A Plague on Both Their Houses

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Donald Trump is a miscreant, worse than any president in modern times.  Nevertheless, he is sometimes more right than Democrats and their media flacks. His express views on the multi-lateral institutions that regulate global trade in capitalism’s current neoliberal phase are an obvious example.  Trump thinks, or says that he thinks, that American workers have been getting a raw deal.  He is right.

The agreements in place are good for global capital and therefore for American corporate moguls and Wall Street financiers, but not for workers in the United States or anywhere else.

There are a few comparatively progressive Democrats who do want to make existing arrangements less harmful to workers and the environment.  But even they don’t want to change anything fundamental.  Mainstream Democrats support the neoliberal status quo more or less as is.

The American labor movement has opposed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, ever since its inception in 1994. The Clinton administration could have cared less.  Neither could its successors, both Democratic and Republican. Democrats rely on organized labor for money, campaign workers, and votes, offering only malign neglect in return.  The GOP’s hostility is more overt; Republicans don’t even pretend to care.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders opposed both NAFTA and the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership.  Challenged from her left, even Hillary Clinton said that she would renegotiate the TPP.

However, there was hardly anyone who did not think that, just as soon as she could, she would weasel out of that commitment.  Meanwhile, it was clear to everyone who was paying attention that the nomination process was rigged against Sanders.

It was far from clear, even so, that Sanders’ views placed him outside the neoliberal orbit.  More likely, he represented its leftmost wing.

In any case, Trump won the election — and it was he, not a Democrat, who put the kybosh on American participation in the TPP.  Now, at least cosmetically but probably also substantively, he is going after NAFTA.

And so, for much the same reason that Democrats learned to stop worrying and love the CIA, they now find themselves defending multi-lateral trade policies that harm American workers.  Whatever Trump is against is good enough for them.

Needless to say, Trump could care less about workers’ rights or environmental protections.  What he does care about is looking good to the “Make American Great Again” chauvinists in his base.  He needs their votes.  Also, as a profoundly insecure narcissist, he needs their love.

The man is pathetic, but in this case at least, he is against what any right thinking progressive ought to oppose.

Russophobic war mongering is another example.

Trump is against it, except when he finds it expedient not to be – which lately is most of the time. He is not against it for any of the many reasons that a reasonable person would be, but he is against it – and, in a time rife with newly revived Cold War hysteria, that is not to be despised.

It isn’t yet clear why Trump is, or was, against Clinton-style Cold War revivalism.   Is it because Vladimir Putin has something on him?  Or is it because he wants or needs something from Russian oligarchs?

The most benign explanation is that it’s all about the Clintons.  It was the Clintons and their allies, working with the usual gaggle of neocon and liberal imperialist foreign policy “experts” that got the latest bout of hysteria going, and it was the Clintons who revved up its intensity in order to excuse Hillary’s lamentable performance in the 2016 elections.

The one sure thing is that when Trump is right – or less wrong than the Democratic Party and its propaganda machine — it is always for bad reasons.  But then good reasons are in short supply all around.  The reasons offered up by “respectable” liberal pundits are so bad that is becoming hard to tell which side to root for less.

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The death of Maverick John McCain has forced consumers of cable news to deal with the situation head on.  Compare Trump’s disdain for McCain with the determination of leading Democrats and MSNBC and CNN pundits to fast track his case for sainthood.

This is, of course, a less weighty issue than trade policy or war and peace.   But it is perhaps the most revealing of all.

Were it not for Trump and the myriad ways he makes everything worse, McCain’s passing would not be anything like the media event it has become; run-of-the mill rightwing politicians with blemished pasts die all the time.   It is only in a Trump-debased political world, his death is a big deal.

It is unseemly to speak ill of the dead.  Hypocrisy and false tears are unseemly too.

It is also true that sometimes the best course of action, when you have nothing good to say about somebody, is to say nothing at all.

In this case, however, silence is not an option – not in general, and certainly not for Trump.

Because he is essentially a distraught male adolescent in an old man’s body, Trump lacks the impulse control to keep quiet.  Kudos to him for that — for not jumping onto the praise-McCain bandwagon.

That is precisely what he would now be doing but for the fact that, for him, narcissism trumps opportunism.

He would at least have kept the White House flags flying at half-staff for more than a day, and he would have tweeted a magnanimous statement of condolence.  That, after all, is what presidents do.

Half a cheer to him, therefore, for being so grossly unpresidential.  By acting out, in this case, the way he does in most others, he has effectively countered the surfeit of nauseatingly hagiographical McCain obituaries that are currently cropping up everywhere.

Half a cheer only, however, because when the Donald found that his petulance was drawing criticism even on Fox News (Trump TV), he caved.  Could it be that cowardice, even more than narcissism, defines his relation to the world?

Still, even if only for a day, he did disrespect an “icon” of standard issue white bread “conservatism” whom “liberal” Democrats and “liberal” pundits on “liberal” cable channels are falling all over themselves to honor and respect.

And so, for at least a few days, “breaking news” about Trump’s mean-spirited, incoherent, and often inconsistent tweets, and about what law enforcement has in store for him, has given way, to some extent, to praise for an irascible Republican high on the Donald’s enemies list.

This is as good a way as any, at this point, to get Trump’s goat.  And although it is hard to take all that praise for McCain without wanting to run amok, it does make for a welcome change of pace for those of us who turn to the liberal cable channels to monitor what the anti-Trump faction of the power structure is up to.

Dumping on Trump in the usual ways can be a useful and worthwhile pastime, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Trump has nothing good to say about McCain, dead or alive, because McCain is an establishment type who refused to pay him obeisance, and because he has several times called the Donald out for what he is.  Also, McCain foiled his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In truth, McCain cared no more than his Republican Senate colleagues or, for that matter, than Trump himself, about providing health care for the uninsured.  Quite to the contrary, by supporting the Trump tax cut for the rich, he effectively let happen much of the harm that would have occurred had the ACA been repealed.  McCain voted to keep Obama’s signature legislative achievement afloat for one reason only — because Trump wanted it to go down.

Thus Trump is not the only malevolent character in the story who knows how to hold a grudge.

The difference is that McCain could act graciously when conditions demanded it or when, for whatever reason, he wanted to.  Trump cannot help but stay true to his nature; and there is not a gracious bone in his body.

Still, the fact remains: there really is nothing good to say about McCain – unless you think that being on the wrong side in the Vietnam War, and killing a lot of people in the process, was good.

Had he repented of the position he held, it would be different.  But he never has.  To his dying day, McCain thought that the Vietnam War was a good thing, and that it was a tragedy that the U.S. didn’t “win.”

Trump is morally and intellectually obtuse, but not wrong, when he says that McCain’s vaunted heroism in that war had less to do with anything he did than with what happened to him – after a plane he was flying was shot down.  He was tortured and held prisoner for five years.

“Conspiracy theorists” sympathetic to Trump tell a different story, but it does seem that he behaved honorably, or at least correctly, while he was held as a prisoner of war.

When the Vietnamese found out that McCain was an admiral’s son, they offered to let him go.  Instead he chose the militarily valorous path – to stay with his fellow prisoners until all of them were released.

Indications are that he did this because, as a scion of a military family, he felt that he had no choice. Even so, it does mark a difference, say, from Donald Trump who would have sold out his own mother had there been some percentage in it.

The sad fact is, though, that apart from his decision to abide by McCain family values, there is nothing that makes his case stand out from many others, and certainly nothing that countervails the stubborn fact that McCain was on the wrong side in Vietnam, and remained proud of it to his dying day.

As a Senator, he was on the wrong side of many other conflicts too –  in Iraq and Syria and throughout the Greater Middle East, in the former Yugoslavia, in Libya, and in sub-Saharan Africa.  And he was always on the ready for a war against Iran and North Korea.  Remember the hot mike that picked up his singing: “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beachboy’s  “Barbara Ann.”

Most of all, he had it in for Russia even before the Clintons and their co-thinkers took a notion to reviving the Cold War.  He was, if anything, even more intent than Hillary Clinton to empower anti-Russian forces in Georgia and other former Soviet republics in order to bring NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

McCain was good on campaign finance reform, but not much else.  Like his sidekick Lindsay Graham, and his buddy hapless Joe Lieberman, he was basically a dunce of a Senator, eager to support legislation pleasing to his party’s grandees, and indifferent to the interests of everyone else.

McCain’s liberal eulogists cannot help but concede that, by choosing Sarah Palin for a running mate in 2008, McCain accorded legitimacy to her know-nothing political style and therefore, in time, to the Tea Party and ultimately to the most retrograde sectors of the benighted Trump base.

Liberal apologists blame his choice of Palin on impulsiveness.  Thus they grudgingly agree that his judgment was often less than spot on.  But they claim, at the same time, that his decency was beyond reproach – mainly because he was willing to work with “both sides of the aisle.”

And so, the argument goes, he should be forgiven even for turning over the rock from beneath which, in due course, Trump slithered out.

According to them, McCain was perhaps the last of a vanishing species, a traditional Republican battling the barbarians at the gates.

For that Chuck Schumer wants to name the Senate Office Building after him.  Better him than the segregationist Georgia Senator Richard Russell, but even so.  Are liberals so morally and intellectually depleted that they cannot do better than venerate a war-mongering reactionary with bad judgment, a “maverick” streak, and an occasional inclination to go “bipartisan”?  So it seems.

Those liberals would do well to recall that much publicized Minnesota town hall meeting during the 2008 presidential campaign when a daft elderly lady said to McCain, the candidate: “I can’t trust Obama… I have read about him and he’s uh…he’s an Arab.”   In response, McCain shook his head sadly and said: “No, ma’am, Obama is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

There we have it: McCain vouching for Obama’s decency by calling him a “family man,” while letting that poor lady’s ethnic slur on more than 400 million Arab human beings pass unnoticed.   Pathetic and, as the Donald often tweets of anything and everything that displeases him, SAD!

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).