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Trump After Bannon: What Next?

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Photo by Michael Vadon | CC BY 2.0

When Donald Trump became president, days became dog years – except that the changes have been more chaotic and less predictable.

What seems likely one day seems out of the question the next.  Lately, the pace and the level of chaos has actually picked up.  Predicting what will come next is therefore an even riskier business than it was a few months or even weeks ago.

Even so, Steve Bannon’s claim that there is roughly one chance in three that Trump will resign or that he will be impeached or that his Vice President and cabinet secretaries will depose him by activating the Twenty-fifth Amendment is as good a guess as any.

Bannon is, for the time being, persona non grata in Trumpland.  For this, everyone this side of the Tea Party is pleased.  They should savor the moment.

Trump’s deposed advisor is plainly a vile human being, but that is not why he stood out.  Everybody in Trumpland is vile.  The difference is that none of the others have functioning brains.   Because Bannon does, the chances are a lot better than one in three that, before long, he and the Donald will make up.  If Trump can use him, he will welcome him back.

Bannon is smarter than Trump and other Trumpians, but he is far from smart by normal standards, and he is anything but infallible.  His one chance in three prediction already seems a tad dated.

Looking ahead at a six to ten month time horizon, I’d give slightly better odds than Bannon did on resignation.  I say this because, at this point, if Trump is even minimally self-aware and capable of thinking a step ahead, his first order of business would be to cut his losses by salvaging what he can of his brand.  This would also enable him to resume the nouveau riche, super-crude, grope-any-woman-he-wants lifestyle he led before lightening struck.  It’s a no brainer.

Of course, anything could happen if grounds for major criminal indictments come down this spring or summer; or if, with the midterm elections approaching, it looks like the GOP is about to self-destruct to a degree that would cause its “donors” (ignoble, hyper-rich capitalist paymasters) to stop throwing good money after bad.

It has come to that!  A matter of enormous consequence for the whole world depends on the thoughts fleeting through what there is of the Donald’s mind and on the calculations of the leaders of the more odious of our two semi-established, neoliberal political parties.  With the rules of the game being what they are, and with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, only Republicans can force Trump out.

It is not necessary to hold those Republican leaders in any higher regard than they deserve to be confident that they understand that were Trump gone, replaced by the Vice President as the Constitution requires, they could do a lot more for their donors and for themselves, in both the short and long term.

Why stick with a “stable genius” who is only good for rabble rousing and tweeting up a storm when Mike Pence, one of their own, could be in charge?  Being less scary – Pence was born without a personality — opposition to their machinations would diminish, enabling them to do more of the nefarious things they want done.

Add on a diminished likelihood of a nuclear Armageddon, and setting impeachment in motion or activating the Twenty-fifth amendment become no-brainers too.

But neither Trump nor Republican leaders are moved by right reason.  Trump is too firmly in thrall to delusions about his own wonderfulness, and the Republican leadership is comprised of shameless wusses, buffaloed by alt-right practitioners of white identity politics and the millions of hapless souls who still stand by the huckster who bamboozled them.

This, more than their own moral and intellectual shortcomings, is why Republican leaders have so far been too cowardly to do the right thing – even if only to save their own asses.  Pusillanimity is not just for Democrats any more; it has become a bipartisan affliction.

Thus getting from here to there in Trump’s case is psychologically difficult, while for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and others of their ilk, it is, to put the point as kindly as I can, “complicated.”

And so, here we are.

But times and circumstances change.

If, as reported, Trump is mentally deteriorating at an alarming rate, the urgency of dispatching him becomes greater with each passing day; and the more the general public knows about it, the more political cover Republican leaders could muster if only they would dare.

With all the media attention now raging around Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, it is finally dawning on the general public not only that, with Trump in the White House, the situation is and always has been dire, but that it is rapidly becoming worse — not so much in kind as in intensity.

This is not just news to the general public.  We now know that the situation is worse even than diligent observers of Trump, his family and his close associates imagined.

***

Democrats and their media flunkies on MSNBC and elsewhere still get all hot and bothered about the Democratic National Committee’s leaked emails.  Anything to be able to tell fatuous stories that impugn the Russians and Wikileaks!

However, there was precious little in those emails that anybody who had been paying even casual attention didn’t already know.  The fix was in: the political machines and informal networks that the Clintons and their co-thinkers had been putting together since the eighties had been hard at work since even before the election season began.  The Sanders insurgency never had a chance.  The powers that be saw to it that their anointed one, Hillary Clinton, would be the Democratic nominee.

Similarly, Fire and Fury confirms much that was already known.  However, unlike John Podesta’s emails, Wolff’s reporting makes for a great read.  His journalism may be less than exemplary, as a number of commentators have pointed out, and his publishers evidently stinted on copy-editing.  But Fire and Fury is a first class page-turner.

Ever since Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) proclaimed the goal, historians, some of them anyway, have endeavored to tell the story of the past wie es eigentlich gewesen (as it actually was).  Journalists are also supposed to follow this precept.

But this is not always the best advice.  Thucydides’ (460-400 BCE) History of the Peloponnesian War falls short of von Ranke’s standard.  He plainly made a great deal up.   But his way of making sense of the past, and putting the story he told in perspective, is as good as it gets.

Needless to say, Wolff is no Thucydides – not by any means.   No one will or should care what he wrote 2500 years or even days from now.

But I, for one, am struck by a noteworthy similarity between Wolff’s timely bestseller and Thucydides’ masterpiece.  While remaining more or less true to the facts, both aimed mainly at getting the general story right, even when that meant embellishing what actually happened with, for example, detailed accounts of orations (Thucydides) or conversations (Wolff) that they could not possibly have known about and therefore described in a way that accords with the standard von Ranke demanded.

And, in both cases, the stories the authors tell, however embellished, are spot on.

Part of the reason for Fire and Fury’s success is the fact that some two thirds of the American people, and nearly the entirety of the pre-Trump establishment’s power structure, are eager for anything, even scraps of dubiously reported anecdotal evidence, that impugns the character and competence of the Donald and his minions.

It is not just that Trump is hated that much, though he surely is.  A deeper reason is that he has so radically overthrown accepted norms of presidential behavior that the only way even to begin to make sense of the daily tumult he has unleashed is to strike back – using any cudgel at hand.

It doesn’t hurt either that Wolff’s take even on well-known aspects of the Trump phenomenon is fresh and insightful.

I, for example, have long been a fan of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, especially the movie version with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.  But it wasn’t until I read Fire and Fury that I appreciated the similarities between Trump’s story and Max Bialystock and Leo Blooms’.

Bialystock and Bloom set out to enrich themselves by producing a Broadway flop.  If Wolff is right (as he surely is), Trump ran for President not to win, but to enhance his brand.

Bialystock and Bloom went to great pains to make “Springtime for Hitler” the worst musical ever.  They thought that their plan was foolproof.

Trump never wanted to flop outright; there would be no percentage for him in that.  He wanted to almost win – positioning himself to take advantage of the business opportunities a near win would open up.

Thus he campaigned – in ways that would draw inordinate attention to himself, not with a view to becoming president, but to becoming the most famous man on earth.

Trump’s plan, like Bialystock and Blooms’, was eminently reasonable.

We Americans are capable of casting good judgment and common sense aside when we elect presidents – witness Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.   But, according to Wolff, the consensus view even in Trump’s innermost circle was that a sleazy real estate mogul and reality television star would be too much even for Reagan and Bush voters.  The very idea of a Trump presidency was ridiculous on its face.

Because he had a far better opinion of himself than anyone else, Trump had a somewhat different view.  But his expectations were much the same as those of the people around him.

Thus it hardly bothered him that his campaign was a disorganized mess, especially at first, before the iniquitous Mercers brought Steve Bannon and others like him onto the scene – accentuating the Trump campaign’s alt-right, “Springtime for Hitler” aspect.

But then, alas, just as in The Producers, the impossible happened.

On Wolff’s telling, Trump and his inner circle were as dumbfounded by their victory as Bialystock and Bloom were by their musical’s smash success.

Those two ended up in prison – where, in the final scene, they are shown working their ploy on fellow prisoners, prison guards and even the warden.   It is still not clear where Trump and the people formerly or still closest to him will end up.  What is clear is that, like Bialystock and Bloom, Trump is incorrigible.

I also hadn’t realized how victory ratcheted up Trump’s egotism and sense of invincibility.

Bialystock and Bloom understood right away what they would be in for, once they were found out.  But even before the dust had settled, Trump, Wolff reports, had the opposite reaction.  All of a sudden, he saw himself entitled and destined to rule.

I was also astonished to learn how fully and quickly the people Trump worked with, after he became president, became aware of the fact that their boss was not about to undergo a metamorphosis that would somehow make him presidential. Before he was elected, Trump was erratic, immature, crude, and mentally and morally unfit.  His election changed none of that, and the people around him figured that out right away.

Trump has effectively ceded power to the people he appointed to top government positions.  Many, probably most, of them are second-rate rightwing jackasses.

Some of them, though, seemed to be reasonably cognizant and, though reactionary, generally benign. They seemed to have signed on in order to minimize the harm Trump would do were they not there to restrain him.

Thanks to Wolff’s reporting – and therefore to Bannon’s blabbing – it is now clear that, with very few exceptions, the goals of those ostensibly public spirited plutocrats, military honchos and Republican bigwigs had less to do with serving their country by doing damage control than with feathering their own nests and furthering their own agendas.

That Trump’s mind, at its most lucid, is, at best, borderline delusional is not exactly news, and neither was it a secret that his Secretary of State was not alone in thinking that he is a “fucking moron.”  I had no idea, though, that the people around him were as aware of the extent and depth of Trump’s cognitive shortcomings as Wolff claims they are.

I also didn’t realize how rapidly his mental state has been deteriorating.

We are stuck with the results of the 2016 election for three more years – whether or not Trump craps out of his own accord, is impeached, or is removed from office in the way prescribed by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.  The sad fact is that whether it is Trump or Pence warming the chair in the Oval Office, mean spirited self-aggrandizing troglodytes will be running the show for at least the next three years.

Thank the authors of our Constitution for that.  Deliberately or not, our founders, many of whom had been leading figures in the American Revolution, made it almost as difficult to remove a sitting president as to remove a king.

This being the case, but for that humongous (non-existent) button Trump claims to have on his desk, and for his evident desire to start a war against Iran, it is probably better that he remain in office – impotent and deteriorating – than that Pence replace him.

“Resisting” someone who makes the blood of every right thinking human being boil is one thing; resisting someone no more unsettling than a loaf of white bread takes a certain presence of mind.  Add on the sense of relief that would come were Trump sent packing and it is plain that Pence would stand a far better chance than Trump of reversing what remains of advances achieved decades ago.

Let’s face it too: it would be a delight to see the Donald decline (even more than he already has) and fall.  “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”  Let them have at it!

Let his children cut him loose as well — to save their fortunes and their wretched necks. And let Melania break free from her gilded captivity, renouncing the Faustian bargain that turned her into the trophy bride of a repellent creature with too much money and too little couth.

But caution is in order: Trump could take the whole world down with that button of his.

Before long — perhaps in just a few days time when his administration’s one year anniversary comes around – many a Trumpian will decide to spend more time with his or her family; rats are always on the ready to abandon a sinking ship.

But others will replace them; the swamp that Trump said he would drain but that he instead brought into the White House itself, is full of other rats waiting to take over.

***

What will all those anodyne “resisters,” soon to be, if not already, coopted into the Democratic Party, do about that?

The sad fact is that, in the up-coming midterm elections, wherever races are genuinely competitive, the only way to defeat a Republican will be to vote for a Democrat.   If that Democrat is anything like Democrats generally are and have been for as long as anyone not already on Social Security can remember, this will require making a “tragic choice.”

For the fact is that the Democratic Party, in its present form, is very nearly as much a part of the problem as the GOP.

Trump is as bad, or worse, than Democratic voters think; and Republicans of all stripes and factions are noxious sons of bitches or bitches of equal or greater perniciousness.

But it is Democrats, not Republicans or Trump, who are now promoting love for the pillars of the National Security State, especially the FBI and the CIA.

I would bet all I have that, if humankind survives, future historians will conclude that, in our time, the National Security State posed a greater danger to (small-d) democracy, at home and abroad, and to Americans’ basic rights and liberties, than any of our purported adversaries.

The Democratic Party, these days, speaks for those malefactors.

Also Democrats are way out ahead of Republicans in encouraging Russophobia, reviving Cold War animosities, and generally laying the groundwork for World War III.

Global warming is probably the greatest threat now facing humankind.  On that, Republicans are bad as can be, and Democrats are not much better.  But on the next threat in line, war with Russia, Democrats are worse.  Threat Number Three is, of course, war against Iran.  On that, because Israel wants it badly, as does Saudi Arabia, both parties are equally horrendous.

So, even when voting for mainstream Clintonite Democrats is the only way to counter the even clearer and more present dangers posed by the Greater Evil Party, remember that the idea that any good can come from a party led by the likes of Chuck Schumer, Ben Cardin, Nancy Pelosi, and others of their ilk, a party that fields media flacks like Rachel Maddow, is nothing more than a snare and a delusion.

Can the well-meaning but basically apolitical “beautiful souls” who suddenly got the idea, after watching her speak at the Golden Globe award ceremony a few days ago, that what the world needs now, to replace the Clown Prince of Darkness, is Oprah Winfrey, an over the hill but still uplifting, non-threatening African American, middle brow daytime TV personality with no more political experience than Trump could boast of, be counted on to keep that thought in mind?

Oprah might make Hillary Clinton look good, but otherwise, the question answers itself.

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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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