Democrats are From Hell; Republicans are From Hell’s Lowest Circle, and Trump is From Somewhere Else Altogether

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0

For nearly three decades, the right has been going after the Clintons – first mainly Bill, then mainly Hillary – for all the wrong reasons.

The right reasons are the many ways that the Clintons and those who think like them  — that would be most Democrats — are like Republicans.

Democrats are more decent, more socially liberal, more civil (right-wingers would say “politically correct”), and less wedded to retrograde causes and notions.  This can and often does matter around the margins.

But the respects in which Democrats are better are of little or no consequence for the fundamental economic and political problems faced by Americans, and peoples around the world who live under the sway of the American hegemon.  On those problems, Democrats and Republicans are as alike as peas in a pod.

The Republican Party is a party of the center right and the far right, but contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Democratic Party is not a party of the left or even the center left.

There is no politically significant left in the United States today; there are only remnants and individuals, vast numbers of them, yearning for left alternatives.  What is called a left is actually, to use Tariq Ali’s apt expression, an “extreme center.”

The extreme center is now going after Donald Trump with fervor equal to or greater than that of the right and far right towards the Clintons and likeminded Democrats.

Some of the reasons driving that fervor are wrong-headed – indeed, reckless and pernicious.  The “vast rightwing conspiracy” Hillary Clinton inveighed against has no monopoly on bad reasons.

But the bad reasons that lead liberals to want Trump gone are swamped by an abundance of reasons as good and compelling as reasons can be – reasons to loathe the man and wish him ill, and to look forward to his disgrace and ruination.

Indeed, in ways that are difficult to articulate, the case against Trump is qualitatively different from the case against any other major American political figure.  Calling on the help of a far more capable writer than I, I will elaborate on that thought in due course.

First, though, it is important to be clear on why some of the reasons Trump is reviled are not only awful but dangerous as well.

It is important also to realize that in a slightly more (small-d) democratic possible world, a world in which the electoral system is more democratic, and in which white, brown, and black working class voters and progressives generally are represented by a thriving, unabashedly leftwing political party, a Trump, even if one somehow happened, would have been booted out long ago.

After all, even now, the very idea of him raises the hackles of some sixty percent of the voting public; and all but the most benighted business and media high flyers despise the man utterly.

However, the most our system will allow is that he be dismissed from office – in the way prescribed by the Twenty-fifth Amendment or by impeachment.

The former way is almost certainly a non-starter as long as Trump has the Vice President and most Republican legislators under his thumb.  Those feckless poltroons are not likely to jump ship on account of anything Robert Mueller tells them; and, even if, as Election Day approaches, it seems certain that the much ballyhooed “blue wave” actually will materialize, they, like the miserable fools in Trump’s base, will continue stupidly to stand by their man.

To be sure, if Democrats do win big, impeachment would indeed become feasible.  But even then, it is unlikely that Trump would be booted out. That would require a vote by two-thirds of the Senate, which would require, in turn, the support of a good many Republican Senators.  Blue wave or not, there will not be enough Democratic Senators to pull it off.

And, with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, or anyone like her, even impeachment in the House would be iffy.  There are Democrats now who want to dump her because they think she veers too far to the left; seriously!  That is like saying Hillary Clinton was too far left to beat Trump. The problem with Pelosi – by no means, the least of them – is that impeachment is not her “thing.”

But for her and a few other likeminded Democratic Party leaders, George W. Bush could probably have been impeached after the 2006 midterms.   Conviction in the Senate then would have been problematic, just as it would be next year, but the mere effort would very likely have diminished the level of violence in the post-9/11 world.

This however was not to be; Pelosi opted for caution.  With Hillary biding her time until 2008, she wanted to take no chances.

As it happened, she never got Hillary; she got Barack Obama instead.  That was as good, if not better, for her socially liberal but hopelessly neoliberal soul mates in the party leadership and within her party’s “donor class.”

Would Democrats pull back again?   They are certainly capable of it.  Unless rank-and-file Democrats make their wishes abundantly clear, pulling back is more likely than not.

In any case, those who yearn to see the back of the Don  — the gangster allusion is intended and appropriate! — had better beware of what they wish for.

The chances of Armageddon breaking out in a fit of presidential pique would be diminished, but with Mike Pence in the Oval Office, with the miscreants and nincompoops Trump empowered still running the show, and with a public less mobilized by fear and loathing of Trump and therefore more acquiescent, a Trumpian presidency without Trump could be even worse than one with him hobbled but still in charge.

And so, instead of vesting all hope and energy on the law closing in on Trump, his family, and his hangers-on, it would be better to take on directly the harm he and his minions have caused, while also – this cannot be emphasized enough – taking on what has made a Trump presidency and Trumpian politics possible.

The Democratic Party, “as we know it” (as they say in Clintonese), is high on the list.

This will require taking a critical stance towards the anti-Trump “resistance” (never has that word been so debased!) as it has so far developed.

In particular, it would mean taking on the Cold War revivalism that has become endemic in our politics, and taking on institutions that liberals have lately come to lionize, ostensibly for the sake of maintaining the rule of law.  These would include the FBI and the CIA.

Trump is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and he and his people have already done incalculable harm. But on those issues, mainstream Democrats are no better than Republicans; in fact, they may even be worse.

In other words, the situation is “complicated.”

Trump’s erstwhile and still occasionally evident Russophilia may be phony as can be; and the reasons for it are almost certainly nefarious.  But it is still preferable to the warmongering Democrats promote.

Their constant bleating on friendly corporate media outlets like CNN and MSNBC, on National Public Radio’s news programs, and in what passes for a quality press, is every bit as disgraceful as the mindless ranting of their Republican counterparts at Fox News and Breitbart.

And while it surely is true that, Trump’s notion of governance is way out in right (indeed, far right) field, Democrats who would have the public think that the FBI and CIA are on the side of the angels, and who claim that defending them keeps tyranny at bay, could hardly be more wrong.     

Why Russia?  Why now?

We live in a perpetual war regime because our overripe capitalist economy depends on war and preparations for war.  To keep it running smoothly, “preparedness” is not enough; for there to be smoke, there must also, sometimes, be fire.

Thus the “global war on terror” (that is, on the historically Muslim world) that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got going and that Barack Obama continued and extended, even as he dropped the name, was, or rather seemed to be, just what the doctor ordered.

It is certainly perpetual enough.  The level of actual combat waxes and wanes, but the war itself never ends.

Unfortunately for our leaders, though, it has never been the kind of war that rallies the public around the flag.  What has kept it going is one thing only: fear.

It was different during the two World Wars.  Even Korea and Vietnam better served the purposes of those who would squander the wealth of the nation on weapons systems that only generals, admirals and, of course, “defense” contractors and their retainers could love.

The Bush-Obama-Trump war on terror is more like the wars the army used to wage against indigenous peoples in the way of white settlement.  At a time when the Constitutional requirement that it is for Congress, and Congress alone, to declare war was still taken seriously, those efforts, undertaken supposedly to realize America’s “manifest destiny” – but also, as it happens, to enrich predatory capitalists and politically connected settlers and capitalist wannabes — didn’t seem worthy enough even to require express Congressional authorizations.

The war on terror also harkens back to America’s nineteenth and early twentieth century wars and quasi-wars in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the eastern Pacific.  Whether fought to establish or control official colonies, or only to dominate other countries and regions for economic gain, the soldiers who waged those wars too were essentially company cops.

There wasn’t even the excuse that the victims of the murder and mayhem the American military unleashed were terrorists or that they had in any way harmed the United States.

Wars like that grow old fast.  In the absence of lofty justifications for all the damage they do, they are demoralizing as well.

The Cold War was a godsend. The Soviet Union and China were worthy antagonists – formidable enough to keep a bloated military-industrial complex churning.  As it wore on, the defenders of “the Free World” could believe that they were actually doing something worthwhile – more easily when not actually engaged in combat than when, as in Korea and Vietnam, they were.

The Cold War also justified spending huge chunks of money to subsidize anything that could plausibly be connected to “defense.”  A lot of economically productive and socially useful research and development was funded under that guise.

Who then could forgive those damn Russians for calling it quits!

With the Soviet Union gone and the world’s only superpower riding high, the first George Bush, the Clintons and their cohort, and later George W. Bush and his, had to find ways to keep the threat of world peace at bay.

That turned out to be a lot easier than the pillars of the military-industrial complex feared.

When Saddam Hussein got a notion to invade Kuwait, thinking, not unreasonably, that the United States wouldn’t mind, the “peace dividend” that was supposed to follow the Cold War’s end effectively disappeared.

But even though a “new world order” was destabilizing the old, and nationalist and religious terrorism was on the rise, it took some doing to get the general public to care. Bill Clinton had his work cut out. He did what he could – in the Balkans and elsewhere – but it was never enough.

Then came 9/11.  The public was properly terrified again, and the entire political class was on board, its media flunkies in tow.  The second Bush was born under a lucky star. He had a war fall his way that could be waged in large part by proxies and private contractors, far away and with no end in sight.  He had enemies that all but invited vilification.

Best of all, his war inconvenienced no one – except, of course, the troops and their families, a tiny segment of the population of whom most Americans knew little and cared less.

The global war on terror has put basic rights and liberties, privacy rights especially, in jeopardy, but not in ways that most people find upsetting, especially when their security is, or seems to be, at stake.  For ninety percent of the public or more, bringing the war back home has therefore involved nothing more strenuous or disconcerting than thanking the troops – economic conscripts, mostly — for their “service.”

However, by Obama’s second term, that war had become little more than background noise.  There was no turning it off, even as the benefit in keeping it on had become vanishingly small.  And so, the idea dawned: why not revive the real thing?

When Russia and the former Soviet republics were reeling under the hardships brought on by their mindless and hasty regression to capitalism – not even the social democratic kind, but the neoliberal version championed by rightwing and Third Way politicians in the West – that would have been out of the question.

In time, though, Russia revived – to a point where it could again plausibly defy the American hegemon.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Bush the Younger could still look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and see that he is good.  That would have been inconceivable a decade later – not because Putin had morphed into a demon, he was no more or less a demon than he had always been, but because the stewards of the American empire were beginning to find it expedient to emphasize his demonic side.

Long before anyone took Donald Trump seriously, Madam Secretary Clinton was way out ahead on that one.  After all, the Clintons had cut their teeth on Boris Yeltsin, a subservient drunkard; how dare that uppity Putin not follow suit!

And how dare those pesky Russians offer shelter to Edward Snowden, a man who had exposed Hillary’s rank incompetence along with so much else that Americans needed to know!

Wikileaks also published information that embarrassed her and others in the Obama fold. Damn that Julian Assange, holed up for years in London in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to the United States and a fate like the one Chelsea Manning endured. They must all be in it together; it must all be a Putin-ish plot!

The pillars of her party and mainstream corporate media happily followed her lead, even before they began to process the incontrovertible fact that Hillary was no better at campaigning than at anything else.  She had been a piss poor First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State; and, despite decades of planning, she was an awful candidate too.

Even so, nobody could actually believe that it could happen.  But then it did — she lost to Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, her Russophobic warmongering didn’t go down with her.  The Democratic Party made it its own – becoming even more reckless, in this respect, than its rival.

Republican legislators, faithfully following their master’s befuddling flip-flops, are not beyond going that route too.  Still, on the whole, the GOP has generally been, and for the most part still is, the less bellicose duopoly party.

Ironically, we have Trump to thanks for that.

Basic decency and common sense – why multiply the chances of nuclear annihilation beyond necessity? – are not Trump’s fortes; they are almost certainly not the reason why.  More likely, seedy Russian connections – perhaps with the Russian government directly, more likely with Russian bankers, oligarchs, and figures from organized crime — account for his apparent wisdom and moderation.

At this point, however, no one knows for sure.  The only sure thing is that being even slightly more reasonable on a matter of such importance counts for a lot.

The Rule of Law

Bamboozled victims of the confidence game Trump has been playing on the American people will not all agree, but the sixty percent or so of the public that understands what Trump is up to believe that his presidency is putting the idea of equal justice under law in mortal jeopardy.

The consensus among them is that, of all the bad things Trump has done and will go on to do, this is among the very worst.

Those who think so know of what they speak.  As the law closes in upon him, Trump has demanded that the DOJ, the Department of Justice, and the agencies under its control, including the FBI, back off; in plain view, he has tried repeatedly to obstruct investigations that could find him culpable of all sorts of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Top officials of the DOJ do serve at his pleasure, and he is technically the boss of everyone who works there.  Also, he is, and is known to be, a rank egotist, out mainly – or only – for himself. Even so, his treatment of his own Justice Department is unprecedented and bizarre.

Presidents set examples; the one he is setting offends the principle that no one, regardless of his station or office, is above the law.

Thus liberal pundits tell us that, on this account, Trump is turning the United States into a banana republic or a totalitarian state.  These, arguably contradictory descriptions, are imprecise, but the general idea is on point and clear enough.

A better comparison, though, would be with machine politicians back in the day.  There is, however, this difference: that while old school, big city political bosses were of course out for themselves, they were also usually on the side of the people they would call upon for votes.  Trump is in it just for himself – and perhaps also his idiot sons and Ivanka.  He would sell out even his closest cronies in a New York minute, if there were some percentage in it for him.

His behavior, along with the pleadings of his preposterously risible legal advisor, Rudy Giuliani, does put the rule of law in jeopardy, if only by offending the idea of equality before the law, the bedrock principle upon which the theory and practice of that notion depends.

However, there is more.

Trump’s presidency has given Republicans carte blanche to turn America’s system for the administration of justice at the federal level into a rightwing cesspool that neither warrants nor is likely to obtain respect.

Republicans are from the lowest circle of hell; the judges they dredge up and empower are created in their image.

Thus, by holding up extreme centrist judicial appointments when Obama was president and now ramming through the appointments of hard right ideologues, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is grievously harming the federal judiciary.  In doing so, he is undermining respect for the law and therefore, indirectly, the idea of the rule of law itself.

In this respect, McConnell, one of the purported “adults in the room” — another is aptly nicknamed “Mad Dog” — has actually done more harm than Trump.

Appointments to the federal judiciary are for life.  It will therefore take a very long time before the damage McConnell has caused, and will go on to cause for at least the next several months, is undone.

Needless to say, Democrats are culpable too, not just for acquiescing to the extent that they have, but also for putting forward extreme centrists like themselves, not real liberals, when they had a chance.

That is bad enough, but calling on liberals to ignore history and forget the past by standing up now for the FBI is worse, even as Trump attacks it in order to save his own sorry self.

This is what Obama and Eric Holder meant by “looking forward” when they could and should have prosecuted Bush era war criminals.  Because they did, “Bloody” Gina Haspel now heads the CIA.

The FBI is generously resourced and is therefore a capable national police force.  In that capacity, it does socially useful things.

But it is also a political police, a national Red Squad.

This has been its role almost from the moment of its inception.  As such, it has done more to impede peaceful and legitimate dissent, and to harm dissenters, than any other agency of government.   Even some of the milquetoast Democratic Party liberals who are now rallying in its defense have been among its targets.

As for the CIA, it is beyond hypocritical that, even as they go on about the evils of (purported) Russian meddling in the 2016 election, they are, and have been from Day One, the world’s foremost serial meddler in the affairs of other nations.

Is there an American diplomatic mission in any national capital in which CIA agents are not embedded? Very likely, not.

As the late Hugo Chávez, himself a victim of viciously aggressive CIA “meddling,” famously quipped: the reason why there has never been a coup in the United States is that there is no American embassy there.

How ironic that Trump and the GOP are way out ahead of the so-called left on this count too.  Undoubtedly, their reasons are as flawed as are their reasons for being less intent on making an enemy of Russia.  Indeed, the two are connected.

If Democrats are now calling on people to support America’s Forces of Order while Republicans are more inclined to follow their leader by badmouthing “the deep state,” it is because that is what Trump wants.

Whatever he is ultimately up to, better that than “colluding” with those who threaten (small-d) democracy in ways more insidious than anything the Vladimir Putin of Rachel Maddow’s imagination could possibly attempt.

Then how is, then, it that the Donald is qualitatively worse?

To nearly everyone outside that “swamp” that is the Trump base, including even the Republicans grandees he bosses around, Trump seems incommensurably worse than all the other creatures from hell.

He is different; he is unlike anyone else in our political universe.

Considered quantitatively – say, according to how retrograde what he says in his tweets are or how much harm his enacted policies do – he is god awful, but not entirely off the charts; many Republicans, Ted Cruz for example, are as bad or worse.  Pence is probably worse.

Considered qualitatively, however, he is in a class by himself.

It is not just a matter of what the Trump administration has so far done and promises to do in the future – to immigrants, to environmental protections and, more generally, to the institutions of the regulatory state, and to government departments and agencies that do socially useful things.

Neither is it his patriarchal attitudes, support for white supremacy, and disdain for peoples of color. All this is part of the problem, but not the entire problem by any means.

What puts Trump in a league of his own is more disturbing even than things like that, and harder to articulate.

In the days following his passing, The New Yorker republished one of Philip Roth’s reflections on Trump and the Trump phenomenon.  His remarks address, clearly and perspicaciously, what I am getting at.

As the author of The Plot Against America (2004), a book premised on the idea that Charles Lindbergh, the original America Firster, not Franklin Roosevelt, won the 1940 presidential election, Roth’s thoughts are especially germane.

In the aftermath of Lindbergh’s victory, as Roth describes it, life in America was slowly but inexorably turned on its head.  This is shown through the travails of a fictionalized Jewish family, much like his own, in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s hometown.

As Judith Thurman, writing in The New Yorker, explains: Lindbergh was an isolationist who admired a European dictator.  In Roth’s novel, his election emboldens xenophobes, Nazi Germany meddles in American politics, and there are some who believe, not implausibly, that the Germans have a dossier of secret information on the president, and that Lindbergh is being blackmailed.  The list goes on.

Roth’s point, at least in part, was, like Sinclair Lewis’ in 1935, that it could have happened here. And that it still can.

Not long before his death, Roth was asked, via email, if it has already happened here.   This is his response:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump.  Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927.  He had character and he had substance…

“…Trump is just a con artist.  The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s “The Confidence-Man,” the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel … that could just as well have been called “The Art of the Scam.”

Roth was then asked if Trump outstrips the novelist’s imagination.  He replied:

“It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type – the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist – that outstrips the imagination.  It is Trump as President of the United States.”

After describing his very different feelings about Franklin Roosevelt, who was President for the first twelve years of his life, Roth went on to say:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

Finally, Roth was asked what role he saw for American writers today in light of Trump’s efforts to muzzle writers – so far, mainly journalists – who are critical of him. He replied:

“Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, American writers haven’t had their driver’s licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless – or until – there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump’s river of lies…

He then went on: “…many passages in “The Plot Against America” echo feelings voiced today by vulnerable Americans – immigrants and minorities as alarmed by Trump’s election as the Jews of Newark are frightened by Lindbergh’s.  The book also chronicles their impulse of denial.”

Lindbergh’s election, he explained, made clear “that the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything,” and that, even in the Land of the Free, the worst could happen.

He then concluded; “… As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

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).