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Hillary Clinton was supposed to trounce Donald Trump two years (or was it two centuries?) ago. She was a poor candidate on many levels, but he was too preposterous to win.
The prevailing view, back then, was that when the campaign would finally be over, the demons Trump let loose would have to be dealt with, but Trump and Trumpism would soon be forgotten, like a bad dream.
By “Trumpism,” I mean that particular brand of authoritarian nationalism, replete with racist, nativist and misogynistic inflections, which, in tandem with the ideologies of evangelical Christians, rightwing Zionists, free marketeers, and outright fascists, has taken over the Republican Party.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Trump won – by getting the most votes in the Electoral College – and his campaign is now remembered almost fondly for being less odious than he and his administration have gone on to be.
Moreover, it is, by now, well understood that no matter what happens in the midterm elections, the nightmare that was supposed to end with the Trump campaign is not about to disappear into the ether any time soon.
It is therefore timely to reflect on the short and longer-term implications of the present moment.
It is especially urgent to undertake that reflection with a view to figuring out how best to deal with what is, sadly, the only real alternative to the Party of Trump and Trumpism, the Democratic Party.
To that end, it is important to guard against a disabling inclination that too often afflicts those who would reflect on the shape of things to come.
People who think that they know what they are talking about when they talk about the future tend to assume that how things are now, whenever now is, is how they will be from now on.
The economics profession is full of people like that; so are universities and think tanks. And so, of course, are the CIA and other national security state institutions and agencies.
Remember when Communism would always be with us; remember how, after it imploded, liberal democracy was to be the way of the future.
Remember too when Islamist challenges to Western, especially American, economic and political domination were deemed trivial in comparison to challenges posed by secular political movements and ideologies.
That understanding survived the rise of militant, political Islam and the decline of secular attitudes and institutions throughout the historically Muslim world. On its basis, Western, especially American, governments dealt with Islamist groups in ways that they would later come to regret.
The raw materials out of which political Islam arose had, of course, been in place from time immemorial. In this respect, Islam is no worse, or better, than other major world religions; they are all capable of giving free rein to what Abraham Lincoln famously called “the darker angels of our nature.”
This happens when circumstances are right and when something sets them off. In this case, it took too-clever-by-far Cold War strategists, and a lot of Saudi money, to stir up the noxious brew.
Jimmy Carter was the least lethal American president in living memory and Zbigniew Brzezinski was smarter and less malevolent than that other late twentieth century self-declared master strategist, the never-to-be-indicted war criminal Henry Kissinger.
Brzezinski convinced Carter that it would be a fine idea to get the Soviet Union bogged down in a Vietnam-like War in Afghanistan. With Saudi help, that is precisely what Brzezinski did. He never repented of this folly; indeed, he remained convinced, to his dying day, that his machinations helped bring the Soviet empire down, and that whatever the downside might have been, it was worth it.
This only shows that being a lesser evil isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Those machinations also led to the destabilization of large parts of the world — with grave, still unfolding, human consequences.
America’s prognosticators were still under the sway of Brzezinski-like thinking when George W. Bush and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, launched their “global war on terror.” Obama dropped the name, but continued and expanded the war his predecessor had begun. Notwithstanding some contrary-minded bluster, especially during the 2016 campaign, Trump is on board with that war as well. The “adults in the room” would never hear of him letting it go; and, because the Donald has a thing for military men, they get their way.
Thus it has become a tenet of the common sense of our time that while the intensity of the global war on terror – essentially a war on the historically Muslim world — will wax and wane and take on one form or another from time to time, the war itself will never end. This is, at least in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Like the United States, though on a much smaller scale, Israel too deliberately stoked the flames of religious fanaticism to ward off what it took to be a greater danger. Thus, to its own detriment and to the detriment of the Palestine Liberation Organization, its none too subtle maneuverings made Hamas a player in Palestinian politics.
The result then was that a grotesquely asymmetrical conflict between a secular colonial project, backed by the United States, and a secular resistance movement betrayed by purported friends in the Arab world, devolved into something more like a grotesquely asymmetrical war of religion.
America’s global war on terror has been going on since even before the dawn of the Reagan era; it is getting old. Thus our masters of war, our death merchants and the intellectuals who serve them – in other words, our military-industrial complex – has taken to demanding more.
A lot more. It seems that even a revived Cold War with Russia isn’t enough for them. Obama’s “pivot towards Asia” never quite succeeded in starting a Cold War with China, a more formidable opponent, but, in the Trump era, anything, no matter how stupid or reckless, can become the order of the day.
Thus we have Trump starting trade wars – not just with traditional allies, but also, ominously, with the Chinese. A bona fide Cold War will likely follow.
Something else, nearly as ominous, has also come to the fore under Trump.
Not long ago, it seemed that, with the end of the Second World War, fascism had suffered an historic defeat. The stewards of the American empire tolerated and even encouraged fascist-like authoritarian regimes in Third World countries dominated by the United States, and they supported fascist and quasi-fascist movements inside the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet sphere of influence. Substitute Russia for the USSR and they are still at it.
Nevertheless, it was widely believed, back then, that these were temporary aberrations, necessitated by transient circumstances, and that liberal democracy would indeed be the wave of the future.
That idea has become harder to sustain now that the world has come to look more like it did in 1938 than in the period that began with the end of World War Two.
There is one salient difference, however, that serious prognosticators need to address because its implications are potentially far-reaching; the fact that, in the hardcore rightwing mind, Islamophobia has now replaced the anti-Semitism of the pre-War Right.
Genuine anti-Semitism still exists, but it is, and long has been, a shadow of what it used to be. Ethno-nationalists in Europe nowadays even claim to like Jews – provided, of course, that they are Zionists and adhere to fascisant ideologies similar to their own.
Media exaggerate the extent, but the situation is different in immigrant Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere, where opposition to Israel sometimes shade over into opposition to Jews generally – in much the way that, say, after Pearl Harbor, Americans turned against the Japanese. This has little, if anything, to do with the anti-Semitism that Zionism depends upon for a reason for being.
However it does help explain the Zionism of the European hard right, the last bastion of classical anti-Semitism in the world today. They hate Muslims, especially Muslims in their midst; and, for them, as much as for anyone else, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The old fascism wore odiousness on its sleeve. The new version puts on a friendlier face. Trump is not a fascist – he is too much involved with himself, with his and his family’s wealth and with illusions of greatness to be anything at all. But he has figured out how to use friendly, or friendlier, fascism for his own ends.
Reasonable people fear that with Trump in the White House the chances of war, including nuclear war, are enhanced. And everybody who is not willfully blind sees that Trump’s presidency is accelerating the onset and increasing the intensity of ecological and economic catastrophes.
What is less widely appreciated and harder to grasp is how the Trumpian turn also makes the future of liberal values and institutions more precarious than they would otherwise be.
It is impossible to say with confidence how worrisome this is because we cannot yet tell whether the new illiberalism in American and world politics is a passing phase, or whether it is a defining characteristic of a new eternal present.
When we prognosticate, we are inclined to think that what now is will always be. It is important, however, to maintain a skeptical attitude and to keep an open mind.
One sure thing, though, is that with Trump and his minions and his “adults in the room” calling the shots, damage control has become a lot more important than it used to be.
Therefore, until Trump and/or Mike Pence are hobbled and dispatched, along with the malefactors Trump empowered to run the country for him, delegitimizing Trump and all things Trumpian is the order of the day.
American politics mainly happens around elections. This is regrettable.
It is regrettable too that the level of collective deliberation and debate at election time is so abysmally low, especially at the national level; and also that, in more cases than not, our elections are competitive in theory only. Thanks to gerrymandering and the many other ways that the duopoly party system has succeeded in institutionalizing itself, many, perhaps most, electoral outcomes can be confidently predicted in advance.
This is the hand we have been dealt, however; we have no choice but to deal with it.
And because there is no politically responsible way not to focus on the elections ahead, there is no way not to make the nature of the Democratic Party, and its likely short- and longer-term trajectory Topic A.
That the entire GOP is blatantly and palpably execrable is beyond serious dispute. The phenomenon calls for an explanation, but the diagnosis is clear. If there was any doubt before the Kavanaugh hearings, there is surely none now.
If only for its embrace of global warming and its zeal in waging the class struggle on the wrong side, the Republican Party posed a clear and present danger long before the idea of a Trump presidency was anything more than a sick joke. But now that the GOP has become the party of Trump, it has become many orders of magnitude worse.
Therefore, along with Trump, that wretched party must be stopped in its tracks.
The sad truth is, though, that the only way to do that – in the short run certainly, and also, the way things are going, well into and beyond the foreseeable future – is to vote for Democrats.
That was a more bearable prospect when the Democratic Party had more of a left wing. But even when its left wing was at its apogee, its politics was soft, and its influence over the party’s direction was minimal. When the Clintons and their co-thinkers in the eighties and nineties undertook to do the Democratic left in, there wasn’t much that they had to do.
Nowadays, Democratic Party politics is barely even centrist. But because there is no alternative for leftists who want to avoid marginalization, progressives are still drawn into the Democratic fold. Too often, that is where left ideas and initiatives go to die.
The Sanders campaign was on the brink of changing that. But, as everyone knows and knew at the time, even without the benefit of leaked or purloined emails, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign had seen to it that nothing would come of the Sanders insurrection; the fix was in.
And while some erstwhile Sandersnistas remain active in what they call a “resistance,” the Democratic Party hasn’t really changed — except at the margins and in superficial ways. It might have been different had Sanders not gone over to the enemy (Clintonite) side, but that was never going to happen.
Nevertheless, thanks to Trump, what Sanders got going two years ago has intensified and may by now have reached a critical mass. What a delicious irony!
There is no reason to think however that the Democratic Party itself will be changing its stripes any time soon. Its rotting carcass is too dependent on Wall Street and corporate money, too invested in neoliberalism, and has too much of a miserable past to live down.
It was mainly Republicans under Ronald Reagan who took it upon themselves to insure that neoliberalism would prevail, but Democrats have done more than their fair share to complete the so-called Reagan Revolution.
It goes without saying that, even so, the Democratic Party is by far the lesser evil; how could it not be! But it was its policies, as much or more than the policies Republicans put in place, that made Trump possible.
Nevertheless, if, in order to stop Trump and Trumpism, it is necessary to make common cause with Democrats – not just progressive ones, but also the Schumer-Pelosi kind and even worse ones as well — then so be it.
This was the logic behind the anti-fascist popular front strategies of the late thirties, and it is relevant again today.
It is crucial, though, to maintain a critical distance, not so much because the politics of the Democratic mainstream is vile, but because Democrats are feckless. This is another lesson of the Kavanaugh affair.
After Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony, and after Kavanaugh’s, how could even Democrats have failed to stop Mitch McConnell and his Republican steamroller?
The answer is: by letting themselves be snookered. Not snookered the way that Trump snookers his base by getting them to think of him as one of their own or by getting “populists” to think that a patriarchal preppie judge, oozing with class and gender privilege, ought to be a hero to the deplorables-are-us crowd.
Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer and the others aren’t quite that out of touch with reality. Their problem is just that they spineless and inept, and therefore easily played.
Even within the confines of the “he said, she said” story line that leading Democrats and liberal media allowed to prevail, there never ought to have been a scintilla of doubt about whose testimony was more believable.
Ford was as believable as anyone could be, and Kavanaugh was plainly lying almost as shamelessly as Trump lies with every word he utters (including, as Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “the” and “and.”)
But because the story involved an incident that occurred decades ago, there was no knockdown way to corroborate Ford’s contentions, at least not in an “investigation,” if that is the right word for what the FBI did, circumscribed by the disabling constraints imposed by McConnell and Trump.
And what liberal these days would gainsay the FBI! In their warped mythology, and in plain defiance of the historical record, liberals nowadays consider America’s de facto political police beyond reproach. Liberals are pathetic.
But surely, with so much at stake, Democrats didn’t have to be quite so abject.
As it became obvious that the FBI investigation would be useless at best, why did they not themselves undertake an independent probe? They knew who to talk to; potential witnesses were begging to be heard. Either they couldn’t be bothered, or they didn’t care enough — or, most likely of all, being spineless, they could not find it within themselves to proceed.
They therefore let the discussion – or rather the story spun on liberal cable networks – turn away from issues of privilege and patriarchy, and from the noxiousness, indeed ridiculousness, of “originalist” judicial “philosophy,” and turn instead to issues that Trump, with his instinct for going low, could use to churn up Republican (especially over the hill, male, white Republican) resentment. He understood, even if Schumer and Feinstein did not, that the #MeToo Movement was becoming too uppity for the hardcore, Trump base to abide.
In 2016, it took real talent on Hillary Clinton’s part, and on the part of the party of fecklessness and pusillanimity, to lose. Two years into the Trumpian nightmare, there are even more reasons to expect a Democratic landslide than there were then. But failing to cash in on a sure thing is what Democrats do.
What they do not do is stand up for themselves. They epitomize what Robert Frost had in mind when he remarked that “a liberal is a man (sic) too reasonable to take his own side in an argument.”
When it became clear, within a month or two of Inauguration Day 2008, that Obama’s “hopey changey” thing, as Sarah Palin called it, wasn’t happening, and as white supremacist attitudes started bubbling over, the GOP leadership, egged on by its well-financed vanguard, the Tea Party, resolved to hang tough.
Mitch McConnell isn’t good for much, but there is one thing he does know how to do: obstruct. Under his leadership, Republican obduracy became wondrous to behold; like the obduracy of the Tea Party a few years earlier, it practically rose to the level of what nineteenth century German aestheticians called “the sublime.”
Democrats could not be more different. After winning control of the House in the 2006 election, they could have stopped George W. Bush in his tracks, had they been even a tenth as obstinate. This would have saved countless lives and been all to the good. But Nancy Pelosi – a fiery liberal she-devil in the minds of hapless Fox News viewers, but actually the very epitome of a pusillanimous corporate Democrat, was too risk averse to let the party she led even begin to pursue the idea.
Ideologically, Democrats are more like Republicans than an opposition party ought to be. But when it comes to fighting their way through to victory, they are not nearly Republican enough.
It is practically an article of faith in prognostication circles that enthusiasm is what wins elections, midterms especially. This is probably true.
It is also true that while there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, Republicans win more often than not – because their resentment-driven enthusiasms bring them to the polls. Democrats have nothing motivating them at all beyond the vileness of their Republican rivals.
This time around, though, there is reason to vote for a few of them, even if their party is no better than before.
And there is Trump. If ever there was something to vote against, Trump and Trumpism is it.
Anyone who does not fear and loathe the Donald enough to get out to vote even for a feckless centrist Democrat, when no Green candidate or no fit “democratic socialist” is available, is a hopeless case.
Is this, then, a time to boost, not knock; a time to feign support for the Democratic Party? With the election less than a month away, perhaps it is.
No one can now say how long the Trumpian present will last. This is a question of major strategic importance, but it is unanswerable at this time.
A related tactical question, however, is eminently answerable. Now is a time to make common cause with the Democratic Party.
It is a time for those who can to enthuse over the prospect, and for those who cannot bring themselves to support feckless, cowardly, war-mongering neoliberal stewards of an empire in decline to suck it in and vote for Democrats anyway.
The crucial thing, though, is not to lose sight of the fact that the paramount task remains what it was long before the Trumpian menace emerged.
Job Number One is to build an authentic left opposition – not just to Republicans or even to Republicans and Democrats both, but to neoliberals of all types and parties, to neocons and liberal imperialists, to the military-industrial complex, and to the core institutions of the national security state.
Electing Democrats isn’t going to change anything radically for the better, not by a long shot. For that to become the case, the Democratic Party would have to transform itself beyond recognition. That would require a profound and protracted struggle.
But come this Election Day, with the need to smash Trump and his party having become so urgent, and with there being no other way, electing Democrats may just be the best thing we can do.
It therefore must be done.
With a heavy heart, then, but with as much enthusiasm as one can muster, do it — even while contemplating the next step, and the step after that.