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Reaction Ahead: With or Without President Dada

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Photo by angela n. | CC BY 2.0

It was big news last week (eons ago in Trumpland): the Guggenheim Museum in New York turned down the Trumps’ request to borrow Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 painting “Landscape With Snow,” offering instead to install a functioning solid gold toilet in their White House family quarters.

The offered object, Maurizio Cattelan’s “America,” is a piece of twenty-first century conceptual art, but the reference to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 (porcelain) urinal, an icon of the early twentieth century dada movement, is hard to miss, especially in light of the Trumps’ request and the Guggenheim’s response.

Dadaist iconoclasm reflected the political orientation of a leftwing avant-garde intent on shocking and, as far as possible, overturning bourgeois values and expectations.  The surrealist movement that followed closely on its heels, and that involved many of the same people, entertained similar objectives.

In the dream world that surrealist artists evoked, things sometimes turn into their opposite.  Dialecticians, like Hegel and Marx, identified similar transformations.

It is therefore both fitting and unsettling that the most dada president imaginable, the political equivalent of a porcelain urinal, would catalyze the emergence of a surreal world order, replete with diplomatic, military, and environmental policies in which departures from received norms, so far from moving humankind closer to a realm of freedom, equality and solidarity, instead reinforce prevailing forms of oppression – even to the point of threatening life itself, not just in the “as we know it” sense, but literally as well.

Fortunately, though people usually do wake up from dreams – eventually.

In this case, all the materials are at hand for waking up from the Trumpian nightmare that has settled in upon us, though only to pass into another somewhat less disturbing, but no less noxious, nightmare with Vice President Mike Pence in Trump’s place.

If and when that happens, it will not be because Republicans are eager to do the right thing.  That would go against their nature; and, quite to the contrary, they have lately been moving headlong in the opposite direction — into Trump’s ambit, thereby corroborating negative assessments of their moral and intellectual capacities, and demonstrating, to everyone’ amazement, that it is possible to take on the FBI and other parts of the national security and live to tell about it – at least for a while.

Neither will Trump be forced out because of anything Democrats might do.  They are too feckless to do much of anything.

If Trump goes, it will be because the wheels of justice are turning.

That is the good news.  The bad news is that they are not – indeed, cannot — turn against reaction as such, but only against the version of it shaped by Trump’s various personality disorders and peculiarities.  The authors of our Constitution saw to that.

Therefore, whether under Trump or Pence, the reactionary tide that has been afflicting the Land of the Free for the past year (an eternity, it seems) will remain in force – for at least three years more.

***

Needless to say, there are genuine conservatives in the United States, just as there are in other countries, conservatives of many types.  But what our politicians, media pundits, and right-leaning public intellectuals call “conservative” seldom has much to do with genuine conservative theory or practice.  The “conservatives” that blight our political landscape are reactionaries, conservative in name only.

All reactionaries are vile, but not all of them are vile in the same way.  Reactionary politics is often laughable too, but not always.  Sometimes, what reactionaries say is worth taking seriously in its own right.  More often, if their words are worth taking seriously at all, it is only for historically contingent reasons of time and place.

Donald Trump’s words and tweets merit no consideration on their merits.  But they do represent, “as through a glass darkly,” the thinking of persons who have, by default, supplied his administration with functioning brains.

Chief among them is the infamous Steve Bannon.  Until he dissed the Donald and his family in a way that got Trump’s goat, Bannon was the administration’s Svengali.  He got cocky, though, and fell out of grace; not just for the sin of lèse-majesté – everyone around Trump seems to be guilty of that – but for the conspicuousness of his displays of contempt.  It remains to be seen for how long he will remain out of favor; should Trump decide he could again be useful, he could well be called back.

Meanwhile, another piece of work, Stephen Miller, Bannon’s former acolyte, has, for all practical purposes, taken his place.

Bannon and Miller and their co-thinkers in the Trump administration are obviously not deep or even competent thinkers.  But the positions they put forward, derived from the work of rightwing intellectuals that they may or may not have read or understood, can be worth engaging, if not so much for their own sake, as for their past and present connections to real world politics — in the Balkans and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and, in a slightly different register, in parts of Europe and Latin America where rightwing politics has a Catholic inflection.

With the rise of the Trumpian menace, Bannon-Miller style reaction became a factor on the American scene as well.  But for that, their views would not be worth taking seriously here at all; they go too much against the American grain.

Not so, the thinking, such as it is, of the hapless creatures Trump appointed to high positions in his cabinet and other government agencies.  And not so, the Vice President.

Pence-like views are rooted in American historical and cultural conditions, and tap into longstanding rightwing strains of American culture and political thought.

To be sure, Pence himself is of a piece with other Republican numbskulls; and, for the time being, he is only good for gazing adoringly at the Donald during public events, and for speaking to Bible thumpers at campaign rallies.

But he has to be taken seriously because, were our politics even just a little less surreal than it has become, it would be a sure thing that Trump would be out, one way or another, and that Pence would find himself—to his delight — in his place.  This is more likely than not even now.

***

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”  We heard that saying a lot in the aftermath of Watergate, and then when Republicans tried to impeach Bill Clinton.  As Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, we are hearing it again

But although the idea has become almost axiomatic, it is, at best, an exaggeration – because it is also always the crime too.  Nobody, not even an inveterate liar like Bill Clinton, would cover something up just for the hell of it.  He must have thought that telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, would put him in more legal and/or political jeopardy than covering some or all of it up.

Trump is acting like he feels the same way – multiplied by a factor of a hundred.

Oddly though, at the same time, he flaunts his ability to get away with murder – not literally, so far as we know, though he did famously boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support – but figuratively.  Trump has already gotten away with a lot worse than anything Clinton tried to obfuscate or deny.

Only unreconstructed prudes, Hillary loyalists, or shamelessly opportunistic Republicans could fault that wily old horn dog for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  And yet, even now, millions of God-fearing evangelicals seem not to care that the orange coiffed libertine they voted for consorts with hookers and porn stars.

And then there is the case of Steve Wynn, until last week the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, deposed for “sexual improprieties.”  In what universe is it fair that he cannot get away with what Trump can?  The two of them are cut from the same cloth – except that Wynn is better in all the ways that matter to Trump.  He is certainly richer and more of a credit to “the gaming industry.”  Yet, his improprieties have made him an untouchable, while Trump’s roll off his back.

One would think, in light of this and countless other examples, that someone as adept at self-deception as Trump plainly is would consider himself invulnerable.

Nevertheless, he and the people he has employed to cover up whatever it is that he wants covered up have set about their task with a zeal that suggests enough “consciousness of guilt” to convict all the real estate magnates in the southern and eastern districts of New York and northern New Jersey.

This is all the more odd inasmuch as the gods whose playthings we are seem, for the time being, to be cutting the Donald endless slack.  If his Navy doctor can be believed, that borderline obese septuagenarian thrives without even having to diet or exercise.  What’s up with that?

But even with the gods on his side, there is reason to think that, when it comes to cover-ups and underlying crimes, he is in the same boat as any garden-variety malefactor of great wealth.

With that thought – or hope – in mind, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, in cases where cover-ups are what do criminals in, the underlying crimes are usually not, by any means, the most awful things they have done; they are just more actionable from a prosecutor’s point of view.

Famously, the Feds got Al Capone for taxes.

In a more just world, Richard Nixon would have been tried for and convicted of war crimes, crimes against the peace, and crimes against humanity.  The articles of impeachment that were drawn up against him bore about as much relation to his most heinous deeds as the charges leveled against Capone did to his.

Nobody, except perhaps Mueller and his associates, now knows what Trump could be charged with covering up; it is likely, though, that he, his legal team, and people in his innermost circle have a good idea.   And it is a good bet too that, when the dust settles, we will find, in his case, unlike Capone’s, Nixon’s and Clinton’s, that the underlying crime is a good deal more damning than obstruction of justice or anything else that could figure in a cover-up.

Mueller’s mission was to investigate “collusion” between the Trump campaign and “the Russians.”  It has become an article of faith in Democratic Party circles, and in the media that serve them, that there was collusion galore.  The CIA says so, after all.

This is far from established truth, however – except in the eyes of biddable reporters at NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and other liberal media outlets.

How odd that flacks for the less odious, and less reactionary, of our two semi-established, neoliberal political parties would be the ones promoting the idea that America’s intelligence services are beyond reproach and therefore ought to be believed and treated with the utmost respect!

Whatever else it has been, the FBI famously was, and very much still is, America’s political police, the regime’s first line of defense against dissent.  What it does at home, the CIA does abroad – with fewer scruples and constraints.

All governments lie, but intelligence services lie for a living; it is inscribed in their DNA.  On politically sensitive matters, wise political leaders are therefore wary of them.  When they let their guard down, they sometimes regret it.  What the general public is told is even more suspect.

The fact that Trump and the co-dependent Republicans who, for their own reasons, have taken to running interference for him, or that Fox and Breitbart pundits and others of their ilk, are now saying much the same thing doesn’t make it false.

But even if it turns out that there actually is some there there – that what the United States routinely does to other countries (especially to Russia, other former Soviet republics, and to former “satellites” of the USSR) was done to the United States by agents of the Russian government, charges of Russian meddling in our elections would still be more hokey than not.

Arguably, it would be different if someone could plausibly show that Russian meddling affected the 2016 election outcome or was consequential in some other way.

Even if that could be demonstrated, however, it is relevant that our elections are not about the things that matter in normative democratic theory – things like public deliberation and debate, and collective choices made by substantively, not just formally, equal citizens in free and fair elections.  They are about selling candidates to voters the way that hucksters sell snake oil.

Why should the nationality of those doing the selling matter all that much to (small-d) democrats?   Is it really that much better to be sold a bill of goods by Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers than by Vladimir Putin?  Does it really make sense for Americans to insist on being snookered by U.S. citizens only?

It is different in countries struggling for independence from external domination; they have good reasons to resist foreign intervention.  But those reasons hardly apply in our case, the country others seek independence from.

This is one reason why dogmatists who are now raising concerns about Russian meddling in the 2016 seem disingenuous at best.  Their hypocrisy is an even more compelling reason.  So is their inconsistency.

If meddling by agents of Putin’s government is the scandal Democrats make it out to be, then why do they not hold the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to account as well?  Israel meddles in American politics in ways and to an extent that the Putin of Rachel Maddow’s imagination, and perhaps the real one as well, could never hope to equal in his wildest dreams.

Could it be that only meddlers from countries loathed by neocons of both the Bush-Cheney and Clintonite sort are unacceptable?  If so, on what grounds?

Be that as it may, the good news is that Mueller is free to go wherever the evidence leads.

According to credible reports, it seems to have led him to a point where Trump and the people around him can be charged with obstruction of justice.

There is some question as to whether a sitting president can be indicted for that or many other crimes while still in office; there is no Constitutional prohibition, but there are also no precedents.

However, obstruction of justice plainly is grounds for impeachment; there is even a   precedent for that – in both the Nixon and Clinton cases.

There are other solid grounds for impeaching Trump as well; his many violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause are among the most obvious.  All that is lacking is the political will.

But with the Republican Party controlling both the House and the Senate, and the Democratic Party being as it is, rousting that will is no easy matter.

Republicans are servile monstrosities, while the Democratic Party, in its current state, is worse than useless.  Nancy Pelosi is no more likely than Paul Ryan to opt for impeachment.

And with the leadership of that purportedly progressive excuse of a political party hard at work coopting a pathetically anodyne anti-Trump “resistance,” the Democrats are almost certainly not going to change for the better in the months ahead.

Therefore, barring a severe financial downturn – inevitable, but unlikely to occur in time to affect voters’ attitudes in 2018 – or, more unlikely still, unless Republicans come to think that they would be better off axing Trump than standing by him, the special prosecutor’s investigations are the last best hope for those of us who want to trade in the current nightmare for a slightly less onerous one.

If Mueller and his team have, by now, developed some understanding of the fatuousness of the Russian meddling issue; and therefore gone beyond their original mandate, turning their attention to Trump’s financial shenanigans, so much the better.

If they have not, then what we have is a case of whatever gets you through the night.  That would be unfortunate and unseemly, but getting rid of Trump is that important!

Therefore, even if the focus must remain on Russian election meddling, so be it.

It is more likely, though, if Mueller really is as shrewd and honest as he is said to be, that the road will lead away from the 2016 election into the murky redoubts of the Trump organization’s financial affairs.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, on the meddling issue, there is probably no there there; certainly, none has materialized so far.

On the other hand, although it cannot be proven yet, it seems very likely that, on money laundering and worse, there is plenty of there there – and enough genuinely nefarious Russian and other foreign involvement with Trump and his people to outrage all but the most intractable denizens of the Trump base.

There is therefore at least some reason to hope that the years of reaction ahead will become easier to bear than they would otherwise be.

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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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