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World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Free associate on “Donald J. Trump.” All sorts of words come immediately to mind. There is one for almost every letter in the alphabet: “asshole,” “bastard,” “conman,” “dick”…. and so on. For some, the words crowd each other out: “Islamophobe,” “imbecile,” “moron,” “motherfucker.”

“World historical figure” probably won’t come up, however. It should.

The reason is not just Trump’s nihilism. It is true that he has done and continues to do grave perhaps irreparable harm to nearly everything good and worth preserving in these United States. It is also true that as a confirmed kakistocrat, he has turned the American government over to the worst, the least able, and the least qualified among us.

Thus, he has profoundly changed American and world history for the worse. But this is not why “world historical figure” should come to mind. The reason for that is his role in something abhorrent to him, something he never intended: bringing on a Green New Deal.

There is no Green New Deal yet, of course – what could, and likely will, make it happen has just barely come to pass, and with all the obstacles in the way, it is possible that the process will stall out before the idea can be made real. But, at the very least, the idea is now out there in the mainstream. The importance of even just that is hard to overestimate.

Were the Green New Deal idea to take root and grow, it would be the most welcome, perhaps the only welcome, development in American politics in at least the last eight decades.

The Democratic Party establishment will do its best to keep that from happening – by cooptation, intimidation, or any other means its paymasters and party hacks deem necessary. The even more odious duopoly party will join them in that effort. But they will be working in defiance of history’s trajectory. Even in short time horizons, that isn’t easy to pull off.

By calling Trump a possible world historical figure, I am, of course invoking, I hope not too facetiously or in too much of an oversimplified way, the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770-1831) philosophy of history.

Transitions from grand theory to lived political experience are always perilous and, if Hegel is right, inevitably premature.

In this case especially, thanks to the sorry state of the American political scene, a chronic condition that has become many times worse over the past two years, and because hope and therefore disappointment springs eternal, there is a particular danger of making too much of mere intimations of transformations underway.

But there is also a good political reason to forge ahead.

Ridding Washington of Donald Trump and purging the body politic of his influence is imperative. It is and ought to be everyone’s first order of business.

This is hardly news to roughly two-thirds of the American people. But in our “democracy,” that hardly matters until his term expires.

Thanks to those founding fathers of ours, the old normal was that, at the national level, “we, the people” got to vote periodically for Tweedledums or Tweedledees – every two years for House members, every four years for Presidents, and every two or four years for Senators (each state has two of them and they serve six year terms). These elections use up a lot of political energy, especially now that money flows into campaigns practically without limitation. There usually isn’t much energy left over for anything except yet more electoral politics.

It often feels as if Trump has changed everything, but he hasn’t changed that. Even now, some twenty two months out, the focus is on that blessed day in November 2020 when, unless all goes spectacularly wrong again, we will finally have a chance to tell the Donald, if he is still around, how much we would like to see the back of him.

This makes the idea of uniting all anti-Trump forces, differences notwithstanding, difficult to resist.

But with the next election still some twenty-two months away, there is no good reason to succumb to that temptation. Quite to the contrary, now is a time to draw what the greatest strategist and tactician of the last century, V. I. Lenin called “lines of demarcation” within the anti-Trump “resistance,” a time to be principled and clear, not accommodating and lax; a time to face the fact that because of the ways the class struggle in our time has evolved, the major fault lines in American politics are not between Trump and everyone else, or between Democrats and Republicans. They lie within the Democratic Party itself.

Before Trump burst upon the scene, to everyone’s surprise including his own, there were hardly any discernible fault lines anywhere. Electoral politics was about personalities and party (brand) loyalty, not anything deeper than that. The outcomes were consequential, but the differences were superficial. Trump’s sheer awfulness changed all that.

Therefore even as the war on Trump and Trumpism proceeds, making unity among anti-Trump forces necessary, it is becoming increasingly clear that the main obstacle in the way of progressive change in our time is between old school corporate Democrats and the kinds of Democrats, clustered mainly in the new Congress’s “freshman class,” who are fed up and ready, willing, and able to take the corporate Democrats on.

***

As of now, the Green New Deal is aspirational only. It is a “roadmap,” a declaration of purpose; not a worked out legislative program.

Over the next twenty-two months, Green New Dealers will likely propose pieces of legislation consistent with its intentions that Republicans will quash and that Trump will veto if they don’t. As situations evolve, reasons to proceed anyway will emerge. But the task for now is only to lay the groundwork for what could be done at some future time, perhaps twenty-two months from now, when the most egregious “enemies of the people” are out of the picture.

That would include not just all Republicans, but most Democrats too. Getting to that point will not be easy; as Bernie Sanders might say, the obstacles ahead are “huge.”

That a Green New Deal will take so much time and effort to launch is frustrating, but it is also a blessing in disguise. The more complex and consequential proposed changes are, the more there is to figure out and get right. Twenty-two months is a long time to wait, but plunging in right away would be foolhardy.

In any case, the delay is unavoidable. With Donald Trump or Mike Pence in the White House until January 2021, Republicans in control of the Senate until then as well, and a Democratic caucus in the House too full up with corporate Democrats to be good for much of anything, there is no choice but to bide time.

While the wait is on expect efforts to neuter Green New Deal proposals to intensify. Democratic Party leaders have long understood that the best way to keep their left flank in line is to whittle away at their proposals, to “moderate” them, ostensibly for “pragmatic” reasons. Nancy Pelosi is a past master at that; she has been doing it for years.

Efforts to make Green New Deal proposals less moderate would do far more good.

What has so far been proposed doesn’t take on the fossil fuel industry vigorously enough. This could be a merely tactical feature of what is, for now, an opening salvo in a complex and protracted struggle. Or it could indicate significant strategic disagreements within the developing movement.

At the heart of the dispute is the difference between clean energy and renewable energy. Not all clean energy is renewable. Nuclear energy is clean, at least insofar as inevitable accidents are avoided, but not renewable. Moreover, for now and the foreseeable future, its production leaves a significant carbon footprint.

There are also issues about the proper role, if any, of markets in efforts to work down to a zero carbon emissions standard; and there are matters of global justice involved as well.

Those Democrats who will be doing their best to water down Green New Deal proposals, and the hordes of anti-Trump Republican pundits on the cable networks and in The Washington Post and New York Times, will question the affordability of the programs they oppose. Proponents of those programs could do themselves and progressive Democrats generally a lot of good if they would call for a substantial chunk of the money to come not just from deficit spending and progressive taxation but also from drastic cuts in the military budget.

If there ever is to be a way forward out of Trumpland and into a genuinely better world, the Pentagon must be stripped of its seemingly inexhaustible get-out-of-jail-free card.

The irony is that, but for Trump, the affordability of a Green New Deal would be the very last thing anyone would be talking about now. Had Clinton not flubbed so badly, we would instead be looking forward to the end of what would have amounted to a third Obama term, less well led and even more dispiriting but basically of a piece with the first two, while the Forces of Darkness that Trump mobilized would be gathering strength, becoming ever more virulent as they await a suitable moment to strike.

Trump changed all that – in a way that, contrary to his every wish, puts the prospect of a possible better world back onto the agenda. Unless Democrats flub again – that is, unless “moderation” for the sake of unity wins out – that better possible world could become our actual world.

This is why it would be entirely appropriate for the term “world historical figure” to come up while freely associating on Trump’s name. The only reason it would be less likely to do so than the more obvious and colorful examples cited at the outset is that hardly anyone who is not a student of classical German philosophy would be familiar with those words or know what they mean.

***

In Hegel’s world as in our own, it was universally accepted that everything that happens, every event, no matter how identified or individuated, is in principle explainable. This applies too to all past events and therefore to everything that could be deemed “historical.” It does not apply to trends or to the “totalities” that were of most interest to Hegel and to some of his closest followers.

Thus, on the usual view, history itself cannot be explained, not even by stringing together all the explanations for everything that happened in it. It is the same with nature – in principle, all natural phenomena are explicable, but nature itself is not, not anyway in ways that make sense outside theological contexts.

Hegel, however, thought that (big-H) History could be explained – that sense could be made of its structure and direction. But then History, for him, would not denote everything that happened in the past, all (small-h) history, but only a tiny subset of those past events, and then, as he fleshed out his program, only in a few times and places.

People nowadays can hardly not be struck by the “Eurocentrism” of Hegel’s vision. By his lights, most of the world has no History, and most of the world’s populations are comprised of peoples without History because they play no role in the story Hegel told of the career of Reason and, since these come to more or less the same thing for him, of Freedom’s rise and eventual triumph.

That was what mattered to Hegel’s followers on the Left – including Karl Marx. For them, however impoverished Hegel’s historical vision may have been, he did provide an account of History as such that is of general and paramount relevance.

His account is joined conceptually and historically to notions of Freedom and Reason that make sense within the arcane context of “classical German philosophy” as it emerged over several decades from the late eighteenth until the early nineteenth century, and that resonate with nearly all strains of modern thought, even when the connections and affinities are not appreciated or even acknowledged. In one way or another, Hegelian philosophy has meant a great deal to thinkers across the left-right spectrum, from Marx to nearly all the great conservative thinkers of the past two centuries, and to the “centrists” in between.

Like God, History, so conceived, moves in mysterious ways. It is cunning, working through the passions and interest of “world historical” figures, producing outcomes that the individuals through whom it works did not intend, but that nevertheless accord with the demands of Reason itself.

If I am right in thinking that a Green New Deal would mark a pivotal (big-H) Historical turning point, and inasmuch as Trump’s unwitting role in reviving the passions and interests that made the original New Deal both necessary and possible is beyond dispute, it would follow that Hegel was wrong to hold that that the Cunning of History only works through great and exceptional men (always men in Hegel’s view).

Whatever Trump may be, he is not that! Hegel was bedazzled by Napoleon. Trump doesn’t bedazzle; he disgusts, and he befuddles.

Hegel also thought that the course History takes only becomes evident in retrospect; that “the owl of Minerva (the ancient Greek symbol of wisdom) takes flight with the setting of the sun” – in other words, when the critical Historical moment is over and its spirit is played out.

Trump seems to be proving him wrong on that too. Unless I and nearly everyone else who is paying serious attention is profoundly deceived, the Spirit of the Age, the Zeitgeist, is changing before our eyes.

Green New Deal thinking didn’t spring up out of nowhere. With inequality on the rise since the Carter years and then intensifying as the neoliberal order went global, bringing despair wherever it went, calls for the restoration of New Deal – Great Society liberalism or, on a more global plane, for full blooded Social Democracy kept emerging and intensifying.

The problem has become especially acute in the past decade or two – to such an extent that, in the American case, nostalgia for New Deal capitalism, and calls for reinstalling some up-dated version of it, have become impossible to keep down.

The general idea is that with genuine alternatives to capitalism off the table, but with the evils of capitalism as severe as ever, state efforts to save capitalism from the capitalists and, what comes to the same thing, to give capitalism a human face are becoming an urgent need.

Also, as in the original New Deal, the idea is reemerging that, ironically, a new New Deal might unleash a dynamic that might make it possible to put real alternatives to capitalism back on the agenda in an already foreseeable future.

This was just wishful thinking until recently, and it may still be nothing more than that. But as the problems brought on by inequality have intensified and the facts about it have become better and more widely known, and as the spirit of radical politics has revived, the idea not just that a better world is possible, but also that it would have to have a discernible socialist character, has caused yesterday’s and today’s disabling doubts to begin to give way to more optimistic perspectives.

The idea that a new New Deal should be green has also been kicking around for a long time, and a sense of the urgency of environmental issues has been around longer still. A more radical Green New Deal platform than the one promoted by Massachusetts Senator Ed Marchi and AOC, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been part of the Green Party’s platform for several electoral cycles.

In the past few years, indisputable evidence of global warming and of the anthropogenic nature of devastating climatic events that are impossible for any rational person to deny have brought Green issues to the forefront of peoples’ minds. It would be hard these days to imagine proposals for a New Deal that are not green.

And so, all of a sudden, it seems to be coming together. The cunning of Reason works that way, in fits and starts.

Predictably, a bipartisan juggernaut is already hard at work trying to quash or deflect efforts to implement more than just cosmetic changes. The situation is far from hopeless, however.

Nancy Pelosi may be good for outwitting the likes of dealmaker Donald Trump. But, as a corporate Democrat, she is not good for much else. She is not even a match for Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Minnesota Congresswoman and “profile in courage,” who had the temerity to state a few simple, perfectly obvious but, for Democrats, inconvenient truths about the Israel lobby.

It is therefore more likely than not that she, and corporate Democrats like her, will be unable to stall or turn back the political transformations that the world-historical but otherwise hapless Donald Trump, a man of no virtues and monumental shortcomings, has set in motion.

The great fear has been that, thanks to Trump, the times are changing for the worse. It just may be, however, that History is more ironic than that, and that the worst president in modern times may actually have made it possible for America truly to become great, not “again” and not in his warped and ultimately racist sense, but in a way that is wise, humane and urgently needed.

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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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