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Tipping Points


It is an axiom of American politics that there is one born every minute.  Even so, it boggles the mind to think that so many Americans fell for Donald Trump’s con two years ago.  Many did, however, and now he is president of the United States.

To be sure, it was the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that put him in office.  Still, some sixty-three million Americans voted for him.

This was impossible to justify, even before it became as clear as it soon would be, how manifestly unfit Trump is for the office he now holds. However, it is not hard to understand why so many people allowed themselves to be snookered.

The Trump vote was a rebuke to the dead center in a neoliberal age.  This was not an “exceptional” phenomenon; all over the world, center left and center right political parties are losing support and drawing the ire of voters that they used to count upon.

For the most part, though, the center is holding — in the United States and, with few exceptions, elsewhere.  There is nothing quite as dead center as the Democratic Party.

The conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats are a party of the center-left.  That gives them too much credit.

But because better alternatives are all but precluded by America’s electoral institutions and by a duopoly party system that effectively neuters political initiatives that fall outside the “bipartisan” ambit, the Democratic Party is where leftists go when they want to step out of the margins and into the mainstream.

Witness the Bernie Sanders campaign two years ago.  Running as a Democrat in caucuses and primaries, Sanders did almost well enough to become the Democrats’ nominee, notwithstanding the efforts of party leaders, Clinton-friendly political machines, and liberal corporate media to keep him and his supporters in the margins.  Had the nomination process been fairer, he could have become the nominee.

And once it became clear that the system was rigged, he could have led his supporters out of the Democratic fold, either by running as a Green or as an independent.  Instead, he let the party crush the insurgency he started.

This was unfortunate, but understandable.  Had he not relented, Democrats would now be attacking him even more viciously than they attacked Ralph Nader for having the temerity to run against Al Gore and George W. Bush eighteen years ago.  It hardly matters that we now know that the party unity that ensued, following Sanders’ capitulation, did not keep Trump at bay.   Nobody could have known that then.

And so Sanders stood by as Democratic Party leaders crushed the insurgency his campaign launched.  In exchange, they allowed him back into their good graces.  From his perch among them, he kvetches to his heart’s content.

And he still influences unreconstructed Sandersnistas.  Some of them comprise what they call a “resistance.” Despite its militant name, the party establishment tolerates it.  Why would they not?  Had the Clintons and their co-thinkers not long ago purged the party of its feeble left wing, its politics today would be about the same.

There are other erstwhile Sandersnistas and others who were never part of the Sanders insurgency who have bolder ambitions.  They want to transform the Democratic Party beyond recognition.  Inasmuch as replacing it altogether is a non-starter, this is as good as it gets.  In anything like its present state, the Democratic Party is, as they say, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Thanks to Trump, the party will have a harder time maintaining the status quo in 2018 than it did two years ago.  What a splendid irony that would be!

In 2016, the Democratic Party stayed on course; it remained the place where even the most anodyne progressive initiatives go to die.

But even for such a wretched excuse of a “center-left” party, losing to Trump took some doing. It would probably not have happened had the party been able to field a less unappealing Clintonite who was not so thoroughly identified, in the public mind, with assaults on the dignity and wellbeing of the working class.   Maybe even Joe Biden could have saved the day.

Getting to run against one of the least palatable nationally prominent Democrats around was not Trump’s only lucky break.  He also got to run at just the moment when disgust with politics as usual was boiling over; and he got to run for the GOP nomination against a gaggle of dodos, some of them even more ridiculous than he.

With all this good fortune, it is tempting to think that the gods are setting the Donald up for a monumental fall.

That is my hope; that and that a popular insurgency more militant and more politically evolved than the one that almost brought Bernie Sanders to power does indeed transform the party of the Clintons, of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and of those who think like them, radically for the better.

Because there was no chance of anything like that happening two years ago, otherwise decent and intelligent people found themselves voting for Trump.  That was unforgivable, but rational enough not to defy comprehension.

That so many of them are still standing by their man does defy comprehension or at least comes perilously close.

That there are people who still haven’t caught on to Trump’s con, or have caught on but don’t care, is alarming.  The thought that their delusions might continue indefinitely is enough to cause a rational being to despair for the human race.

Because I am not yet ready to give in to despair, I have to believe that there are tipping points beyond which even the willful ignorance of Trump supporters cannot reach.

But where are those tipping points and when, if at all, will they assert themselves?

***

One would think that people capable of being moved by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan would by now have turned against Trump on account of the countless ways that he embarrasses America before the world.

The man, after all, is a buffoon, and his antics had made America a laughing-stock.  How much more evidence of that could Trump supporters need?

Could it be that those “America firsters” simply don’t care about what Thomas Jefferson called a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind?”  It is either that or else their understanding of how their country looks to people around the world is of clinical interest only.

Trump’s unwitting assault on America’s “greatness” is not necessarily a bad thing.  Insofar as the derision his antics elicit would cause what Chalmers Johnson called “the sorrows of empire” to subside, even if only a tad, everyone would be better off.

Indeed, by undermining American “soft power” around the world, Trump has unintentionally thrown a lifeline to (small-r) republican values that have somehow managed to survive the imperialist turn that the republic took some thirteen or fourteen decades ago.

The problem is that with the Republican (=Trumpian) Party in power, and with Democrats in opposition, there is no political force in place capable of taking advantage of this deeply ironic turn of events.

And since not everything that diminishes American hegemony is created equal, we might actually be better off were Trump less intent on overturning the world order in place since the end of World War II.   Because it is so mindlessly conceived and conducted, Trump’s unwitting war on the dignity and decency of the American empire are bound to do more harm than good.

His antics do outrage the liberal establishment, however.  This doesn’t redeem them, but it might explain why comparatively lucid Trump supporters, a few do exist, seem to be fine with the many ways that Trump is denuding America of its  “greatness.”

In principle, though, there should be a tipping point beyond which even they would defect. With each passing day, Trump’s tweets become more ludicrous, and every narcissistic word out of his mouth, especially at those Nuremberg style “campaign rallies” he holds, is dumber than the last.

There is no need to site examples; there are nothing but examples.

No one could be as smart and adept at all he sets out to do as Trump proclaims himself to be, and no one could be as dumb and inept as he shows himself to be hour by waking hour.

Why, then, does that tipping point seem so elusive?  How is Trump able to defy rational expectations so thoroughly and for so long?

I get it, sort of: his supporters, the ones who are not certifiably sociopathic, hated Hillary that much.  And, although they don’t have much else in common, they, like anyone with a progressive bone in his or her body, hate the party of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi too. They are dumbed down and misinformed by Fox News and other rightwing media.  And, needless to say, many of them are not all that bright.

But they are sentient beings, able to navigate their way through the world with a modicum of intelligence; and many of them are good people in their ordinary lives.  Nearly all of them are less pernicious than Trump himself.

So what is their problem? Has the neoliberal world order turned them into hardcore nihilists?  Could they just not care?

There is no easy answer to these questions; that anyone would still support Trump seems unfathomable.

Hardcore Bible thumpers are the worst of the lot.  In their case, however, a dubious explanation has lately become conventional wisdom.  According to the pundits on the liberal cable news networks and in the “quality press,” it is all about the Supreme Court.

This seems unlikely on its face.  The evangelicals’ leaders do want to be able to discriminate on religious grounds and to be exempt from legal obligations they don’t care for; they call this “freedom of religion.”  But do they, much less the benighted souls they “serve,” really care about, or even know anything about, the Federalist Society or the Heritage Foundation?

Does Trump?  He certainly didn’t in his New York and Atlantic City deal-making days.  Back then, he could have cared less about evangelical conceptions of godliness. Why would he?  There was no percentage in it for him.

On the other hand, he has always cared a great deal about judges who might make rulings that could affect him and his money.  Like the consummately evil Roy Cohn, his mentor, Trump has always wanted judges he could get things out of in positions where they could be of use to him.  What they thought about fetuses or decorations on wedding cakes were not his concern.

Yet now, he and the most benighted evangelicals on the planet might as well be joined at the hip!

Trump didn’t make this happen on his own; it has been a long time coming.

I, for one, have a hard time taking those ungodly godly evangelicals seriously.  I still don’t quite see how the self-righteous puritanism of their spiritual ancestors could have “evolved” so much since The Scarlet Letter days that, for example, they had no problem with Sarah Palin when news broke ten years ago, after “maverick” John McCain picked her to be his running-mate, that her unmarried seventeen year old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.  Quite to the contrary, because there would be no abortion, Bristol’s  pre-marital love making made evangelicals love her mother all the more.

There was a time when abortion wasn’t much of a problem for evangelicals.  It was a problem for Catholics.  But, for Protestants generally and evangelicals especially, Catholics were a problem.

At first, by most accounts, Protestant opposition to abortion had more to do with demography than theology. The thought was that Catholics bred like rabbits; and that, at a time when immigration from Catholic countries was on the rise, Protestants would have to up their birthrates in order to maintain social and economic supremacy.

How then did it come to pass that rightwing Protestants and rightwing Catholics would join forces, as they have, in opposition to “choice?”

This is a vexing problem on many levels.

It is especially vexing inasmuch as Catholics are stereotypically associated with “outwardness,” with emphasizing ritual and caring little about what goes on inside parishioners’ minds.  Stereotypical Protestants are thought to be concerned with little else.

Catholics were praised but also mocked for their strategic “flexibility” and delight in earthly pleasures; Protestants became known for their steadfastness and earnest sullenness.

However, both Catholics and Protestants upheld the virtues of chastity and modesty.  For Catholics, though, what mattered even more than those virtues themselves was the appearance of virtue; Protestants focused more on the underlying reality.

How odd therefore that “social conservatism” would bring rightwing Catholics and rightwing Protestants together to the extent that it has.  Rightwing Catholics comprise a comparatively small minority within the Catholic fold; and many of them come from socially marginal Hispanic populations.  Rightwing Protestants are more numerous and mainly white.

And yet the prevailing ethos is more Catholic than Protestant.  No one these days seems more “flexible,” more ready to compromise principles in order to get what they want, than white evangelicals.

Thus modern defenders of the Old Time Religion are happy to let Trump’s flagrant libertinism slide.  Even his pussy grabbing, and his dalliances and payoffs to Playmates and other “escorts” and strippers, doesn’t faze them.

The conventional wisdom is that they will do anything to get reactionaries on the Supreme Court; and that even though many of them understand that Trump is with them for opportunistic reasons only – that he knows little and cares less about them or their beliefs — they will stand by him come what may as long as the Gorsuches and Kavanaughs keep coming.

Perhaps,they are not so dumb after all.  Trump has attitudes, not policy positions; he does nothing for principled reasons.  Even Bill Clinton, no mean opportunist himself, is a man of principle and pillar of rectitude in comparison.

Among Trump’s attitudes, are some that he has held on to over the years; he has been consistently racist and nativist, for example.  But, most of all, he has been a misogynist.  Could the God Squad see that in him — and identify with him on that account?  It is, after all, a well-known fact that, in godly quarters, misogyny precedes theology.

If I believed in the efficacy of prayer, I would now be praying fiercely for news to emerge that, over the years, Trump, fathered an aborted fetus or two.  It would be worth it just to see if that would shake the evangelicals’ faith.  I would wager that it would not — that those truest of true believers would find one way or another to excuse the Donald for his indiscretions.

But what if a Trump woman now had an abortion?  If that wouldn’t be a tipping point, for evangelicals, then nothing would.

I wouldn’t count on Ivanka doing anything good for her country or the world – bad seed.   I do still have hope for Melania, however – not that she will get herself knocked up and let Trump’s fixers, if he still has any, take care of the problem, but that she will find some way to pay Trump back for having made her a prisoner in a gilded castle.   I must say, though, that with each passing day that the Faustian bargain she entered into remains in force, my hopes fade.

Therefore, Tiffany, please listen up: it is not too late for you do your part for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Or, if you think that becoming pregnant and having an abortion is too much to ask, then at least follow the lead of Patti Davis (née Reagan), the daughter of another villainous, though less odious, president.   Patti had the decency to take her mother’s, not her father’s, name.

Your insecure and emotionally fragile father would have a hissy fit, of course.  Maybe to settle his nerves he would go off on an eating binge, encountering that fatal final cheeseburger.  But think of all the good you could do just by calling yourself “Tiffany Maples.”  There is probably no one on earth who, in this “year of Our Lord,” 2018, could do so much good with so little effort.

Or maybe not; maybe even that would not bring Trump’s godly supporters to a tipping point.  After all, they have shown themselves, time and again, capable of believing almost anything, no matter how preposterous.  Why then suppose that anything a Trump might do would wean them away from the idea that the Donald’s presidency is an instrument of providential design?

***

The Trump base is impervious to the obvious.  They neither see nor care that, by “Mak[ing] America Great Again,” their man is undermining the bases of American world domination.

This is what the Democratic Party, the corporate media that sides with it, and other pillars of the seemingly permanent old regime power structure find so appalling.  The Trump base is fine with it.

They are not entirely wrong. Making America a republic, not an empire, again, would be an excellent thing to do, if it were done right.  The problem is that Trump and his minions are incapable of doing anything right — beyond feathering their own nests, and feeding the vainglory of their Feckless Leader.

Many of them also seem ready to jettison all pretenses of human decency – according Trump a pass on, for example, tearing babies and toddlers away from their mothers.

The wickedness didn’t start with them; they are just the latest in a long line.  Children were taken from their parents and regularly victimized in the days of slavery and throughout the entire period of European settlement.

And as recently as during the Vietnam War, there were plenty of Americans who had no problem with killing babies.  The slogan, “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” is said to have moved Lyndon Johnson, but “the silent majority” didn’t mind.

Even today, it isn’t just Republicans who exhibit rank moral depravity.  Liberal Democrats like Chuck Schumer or Ben Cardin who act as apologists for Israeli depredations in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank do not seem even mildly embarrassed when the Israeli army kills or maims Palestinian children or separates them from their mothers and fathers.

Evidently, in their minds, the end – hardly a just end, by any reckoning other than the kind rightwing and mainstream Zionist ideologues and Low Church Protestant dispensationalist theologians promote — justifies the means.   For the ethnoracy’s sake, anything goes.

As a general rule, moral tipping points are as rare as snowstorms in July.  Another general rule is that no matter how awful others are, Trump and his followers are worse.

The problem is not that diehard Trumpians have no moral sense.  It is that like Israel’s ostensibly liberal defenders, they cast it aside when it is needed most.

There have been, and still are, many reasons to think that a tipping point is just around the corner. But then it never materializes.  Will it be like that with the Mueller investigation too?

The law is now closing in on the Trump TV reality show presidency.   Will Republican judges save the Donald’s sorry ass?  Will Fox News and the others convince his supporters that all the brouhaha is “fake news?”

Tune in and find out. I, for one, wouldn’t count on tipping points coming out of that quarter.

At one point during the 2016 campaign, Trump proudly boasted that if he walked out of Trump Tower and shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, his popularity would only increase.   We don’t know yet what the Mueller investigation equivalent of shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue is, but we will soon find out.

And we will likely also find out that Trump was right; that, for their own inscrutable or demented reasons, the gods have given Trump the gift of impunity — by seeing to it that he has a base that remains loyal to him come what may.

***

That leaves just “the economy, stupid.”   If there are tipping points anywhere, that is where they lie.

On the one hand, Trump has had unfathomable good fortune: he is riding the wave of a period of capital expansion, following the weak recovery that grew out of the Great Recession, the last major period of capital contraction.

That is how capitalist economies work – through cycles of boom and bust.  Thus what governments do is piggyback on processes that lie largely beyond their control.

Even so, what they do can be enormously consequential.  They can certainly make things worse.  Trump’s policies are all but certain to make things worse, though this is unlikely to happen, much less register in the public mind, in time for the impending midterm elections.

Governments can also make things better, though they seldom do.  Were it politically feasible nowadays for governments to put money into the economy in the ways that Keynes recommended, enhancing effective demand by increasing the incomes of workers and other direct producers, the situation might be different.

But nearly everything the government does these days enriches the already rich, and very little of the money that flows into capitalists’ coffers “trickles down.”

The Trump tax cuts are a case in point: they make the rich a whole lot richer.  Others, if they are lucky, get crumbs.

This does boost stock prices, however – not by stimulating the real economy, but by raising capitalists’ profit margins.

This is reflected in economic statistics that measure growth and employment – not in the way inequality-promoting politicians might suggest, but not in entirely fatuous ways either.

Therefore, Trump is not just blowing air when he takes credit for reported economic gains, but neither do his boasts reflect underlying economic realities.

Most people have not benefited much or at all from the recent expansion.  For those awaiting tipping points, this matters less than one would think.

When the word goes out that the economy is going well, confidence grows.   In the short run, changes in atmospherics can sometimes count for more than real changes in the fortunes of the ninety or ninety-nine percent.

There is, of course, that pesky Reality Principle; a true accounting cannot be evaded forever.  Or at least that was how the world worked in the pre-Trumpian universe when the light of reason had not yet been extinguished entirely, and when intelligible relations of cause and effect still prevailed.

In anticipation of the 2018 midterms, Trump could have just let prevailing delusions of prosperity linger. Instead, he decided to do the only thing he knows how to do well—stir up his base.

Was this a strategic calculation?  Or did he just do it in a spontaneous après moi le deluge moment?  Probably no one, least of all Trump himself, can say for sure.

In any case, his determination to launch two, three, many trade wars at the same time, and to go after the institutional arrangements that the United States built up, for its own benefit, from the aftermath of the Second World War on, offers the best, perhaps the only, chance for a good, robust tipping point to emerge any time soon.

After all, it is one thing to fool sad sacks dumbed down by Fox News and something else again to deal with savvy diplomats.

What good will Trump’s purported deal-making skills be against opponents many times more knowledgeable and clever than he?

It is true that, not yet having wrecked the economy all that much, Trump has a strong hand to play. But he hasn’t a clue about how to play it.  Unable to take advantage of the resentments and insecurities of the easy prey he is used to bamboozling, all he can do is bluster stupidly like the idiot he is.

When it becomes too clear even for the terminally befuddled to deny that Trump’s policies are harming farmers and workers in so-called “red” states more than they are helping anybody else except perhaps death merchants and plutocrats, will the jig finally be up?

It is not impossible. For how long, after all, can even the most willfully blind Trump voter, impoverished by ill considered and ineptly implemented Trumpian policies, remain in denial?

For how long can Trump’s marks continue to maintain faith in the idea that since Trump is rich, he must also be smart.  Trump is rich, as far as we know; he certainly has access to a lot of money.  But smart?  No way.

As a rule of thumb, it is better to revile the rich than to admire them, much less believe in their powers and abilities.  Any “populist” worthy of the name should have figured that out long ago.  In America, populists seldom do.

In due course, it will be clear to all that Trump’s policies are ruinous for the very people populists purport to represent.   No matter what Fox News tells its viewers, they will figure this out eventually.  The hard part is getting them to connect the dots in time.

More articles by:

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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