A Principle to Organize Around this Trumpian Winter: Plunder the Pentagon and Leave “Entitlements” Alone

One has to hand it to Donald Trump.  Not just any repellent real estate mogul and reality television personality could become an even worse President than George W. Bush.

Bush set never-ending wars in motion effectively breaking the greater Middle East.   He is responsible for more murder and mayhem than any president since Richard Nixon.  This would include Trump — so far.  He was also no slouch when it came to undermining basic rights and liberties.

He helped precipitate the most disastrous economic crisis in eight decades; and, on global warming, along with nuclear war the greatest threat of all to humankind, the best he could do was kick the can down the road.

Nevertheless, Trump is worse.

Moving the Doomsday Clock closer to Midnight is one reason why.

This was a concern with Hillary Clinton too.  Not content with wars against enemies that couldn’t fight back, she and her liberal imperialist co-thinkers were itching to antagonize “adversaries” that, as it happened, actually were armed with weapons of mass destruction.

They can’t give up on that either.  Watch MSNBC or CNN and see them go at it.

Even so, Trump is a clearer and more present danger – notwithstanding whatever he has going with Russian mobsters, oligarchs and Vladimir Putin.  For all her many faults, Clinton’s hand is steady; Trump could end the world “as we know it” (as they say in Clintonese) in a fit of pique.

Another reason why Trump is worse is that there was more freedom from fear under Bush.  Everyone who is not insane, long in the tooth, white as snow, and Christian — or, if Jewish, not as ardent an ethnocrat as Sheldon Adelson or Trump’s in-laws, the Kushners – knows this well.

The vast majority of workers of all ages, faiths and hues are coming to realize it too. Hispanics and Muslims have so far born the brunt, along with Blacks whose lives don’t matter to the authorities.  But everyone who is not filthy rich or hopelessly benighted is, and surely must feel, less free from fear than before.

To cut taxes for himself and others of his class, Trump had the support of venal Republican legislators in the House and Senate.  For all the other ways he has made the world worse, he has had to rely on dunces who make even Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell look good — cartoon-character cabinet secretaries and troglodyte regulators.  So little to work with, and yet so much harm!  We have to hand it to him for that.

No other American president would have dared badmouth (or bad tweet) the pillars of the national security state to the extent that Trump has.  They all believed, quite reasonably, that if they did, their days would be numbered.  Yet, with no more wind in his sails than the mindless blowhards at Fox News and Breitbart can provide, the Donald tweets on.   For this too, he merits grudging admiration.

At first, the CIA was his main target.  Lately, though, with the law closing in on him for high crimes and misdemeanors and for who knows what financial shenanigans, he has ratcheted up attacks on the FBI.

What an odd enemy for a law and order president pushing a reactionary agenda; J. Edgar Hoover must be spinning in his grave.  Beyond its role as a national police force, the FBI’s mission has always been to stifle domestic dissent; its targets coming mainly from the left.  There are exceptions, of course, but, for the most part, reactionaries have been FBI cheerleaders, not adversaries.

Better them for an enemy, though, than the CIA.  The FBI goes after its victims’ livelihoods and does its best to drive them to despair.  The CIA kills – often in ways such that no one is the wiser.  Even presidents can fall into its crosshairs.  If Trump had any sense, he would never have antagonized them.  But, of course, he has proven definitively over the past eleven months that he doesn’t even have the sense he was born with.

So far, though, the Donald gets up every morning, in full possession of such faculties as he has, turns on Fox News, and tweets away to his heart’s content.  Has he beaten off the assassins?  Fidel Castro did, but the Donald is no Fidel.  Time will tell.

Trump is widely, deeply, and justifiably despised, but this hardly matters at least in the short run.    Because our institutions at the national level are less (small-d) democratic than their counterparts in other countries and, for that matter, in most American states, it is almost impossible to dispatch him in constitutionally prescribed ways.

There is the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, but for that to work, Trump’s cabinet and Vice President would have to declare him unable to serve.  And there is impeachment.  I wouldn’t hold my breath on either count.

Moreover, Trump’s removal from office would not be an unmixed blessing.  In some respects, his successor, Mike Pence, is worse.

Pence is a bona fide reactionary, where Trump is a rank opportunist; and he is a committed theocrat, where, on matters pertaining to the alleged divinity, Trump is just a garden-variety hypocrite. Worst of all, Pence is soporific, not scary.  An exhausted citizenry is therefore more likely to acquiesce in his efforts to reverse progress than in Trump’s.  This would be especially true if, as happened when Nixon removed himself from the scene, our “long national nightmare” would be considered over.

Not that there isn’t a lot of acquiescence already.  With a “resistance” like the one we now have, Trump could declare himself President-for-Life, and stand a good chance of getting away with it.

Must we therefore despair?  Maybe not.

Who knows what the CIA, or even the FBI, has in store for the Donald — or what will befall a man who exercises by parking his overweight septuagenarian carcass in a golf cart, and who doesn’t just think and act like a troubled adolescent boy, but also eats like one.

Also, if we are lucky, 2018 could bring charges of criminal activity too egregious even for co-dependent Republicans to ignore.  Or Trump could set off a constitutional crisis serious enough to cause Republican “donors” to cut and run.

It is even possible that the dullards who run the Republican Party will come to the conclusion that they would be better off jumping ship and turning to Pence, one of their own, than they would be standing by their man.

More likely than that, Trump could decide that he has had enough, and that he and his family (the part of it he cares about) would be happier if he were to resume his old life.  At least then he would be freer than he now is to assault and grope vulnerable women, and to “pal around” with mobsters (as Sarah Palin might say).  If he weren’t so blinded by vanity, he would have reached that conclusion long ago.

In short, while there is death – and life – there is at least some hope that events will cause the clear and present danger we now confront to subside.  What a relief that would be –even if, in other ways, it leaves us no better off.

Ideally, “we, the people” should rise up and kick the bastard out.   But the chances of that are worse than nil.  And so, the inevitable “what is to be done?” question comes down to asking how, if at all, the tribulations brought on by Trump’s presidency can be put to good use.

One way would be to expand the “conversation” on the left.  A good way to do that would to treat military spending, and the military itself, as the problem it is.


Transforming the Democratic Party for the better, turning it into a genuinely progressive and oppositional force, is almost certainly a hopeless task.

Democrats are generally less retrograde than Republicans, but they too do their donors’ bidding and are therefore basically on the same page.  They are not about to change their stripes or to get out of the way.

How much better it would be if we could leave that wretched party behind!  But this seems hopeless too, notwithstanding the fact that there is a perfectly serviceable alternative at hand.  The Green Party has an outstanding program, the Green New Deal, and an outstanding spokesperson, their 2016 presidential candidate, Jill Stein.

If ours were anything like what political philosophers have in mind when they speak of deliberative democracy – if, in other words, political influence were more equally distributed and if our lawmakers took it upon themselves to discover and then to do what is best for the whole community — the Greens would have won out over the duopoly’s neoliberal parties long ago.

But the Greens have been around seemingly forever, and gotten nowhere.  They couldn’t even break through into the mainstream in 2000, when they ran Ralph Nader.  In 2016, running against two god-awful candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, they did even worse.

Democrats and Republicans have seen to it, over many years, that their duopoly power would be too deeply entrenched to be dislodged.  Even so, it would be different if corporate media wouldn’t shut them out so thoroughly.  By ignoring them or ridiculing them on the rare occasions when ignoring them is not an option, they render them invisible.  When Jill Stein’s name comes up, the response of most Americans is “Jill who?”

Ironically, though, in the past few weeks, Clinton-inspired Democratic Party overreach has cast some publicity Stein’s and the Green Party’s way.  In their efforts to blame Russia, not their standard-bearer or themselves, for Trump, they have gone after Stein for attending a dinner sponsored by RT television in Moscow, where she was photographed sitting, along with many others, at a table where Michael Flynn and Vladimir Putin were also seated.

To Democrats, it hardly matters that the Greens, not the Russians, paid her expenses, and that she has been utterly transparent about why she was there.  It was to encourage a peace initiative in the Middle East that included a weapons embargo and a freeze on funding to states that were sponsoring terrorism and civil war in Syria.

Neither does it matter that, at the time of her trip, the US and Russia were ostensibly allies in Syria, and RT had yet to be villainized in American media.   RT is funded by the Russian government, but compared to MSNBC or CNN or NPR it is a paragon of objectivity and journalistic integrity.  Whoever doubts this need only tune in to any of its programs.

The feckless leadership of the Democratic Party could care less.  Democrats got a lot of mileage out of blaming Ralph Nader, not themselves or Al Gore, for George W. Bush.   As they prepare to quash militant dissidents in their ranks in time for the 2018 midterms, they are itching to do that again with Stein.

Unfortunately, they will probably get away with it; and, to make matters worse, they are far more likely to hold onto their party than their Republican counterparts are likely to hold onto theirs.

Therefore, in the near and middle term, Trumpism, with or without Trump, will continue to haunt and degrade our politics.   The likelihood of an electoral way out is only slightly better than that lightening will strike the Donald down.

Even talk of impeachment is wishful thinking.  It could happen, but it is more likely that Trump will be done in by the Big Macs and overcooked steaks he stuffs into his capacious gullet than by ballots cast by the roughly two thirds of the electorate that despises him.

But even if we cannot now rid the body politic of Trump and Trumpism, we can do something nearly as useful: we can shatter taboos that stand in the way of developing real alternatives to the maladies afflicting our political scene.

The most debilitating taboo of all is the one that gives the military generally, and the Pentagon budget in particular, a get-out-of-jail-free card that never expires.

Ironically, the Trump-GOP tax scam makes this a lot easier than it would otherwise be.  Deep tax cuts for the rich will cause deficits to rise, leading Republicans and many Democrats to call for austerity, the way neoliberals do.

This will make the kind of anti-austerity politics promoted by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren even more appealing than it already is.   But it will also make the policies they favor harder to implement.  Deficit hawks took one for the Donald last week; they are not about to do it again.

In the Reagan days, rightwing economists would argue that tax cuts would stimulate economic growth to such an extent that budget deficits would disappear.  They have been saying much the same ever since; and they have never been right.  Now they are saying it again.

The fact is, though, that, even with the rich robbing everyone else blind, there is still money available for financing policy initiatives that actually do people good, and for leaving so-called “entitlements” (like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) undisturbed.  It is hiding in plain view — in the Pentagon budget.


The conventional wisdom used to be that Social Security is the third rail of American politics; touch it and die.  There is still some truth in that contention, though not nearly as much as before Bill Clinton started laying the groundwork for doing a neoliberal number on the New Deal’s finest achievement.

Had he not been distracted by the brouhaha surrounding the exposure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he might actually have tried something along those lines.

Clinton was ahead of most Democrats in wanting to undo advances achieved eight decades ago, but, from Day One, there have been Republicans who have yearned to do precisely that.  Like Clinton, they don’t so much want to abolish as to privatize.  Their watchword seems to be: if you can’t beat them, then help capitalist donors make money off of them.

Trump’s victory in 2016 is a boon to privatizers everywhere.  If the Donald comes through with an infrastructure program, as he has said it would, count on it giving his capitalist buddies a license to mint money.

It is the same with Social Security and other entitlement programs.  Even before Trump, there was not nearly as much wariness of stepping onto the third rail as there used to be.  With Trump (or Pence) in office, Paul Ryan and others of is ilk are salivating at the prospect of bilking it and every other remaining New Deal – Great Society social program for all they are worth.

They are no longer afraid of stepping onto the third rail – not the old one, anyway.

“The old order changeth,” as Alfred Tennyson might say, but familiar ways of thinking die hard and the ambient political culture always exacts its toll.   Thus the Pentagon budget is, for all practical purposes, the third rail of American politics now.

The bought and paid for political class has long been on board, but public opinion is a different matter.  There was a time, still within living memory, when large swathes of the population identified more with slogans like “fuck the army” than “support the troops.”  That sense of things has never quite disappeared.

We can be grateful for that.

The conventional wisdom has it that the anti-war movement in the sixties and seventies disparaged GIs returning home from Vietnam.  Were any of them actually spat upon or is this an urban legend?  I have no idea.  What I can say, though, is that had there been a non-metaphorical way to spit upon the army itself  – and the navy, the air force and the marines – there were many who would have eagerly set about the task.

Needless to say, spitting on the army and the other services is not the same as spitting on the people in them.  They are victims too.

In the Vietnam era, troops were mostly conscripts – either directly or indirectly because potential draftees enlisted in one or another service to get a better (less onerous) deal.

Formal conscription ended during the Nixon administration.  Economic conscription never ended, however; there would be no “volunteer” army without it.

The military nowadays puts its conscripts in harm’s way – for reasons just as indefensible as in the Vietnam era.  It also hires mercenaries – partly because they come cheaper, but also because no political or military leader would dare restore the draft.

Technically, all service members now are volunteers, but this is not why, in some circles, not saying “thank you for your service” is considered poor etiquette.  That rankling nonsense has more to do with promoting positive attitudes towards the military than with treating soldiers and sailors with respect.

Our leaders are heavily invested in putting on a good public face.  They think that a high regard for the military is useful, perhaps even indispensable, for building and maintaining support for something they actually do care about deeply: American world domination.

Most Americans would be better off if the United States was not a global hegemon.  Most Americans don’t see it that way, however.  We Americans have “exceptionalism” drummed into our heads from the day we are born.

For breaking through that delusion, it would be useful, and perhaps indispensable, if opponents of Trump and Trumpism – and of the Clintonized Democratic Party – would make an issue of the connections between the Trump-GOP tax cuts, the bipartisan Pentagon budget, and the efforts of leading figures in both neoliberal parties to undermine our feeble, but vital, welfare state institutions.

To this end, the first order of business ought to be to expose how nonsensical the idea that our troops are fighting for our freedom or indeed doing anything worthwhile is.  This is a hoax, a cruel one.

Our leaders don’t put their troops in harm’s way for “us.”  They have them kill and maim, and be killed and maimed, death merchants and Pentagon grandees, and, lately, for Donald Trump.

They don’t even care about “winning.” When George Bush declared a global war on terror, that quaint twentieth century notion went out the window.

It would not be too far-fetched to say that the point now is not to win wars, but only to fight them – and not lose in ways that cannot be denied.

Indeed, we haven’t won a war in decades.  The elder Bush’s war against Iraq could be considered a victory, but only because its objectives – getting Iraq out of Kuwait – were limited.  A better way to think of it is as the first phase in a decade long war of attrition that took a fresh turn when Bush the younger and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, contrived a pretext for letting loose all the furies of hell upon the Iraqi people.  That war then went on for years.  It would even be fair to say that it never really ended and that it effectively continues to this day.

America’s only clear victories since World War II came back in the Reagan-Bush days when the American juggernaut prevailed over the mighty armies of Granada and Panama.

And yet our military fights on, whenever and wherever our leaders are able to use terrorism as an excuse, and the Pentagon spends unimaginable sums – on military hardware that has little to do with the fighting that actually takes place.

Part of the reason why is that our late capitalist economic system is so irrational that a high level of not just wasteful but outright pointless military spending is necessary to keep it going.

A more important reason is the nature of our military itself.  On this, see here.

All the money that is squandered, money that could otherwise be put to some useful purpose, hardly makes Americans safer.  If anything, just the opposite is the case.

Ultimately, this is an untenable state of affairs that will come to an end, one way or another, some day.

But we cannot get from here to there as long as the current flows, as it were, through the new third rail.

To organize against that is not just to take on Trump and his minions, but Democrats too.  On this, as on so much else, they are birds of a feather – a point any resistance movement worthy of the name ignores at its peril.








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).