Masha Gessen’s Warning Ignored as Dreams of Trumpeachment Dance in Our Heads

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

In an important commentary in The New York Review of Books last March, the anti-Putin Russian dissident Masha Gessen tried to warn U.S. liberals and progressives against putting their anti-Trump eggs in the Russia basket. Gessen felt that the Russiagate gambit would flop, given a lack of smoking-gun evidence and sufficient public interest, particularly among Republicans.

Gessen also worried that the Russia obsession was a deadly diversion from issues that ought to matter more to those claiming to oppose Trump in the name of democracy and the common good: racism, voter suppression (which may well have elected Trump, by the way), health care, plutocracy, police- and prison-state-ism, immigrant rights, economic exploitation and inequality, sexism and environmental ruination—you know, stuff like that.

Some of the politically engaged populace noticed the problem early on. According to the Washington political journal The Hill, last summer,

Frustrated Democrats hoping to elevate their election fortunes have a resounding message for party leaders: Stop talking so much about Russia. … Rank-and-file Democrats say the Russia-Trump narrative is simply a non-issue with district voters, who are much more worried about bread-and-butter economic concerns like jobs, wages and the cost of education and healthcare.

Here we are now, half a year later, careening into a dystopian holiday season. With his epically low approval rating of 32 percent, the orange-tinted bad grandpa in the Oval Office has won a viciously regressive tax bill that is widely rejected by the populace. The bill was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress whose current approval rating stands at 13 percent. It is a major legislative victory for the Republicans, a party whose approval rating fell to an all-time low of 29 percent at the end of September—a party that tried to send a child molester to the U.S. Senate.

The bill itself had an approval rating of 25 percent prior to passage.  No wonder. The arch-plutocratic tax “reform:

+ Drastically slashes the corporate tax rate without closing loopholes and deductions that allow the nation’s already cash-flush corporations to register their profits overseas and while doing nothing to switch corporations’ focus from maximizing short-term returns to investing in the creation of more jobs and higher wages.

+ Encourages corporations to invest in automation without offering any assistance to displaced workers.

+ All but eliminates the estate tax for the nation’s richest families.

+ Adds $1.5 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next decade, setting the stage for major slashes to the nation’s three biggest social insurance programs – Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare (they will be cut back in the name of “scaling back” so-called entitlement programs to “reduce the deficit.”)

+ Gives a major tax cut on profits multinational companies have stashed in offshore tax havens.

+ Cuts taxes on “pass through” businesses – a benefit that will be disproportionately enjoyed by the rich.

+ Makes it easier for rich people to classify themselves as businesses to get a tax break.

+ Increases the complexity of the tax code.

+ Tightens deductions for lower- and middle-income wage-earners.

+ Subsidizes private and religious schools, a boon to corporate school privatizers and the religious right.

+ Repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate, which will leave millions without health insurance and raise the cost of health insurance.

The GOP tax bill rewards the already rich and punishes the poor at “a time,” The Atlantic notes, “when post-tax corporate profits have hovered at a record-level high for the last seven years, and the 1 percent’s share of total income is higher than at any time in the second half of the 20th century.” It is what New York Magazine calls a huge windfall for the wealthiest Americans.”  It is “certain to exacerbate income [and wealth- P.S.] inequality at a time when the playing field is already heavily tilted to towards the rich.”

The New Gilded Age is slated to become yet more grotesquely unequal. As Trump might, it’s unbelievable. The nation’s economy is already so savagely unequal that the top 10th of its upper 1 percent owns as much wealth as its bottom 90 percent. Its corporations are raking in record profits. Half of its citizens have no savings. Half its population lives in or near poverty. Twenty-one percent of its children are growing up at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, and 41 million Americans—12.3 percent of the population—are “food insecure.” Not disparate enough!

The dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats, the party of “inauthentic opposition,” are hardly more popular than the radically regressive Republicans. Their approval mark was 37 percent in a recent CNN poll, their lowest level in 25 years. Pervasive scorn for the not-so leftmost of the two great capitalist parties is richly appropriate, given its continuing champion role as “the graveyard of social movements” and its long history of serving the nation’s financial, corporate and imperial ruling class. As the venerable progressive hero Ralph Nader recently told The Intercept:

“There are some people who think the Democratic Party can be reformed from within by changing the personnel. I say good luck to that. What’s happened in the last twenty years? They’ve gotten more entrenched. Get rid of Pelosi, you get Steny Hoyer. You get rid of Harry Reid, you get [Charles] Schumer. Good luck. … Unfortunately, to put it in one phrase, the Democrats are unable to defend the United States of America from the most vicious, ignorant, corporate-indentured, militaristic, anti-union, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-posterity [Republican Party] in history.”

Unable” or unwilling? As two sharp Canadian correspondents wrote me in response to Nader’s reflections:

‘Unable?’ No. Unwilling? Absolutely. The Democrats are ‘history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party,’ in the words of Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips. They are dive artists. This is what they do: provide the illusion of opposition. “They are unreformable. Workers need their own party” (Matt Gardner).

It is worse than merely being unable to defend working people from the Republicans. The Democrats are serially complicit in these multi-level attacks and the wars launched on the outside world (Gabriel Alan).

The plutocratic tax measure is a perfect example. As the GOP has moved forward aggressively with this horrific measure (Merry Christmas, One Percent!), the Inauthentic Opposition party, which essentially elected Trump last year (see this remarkable new volume), has continued to blather breathlessly about Russiagate while whining that Trump is not being more “bipartisan,” on the model of the malicious right-wing president Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax bill. MSNBC’s rambling conspiratorialist rock star Rachel Maddow has been a ferocious lioness on Russiagate and a whiny kitten on the American oligarchs’ arch-corporatist, hyper-regressive, and Putin-like tax bill.

Is she selling a pipedream?  Probably. A remarkable 47 percent of the electorate already supports impeachment less than a year into Trump’s first year. Great, but so what? There is an outside chance that the malignant quasi-fascist and gangster-capitalist tumor that is Donald Trump can be cut out this way. As liberal commentator Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, however, the odds of impeachment are poor. This is because “impeachment is less a legal process than a political one,” and the partisan alignment in Congress favors Trump in ways that appear unbreakable, given Republicans’ control of Congress and the dogged determination with which Trump’s white nationalist base is deplorably determined to stand by its man, no matter how low he sinks. As Beinart explains:

Passing articles of impeachment requires a majority of the House. Were such a vote held today—even if every Democrat voted yes—it would still require 22 Republicans. If Democrats take the House next fall, they could then pass articles of impeachment on their own. But ratifying those articles would require two-thirds of the Senate, which would probably require at least 15 Republican votes. …That kind of mass Republican defection has grown harder, not easier, to imagine. It’s grown harder because the last six months have demonstrated that GOP voters will stick with Trump despite his lunacy, and punish those Republican politicians who do not. … Among Republicans, Trump’s approval rating has held remarkably steady. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has not dipped below 79 percent since he took office. None of the revelations from Mueller’s investigation—nor any of the other outrageous things Trump has done—has significantly undermined his support among the GOP rank and file.

Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, the two Republican senators who have had the decency to openly challenge Trump, have lost much of their support from GOP voters in their states. They’ve also came around to Trump’s way of thinking on the tax bill.  Corker shifted with some help, no doubt, from a last minute provision structured to expand his own already considerable wealth – and with his eyes on the likely coming vacancy atop Trump’s State Department.

Also skeptical about prospects for Trumpeachment is Newsweek’s liberal political editor Dalia Lithwick. She finds it distinctly possible that the “rule of law” has become “a relic” in “our ongoing nightmare of creeping authoritarianism.” She says we may have to shed the “magical thinking” that tells us that the U.S. “is a nation of laws, not men” as we behold “the shocking norm-and-truth defiance of the GOP tax bill, the refusal of the GOP leadership to criticize or even comprehend the enormous violence done by Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets, the president’s staggering support for the candidacy of Roy Moore, the silent Republican collusion to the seating of demonstrably unfit judges, and the virulence of the White House’s attacks on the press.” As one Trump outrage has piled up on top of another this year, Lithwick reflects, “it’s become clear that absolutely nothing will persuade Trump supporters and Republicans in Congress that it’s time to disavow the president. Given that reality, it often feels like it wouldn’t be enough for Mueller to hand us a smoking gun and an indictment. What if they threw a conviction and nobody came?”

The Mueller investigation, Lithwick writes, has helped “numb us, and leads to a declining sense of agency. … So long as Mueller is working, filing documents, and convening grand juries,” we are lulled into believing that “nobody has to take to the streets.”

The chances of Mueller or some journalists coming up with blockbuster revelations powerful enough to shake Trump’s hold on the GOP and his white-nationalist base are low. Most Alabama Republicans still back alleged child molester Roy Moore. The great majority of conservatives get their news from the pro-Trump, right-wing media ecosystem, led by Fox News, talk radio and Breitbart. As Beinart notes, that media can be counted on to “downplay or distort virtually anything Mueller or the mainstream press discovers” and to depict any push for Trump’s removal as a provocative “ ‘left-wing coup.’ ” It seems more likely that Trump will be removed from the White House by his insane, cardiology-defying McDonald’s diet than through constitutional defenestration.

U.S. workers and citizens must beware of Maddow and her noxious (neo)“liberal” MSNBC ilk no less than Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity and their ugly white-nationalist tribe.  I watched Ms. Maddow for 20 minutes last Tuesday night. She seemed deliriously happy about the tax bill. It will elect Democrats to Congress, she thinks, so she was all smiles. The message was clear: democracy is winning because opinion polls are on the side of the good masters – the Democrats.  You can sleep sound, workers and citizens. you’ll get your glorious input for two minutes in a voting both on the first Tuesday of November 2018. And they’ll let you vote again on the first Tuesday of November in 2020! It’s going to be okay.  Party on. Sleep on. Stay off the streets.

Meanwhile, you can count on Rachel et al. running 24/7 to push the enchanted vision of Trumpeachment.

Ms. Maddow’s annual salary is $7 million.  Her net worth is a reported $20 million.  The tax bill has given her more reasons to smile than she may let on.  My last words of the year on MSNBC’s top draw go to a correspondent from Detroit:

Rachel Maddow gets paid more money in a single day than most Americans make in a year. She lies to us about Russia and scaremongers us into supporting her plutocrat bosses. She called Roger Ailes her mentor. She spends an obscene amount of time attacking the Green Party and people applaud her for it. Her long, rambling conspiratorial tirades would make Glenn Beck blush. If the American people weren’t so ferociously mind fucked by corporate media psy-ops – nobody would ever watch her much less consider her heroic. She is emblematic of how little actual opposition there is to the corporate monster eviscerating the commons.

To which I can only say, damn. And wow.

It’s Christmas time – a season for magical thinking.  So let us sing along with that great liberal Russophobe Rachel Mad Dog Maddow: on Dasher, on Dancer, on Rachel, on Mueller!  Let us all sleep snug in our beds, while dreams of Trumpeachment dance in our heads.

Perhaps MSNBC would like to air a Christmas special starring Vladimir Putin as The Grinch Who Stole Our Glorious Democracy?

Help Street writing here.

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