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Democrats Have Much to Learn and the Odious Have Much to Teach Them

Photo by Steve Snodgrass | CC BY 2.0

It was clear from the moment Donald Trump was elected president that 2017 would go down in history as one of the worst years ever in American politics.

It is now ending on an even worse note: with the president wandering off into dangerous non compos mentis territory as the consequences of his incompetence become increasingly manifest, and as the law closes in on him, his family, and the scoundrels who run the government for him.

Then there are the House and Senate Republicans outdoing even themselves in depraved indifference to the public good.

And there are their Democratic rivals, pusillanimous as ever, self-righteously rebranding themselves as defenders of sexual propriety and virtue.

Their idea, it seems, is to enhance their electoral prospects in next year’s midterm elections.  For that, they would be better off  — not morally, of course, but in the narrow, political sense that matters to them – learning a thing or two from Trump and the Republicans.

Both teach essentially the same lesson: that only losers care about “truth, justice, and the American way”; that it’s every man for himself; that common decency is for sissies; that real men revel in ignorance; and that, unless there is some percentage in it, only a fool would give a sucker an even break.   The aggressively masculine idiom is appropriate because, while women are included in the Trump-Republican worldview, they are basically just along for the ride.

There is no doubt about it: they are an odious lot.  Nevertheless, they have won a lot of elections lately; evidently, they are on to something.

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans are already on the same page ideologically.   But where Republicans are mean sons of bitches (with the occasional bitch thrown in), Democrats are goody-goodies.   This wouldn’t matter so much if they were on a sounder, more progressive page ideologically.  But until that day comes, they would be well advised to adopt personae more in the Trump-Republican mold.

Nearly two-thirds of the electorate loathes Trump and the Republicans and many of those who don’t realize, at some level, that they are being played.  Therefore, in a country that holds generally “free and fair” competitive elections, Trump and the party he nominally leads are playing with a weak hand.

They are also on the wrong side of demography, and their altright and pseudo-intellectual ideas men (on this too, gendered language is appropriate) are pathetic.  But with opponents determined to be prim and proper and to stay on what they consider the high road, they will remain able to do impressively well for themselves.

Republican vileness is by no means all Trump’s fault.  One would have to be middle aged or older to recall a time when there were even just a few Republicans in the House or Senate who weren’t vile.  During the Obama years, the party ratcheted up its vileness quotient by perfecting an obstructionist style so extreme as to be almost sublime.  There was little room to degenerate further, but somehow they have managed to become worse still by cozying up to Trump.  The Donald has that effect.

Following his lead, they now unabashedly appeal to all that is dark and base in human nature as they deepen their determination to serve the fraction of “the donor class” that is most in thrall to the cardinal sin of greed.

This works for them; they get their way more often than not.  We have an increasingly rightwing judiciary and an increasingly enfeebled regulatory system to prove it.

If they get their tax scam through, we may soon be able to add yet more economic inequality and its inevitable consequence, the decline or demise of some of the most cherished remnants of the New Deal – Great Society settlement to the list.

No wonder Republican donors’ hearts are a flutter.  Unless the handful of “moderate” Republican Senators who kept Trump and the others from finishing off Obamacare wise up in time, those donors will soon be even more egregiously enriched than they already are, while the rest of us will be saying adieu to the few state institutions we have that make peoples’ lives better

Republican politicians who do the donors’ bidding are Robin Hoods in reverse – stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

Because I grew up listening to Mel Brooks’ two thousand year old man, I cannot resist saying, at this point, that Robin Hood did nothing of the sort; that his story was public relations hype.  The two thousand year old man knows, he was there, and he says that Robin Hood stole from everybody and kept everything.  That would be a suitable  inscription for Donald Trump’s tombstone.

One would think that, in a duopoly party system like ours, Democrats, being ostensibly less hostile to the interests of the vast majority of voters, would be wiping the floor with Republicans.  That could happen in 2018.  If it does, though, chances are that Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors will have more to do with it than revulsion at GOP policies.

Rightwing media that misinform and dumb down are part of the reason why.  They do their foul work well.

But the best efforts of even the most despicable promoters of ignorance would amount to very little if Democrats would fight back with anything like the obduracy that has become second nature to the GOP.

The problem is not just that Democrats are fraidy cats who, as Robert Frost said of liberals generally, won’t take their own side in an argument.  An arguably greater problem is that they evince an air of fatuous goody-goodyness that serves only to distract attention away from the harms caused by the nefarious policies both parties favor.

Thus, in 2016, they presented themselves as the party of everyone not white and heterosexual, or young and feminist.

To be sure, the leaders of what remains of the labor movement were behind them, supplying Democrats with campaign foot soldiers and with all the money they could spare – in return for vague and worthless promises.  But few, if any, working class people, black, brown, or white, unionized or not, were able to work up any enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton or for most other down-ticket Democrats.

On the other hand, lots of people had no problem working up hostility to Clinton and others like her – not just in so-called “red” states, but throughout most of the country’s rural, urban and suburban areas.

The feeling was mutual.  And so the election came down to a contest between goody-goodies and “deplorables.”  Look where that got us!

With the 2018 midterm election season now gearing up, the words of the villainous Ronald Reagan again ring true: “here we go again.”

There may still be a chance that Democrats will wise up in time.  The way their leaders dumped Al Franken without even a semblance of due process for – allegedly – acting like a jerk with several women not in his employ could be the final straw.  If  Democrats weren’t jerks themselves, it surely would be.

It might even dawn on them that being a jerk was part of Franken’s shtick in his comedian days; that it may also be part of his personality; and that even in this “me too” moment, it would not be unreasonable to view these factors as mitigating circumstances. Even those who deem his misbehavior inexcusable ought at least to demand due process for him and for everyone else.  Don’t count on it, though.  It is more likely that the way leading Democrats turned on him is a harbinger of where “the Chuck (Schumer) and Nancy (Pelosi) show” would like to take us from here.

If it is, even without Hillary leading the charge, and with Trump and the vilest of the vile in the House and Senate for opponents, the Democratic Party might just somehow manage to defeat itself again.

***

In short, Schumer and Pelosi and the rest could learn a lot from Trump and the Republicans — about how to stick up for themselves and how, by doing so, to get their way.  They could learn that it can be wise sometimes to take to heart the old adage: that nice guys finish last.

They could also benefit from following another odious example — the one set by the government of Israel and the larger Zionist movement.  Israel really does meddle in our elections; and Congress and the mainstream media are, for all practical purposes, in its thrall.  Moreover, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is easily as apt a target for demonization as Vladimir Putin.

But there is something to be learned from them even so: that, if you want to get your way – the jury is out on whether Democrats actually do – you can’t be too picky about the people you work with.  By enlisting Christian Zionists to their cause, Jewish Zionists have been demonstrating the efficacy of this teaching for four decades or more.

Were it not for Christian Zionists in the British government, the rulers of Mandate Palestine would not have been nearly as friendly to the idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine as they were throughout most of the inter-war period.

But it was not until some three decades after the founding of the state of Israel that the Israeli Right, during the premiership of Menachem Begin, fully embraced Christian Zionism, bringing the rest of the Zionist movement, more or less reluctantly, on board.

For the most part, Zionism used to be a secular cultural and political movement.  Many of the founders of the state of Israel were not even privately religious.

But to forge the national identity they aimed to establish, they could not dispense with Judaism altogether.  Inasmuch as the world’s Jews were joined together by their religion and little else, there was no other remotely suitable basis for forging a Jewish national community.

This was a problem at first because the Jewish religion, in both its orthodox and Reform versions, opposed political Zionism.  Most orthodox Jews accepted the Talmudic injunction, that there should be no mass “return” to the Promised Land until the Messiah comes to deliver on that promise.  Reform Jews, being proponents of liberal religion, regarded matters of faith and practice, for themselves and others, as matters of private conscience only.

These convictions were never universally accepted – in the United States, for example, Conservative Judaism has always had a Zionist inflection — and even in orthodox and Reform circles, doctrinal commitments of a non- or anti-Zionist nature were wearing thin long before the establishment of the Jewish state.

This was happening, moreover, at a time when God seemed to be in His (again, the pronoun is apt) death throes.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, outside hopelessly benighted circles, Jewish identity came to have more to do with nationalism than with Judaism itself.  Zionism hijacked Judaism.

But even in well-educated and comparatively enlightened circles, you can’t keep an old time religion down.  Thus, in the aftermath of the 1967 War, when the entirety of Mandate Palestine and then some fell into Israeli hands, the modus vivendi that had existed between Jewish nationalism and the Jewish religion began to turn into a more open embrace.

Reform Jews effectively dropped their principled objections to the Zionist project, and many orthodox Jews threw in the towel as well.  Some of them did more than that.  Before the seventies, only marginal orthodox communities endorsed secular Zionist goals; nowadays, among the settlers and in large swathes of Jewish Israeli society, a multi-faceted “national religious” movement has become a major political force.

The American equivalent is the “modern orthodoxy” of Jared Kushner and the observant Trump cronies currently charged by the Donald with getting Israelis and Palestinians to make an “artful” deal.  The likelihood that those ignoramuses can do anything like that is is about the same as the likelihood that the Trump-Republican tax cut will “make America great again.”

What is likely is that Israel will accelerate the ethnic cleansing of Palestine – completing the transformation of a Herrenvolk democracy into a full-fledged Apartheid state.  To do that, they will need the unbridled support of the United States.  Therefore, as Begin realized decades ago, they need to humor Christian Zionists; to make nice with them.

No matter that those godly folk believe that the Zionist project is part of an End Times scenario in which Christians like them are raptured away, while Jews (and Muslims and everybody else) are cast into Hell for all eternity.  Christian Zionists are an important part of the Trump base.  In the view of most Jewish Zionists, this makes them more important than ever for advancing the Zionist cause.

That cause remains as nationalistic, and therefore as secular, as ever.  The goal is to rule over as much of Mandate Palestine as they can get away with, ideally all of it, and to populate it as much as possible with Jews.

Religious Jews don’t much like it, but, insofar as they accept Zionist goals, even they don’t insist that religious convictions are necessary for membership in the Jewish nation.  For all Zionists, Jews don’t have to hold any particular beliefs, even atheists are OK, and they don’t have to observe Jewish law.  For anti-Semites and Zionists alike, “Jew” is an ethnic designation first and foremost, not a religious one.

Thus theological affinities have almost nothing to do with the fondness Jewish Zionists evince towards their Christian counterparts.  What explains that is sheer, unadulterated opportunism.

Even so, Zionists of all stripes – before, during and after the Begin era – have always thought, just as everyone with even a smidgen of common sense cannot help but think, that Christian Zionists give hokum a bad name.

However, if some good can come to Israel from it, they are fine with it.  Amen.

From where they stand, some good does come from it – now more than ever — because in Trump’s America, on matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine, Christian Zionists call the shots.

Thus Christian Zionists seemingly had more to do with the timing of Trump’s untimely, and recklessly dangerous, “proclamation” about moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, than Jewish Zionists did.

It is not that American Jews don’t care; many, though probably not most, do.  And among those who do care, there are alarmingly many plutocrats who are not shy about pouring serious money into the cause – people like the Kushners and, of course, Sheldon Adelson.  But, on this one, Christian Zionists were the driving force.

Netanyahu doesn’t mind.  To a degree that Begin would never have countenanced, the man has no shame.  Neither do most Israeli politicians these days.

Christian Zionists want to bring on Armageddon; Netanyahu’s goals are nominally less insane.  But if to achieve them, he has to make common cause with people who long for the day when Jews – along with Muslims and everyone else who does not accept Jesus — are cast forever into Hell, it hardly matters whose thinking is more unsound.

Even so, it would not be an entirely bad thing, in this case too, were the vile to lead the less vile; in other words, for Democrats, like contemporary Zionists, to be less persnickety about whom they welcome on board.

***

In a better possible world, the Democratic Party would long ago have been given the boot with the full support not just of left-leaning Democratic voters, but of everyone less retrograde than Marco Rubio or Lindsey Graham and less loathsome than Ted Cruz.

In the actual world, however, it may be that the only alternative to hopelessness is to struggle within the carapace of that wretched party – trying, perhaps in vain, to make it a less hopeless case.

To that end, it can’t hurt to learn from the odious – not by showing sympathy for the devil, but by sometimes following the lead of those that do.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called “a foolish consistency…the hobgoblin of little minds.”  A foolish moral fastidiousness is the hobgoblin of the little minds of feckless Democrats.

For all their moral and intellectual failings, even Trump and his Republican minions, and Netanyahu and his co-thinkers, are better opportunists than that.

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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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