnecessary, state of affairs.  And although it is, and always has been, obvious that his contempt for workers of all hues is second to none, he is a good enough conman to fool a lot of people, and to keep many of them still fooled even at this late date.

Shame on them if, even still, they don’t realize that restoring the dignity and self-respect of people in his targeted demographic is not what Trump is about.   He is about enriching himself and favored family members and cronies, and glorifying the Great Man that he takes himself to be.

“Make America Great Again” comes down to making America a laughing stock.  Whoever does not see this is not just willfully blind, but stubborn beyond belief.

It is possible, of course, that Trump actually believes his con.   He is certainly obtuse enough, and his hubris knows no bounds.

Thus, after vanquishing Republicans in last year’s primaries and Democrats in the general election, Trump seems to have given his inveterate egotism and his lack of self-awareness free rein, concluding that he could say and do anything, and that nobody, certainly nobody in the executive branch of the government, could stop him.

He is wrong.   He probably doesn’t know it yet, but he has already been stopped; his presidency is toast.  So is he.  It would take a miracle for him to serve out his term.

Trump seems to have thought that he could bring the CIA and the others down a notch; that he could insult and antagonize them with impunity – not because he is exceptionally brave; just exceptionally stupid.  He was, and is, playing with fire; and he will come to regret it.

This is not how it is supposed to happen in a democracy, even one as remote from the ideals envisioned by democratic theorists as ours.  What is going on now bodes ill for the future of our republic and for its political culture.  This is why it does matter how Trump goes.

But so long as Trump’s tiny hands control America’s nuclear arsenal, it matters even more that he be gone – no matter how that comes to pass.

***

We hold elections for president every four years.  Those elections are theoretically competitive and reasonably free and fair.  However, no one could honestly claim that they express the will of the people, as justifying theories of democratic institutions say they should.  This is true in other so-called democracies too, but the American case is extreme.

The inordinate role money plays in a system overseen by courts that identify “campaign contributions” with free speech accounts for much of the difference.  But this is not the only relevant factor.

In most countries, ballot access is easy.  In the United States, it is, for all practical purposes, guaranteed for Democrats and Republicans, but difficult, if not impossible, for “third” parties and independents.

Voting rights too are poorly secured and always in jeopardy.  For nearly a hundred years, adult American citizens, regardless of race or gender, have had the right to vote – in theory. In practice, however, African Americans and other persons of color were disenfranchised across the South and elsewhere until the mid-1960s.

Lately, Republican governors and state legislatures have been trying, with some success, to push the clock back to where it was half a century ago.  Their efforts precede the eruption of the Trump phenomenon, but meld naturally into Trumpian understandings of “make America great again.”

And, as if all that wasn’t already bad enough, in America, we don’t elect presidents directly; an Electoral College does that.

That antiquated institution is comprised of individuals selected on an ad hoc basis by the political parties, state-by-state, with each state getting as many electors as it has representatives in Congress and the Senate, a rule that accords greater influence to less populated and therefore mainly rural states than to states with larger, more urban populations.  Almost without exception, states assign electors on a winner-take-all basis.  Majorities are not required; the candidate with the most votes wins.

In recent elections, only about a dozen states have been competitive.   In the others, electors might as well have been assigned months or even years before the election was held.  Therefore most voters are effectively, though not officially, disenfranchised.  They can pile on votes for the preordained winner or cast protest votes for losing candidates, but their effect on the election’s outcome is nil.

Worst of all, though, the authors of our Constitution saw to it that it is all but impossible to get rid of a president once he (or theoretically she) is elected.  All we can do is wait four years for the next electoral cycle to come around.

This is truly exceptional for democracies around the world, or, for that matter, for most state governments within the United States.  Americans are stuck with the presidents they elect.  No backsies!

There is, of course, the possibility of impeachment for treason or bribery or other  “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a category for which there is no identifiable legal standard – though liberal media pundits assure us that Trump-style obstruction of justice fits the bill.  An impeached President is then tried in the Senate and, if convicted, deposed.

With the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967, the Vice President and cabinet can also remove a president whom they deem unable to carry out his (or her) duties.

No President has ever been removed from office in these ways; they are almost impossible to implement.  Richard Nixon probably would have been the first and only one, had he not resigned before the full House could vote to impeach him.   Only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton had Senate trials.  They were both victims of political circuses; and, in the end, neither was deposed.   Compared to the very real crimes against peace and humanity that they and other presidents have committed, the impeachment charges brought against them that were trivial.

There are also imaginary scenarios in which Trump would resign of his own free will.   How long can it be, after all, before his brand starts to suffer in ways that affect one of the very few things he truly does care about — his bottom line?

But because Trump is so full of himself and so dense, it is also possible that before lucidity overtakes him, the Republican leadership will come to the realization that they would be better off without him.   If and when they do, they will find that there are scores of impeachable offenses that they could trot out.

The important point though, is that, short of a real (not Sanders-style) revolution, which is a hundred times less likely than Trump’s victory was, we don’t then get to hold new elections.  Our founders saw to that.  Not only did they make it almost impossible to unseat a living president, they made it literally impossible to undo the results of an election gone sour.

And so, as remarked, if and when we lose Trump, will get Mike Pence in his stead.

That should make the most retrograde Republicans happy; Pence is one of their own, as bona fide a reactionary as any in the Republican stable.

Next in line, should Pence crap out, is House Speaker Paul Ryan.  He may be even worse.

Moreover, Cabinet Secretaries and other high level officials serve at the President’s pleasure.  The ones Trump put in place, probably on the advice of Pence and Ryan and other GOP functionaries, are among the most incompetent and reactionary in American history.

Some were chosen to “deconstruct” the government; that is, to make sure that money that could be put to useful purposes goes instead to the repressive state apparatus and the military, the forces of “order” and “defense.”

Others are there to fulfill such longtime Republican goals as deregulating everything that moves, destroying public education, and bringing on ecological catastrophes.

Would Pence or Ryan change any of that?  Not likely.

What, then, would be gained by impeaching Trump?  On the face of it, not much.

Quite to the contrary, something that ought to be much prized in periods when the hard Right is ascendant would be lost: a government too beleaguered to get much done.

With each news cycle bringing new scandals and fresh evidence of government dysfunction, the so-called Republican agenda, essentially a wish list for reactionaries, would be stymied at every turn.

In the absence of a genuine opposition, and with the founders’ damnable “no backsies rule” in effect, it couldn’t get better than that.

Also, with Trump in charge, there is not a world leader anywhere foolish enough really to trust the United States.  There are signs now that even the Saudis and the Israelis are concerned.

This should drive a wedge between longstanding American allies and Uncle Sam – something that would be good for them, and good for us in the midst of the economic and political turbulence of the present period.

The best thing that could happen for the American people would be an end to American world domination.

In a better possible world, wiser statesmen than any we have seen for a while would now be engaged in the task of dismantling the empire, and restoring the (small-r) republic we are supposed to be.

A graceful, well thought-out exit strategy, guided by the understanding that, like a better world, a softer landing is possible, would of course be infinitely preferable to the spectacle of the whole world coming to realize that the President of the United States is an asshole.

That isn’t exactly a wise exit strategy, but it could turn into a way out.

Therefore, with stalemate being the best of all (constitutionally) possible political outcomes, and with American hegemony in crisis thanks to Trumpian malfeasance, why even think of removing him from office?

There are two reasons why.

The less compelling of the two is that Trump’s presence on the national stage coarsens our politics in ways that make life worse for everybody, but especially for members of populations Trump denigrates and threatens.

Lacking policy ideas of his own, Trump is letting the most retrograde Republicans have their way.  Pence or Ryan would be no better – if anything, they would be worse because they are bona fide reactionaries.

But at least they respect Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms enough to abide by the idea that persons living in the United States, no matter who or what they are, ought at least to be able to live free from fear.

Trump has no time for that part of the social contract when and if it gets in the way of directing riches and glory his way.

The more compelling reason is the one that the nefarious Condoleezza Rice invoked disingenuously to sell the American people on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Iraq War.  She said that the first undeniable evidence of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal could well come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Needless to say, she knew, or ought to have known, that the Iraqis had no WMDs, much less nuclear weapons.  She ought also to have known that even Saddam Hussein had the sense he was born with.  That could hardly be said of the Donald, who controls WMDs beyond measure, and whose bombs could destroy the world many times over.

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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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