Rotten to the Heart: Authoritarian Chickens Roosting at Home

Photo by T toes | CC BY 2.0

Yes, He’s Awful

Much of what liberals say about Donald Trump and the chilling political moment the Trump presidency represents is true enough.

Trump really is the arch-authoritarian malignant narcissist that liberals say he is.  Trump thinks he deserves to rule the nation like an absolute monarch or some ridiculous Banana Republic dictator.  He believes he’s above all the law, consistent with Louis XIV’s dictum L’etat, C’est Moi (“the state is me”). The notion that Trump can pardon himself from any crime really is the height of imperial arrogance.

Trump really does value nothing but the advancement of his own wealth and image. There is no person, no principle, no higher loyalty he is not willing to sacrifice on the altar of self.

Trump really is the almost perfect embodiment of venal malevolence that liberals say he is. The idiotic military parade Trump has scheduled for the next Veterans Day is an exercise in proto-fascistic, Mussolini-like imperial-presidential self-adulation.

This racist and sexist beast befouls the nation and world with his ghastly, eco-cidal presence. The sooner he draws his last undeserved breath, the better for all living things (or maybe not: Mike Pence could be worse).

The Authoritarian and Inauthentic Opposition

Fine, but why does this despicable, orange-tinted insult to common human decency occupy the White House? He holds the most powerful office in the world because the Democratic Party has long been and remains what the late liberal-left Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin called the Inauthentic Opposition. “Should Democrats somehow be elected,” Wolin prophesied in early 2008, they would do nothing to “alter significantly the direction of society” or “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts,” Wolin wrote, “points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”

Wolin called it. A nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Barack Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton) – a different and possibly more dangerous kind of malignant narcissist– was the standard “elite” neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big-money bankrollers and their global empire. Wall Street’s control of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s first Black president than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The reigning U.S. system of corporate and imperial “inverted totalitarianism” (Wolin) was given a deadly, fake-democratic re-branding.  The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did nothing to correct that problem.  Quite the opposite. With a colossal campaign finance war-chest fed not just by the usual Wall Street and Silicon Valley suspects but also by many traditionally Republican big money donors who were repelled by Trump’s faux “populism,” the transparently corporate establishmentarian candidate Clinton could barely deign to pretend to be a progressive.  She ran almost completely on the argument that Trump was too terrible and unqualified to be president. Making candidate character and qualities her sole selling point was a critical and historic mistake given the angry and anti-establishment mood of the electorate and her own epic unpopularity. So was calling Trump’s flyover county supporters a “basket of” racist and sexist “deplorables” in a sneering comment (one that accurately reflected her aristocratic “progressive”-neoliberal world view) to rich Manhattan campaign donors.

Authoritarianism? Single-Payer national health insurance had long been supported by most U.S.-Americans when Obama ascended to the White House. Who cared? Not the “radical socialist” Barack Obama. Like the Clintons before him, Obama coldly froze Single Payer advocates out of the health insurance policy debate. He worked with the leading drug and insurance corporations and their Wall Street backers to craft a richly corporatist “reform” that preserved those companies’ power to write their super-profits into the obscenely exaggerated cost of American medical care.

As our greatest intellectual Noam Chomsky noted two years ago, Obama “punished more whistle-blowers than all previous presidents combined.” The Obama administration repeatedly defended George W. Bush’s position on behalf of indefinite detention, maintaining that prisoners (US-Americans included) in the US global “war on [of] terror” were not entitled to habeas corpus or protection from torture or execution. Obama carried overseas assassination (by drone and Special Forces) – execution (even of U.S. citizens) without trial or even formal charge – to new levels. Regarding Obama’s drone assassination program, Chomsky wrote acidly about how “the [Obama] Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch alone.  The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed.  King John (1199-1216) might have nodded with satisfaction.”

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Vice Presidential ticket partner, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), is currently a leading sponsor of the “Forever AUMF 2018” (SJRes 59(Authority for the Use of Military Force). As the ACLU’s Renee Parsons explains, the measure would “ eliminate Congress’ sole, inviolate Constitutional authority ‘to declare war.’” It “would remove Congress from its statutory authority as it transfers ‘uninterrupted’ authority on ‘the use of all necessary and appropriate force’ to one individual.” That would garner another thumbs-up from King John.

Such examples are just tips of the richly bipartisan “deep state” iceberg of authoritarian class and imperial rule that lurks beneath the visible-state surface dramas of “our” so-called and oxymoronic “capitalist democracy.”  (See my book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracyfor a more comprehensive account, just one of many studies [here’s a recent one] that document the eclipse of anything like democracy in New Gilded Age America)

The Democrats: Corrupt, not Feckless

The Democrats could well have won the 2016 election by running Bernie Sanders. Bernie would have tapped popular anger from the center-left, advancing a policy agenda and anti-plutocratic sentiments consistent with longstanding majority-progressive public opinion in the U.S. But so what? The Democratic nomination process was rigged against Sanders for some very good ruling-class reasons. As William Kaufman told Barbara Ehrenreich on Facebook last year, “The Democrats aren’t feckless, inept, or stupid, unable to ‘learn’ what it takes to win. They are corrupt. They do not want to win with an authentically progressive program because it would threaten the economic interests of their main corporate donor base… The Democrats know exactly what they’re doing.  They have a business model: sub-serving the interests of the corporate elite.”

The reigning corporate Democrats would rather lose to the right, even to a proto-fascistic white nationalist and eco-exterminist right, than lose to the left, even to a mildly progressive social democratic left within their own party.

Among other things, Russiagate is the Inauthentic Opposition, following its business model, doing its job, working to cover its tracks by throwing the debacle of its corporatist politics down Orwell’s memory hole and attributing its self-made defeat to Russia’s allegedly powerful interference in our supposed democracy. Russiagate is meant to provide corporate Democrats cover not only for 2016 but also for 2018 and 2020.  It advances a narrative that lets the Democrats continue nominating business-friendly neoliberal shills and imperialists who pretend to be progressive while they are owned by the nation’s homegrown oligarchs. This year’s crop of Democratic Congressional candidates is loaded with military and intelligence veterans, a reflection of the Democrats’ determination to run as the true party of empire.

“Some Discipline and Pragmatism to the Oval Office”

Under the cover of Russiagate, the pinstripe politicos atop the nation’s not-so leftmost major party seem to have the Sanders wing under control.  Clintonite Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Tom Perez purged progressive, Sanders Democrats from leading positions in the DNC last fall. Bernie-endorsed candidates have flailed in the Democrats’ 2018 Congressional primaries. The not-so “socialist” Sanders’ not-so revolutionary “political [though not social] revolution” seems largely spent, skewered on the fork of a major party electoral-industrial-complex it falsely promised to transform from within. In the Iowa Democratic gubernatorial primary last Tuesday, the progressive Democrat union member and “Our Revolution” candidate Cathy Glasson was trounced by the vapid and centrist but super-wealthy businessman Fred Hubbell, who self-financed his campaign with millions of dollars.

I recently watched a “liberal” morning CNN talking head salivate over the prospect of the Democrats running a billionaire business mogul who “shares the party’s world view” – someone like the just-retired Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. The latte and cappuccino mogul recently and absurdly ripped the Democratic Party for “going so far to the left.” Sounding like a once-traditional Republican, Schultz elaborated:

“I say to myself, ‘How are we going to pay for these things,’ in terms of things like single payer [and] people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job. I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we got to get away from these falsehoods and start talking about the truth and not false promises…I think the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations. The only way we’re going to get out of that is we’ve got to grow the economy, in my view, 4 percent or greater. And then we have to go after entitlements.”

How to pay for progressive policies long but irrelevantly supported by most U.S.-Americans? With (to mention some other measures that have long been quaintly and trivially preferred by most U.S. citizens) seriously progressive taxation including a financial transaction tax and with a long-overdue transfer of taxpayer dollars from the bloated and monumentally mass-murderous Pentagon budget.  There’s nothing remotely mysterious about how we could fund Single Payer and green jobs programs that would help save the nation and (oh, by the way) the human race from the actual  “greatest threat to the country” (and to the world): environmental catastrophe, fed by toxic capitalist “growth” (let’s hit “4 percent of higher”!) and with the climate crisis (“climate change” does not begin to capture to the gravity of the problem) in the lead.

Here’s the accurate translation for “go after entitlements”: (1) slash Social Security and Medicare further; (2) use the fiscal crisis created by arch-plutocratic tax cuts for the already absurdly rich and by the persistently gargantuan “defense” (empire) budget as an excuse to decimate further the already weak U.S. social safety net and to (in what promises to be an epic windfall for Wall Street) privatize the nation’s old age insurance system.  The real entitlement that matters most – the inherited oligarchic class rule and despotism of capital over workers, citizens, and ever more poisoned commons – remains untouched and is indeed expanded in coffee baron Schultz’s glorious “liberal” agenda,

All of which is fairly consistent with the Wall Street- and corporate-friendly records and agenda of the Democratic Party during and between the ugly “neoliberal” years when a Georgia peanut farmer (deregulation leader Jimmy Carter) and two silver-tongued Ivy League law school graduates (NAFTA champion and public assistance-wrecker Bill Clinton and big bank bailout champion and Trans Pacific Partnership advocate Barack Obama) occupied the White House.  I expect the dismal Democrats to nominate the longtime centrist politician Joe “Regular Guy” Biden (who claims he would have kicked Trump’s ass in high school) or the newly hatched faux-progressive Senator and former longtime prosecutor Kamala “Obama 2.0” Harris (D-CA), but, hey, why not go full corporate monty and try to put an actual full-on corporate CEO in the White House in the name of the Democratic Party’s “liberal world view”? As the “liberal” New York Timesapprovingly explains:

“The election of Mr. Trump, a real estate developer and reality television personality, certainly opened that door of opportunity, making it clear that American voters were willing to elect a president with no prior government experience….American companies — including Starbucks — have become more political in recent years, wading into issues like immigration, gun rights and climate policy…And at a moment when many voters say they are frustrated with partisan gridlock and ineffective government programs, some believe that an efficiency-minded business executive might bring some discipline and pragmatism to the Oval Office.”

Besides Schultz, other corporate CEOs I’ve heard and read self-described liberals discuss as potentially desirable presidential candidates include Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, Disney CEO Bob Iger, Facebook’s spooky cult-leader Mark Zuckerberg, and even the JP Morgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon. What the Hell: why not drop the pretense of independence from the nation’s corporate and financial dictatorship and run an actual corporate or financial chieftain for president?

That would be an act of oligarchic honesty on the part of the dismal dollar Dems.  “I like the idea of Dimon,” one left correspondent writes me: “maybe with him as a candidate people would finally wake up to the fact that the Democrats are the real problem.” Don’t hold your breath. “Because,” another comrade tells me, “being a ruthless plutocrat is their world view.”

“Trump is Terrible, So Let’s Give Him More Spying and Killing Powers!”

What is the Democrats’ leading cry?  That the terrible Trump is truly terrible – and a tool of Russia. And, of course, the “terrible” part is all too terribly true – the Russia part not so much. But after you’ve bemoaned the terribleness of Trump for the ten thousandth time, are you ready to get serious about the systemic and richly bipartisan, oligarchic context within which Trump has emerged?  “The Trump administration,” Chris Hedges reminded us on Truthdig two weeks ago, “did not rise… like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy…. The problem is not Trump,” writes Hedges. “It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count” (emphasis added).

And if Trump is as much of a dangerous and authoritarian monster as liberal Democrats say he is (and he is), then why, pray tell, have most Democrats in Congress been willing to grant him record levels of military funding along with re-authorized and expanded warrantless surveillance and spying powers? Why are Tim Kaine and other top Democrats ready to grant him (and his successors) a freaking “Forever AUMF”? Hello? What does that say about the not-so leftmost of the two reigning corporate parties? The glaring schizophrenia (“Trump is a monster, let’s give him more war and spying powers!”) is yet more proof that the Democrats are indeed an inauthentic opposition, committed to the same imperial and police state Trump heads today.  They are merely waiting to put one of their ruling-class own atop the same exact and in fact richly bipartisan structures.

What Goes Around: “Trampling on the Helpless Abroad” Comes Home

A final matter concerns the problem of imperial chickens coming home to roost. Liberals don’t like to hear it, but the ugly, richly documented historical fact of the matter is that their party of binary and tribal choice has long joined Republicans in backing and indeed crafting a U.S. foreign policy that has imposed authoritarian regimes (and profoundly undemocratic interventions including invasions and occupations) the world over. The roster of authoritarian and often-mass murderous governments the U.S. military and CIA and allied transnational business interests have backed, sometimes even helped create, with richly bipartisan support, is long indeed.

Last fall, Illinois Green Party leader Mike Whitney ran some fascinating numbers on the 49 nation-states that the right-wing “human rights” organization Freedom House identified as “dictatorships” in 2016. Leaving aside Freedom House’s problematic inclusion of Russia, Cuba, and Iran on its list, the most remarkable thing about Whitney’s research was his finding that the U.S. offered military assistance to 76 percent of these governments. (The only exceptions were Belarus, China, Central African Republic, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria.). “Most politically aware people,” Whitney wrote:

“know of some of the more highly publicized instances examples of [U.S. support for foreign dictatorships], such as the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of US military assistance provided to the beheading capital of the world, the misogynistic monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and the repressive military dictatorship now in power in Egypt… apologists for our nation’s imperialistic foreign policy…try to rationalize such support, arguing that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are exceptions to the rule.  But my survey…demonstrates that our government’s support for Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not exceptions to the rule at all. They are the rule.”

The Pentagon and State Department data Whitney used came from Fiscal Year 2015.  It dated from the next-to-last year of the Obama administration, for which so many liberals recall with misplaced nostalgia. Freedom House’s list should have included Honduras, ruled by a vicious right-wing government that Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped install in a June 2009 military coup.

The problem here isn’t just liberal hypocrisy and double standards. The deeper issue is that, as the great American iconoclast Mark Twain knew, you cannot maintain democracy at home while conducting an authoritarian empire abroad.  During the United States’ blood-soaked invasion and occupation of the Philippines, Twain penned an imaginary history of the twentieth-century United States. “It was impossible,” Twain wrote, “to save the Great Republic.  She was rotten to the heart.  Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”

“Just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words,” the historian Alfred W. McCoy has observed, “colonial police methods came home to serve as a template for the creation of an American internal security apparatus in wartime.” The nation’s first Red Scare, which crushed left and labor movements during and after World War One, drew heavily on the lessons and practices of colonial suppression in the Philippines and Cuba. As McCoy shows in his latest book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,the same basic process – internal U.S. repression informed and shaped by authoritarian and imperial practices abroad and justified by alleged external threats to the “homeland” – has recurred ever since.  Today, the rise of an unprecedented global surveillance state overseen by the National Security Agency has cost the US the trust of many of its top global allies (under Bush43 and Obama44, not just under Trump45) while undermining civil liberties and democracy within as beyond the U.S.

“The fetters imposed on liberty at home,” James Madison wrote in 1799, “have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.” Those are wise words well worth revisiting amidst the current endless Russiagate madness, calculated among other things to tell us that the FBI, the CIA, and the rest of the nation’s vast and ever more ubiquitous intelligence and surveillance state are on our side.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).