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Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead

For centuries, philosophers and logicians have used the word “antinomy” to designate mutually inconsistent conclusions each of which are supported by sound arguments.  Anglophone philosophers nowadays use the term mainly in connection with some deep and thorny issues arising in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Shorn of the technical meanings that cluster around the term, and speaking loosely, it would be fair to say that, in this November’s midterm elections, voters will be confronting a colossal antinomy.

On the one hand, there are good and compelling reasons to vote for Democrats.

On the other, except in rare cases where the Democratic candidate is someone that a broad-minded, non-sectarian, moderately progressive voter could conscientiously support, there are good and compelling reasons to hand that (slightly) less odious duopoly party the thrashing it deserves.

This is not to say that there will be good reasons to vote for Republicans this November; there almost never are, and this year will be no exception.

Neither is it just to say that the familiar arguments for and against lesser evil voting apply. They do, of course; as much as ever, but that is no longer the whole story – except perhaps for voters who are fine with Democrats and Republicans as they are.

Call it the voter’s dilemma. On the one hand, lesser evils are, by definition, better than greater evils; and voters ought always to aim at better outcomes.  On the other hand, lesser evil voting produces evil (very bad) outcomes, stifles political initiatives, and propels a race to the bottom.  Lesser evil voting has played a major role in making the Democratic Party as awful as it is.

I have argued against lesser evil voting many times on this site and elsewhere, and I have almost always voted accordingly – either by voting for the Green candidate or, when there was none, by writing in names that would convey to anyone who cared that mine was strictly a protest vote.  Needless to say, no one cared; perhaps no one even knew.

I cannot say, though, that I deserve credit for acting in a principled (but also pointless) way.  I cannot even say that I have had to struggle with the issue.

This is because, in recent decades, the only elections in which I, like most Americans, could vote had outcomes that were predictable with almost complete certainty weeks or even months in advance.

In my view, voting for Republicans, in these or any circumstances, is unthinkable; and voting for Democrats, in the circumstances that actually obtain in electoral contests in which I can vote, would just be piling it on.

Worse, it would do nothing to keep the greater evil at bay, but it would convey the message that the lesser evil is at least acceptable.  It is not, no matter how much better it may be than the only feasible alternative.

But this is how it goes in our so-called democracy.  For voters dealing with the voter’s dilemma, the most important thing is where they live. Geography is destiny.

***

This would be bad enough, but Donald Trump has added a new wrinkle.

With him on the scene, setting an example, empowering scoundrels and imbeciles to run the government, and unleashing the social pathologies of a lost nation, the old pros and cons, though relevant, seem overtaken by events.

The reason why is that this time around, as never before, the greater and lesser evils are of a qualitatively different nature.  This may not change everything, but it changes a lot – in ways that suggest that the old arguments ought to give way, at least to some extent, to more urgent concerns.

This cannot be blamed on Democrats.  They are bad news, but it is not because of them that it has become necessary to rethink the old moorings.

It is one thing to hope that Democrats win and another to conclude that, all things considered, the case for voting for them is compelling. But however voters sort that issue out, it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt is that there is only one reason to wish Democrats well this November: the fact that they will be running against Republicans.

This has been a pertinent consideration for as long as anyone still living can remember.  It has been an absolutely compelling consideration since even before the Tea Party days.

Reasons to wish Democrats ill this November are also old hat.  The basic point has been the same since even before the Clintons and their co-thinkers took the party over, effectively purging the party’s feeble left wing.

In a word, it’s their politics, stupid.

To be sure, it is more likely than not that, among the candidates the Democrats will be fielding this year, there will be more who actually are worth voting forthan there usually are.

Trump’s unsuitability for the office he holds, the harm he and his underlings have caused, and the vileness of his personal qualities have brought new life to the less odious duopoly party, motivating people who would never have otherwise thought to do so to run for office on the Democratic ticket.

The irony is sweet.  It is unlikely, though, that much will come of it – not anyway by November.

For one thing, the chances that the party will change significantly are practically nil.  Those who think otherwise hope in vain.

But just in case, the party’s leaders and corporate donors are already hard at work assuring that no matter how much things do change, everything that matters to them will remain the same.

It could be different in a presidential campaign.  Then a Bernie Sanders or someone like him could at least rattle the windows of the party elites.  Were that to happen, the powers that be just might find themselves unable to keep real changes at bay.

We know that this is possible because it happened in 2016 — or rather it would have happened had the fix not been in, and had Sanders not been so eager to capitulate.  Trump turns everything he touches topsy-turvy, but, even with him in the White House, “does” still implies “can.”

Unfortunately, though, there can be no presidential election until November 2020, and no new president can take over before late January 2021.  A lot of what Bush the Father would call “do do” could hit the fan before then.

Uncoordinated, far-flung Congressional and Senate campaigns, and campaigns for state and local offices, are not the stuff out of which far-reaching changes in party structures or sustainable political movements are made.

If and when radical change does happen, it will owe more to local organizing efforts than to elections as we know them.  Our elections are little more than national sales campaigns that degrade the very idea of democracy itself.

In theory, they are about free and equal citizens pursuing the common good through rational deliberation and collective choice.  In practice, what Democrats and Republicans do is sell candidates to passive voters in much the way that marketers peddle consumer goods to mass audiences.

Much of the organizing on which the prospects for real change depend will have little, if anything, to do with elections.  In a government truly of, by, and for the people, elections matter, but they are not where the action is.

We are a long way, though, from government of, by, and for the people.

The upcoming midterms will matter mainly for how their results will affect the most urgent task at hand — hobbling Trump and those who govern under him.

Democrats are more energized than they were two years ago, and probably also less Clintonian – less in the thrall of neoliberal ideology, less tempted by “humanitarian” imperialism, and less eager to use military force.

But they are still the party whose policies and pusillanimity made the Trump phenomenon possible, if not inevitable.

And they are a party that has not yet even begun to settle accounts with the Clintonites in its leadership and rank-and-file.

They are also still the party beating the war drums loudest.

In that, they are worse than Trump.  How pathetic is that!

And how pitiful that they and their media – CNN, MSNBC, NPR and the “quality” press — fault Trump so vehemently for the ways that his express views on matters of war and peace put the Democrats’ to shame.

To be sure, Trump’s motives are always dubious and often sleazy, and it is far from clear that any good will come from anything he has done or will do.  But Democrats are worse.

Back in the nineties, when Christopher Hitchens started to veer far to the right, I used to think that, despite everything, someone who hates Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa can’t be all bad.  Awful as Trump is, it is hard not to feel much the same way for someone who wants to diminish the likelihood of war – with nuclear powers, no less – and who hates CNN, Amazon, and The Washington Post.

It is similarly hard to keep Republicans in the crosshairs, in view of the moral decadence of the rival party.

The evidence is ubiquitous, but nowhere as disconcerting as when questions about Israel and Palestine arise.

With liberal Jews increasingly appalled by Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, and with Christian Zionists in Trump’s pocket, liberal Democrats still do all they can to avoid the subject, and when they cannot, what they have to say is either uncritical or preposterously tepid.

Israeli soldiers mow down unarmed, peaceful protestors with live ammunition along the Gaza border – killing scores and wounding thousands – while Democrats wring their hands and utter misleading bromides about how countries have a right to defend their borders.

It was the same or worse during and immediately after each of the wars or, rather, asymmetrical displays of military force that the Israel Defense Forces – “the most moral army in the world” — waged against the scarcely armed people of Gaza.

A difference, though, was that in 2008 (“Operation Cast Lead”), 2012 (“Operation Pillar of Defense”) and 2014 (“Operation Protective Edge”), the IDF was careful to include a patina of humanitarian concern as it proceeded with its depredations.

No longer.  Perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu and his ghastly cohort have decided that with Trump in the White House, his ethnocrat son-in-law, Jared Kushner, advising him on the Middle East, and his bankruptcy lawyer and settlement movement financier David Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel, there is no need.  Rightwing Jewish Zionists of the Sheldon Adelson sort don’t care, and ungodly Evangelicals awaiting the End Times (and the damnation or conversion of the Jews) care even less.

It is true, of course, that, on these matters, as on most others, Republicans are worse.  But if Democrats cannot find it within themselves to speak out forcefully against crimes of such magnitude, if they will not lift a finger to stop the murder and mayhem, which they could because the United States is the main enabler of it, then the Clintonite bastards – not just Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, but the whole rotten lot of them — deserve all the grief that can be laid upon them.

There is no way on earth a person of conscience could vote for Democrats such as them.  End of story.  QED.

***

But, on the other hand, there are Trump and the Republicans.

There is no need to elaborate on the dangers they pose – to planet earth, to world peace, and to the limited but important social gains of the past hundred plus years.  Everyone whose brain is correctly wired and who has been paying even the slightest attention knows how dangerous Trump and the Republicans are.

Again, QED.

It isn’t just Trump.  It is also Mike Pence and, worst of all, it is Trump’s minions.

That cesspool is in constant flux, and keeps getting worse.  Consider, for example, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, John Bolton.  He makes ordinary neocons look almost good.

And then there is Trump’s new Director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, formerly a financial commentator on the cable networks.  Kudlow is not even a trained economist, he just plays one on TV; and if they gave a prize for getting the most things wrong in that medium, he would probably win hands down.

He is also as servile a flunky as the Donald could desire.  On Trump’s orders, one presumes, the he knocked himself out berating Justin Trudeau, calling him a “back-stabber,” following the line set by the tantrum Trump threw on Air Force One on his way form Quebec to Singapore. What he got for his troubles, besides universal contempt, was a mild heart attack, leading some to conclude that perhaps God does exist, after all.

On that, I’d withhold judgment until Trump himself succumbs from one cheeseburger too many.

The law is closing in on him, and, while neither his nor his children’s fortunes seem to be suffering yet, it is likely that, if the world survives his presidency, his brand will at some point become toast.

At this point, a garden-variety mountebank would cut his losses and run.  Not the Donald; he is too deluded for that.  This is why cheeseburgers may be the best hope for seeing the back of him any time soon.

But, even with our “no backsies” electoral laws, and all our other non- and anti-democratic  political institutions, how is it possible for someone like Trump to hold onto power when so many people – not just Democrats – are on to him?  The short answer is: his base.

It isn’t ideology that holds that wretched base together; Trump has no ideology, and neither do most of his fans.  Neither is it Trump’s magnetic (actually repellent) face, form, figure or personality. Is there anyone, even within the Fox News demographic, who actually admires him?  Or has any affection for him?

And yet, they stand by their man.

Even some Republicans not up for reelection are calling the Trump base a cult.  Solid ideologues, with impeccable reactionary credentials, from the most benighted regions are now thinking in those terms!

Insofar as they are right, it makes perfect sense that Donnie and the Little Rocket Man would hit it off so well; they are birds of a feather, after all, soul mates under the skin.

The personality cult around Kim Jong-un involves every North Korean man, woman, and child; Trump’s personality cult is neither as broad nor as deep.  But since his cult doesn’t require a massive police state apparatus to be sustained while Kim’s does, Trump the flagrant egotist can live with that.

Nobody knows what Koreans would make of their Dear Leader if they weren’t coerced.  But we do have some understanding of the ways that Trump is thought of among the forty percent or so of the American electorate who comprise the Trump’s base.

There is, after all, a vast literature on the mass psychology of fascism.  It doesn’t apply automatically to the case at hand. Except at the margins, Trump’s supporters are not fascists, and Trump himself hardly rises to the level of a fascist theoretician.

Historical defeats suffered by popular movements in the revolutionary uprisings that followed World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution made fascism possible.

The Trump base emerged out of a rather different reality, one grounded in increasing inequality and the general coarsening of the ambient culture epitomized in the career of the reality television mogul and star who became America’s Commander-in-Chief.

The differences are legion, but the underlying psychology is very much the same: personality cults depend on the idea that the object of their veneration is somehow vested with abilities denied to practitioners of “normal” politics.  The idea that Trump is a master negotiator and that America will become “great again,” whatever that means, if Trump sets his mind to it and is allowed to call the shots, falls under that description.

Legitimating that way of thinking is high on the list of very bad things Trump has done.

Whether or not, by the usual lesser evil standards, there is a case for doing whatever is necessary to defeat Trump, even if that means setting aside the case for telling Democrats to go to hell, there is a compelling case for doing just that on the grounds that the Trump has let loose this plague within the body politic.

For Kant — and later within the tradition of “classical German philosophy,” a line of thought that encompasses Hegel’s and arguably also Marx’s dialectical logic — the way to deal with an antinomy is to “overcome” it by incorporating its contradictory elements into a higher unity.

Insofar as it is fair to use “antinomy” to describe the situation voters who, for good and compelling reasons, find both duopoly parties impossible to support (even if one is better than the other by most measures), the task ahead is to forge a political practice that transcends the theory and practice of our duopoly party system and the electoral illusions based upon it.

This is not going to happen before November – not least because there is no significant organized political movement militating for it.  Even the so-called “resistance” is wedded to the status quo, functioning as little more than the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But even if there is no way, for now, to transcend the antinomy ahead, it is possible to degrade its elements through what John Stuart Mill called “the moral coercion of public opinion.”

This is something even lone individuals can help do, even as the electoral circus plays itself out.

The more that kind of work gets done, the more the duopoly parties will be disabled from doing harm, and the better prepared the public will be for the time when straightforwardly superseding the antinomy that underlies the impending voter’s dilemma situation finally does come on the agenda.

***

What is called for now, for want of any better alternative is active, militant shaming.

The Trump base is not what it is solely on the strength of an inverted lesser evil argument –Republicans suck, but Democrats suck worse —  the desperate pleas for “recognition” we hear so much about, and the natural reluctance of people who have been bamboozled to admit that they were wrong.  Beyond all that, there is something more pathological going on.

Under Trump, an American nightmare is coming true; the “American dream” is being stood on its feet.

It takes willful blindness to connect Trump to the illusions we live by.  That rich people are smart is high on the list.  Trump may seem bonkers, but many Americans “know” this cannot really be the case because – look at all the money he has.

In fact, how much money he has is a mystery, but, even if he has all he claims he does, and even if he made it all himself, which of course, he hasn’t, it surely ought to be relevant that the man has never made an honest buck in his life.  He relies on political juice, vulgar publicity, and stiffing creditors and workers in his employ.  None of this matters, though, because he is rich.

He is also as Rex Tillerson, his deposed Secretary of State, aptly put it: “a fucking moron.”  Tillerson was right, of course, but in fairness it must be said that Trump is extremely good at one thing – conning people.  Even now, when his marks should all know better, the con goes on.

Objects of personality cults generally have a gift for winning over the hearts and minds of “useful idiots” – intellectuals, artists and cultural figures – along with large swathes of the public.  Because integrity is still not dead, Trump doesn’t have many useful idiots eager to make his case; what he has are mindless celebrities, famous for being famous.

They are easy prey for shaming.  So are the kinds of people who buy Trump brand products and who stay at Trump resorts and hotels.

Not only is the truth about all this there, it has been in plain sight all along.  Trump’s most ardent fans may not know much about it (or anything else), but, before he came down that accursed escalator at Trump Tower, the Donald  had spent a lifetime cultivating the tabloid press.  He was already enough of a phenomenon on the New York scene to attract the attention of quite a few investigative journalists.  Their findings have been there for a long time for all to see.

But most of it has never sunk in; facts have a hard time registering with the Donald’s admirers.

Still, with each passing day, more damning facts come to light, including facts about how practically everybody in the world who is not a rightwing zealot, a vassal of the Saudi royal family or an Israeli views Trump with complete and utter contempt.

Even some of the Republican miscreants who have gone along with their party becoming the Trump’s party know it in their hearts.  Perhaps even the pundits and “experts” on the liberal cable channels know it too, even as they explain how Trump’s craziness may not be craziness after all, but rather a shrewd negotiating strategy.

Those cable networks do have a lot of time to fill, especially when they ignore real news in order to go on 24/7 talking about Trump 24/7.  Even so, when they hold out the prospect of method in the madness, they are just being ridiculous.

To have a strategy, you have to have a goal.  Trump’s only goal is his own enrichment and aggrandizement.  His craziness is not a part of any master plan; it is just what it looks like, neither more nor less – unhinged craziness, pure and simple.

Therefore, the goal now is to spread the word in the hope, if not the expectation, that even hard core Trumpians will see the light.

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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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