Former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s incendiary testimony to the House Congressional Oversight Committee on 27 February, calling the president “a racist, a con-man and a cheat,” highlighted not for the first time the contradiction between condemnations of Trump as the unwanted, kitschy, proto-fascist, poisoned flower of American capitalism — a “legitimate businessman” and global television star who had a strong shot at the presidency handed to him by an unprecedented sustained overexposure in the US corporate media starting more than a half-year before the 2016 presidential primaries — and the attempt, which began even before Trump’s shocking victory in that election, to instead style his ascent as the product of a deeply hidden foreign intervention: a conspiracy! The Kremlin, we are told, its hackers, the compromised Trump 2016 campaign, and the journalistic outfit Wikileaks captured armies of US zombie followers and introduced division to American society for the first time through small ad purchases on social media, and then timed the public releases of e-mail troves commandeered from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, just at the right moments to iceberg Clinton’s unsinkable Titanic.
While there is no shortage of compatriots who see the children ripped from their parents at the border and the clean-water regulations rolled back, such as they were, and other atrocities too numerous to name here, and don’t really care which of these two narratives damages or ousts the White House occupant, the contradiction between these two Trumps — the rotted symbol of the American good life and the treasonous Russian agent — exposes larger realities we cannot afford to ignore. The question of which Trump we fight is fateful, and not only for those who position themselves to the left of the Democratic Party establishment. By confirming what investigative journalists and an attentive reading of news had already shown to be true about Trump’s businesses for decades, Cohen’s performance bore out that the first narrative remains undeniable, even as the second is unprovable. The first, however, is dangerous to the American ruling class and its managerial and policy-making power-elite, for it undermines their still widely-held capitalist creed. The second, which has been shorthanded as #Russiagate, can certainly be viewed as a tale of convenience adopted to cover up the epic failure and general odiousness of the Clinton campaign, and to give the non-FOX corporate media a never-ending bone to chew on for the ratings. But it is potentially much more than that. As a propaganda narrative it could serve to establish, at least temporarily, a new socio-ideological hegemony of how politics are interpreted: a new creed for Americans that could relieve a persistent crisis of legitimation for both American Empire and its metropolitan Power Elite, at a time when they find themselves divided and bereft of vision. It would, I say, except that it is a failure, and has been so since its inception. If I’ve used too much fancy academic talk, please allow me a paragraph of theory and a bit more of historical context to clarify it. Then we will return to the Cohen micro-episode. Okay?
The system of American Empire has never been static. The perpetual growth demands of its capitalism, its deeply-felt imperative to control all potentials for disruption, and its fundamental intolerance of enclaves even a little bit inaccessible to US capital (current example: Venezuela) drive the emergence of inevitable crises; or rather crisis manifestations, since crisis is a perpetual underlying feature. Until now, generations of its power elites, once an exclusive club of well-heeled monsters with Ivy League pedigrees, have maintained coherence as a managerial class and successfully presided over the reproduction of the Empire’s structures of power and of its underlying domestic consensus of patriotic faith. They have done so through their responses to both systemic and exogenous crises. The imperialist and capitalist systems transform through each round of crisis. Crisis is the brand, as a movie once said. (Not that it was ever easy. Oh, the travails of the ruling class and its managers!) This has always come at an uncountable cost in Other People’s Blood. That blood sacrifice has been a main reason why the structures of the Empire have remained entrenched as a form of permanent government, finance, and international governance. These structures include the military-industrial and national security and “intelligence” and arms-trade complexes; their vast archipelago of overseas bases and networks of military alliances, both formal and makeshift; their multitudes of corporate contractors, parapolitical friends and mobbed-up networks; the symbiotic industries of resource extraction, especially in energy; the many adjunct industries, both in the profit and non-profit sectors, of captured politics, knowledge production, media and propaganda, and of the economic development complex; and above all, the global dollar hegemony, from which Wall Street lives and to which Main Street is tied, the latter less like a baby to an umbilical cord and more like a dying patient to a respirator full of morphine.
Several generations on from its founding and globalization during and after the total labor of World War II, confronted with momentous global power shifts, long-term difficulties in economic accumulation, decades of malcontents fighting for their equal rights, instabilities in the poorly-understood international system of trade and law, and, finally, a serious fraying of domestic prosperity and domestic consensus, the global American Empire has entered a particularly stubborn period of instability. These troubles were in the works already during the imaginary triumphal age of the late 1990s, saw a lurch into the Forever Wars after 2001, and have intensified since the big crisis manifestation of 2007-9. On the other hand, in 2016, the rich have never been richer, their oligarchic clones rule most of the world’s other countries, the oil and gas is flowing a-plenty and being burned into the atmosphere at a higher rate than ever before, and, at home, the military-industrial profits remain sweet. All this will be even more true in 2019.
Is it a Surprise or a Symptom?
The swift outbreak of a Trump, especially the Trump who presents the Platonic form of the Bad Billionaire, who has been a widely celebrated and hated Top-10 Celebrity for decades, and his defeat of history’s most coronated and best-funded candidate came as a terrible symptom of power elite decline, and presumably was confounding to most of its members. To that power elite, it also exposed (as if they had not seen it earlier) the more general decay in the socio-ideological framework that had so long sustained broad domestic support for maintaining the Empire and the metropolitan political economy. Sure, “everyone knew,” but now it was obvious that “we” had never been so “polarized” and “divided” and lacking faith in “our” institutions.
This was painful in large part because Trump was an unlikely president, but by no means a fluke. Until his run, he was an exemplary product of the systemic ideological framework — fourteen seasons of NBC The Apprentice are no lie — and also an all-too obvious and, in legal terms, criminal case study of everything wrong with the system and its money-bathing owners. Try as they might, the billionaires cannot wash themselves of what he stands for; his stench is their stench. He added the personal flourish that he has always been a busy, angry, vulgar, domineering loudmouth, proud of his many forms of ignorance and, of late, apparently suffering from senescence. Not incidentally, these performative qualities were the key to his appeal to the Republican voter base, the not-so-secret sauce by which he effected a hostile takeover of a GOP electorate long fed on nativist and revanchist narratives and maudlin appeals to family and babies (which he never fails to call “beautiful,” even now when he orders up another batch of bombs for them). Amid the hourly lies, the dissembling and aggro-rambling, he regularly let out unspeakable truths about how the system really works:
“Do you think we don’t have killers?”
“Take their oil.”
“Grab them by the pussy.”
The last, delivered as a chummy bit of wisdom in an ostensibly confidential brag to an NBC lackey he barely knew, is both a misogynist avowal and a credo of how power generally is supposed to work. It’s as though Sun Tzu wrote a guide for plunder and rape. And when the Dead Hand of 1787 (a.k.a. the Electoral College) waved him into the presidency, this honesty-of-the-brute was among the factors that seemed to make his ouster necessary, even inevitable, from the start. And then came the theatrical chaos generated when a mid-level money-laundering con-artist family “org” headlined by a whack-job playing Hitler on TV who learned his act at Roy Cohn’s knee purports to run the Empire by twittered pronunciamentos and kisses blown at his favored tyrants. This posed an unprecedented disaster for systemic credibility. Imagine this was The Wizard of Oz, and Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal, not a smooth-talking salesman from Kansas, friendly and quick on his feet, but the world’s richest victim of Dunning-Kruger syndrome. It’s unseemly!
Securing the Fortress
This is all said in an effort to see things from the class perspective of the patriotic, well-coiffed, ever-richer ruling class and its management/policy-making strata. I do not mean in any way to trivialize the radical barbarity of the politics the Trump-Pence regime promised and has delivered. Their attempted defense against their high-level enemies has been, predictably, to double down on everything they were really promising to those who didn’t believe the MAGA stuff. They have allied symbiotically with the worst avatars of imperial adventurism (first a set of mad-dog generals, and when those crapped out, now the retread war criminals of earlier presidencies); the most piratical and cannibalistic segments of the ruling class (with many of this type directly holding cabinet as well as kitchen advisor positions); the worst lords of war among the Empire’s accustomed foreign henchcountries; and the most aggressive elements of the real Deep State, which still resides in redoubts like Langley and its Foggy Bottom colony and currently has an unlikely chieftain in Pompeo Maximus (thanks for that, St. Clair), and which must suffer the Mini-Bolton as its not very Brzezinskian frontman. (I don’t think the Dulles brothers would have seen that coming. And there is no magisterial McCloy or Rockefeller figure able to smooth the way to a ruling-class consensus behind the scenes. I mean, who can do that? Bloomberg? Gates and Buffett? Bezos?!) An essential element was to quickly secure payoffs to the corporations, the rich, and the Pentagon in the form of the audacious tax cut for the 0.1% and the new-record military budgets, which remain the two major legislative achievements of this period. Otherwise, Trump has continued applying everything he learned as a TV and professional wrestling performer in his own defense, committing possible obstruction of justice by the tweet but understanding that red meat for his base is far more important to his survival.
But also from the start, as a more lasting solution to its predicament, the Trump-Pence regime has been searching for the clarifying violence and unifying emergency of what I once called “America’s New War: Part 2017.” Targets have been hard to secure. If there was any hope of North Korea, that was rendered infeasible by the capable South Korean diplomacy offensive under President Moon; that Trump actually threatened a nuclear war in front of the UN General Assembly has been forgotten. A regime-change war on Iran appears to remain an elusive white whale for aging genocidaires from the Reagan-to-Bush-Jr set, although a bit of scene has been set with the US withdrawal from the non-proliferation agreement, and Netanyahu never stops pushing.
And so Venezuela, hyped as the strawman of “Socialism,” has now been placed squarely in the imperial flotilla’s sights, targeted by crippling financial sanctions intensifying those already placed by Obama, hit last month by a (failing, for now) coup attempt, and threatened with “multilateral” military strikes and disgusting teasers of Senator Rubio’s lust to murder its elected president. Although this move also happens to be the new central pillar of the Trump 2020 campaign run, testing well with key Florida demographics, so far it has received the backing of the establishment Democratic Party leadership, very little detectable US public opposition, and only milquetoast objections even from the new wave of democratic socialist politicians, other than Ilhan Omar and Tulsi Gabbard.
Cuba and Nicaragua are supposed to follow, Bolton has declared.
“Isolationism” is sometimes absurdly attributed to Trump by the Transatlanticist power-brokers appalled by his uncouth style of imperialism, and by antiwar paleocons in the mode of an Andrew Bacevich, who may still derive hope that something like this term can be applied. This is unfortunate. Other than that “isolationism” has usually converged with xenophobic nativism, rather as the tail to a dog, it has also served to cover the strategy of announcing or pretending disengagement from Europe while starting new wars in Latin America, the “backyard” that has been Trump’s obsession since the first speech about Mexico sending “rapists and drug dealers.” Trump’s peace rhetoric has always been for the rubes, as confirmed in the record Pentagon budgets — a campaign promise kept.
“Grab them by the pussy” is also the all-too-real geopolitical credo.
Let us turn briefly again to the Rump Establishment, again a power elite long bereft of vision and in dissarray following the Trump shock. From the start, the high-level opposition’s attempted game has been to cast “The Little Gangster From Queens Who Could” as the agent of a foreign enemy, run by remote kompromat stowed at Mordor in the Kremlin. Nothing less than the post-modern virtual Red Scare 3.0 sufficed for the job, supplemented by an inexaustible series of single-day fabricated add-ons from the propaganda freelancers, about Russians shutting down the Vermont electrical grid in the winter, deploying rainbow-colored dildos to turn gay activists against Clinton, or looking for their useful idiots among the the writers of Counterpunch. This synced well enough among those of the geostrategic guild who prefer, as Orwell would have said, that We Have Always Been at War with Eurasia Not Eastasia. (The factional wrangling over whether China or Russia is the Real Global Enemy, meanwhile, drives the proposed antagonists further into each others’ arms, and of course invites them to troll the shit out of American minds.)
So far, the most remarkable thing about this campaign to reconstruct “Russia” as the primary threat to “America” (any resemblance to either country coincidental), although it has run 24/7 in all of the non-FOX corporate media and been pushed by most of the major non-Koch policy think-tanks, has been its failure to gain the kind of purchase with the American majority that top-down propaganda extravaganzas of the past — from the first two Red Scares to “America Held Hostage” in 1980 to the “Saddam=WMD=9/11” formula of 2002 — never failed to capture. At least, these captured minds long enough to achieve the initial objective of launching a war, disciplining the popular front, or stealing an election. After that, haters can be left to hate.
This is another symptom of hegemony crisis, of the ruling institutions’ loss of hold over American sentiment. For some reason, Americans today keep on thinking their real problems are due either to the economy or the immigrants. Or they lose themselves in the many other distractions on offer, as we still have our Super Bowls and celebrity outrages and Metal Death Gear Machine XVI (sorry, not a gamer). And cats. But outside the fandom of #Russiagate doctoral studies, they just don’t care about it. It is in the context of the #Russiagate campaign’s failure that the initial Beltway consensus favoring the turn to a new regime change op in Venezuela — opposite to anything that could be described as “Putin’s agenda” — is so frightening. The right moment may have arrived for the ruling class antagonists to yet come together, as a New War Party: a familiar American counterpart to a European grand coalition government, but much bloodier. For other people.
Micro-Episode: Cohen’s Confessions, February 27, 2019
Centering on his personal movie-of-the-week American redemption story, Cohen in his testimony presented a theatrical exposure of the conventionally criminal Trump Organization and the first year of its efforts to turn into a presidency. As a transnational money laundry of decades’ standing, of course this grouping has had its dealings with many oligarchs from the US and the rest of the world, including ruh-ruh-Russians. Cohen backed this with the kind of solid evidence that a consigliere, disciplined into repentance by a three-year sentence, can deliver: a trove of Trump Org financial disclosures to Deutsche Bank and Forbes that should keep investigators occupied for a while; and, for effect, a copy of the personal check he received from Trump after he was directed to buy the pre-election silence of the woman Trump had a brief affair with, Stormy Daniels — she who has proven so nimble on the attack. The trove of exhibits accompanying his testimony is big news. The congressional member who seemed to best understand it was none other than the Rookie Queen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose piercing questions provided a roadmap to uncovering further Trump Org scams, such as one involving the variable asset valuation of a Bronx golf-course in her district. (Bronx golf course? These people have no shame. But I repeat myself.) As a story, however, the one about Cohen dispatching a sub-lackey to over-bid at an art auction for a portrait of Trump (!), so that it would not sell at an embarrassingly low price, was an even more memorable encapsulation of both the man and the family business model he inherited from his father: the masterwork was then resold at a markup to the Trump Foundation, using funds donated to the “charity.” Ah, the sweet odeur of Other People’s Money! Such accusations are directly backed by Cohen, as the man who actually conducted the sordid deals, and by the documents he accumulated. Every single exhibit he provided related to the 1%er capitalism-as-usual activity of his Moneybag Master.
But tell me again, who indicted this guy? Right, Mueller. So the same show still demanded the Russia-Wikileaks narrative to be pasted in, so that the corporate media could treat that as though it was somehow the news lede. Which they did. (Even the non-corporate Amy did!) For this, the well-advised Cohen employed a story about being at the Boss Tower on an unspecified day in July 2016, when he heard his masters chatter with fellow grifter Roger Stone on speakerphone. Stone bragged to them about his inside line to the de facto political prisoner, Julian Assange. Never mind that in court, Cohen’s recollections would be case of my witness against yours. It is very likely true, and why should it not be? It has already been established, through releases from the office of Mueller himself, that Stone had no inside line to Assange. He tried to build one through hapless radio host Randy Credico, who also had no special access, but had interviewed Assange on air. In effect, Stone’s claims to the Trumps were part of his own con on the Trump campaign. He kept bragging about his non-existent special relationship with Assange and pretending he had predicted the Wikileaks data dump (which had already been teased in the press) until he bragged some more to Congress, and ran afoul of perjury charges from Mueller. (As if this is the worst thing that Roger “Original Nixon’s Ratfuckers 4Ever” Stone has ever done.) As the outlines of this story have been out since last year, the weakness of #Russiagate is once again exposed in the repeated need to recycle the same non-evidence as if it’s never been heard before.
Please Don’t Unite Us
In this life, I have resigned myself to never seeing all current and living American presidents (except maybe Carter) and their secretaries of war and deception, and their helpers-helpers, brought before war crimes tribunals, in the name of the peoples of Indochina, of Central America, of the Middle East. But we may yet see Trump ousted for his ruling class business-as-usual criminal business dealings prior to White House occupancy, which after all are those of someone well above Tony Soprano’s paygrade, if not quite up to most of those higher on the Forbes400 list. If that should happen, to this actually very typical model of a heroic, advantage-maximizing business grifter — exactly the kind of guy who comes to predominate under a late capitalist value system — it will further damage faith in this wobbly order, at a time when a growing majority of the people have come to justifiably hate the billionaires. (Never mind whether Trump is a fake billionaire; sorry, real billionaires, NBC The Apprentice has established the opposite claim as if it was the reality, and you deserve it. That is how the Spectacle still works, when it works, unlike the #Russiagate campaign.) Still unlikely, such an ouster would be a glimmer of good news for those entertaining glimpses of another world. I like to think it will reduce the odds of a new war set off by accident, or by a mean old man’s whim, although it may do nothing to stop new wars long-intended.
By contrast, Trump being ousted for the #Russiagate construct is still seen by many in the Rump Power Elite and the Democratic establishment as the best chance for restoring the stability of the systemic creed. Then the villain would have been abroad, not one of us. Bravo, #Resistance veterans, pat yourself on the back and go rearrange your furniture. If it inspires no joy, throw it out. That outcome is potentially terrible, given that it perpetuates, and will destabilize, the state of cold war among the nuclear superpowers, each weak and irrational and bad-acting in its own way. Think on that if you are ever tempted to curse Trump for the one good thing he has done in office, which was not to block the South Korean peace offensive, but to adopt it as if it was his idea.
But the greatest immediate danger remains that the White House beast will trigger one or more of the prepared new wars, with many potentials for cascading effects at a time of democratized messaging chaos, revanchist nationalisms globally, and still no effective intent to address the ongoing planetary extinction event. (Oh yeah, that.) As the corporate media response to the bombs dropped on Assad’s side of the Syria line showed (as opposed to the thousands still being dropped elsewhere in the region), his #Russiagate problem could be solved by shooting enough missiles and deploying enough forces against a target associated, whether or not truly, with Putin’s interests. Where is the unapologetically anti-imperialist and progressive peace movement? For the moment, too many are caught in the headlights of the renewed attack on “Socialism,” fearing to speak clearly about the crime being promised, or watching Cohen and anticipating the next micro-episode in the never-ending show.
To respond to this piece, offer to finance the movie version, fund a translation into Farsi, or remind Nicholas Levis that he should be working on his history dissertation, which is supposed to be about Greeks in the 1960s, write to N24CP2020@gmail.com.