What? Me Deplorable?

Photo by nguyengurl | CC BY 2.0

In the Age of Trump, American politics has come to resemble a drearily formulaic, militantly lowbrow, cutthroat, reality TV show.  As per the formula, each day’s news all but invites us to imagine a contest in which the most deplorable wins – gets to stay on the island, as it were, or to avoid being fired.

Trump would be a strong contender in his own right, though, if he were still only a sleazy, politically connected, wheeler-dealer flimflam man with bad taste, too much money, and a penchant for riding around in golf carts, nobody would pay him any mind. There are plenty more where he came from, and most of them are more interesting than he is.

But he is the president, and therefore cannot be ignored.

Indeed, so far from being ignored, corporate media can’t find time to talk about anything else. He came out on top in the electoral circus, and there is nothing to do now but deal with the consequences.

Blame that on one of the most undemocratic electoral systems ever to disgrace a so-called liberal democracy; blame it too on the feckless Democratic Party and on Hillary Clinton, its incompetent standard bearer.

The jury is still out on whether, to get to where he now is, Trump also cheated — not just in any of the fair and square ways that are normal in American politics, but also by “colluding” with Russian connivers dispatched by Vladimir Putin, America’s demon du jour (for the past several years).

Notwithstanding what has come to pass for conventional wisdom, there is considerable doubt whether there really was any collusion; and there is certainly no plausible evidence at all that Trump benefited from whatever “collusion” there might have been. But casual consumers of mainstream news – not just the Fox kind, but the less odious, less mind numbing liberal kind as well — would never know that there is even the slightest reason to be skeptical; not with all the effort liberals expend muddying the waters on that inconvenient (for them) truth.

Be that as it may, Trump now finds himself with powers and responsibilities far beyond anything for which his talents suit him.  This makes his shortcomings as a person more important than they would otherwise be.

As president, he is not just a run-of-the-mill nut case; he is a nut case who commands a nuclear juggernaut.

As president, his views on, say, climate change are not just risible; they are world-historically dangerous.

As president, Trump’s policy “agenda” – or rather the agenda he has found it expedient to latch onto — is not just retrograde; it is calamitous for all but the obscenely well off.

Take away the White House, and, as a man or even a businessman, Trump would only be a garden-variety miscreant.  There is nothing exceptional about his wickedness – in the way that there was, for example, in Richard Nixon’s or, for that matter, in Roy Cohn’s.  Trump admired Cohn and considered him a mentor, but he doesn’t have it in him to rise (or fall?) to his teacher’s level.

As a president, though, he is as bad as it gets – worse than George W. Bush; worse, if it comes to that, even than Mike Pence.

Bush broke the Greater Middle East; the harm he did there and elsewhere, including within what we now call the “homeland,” the murder and mayhem he unleashed, continues to this day.

Pence has never been in a position to do anything remotely comparable, but it would be fair to say that if and when he is, he will make Bush look good.  But for a degree or two of separation, Bush, like his father and grandfather before him, was an old time Republican – more bumbling and less clever than most, but cut from the same cloth.  Pence, on the other hand, is a hardcore theocrat and outright reactionary, who actually believes in “the Trump agenda” and might therefore see it through to realization.

Many of the cabinet officers, agency heads, and senior advisors in the Trump administration are good candidates too, or would be if their situations were less precarious.

As it is, they are all hamstrung because their powers and even their positions depend, in whole or in part, on the inconsistent and often incoherent tweets of their boss.  That fact of life in Trumpland aside, many of them are loathsome enough to compete against anyone in a contest where the most deplorable wins.

The personal qualities of many, maybe most, of the people Hillary Clinton seems to have had in mind when she introduced “deplorability” into the political lexicon are undoubtedly less deficient than those of Trump’s lieutenants and of the great – actually, not so great – man himself.

But the comparison is unfair — not just because they are many and he is one, but because they are victims of capitalism in its current, overripe phase, consigned, as it were, to the bottom of the barrel, while Trump and the others are the scum that rises to the top.

Moreover, many 2016 Trump voters were hardly Trump fans; they were victims of his con.   By many a reasonable measure, many of them aren’t deplorable at all – they just hated Hillary and the politics she represented.  Who could blame them for that!

Even those deplorables of hers who continue to stand by their man aren’t so much deplorable as pathetic.  If I were Trumpland’s producer, I’d kick them off the island, just to boost morale.

And I’d make sure that everyone understands that the real contest is between Democrats and Republicans or, more generally, between “liberals” and “conservatives.”  I’ve added scare quotes because I have too much respect for liberalism and conservatism, as political philosophies, to use those words without irony, to refer to the characters in question.

In a real, knockdown contest between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans, having become Trumpians, would surely win.

Philosophers of language used to talk a lot about “ostensive definitions,” bits of the world that convey the meaning of terms by example; thus “red” could be defined by pointing to a red color patch.  Anyone wanting to explain what “deplorable” means ostensively could hardly do better than point to just about any Republican politician at the national, state or local level.  Ultimately, it is the facts of the matter that make Republicans the more deplorable duopoly party, but, for all practical purposes, it would be fair to say that they would win the contest by definition.

The deplorability of “conservatives” is not exactly news.  Not long ago, however, their deplorability came with redeeming features.  For example, when Obama was president there was something almost admirable in their obduracy.  The stubbornness of the Party of No rose to the level of the sublime.  Now that the GOP has become the Party of Trump, there is nothing in the Republican fold a fair-minded person could begin to call a redeeming feature.  All they merit is contempt.

However this plain fact must not blind us to another plain fact that must also be acknowledged if our politics is ever to rise above the stupor that made Trump’s 2016 electoral victory possible: the fact that Democrats, “liberals,” are deplorable too.

They may not be more deplorable than their Republican counterparts or than Trump and his minions, and there may be plenty of racists and nativists in the Trump base that are also, in their own way, worse as well.  But today’s liberals are deplorable indeed — especially now that, in their zeal to oppose Trump, they have crossed over to the dark side.

Liberal hypocrisy has always been legendary, but since Trump came onto the scene, it, like everything else having to do with mainstream American politics, has become worse.

Would it kill the 24/7 Cold War revivalist, anti-Trump, “liberal” cable channels, to give airtime to a genuine leftist or even an old school New Deal liberal once in a while? If only for the sake of their ratings (and therefore their revenues), one would think that they would want to vary their fare somewhat by offering viewers something more engaging than faux-left pundits and lackluster panels comprised of anti-Trump ex-Republicans, retired admirals, generals, spies and other pillars of the national security state.

It is even worse at that other liberal paragon, National Public Radio.  NPR news programs – “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” — used to be the go to source for conventional wisdom and pro-regime (as distinct from pro-government) propaganda; now it surpasses even MSNBC as the go-to voice of mindless Russophobic war mongering.

The New York Times and Washington Post aren’t much better, though at least they sometimes do contain real journalism, not just “breaking news.”

All this has made the old Phil Ochs song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” more timely than it has been for quite a while.  But this is not the worst of it.

Liberal hypocrisy squared or even cubed could be taken in stride, compared to how, of late, liberals have learned to stop worrying and love the very institutions that not long ago epitomized everything that even the most milquetoast progressives abhorred.


Within the living memory of the not yet middle aged, liberals regarded a CIA connection in much the way that people throughout history, from Biblical times until late in the twentieth century, regarded lepers.

Today’s liberals, on the other hand, cannot love the CIA enough.

The facts are clear and beyond dispute: there is no way to ascribe anything like moral rectitude to the CIA.  Lying and deceit are its stock-in-trade; and if and when it is up to something, it is up to no good.  This was once practically axiomatic.

Has the CIA become a less malevolent force in the world?  Hardly.

Could liberals have forgotten what they used to know?  Maybe, but only just a little.

Liberals like to blather on about “American values” and about how “exceptional” America is, but even they know, in their hearts, that this is self-serving hokum; they know that the CIA is no more morally scrupulous than other intelligence services, including those of Russia or China.

And yet, they love the CIA. They love it because of Trump.

They love the FBI too, for much the same reason.

No doubt, there are worthwhile things that both the CIA and the FBI do.  In the CIA’s case, it would take a lot of research to come up with examples, but finding examples for the FBI is easy.  Whatever else it may be, the FBI is a first class national police force with extraordinary crime fighting capabilities.

Most liberals, like most Americans, admire it for that.  How could they not when its crime fighting successes have been celebrated in movies and in countless radio and television police procedurals for as long as anyone now living can remember.

Even so, it is, or was, universally understood by all but the terminally naïve, that the FBI is America’s political police.

Doesn’t this matter any longer?  Has mass amnesia set in?  Or are liberals too embarrassed to think straight?  They certainly ought to be: after all, what kind of liberal would hold a political police in high regard?

The short answer is: the kind that sides with the Forces of Order, and that is hypocritical enough to set liberal scruples aside.

There was a lot of that going around in the J. Edgar Hoover – Cold War anti-Communist days.  But even with Hoover gone and Communism a dead letter, not much has changed.

The hard fact still is that there is probably not a left leaning political activist alive today who has not been in the FBI’s crosshairs.

This is the main reason why the sanctimonious outrage liberals express when the integrity of the FBI is challenged is so obscene.

This too, Trump has done much to cause.

Liberals have taken to defending their seemingly eternal nemesis because the FBI is involved in on-going investigations of some of Trump’s more nefarious business and political dealings.   This is also why the bureau has become, as they say in Hooverese, Public Enemy Number One (or maybe Number Two, after the “fake news” media) in Trumpland.

Back in the day, nobody crossed Hoover because he had the goods on everybody.  But times have changed, and the goods are no longer the goods. Trump’s moral turpitude is nobody’s secret, least of all his own; he flaunts it.  Even Bible thumping “evangelicals” don’t seem to mind; they are still among Trump’s most ardent supporters.

Even so, one has to marvel not just at how easily Trump gets away with scandals that would undo the careers of other politicians, and also at the flaccidity of the CIA’s and FBI’s efforts to stand up for themselves in the face of his disparagements.

Politicians before Trump who wanted to criticize those nefarious institutions, no matter how meekly, would tread with caution; Trump, on the other hand, goes out of his way to dis them.

This seemingly self-destructive obsession of his, evident early on, led Chuck Schumer to say in March of 2017:  “Let me tell you, “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you…So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”

At the time, Schumer had just been elected Senate Minority Leader and so, his words – spoken on MSNBC can be fairly said to represent the consensus view of liberals at the time.

They also reflect the thinking of every politically aware American, regardless of party, up to that time.

This is why, to this day, even guardians of conventional wisdom, people disposed to label any and all dissenting views “conspiracy theories,” are surprisingly reluctant to depict the claim that the CIA was involved in the JFK assassination in those terms.

Still, if the Donald had any brains, instead of rattling their cages, he would be watching his back.

Could it be that liberals learned to stop worrying and love the CIA – and the FBI and the several other house organs of the national security state — because at some level they hope that they will prove worthy of their well-deserved reputation for murderous skullduggery?  This is not unlikely; if thoughts could kill, Trump would be a dead man many times over.

Why would Trump be so reckless?   He knows little and cares less about the rule of law, but, contrary to what liberal pundits are now claiming, this is not the main reason.  His narcissism is; his belief that he can do anything and get away with it – like, as he famously boasted, shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and still not lose the support of his base.

It is no wonder that he has yet to be disabused of this notion.  Thanks to Republican deplorables in the House and Senate, he has a proven record of getting away with murder.

Again, this in no way lets liberal deplorables off the hook.  However much they rail against Trump and Trumpism, without them, the very idea of a Trump presidency would still be the joke it was not long ago.

And by falling for “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line the way that they have, they are supporting some of the foulest institutions on the American political landscape today.

For all their shortcomings, earlier generations of liberals understood this.  Liberals today do not; and that is seriously deplorable – not enough for them to be the last ones fired, but more than enough for them seriously to compete.


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).