Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Photo by Acid Pix | CC BY 2.0

As public support for the Vietnam War waned, and as all LBJ could do about it was send more troops, he would periodically announce, for the flimsiest of reasons, that victory was at last in sight; that “there was light at the end of the tunnel.”  From that time on, it has been impossible to use that expression without irony.

But for that still living memory, we might now be hearing a lot about light at the end of the tunnel from Democratic Party and liberal pundits intent on putting Donald Trump behind us – first, because the law is closing in on that temperamentally unsuited, defiantly ignorant, morally impaired, and recklessly dangerous Commander-in-Chief; and then because it is likely that, in the November midterm election, the more odious duopoly party, the GOP, will be swept away in a “blue wave.”

There is still much to get through before anything noticeable changes, but it does indeed feel as if relief is on the way.

Is there then reason to rejoice?

The short answer is: probably, but only to some (very small) extent.

In addition to the usual uncertainties surrounding predictions about the course of future events, there is the fact that where Trump goes, chaos follows, rendering the old saw about not counting chickens before they hatch more than usually relevant.

However, this is not the only reason to be wary of rejoicing.

All things considered, Trump is worse than anyone after him in the line of succession, and Republicans are worse than Democrats.  But A can be worse than B, without B being anything to rejoice over.  The light at the end of the tunnel that now seems to be coming into view is like that.

If Trump goes, his Vice President, Mike Pence, takes over; and his administration, chock full of miscreants as pernicious and vile as the Donald himself stays intact – or no less intact than it currently is with Trump purging it of everyone he deems insufficiently servile, and with the rats who work for him, fearing what he has in store, deserting the sinking ship.

Trump is an opportunist with noxious attitudes and base instincts, but no settled convictions.  He has been pushing a reactionary line lately because he needs the Republican Party to govern, and that is what that wretched party’s leaders demand of him.

Also, he understands that to keep his administration afloat, he needs the unstinting support of his “base,” and he believes, with good reason, that, it is comprised of people who hold what Hillary Clinton called “deplorable” views.  Acceding to their desires comes naturally to him; his instincts are as deplorable as theirs.

Trump is also scary in the way that a little kid wielding a loaded gun is.  This is the main reason why everyone who is not with him is fervently against him.  That would be roughly two-thirds of the electorate – more than enough to get him replaced if our institutions at the national level were (small-d) democratic enough to allow, say, for recall elections.

To the dismay of millions, however, it may not be enough, as matters now stand, to get him impeached or removed from office in the way prescribed by the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

Meanwhile, Pence – a self-declared “Christian, conservative, and Republican in that order” — is a true believer in retrograde causes, a bona fide reactionary who comes by his vileness honestly.  That counts for something; people who stick to their principles are respected, even by those who consider their principles foul.

This is one reason why Pence would likely elicit less “resistance” than Trump.  Another is that he is about as scary as white bread.  Therefore, were he, not Trump, in the Oval Office, it is likely that the ardor and size of the opposition to retrograde politics would diminish, irrespective of the issues involved.   How could reactionaries not find that appealing?

Therefore, bracketing everything that falls outside the purview of domestic politics, Pence might actually be worse than Trump.  Nothing to rejoice about there!

On the other hand, he would almost certainly be less likely than the current Commander-in-Chief to succumb to fits of pique that could cause him to wreak havoc at home and abroad, to start or escalate wars, or, worst of all, to ignite a nuclear holocaust.

It is not that his understanding of foreign affairs is better, but only that Trump’s impulse control is worse.

In this instance too, “worse” is a relative term – Pence doesn’t dine with women when his wife Karen is not there, or attend events in her absence where alcohol is served.  It is reliably reported that Pence’s pet name for Karen is “mother.”

There is yet another reason why the sooner Trump is dispatched, the better: his absence will help keep “liberals” from succumbing to the temptation to stop worrying about and instead start loving the state – especially, the part of it that Marxists call its “repressive apparatus.”

On the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” – that if Trump tweets against it, it cannot be all bad – liberals have lately been falling into the welcoming arms of the FBI and CIA with unseemly abandon.  For this, the Democratic Party and its media flacks have much to answer for.

It wasn’t always this way; thanks to unfiltered lived experience, a minimal knowledge of history and world affairs, and a modicum of political vision, most everyone with a progressive bone in his or her body used to harbor a healthy contempt for America’s forces of order, domestic and foreign.

Our is, of course, an age in which Republicans are “red” and words like “resistance” and “revolution” (as in “Our Revolution”) are embraced by proponents of formerly mainstream liberal or social democratic politics.  In these circumstances, the idea that, for a better possible world to come into being, a world that transcends the horizons of our overripe and rapidly decaying capitalist order, it is necessary to “smash the state,” not just take it over, seems hopelessly anachronistic if not downright utopian.

My own view is that we need not concede the irrelevance of that venerable and eminently defensible tenet of anarchist and Marxist political theory just yet; that if anything is historically superseded, it is instead the rather different idea that “smashing” states requires insurrectionary violence of the kind that occurred in the great revolutions of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.

The general idea, shared by anarchists and many Marxists, including Marx himself and Lenin in The State and Revolution, is that the state form of political organization enables ruling classes to overcome their own internal divisions by organizing the domination of subordinate classes, a feat accomplished through repressive (and also ideological) institutions appropriate to that function.

The ultimate goal, then, of persons who share the anarchist-Marxist vision is and ought to be to replace existing institutions with institutional arrangements suited to sustaining radical transformations conducive to making their vision of ideal social and political arrangements real.  They want to put institutions in place that build and sustain regimes of uncoerced cooperation — in which, as Marx famously said, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

For anarchists, this objective requires the immediate abolition of the state, if not of political (coercive) authority relations altogether.

Within the socialist tradition, the idea was that, for some indefinite future, states of a new type, representing popular, not elite, class interests, are necessary for overseeing a protracted transitional period at the end of which the state would “wither away” — in which, as Engels said, the “governance of men” would give way to “the administration of things.”

Notwithstanding the destructive edge they share, that vision has almost nothing to do with what Steve Bannon, the de facto architect of Trump’s electoral victory, seems to have in mind when he advocates  “deconstructing” what he calls “the administrative state.”  His proposals would reinforce ruling class power, not overthrow it.

Because he was caught – or got himself caught — badmouthing Trump and his family, Bannon is, for the time being, persona non grata in Trumpland.  His spirit lives on, however.   With or without him, Trump and his minions are hard at work turning back all the institutional and regulatory impedances to untrammeled corporate power they can.

In the face of their onslaught, it is can actually be reasonable for enemies of the old regime to side with its defenders – though only in particular circumstances and only to some extent.

Loving the FBI and the CIA the way that so many in the anti-Trump “resistance” now do is a step – many steps! – too far.  In light of their past and present functioning, those key components of the old regime’s repressive apparatus merit “smashing” as much or more than any other of its many bulwarks.

Our enemy’s enemy is not always our friend.  Even if the FBI and CIA, and perhaps also other parts of the so-called “deep state,” have it in for Trump, the last thing anyone with progressive instincts should want to do is to further entrench their power.


Meanwhile, the duopoly party that made Trump possible and arguably even inevitable, the one that is poised to ride a blue wave back to power, remains unchanged – except perhaps at the margins.

When the primaries are over and the candidates chosen, it will become clear how bad the situation is.  It is already plain that the party’s leadership has survived Trump, just as surely as “crooked Hillary” (not all of Trump’s nicknames are ill-conceived; “little Marco” is also spot on) survived Bernie Sanders.

If only Sanders had led his supporters out of the Democratic Party — either to mount an independent campaign or into the Greens.  If he had, we’d be no worse off than we now are, and there would be an organized force in place, unencumbered by the Democratic Party’s rotting hulk, poised to capitalize on the massive anti-Trump sentiment abroad in the land.

Had that happened, would there be less Cold War revivalism in America and Europe today?  One reason to think so is that then Sanders or the Greens or both would be drawing some of the heat currently leveled against that all-purpose bogeyman, Vladimir Putin.   The recriminations Democrats spewed out against Ralph Nader after the election that set George W. Bush loose upon the world would be small potatoes in comparison.

But it is far from clear that the world would be any safer on that account, whether the current wave of Cold War hysteria would be any less virulent and potentially lethal.   Mainstream Democrats have no problem scapegoating the party’s feeble leftwing or suppressing progressive third parties, but their corporate masters and the military brass have more demanding needs.  Terrorism just isn’t doing enough for the military-industrial complex anymore; they need a superpower to scare the public into acquiescence.

The Clintons and other like-minded Democrats saw the need and seized the opportunity, dragging their party and eventually the entire political class along with them.  With the help of corporate media pundits – not just Rachel Maddow but the whole sorry lot — their war mongering has taken on a life of its own.

The situation has become so bad that, for example, MSNBC (=MSDNC) and CNN cannot even report on Facebook’s abject failure to defend its subscribers’ privacy rights from the nefarious machinations of Republican donor (specifically Mercer family) funded campaign propaganda targeting operations, without confounding the issue with alleged “Russian meddling.”

On this, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and other “progressives” are no better than the rest.

From where I live, I can walk down to the ocean and stand where their progressivism stops.  The old maxim was that the water’s edge was where partisan differences ended.  That rings less true now that Trump is in charge – not because he is wiser than the foreign policy establishment, he is not, but because of his yet to be discovered interests and nefarious entanglements.

Even so, he is “objectively,” as some on the Left used to say, the most enlightened figure in official Washington today when it comes to defusing tensions that could erupt into World War III.  Just watch the media coverage of bipartisan outrage when he has a kind word to say about – or to – Vladimir Putin; for instance, by congratulating him on his electoral victory.  How pathetic is that!

It isn’t just on issues like Israel-Palestine and Russia that even the most progressive Democrats, the ones who are comparatively decent on domestic matters, go perilously wrong.  They are as wedded as any liberal imperialist, as wedded as the Clintons or Barack Obama, to the idea that America is the “indispensable nation.” The Sanders-Warren version may be kinder and gentler, but it is not in any substantive or consequential way less wrong-headed or noxious.

If there are any Jeremy Corbyns within the Democratic Party fold, any genuine internationalists whose progressivism doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, they have not revealed themselves yet.

There is some chance, of course, that among the many persons contending to run against Republicans in November – thank Trump for their eagerness and enthusiasm! — that a few genuine progressives will prevail and, in due course, win.   They will need all the help they can muster to fight against the leadership of the party on whose ticket they will be running.

Trump and Pence are awful enough, and Republican “donors” and their bought and paid for flunkies in the House and Senate are reactionary enough that it may actually make sense, in some circumstances, to vote for Democrats in the mainstream or worse, Democrats like Connor Lamb, the “moderate” who won the special election in Pennsylvania last week.

However, this is not a time to fall back into the lesser evil voting trap; no time is.  There can be a place for strategic voting in parliamentary systems of various kinds, but in a duopoly party system like ours, lesser evil voting, the closest analogue, generally results in a race to the bottom that almost never ends well.  It was lesser evil voting that gave us Clinton and Obama and that therefore ultimately led to Trump.

But with the Trumpian menace upon us, it may be time to take the adage about politics being “the art of the possible” more seriously than usual by reviving the spirit of inter-war anti-fascist popular fronts – by maintaining a critical distance but nevertheless voting in concert with those one would otherwise oppose, provided that they too stand steadfastly against a clear, present, and supremely intolerable danger.

In order to win back control of the House in the 2008 election, Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi loaded the ballot with “moderates,” so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats.  Those Blue Dogs dragged the Obama administration even farther to the right than it would otherwise have been, contributing little, if anything, to its modest legislative successes.  Then, in the Tea Party onslaught two years later, they were swept away.

With a largely unreconstructed Democratic Party calling the shots, that could happen again.  Lamb’s insistence on positioning himself to the right of Nancy Pelosi (seriously!) is a warning sign.  Were the Democratic Party less debased, there would be no space to her right for him to be.

And yet, the talking heads on MSNBC and CNN fell all over themselves praising Lamb’s “moderation,” and recommending it for other Democratic candidates.

This is the danger inherent in making common cause with Trump opponents regardless of their other views.   On the other hand, there may be no better alternative in the circumstances closing in upon us.

A popular front strategy merits serious consideration at this point in time; it probably does make sense for Congressional races in “red” districts this year.  Looking forward to 2020, however, it would almost certainly do more harm than good if, but only if, between now and then progressives use their time wisely.

Had the Democratic Party run Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in 2016, they might well have succeeded in holding Trump back.  Even had they run someone who espoused Hillary Clinton’s brand of neoliberal politics, but with more political skills than she could muster – someone as dreadful, say, as Joe Biden – they could probably have defeated Trump.

Would the outlook be worse in the up-coming midterms were Democrats to run candidates for the House and Senate whose views on foreign affairs are more like Jeremy Corbyn’s than Bernie Sanders’?  I would say No.

Corbyn-like candidates would encounter more opposition from political lobbies that, like AIPAC, want American military and foreign policy to stay on its present deleterious course.  But there is not as much percentage as there used to be in supporting at least some previously untouchable historical injustices, like the one in Israel-Palestine; and it is becoming increasingly obvious that military spending is leading the country to ruin, and that liberal imperialism does more harm than good.  There is therefore reason to think that more voters would be brought on board than would be lost if Democrats did run candidates in the Corbyn mold.

If the Democratic Party does not go that route, the light people now see at the end of the tunnel now will surely expire, probably not by November but in short order, especially if Trump is no longer around to keep it ablaze.

Trump must be stopped, of course; but if the Democratic Party cannot be replaced, then the only defensible goal looking forward, if not to this November then to the November coming up in two year’s time, is to transform the Party of Pelosi and Schumer beyond recognition.  All else is folly.

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).