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Pelosi’s Trump Problem and Ours

Photograph Source: DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Martinique Santos – Public Domain


Part One

Since long before Donald Trump oozed out from the New York tabloids and Atlantic City casinos into the mainstream of American politics, the United States has had no genuine center left political party. What it has had instead is a feckless Democratic Party that is as much a capitalist tool (apologies to Forbes Magazine) as its more odious Republican rival.

However, the sad fact is that our pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street Democratic Party is indispensable for beating back Donald Trump and his minions. Nancy Pelosi is now its de facto leader and public face. Therefore a lot depends on what she does. The consequences could be world altering; the burden must seem overwhelming.

Only a few months ago, mentioning the Democratic Party’s connections to corporate America and Wall Street would have been gratuitous. It went without saying.

There have always been Democrats who, by sympathy and conviction, were better than that. But at least since the Jimmy Carter days, it would have taken a keen eye to discern anything in their work in the House or Senate that the Forbes motto didn’t perfectly capture.

Democrats would oppose Republicans from time to time, on anodyne cultural issues, and Republicans would oppose Democrats. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to play quick and dirty. Many of them were not beyond playing “the race card” when suitable occasions arose; in effect, they made Richard Nixon’s (actually Pat Buchanan’s) Southern Strategy their own.

In recent decades, there has therefore been a lot of what W.H. Auden, following Yeats, called “passionate intensity.” At the same time, though, there has been little or no contestation over fundamental political convictions.

Thus, paradoxically, American politics, always in the grip of a debilitating, semi-institutionalized duopolistic party system, suffered from both extreme polarization and a degree of ideological conformism without equal in other liberal democracies.

There are now roughly a hundred or so House members in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and there are self-identified progressives in the Black and Hispanic Caucuses as well.

No doubt, the progressivism of these self-identified progressives is sincere. No doubt now, as in the past, in the right circumstances, some of them some of the time can be counted on to do the right thing.

But the circumstances are almost never conducive to insurgent, much less counter-systemic, politics. Therefore, if “by their deeds, you shall know them,” there has hardly ever been a time when the number of practicing progressives in the House and Senate who were good for anything more than opposing Republican miscreants could not, as they say, fit entirely and without remainder in a taxicab with room left over for luggage.

Over the years, Democrats have generally been more pusillanimous than Republicans. Cowardice, however, has never been that party’s main problem. Of greater importance is the seemingly unalterable fact that prevailing institutional constraints make it almost impossible for anyone to go against the current in other than trivial ways.

Congress is therefore where progressive wannabes who want to be players go mainstream, and where progressivism goes to die.

But having made it through nearly two and a half years with a government comprised of the very worst among us, and led by an emotionally stunted, ethically “challenged” ignoramus, people are coming to understand, better than before, that even the most imposing and seemingly immutable constraints can indeed be overcome when an enraged citizenry sets its mind to it.

The Age of Revolutions is over, and hopes raised in “the sixties” — actually the late sixties and early seventies – are ancient history, but something very much like the revolutionary spirit of those times seems to be on its way back.

Sufficient numbers of Americans learned, in time for the 2018 midterm elections, that it is indeed the case that, very often in politics, where there is a will, there is a way; and that there are plenty of places in these United States that are primed and ready to become politically active in progressive ways.

In part, because the Democratic Party “as we know it” is so useless, this is mostly happening spontaneously. Even so, something very much like a popular front, united in its determination to keep America from going the way of Weimar Germany, is taking shape, if not quite under the aegis of the Democratic Party, then in ways in which electoral contests involving Democrats play a leading role.

There is a limit, however, to how many new tricks old Clintonites can learn, and to how useful they can become. In the House, it is “the freshman class,” the newbies, who are injecting fresh energy into the rotting carcass of the party the Clintons and their allies made over in their image. They are the ones showing the way.

It is not just Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. There are also others, less well known because corporate media have yet to fixate on them, cut from the same cloth. There may even be a critical mass.

Thanks to the newbies even some of the old (and not so old) timers on Capitol Hill are beginning to show signs of having progressive bones in their bodies; some may even be growing spines.

Pelosi is not among them. Nevertheless, for a Democratic Party leader at this point in time, she is about as good as it gets.

Needless to say, with the likes of Chuck Schumer calling the shots for Democrats in the Senate, and Steny Hoyer, Ben Ray Luján, and Hakeem Jeffries working with Pelosi in the House, the bar is set low. I’m not so sure about House Majority Whip James Clyburn either; Obama effectively neutered the Black Caucus, Clyburn included, and the damage lingers.

But even if the competition were more formidable, Pelosi would still be at the top of the heap. Nevertheless, like the party she leads, she is part of the problem.

Could she and other leading Democrats become part of the solution too? A few months ago, it would have gone without saying that there is no way that would ever happen. However, now, thanks to Trump and his minions, the situation has become too fluid to draw that or any other conclusion.

Democrats Divided

The party Pelosi leads is divided against itself, though not quite in the ways that are generally assumed.

The divisions are not about millennials gaining power at the expense of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, except incidentally; neither are they about those who are innocent of Washington’s ways prevailing over more experienced political operatives.

The differences are political, not generational. They are about different visions of what will move society forward.

Mainstream Democrats are social liberals who advocate economic policies friendly to corporate America and Wall Street, and interventionist foreign policies in line with the interests and values of the military-industrial-national security state complex. There is reason to hope now that the Clintons themselves are, at long last, no longer factors, but it is still appropriate to call mainstream Democrats “Clintonites.” That is the place where their heads are stuck.

Clintonites are not quite committed to the idea that the government that regulates least governs best; they do come close to that view, however. They are the pre-Reagan, Rockefeller Republicans of our times.

What they want is what might have been had Hillary and her team not flubbed so badly running against Trump in 2016. They want the functional equivalent of a third Obama term, led by somebody willing and able to restore and even strengthen the institutions and norms that Trump and his band of retrograde nihilists seek to “deconstruct.”

A good slogan for them would be: “forward into the past.”

It is far from obvious, though, that today’s Democratic Party is a serviceable vehicle for moving much of anything even just a little forward. This could now be changing, but the jury will be out on that question for some time to come.

No significant party faction seems at all disposed to breaking free from the Democratic Party altogether, the better to take up an authentically oppositional stand free from Clintonite baggage. Too bad, but this is how it now is.

The idea now is just to defeat Trump and to excoriate all vestiges of what he and his band of kakistocrats – “kadistocracy” means rule of the worst – have done. Anything beyond that is considered a distraction from the paramount objective. In view of the clear and present danger Trump poses, this is not an unreasonable plan.

Indeed, Trump and Trumpism are so dangerous that, for reasons similar to those that led to the formation of popular fronts in the 1930s, it is necessary, for the time being and perhaps for some time to come, to work in concert with mainstream Democrats.

This is not an appealing prospect. Just watch them war monger on MSNBC or any other “liberal” news outlet, and it becomes evident why. I don’t just mean Democratic Party flacks like Rachel Maddow or Stephanie Rule or, by far the dumbest of all, Chris Matthews.

Neither is the problem confined to them plus the retired CIA and military men and security “experts,” making a second career of talking up the evils of Vladimir Putin and those pesky Ruskies.

And, among many others, there are Senators Mark Warner and the ubiquitous Richard Blumenthal; more House member than you can shake a stick at: Adam Schiff, Jackie Speier, and presidential candidate Eric Swalwell, for example.

Indeed, there are all the twenty or so presidential candidates with the partial exceptions of Bernie Sander and Elizabeth Warren, and of course Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard is better by far on foreign policy than any of the others – she has even spoken out against the still unconsummated Trump sponsored coup in Venezuela. Not surprisingly, on MSNBC and the others, she has been she has been all but totally ignored.

Mainstream Democrats and their media flunkies are hell bent on restoring and even expanding a Cold War with Russia, and on revving up conflicts with China. It is hard to see how sane and intelligent people could be so reckless, but there it is.

With Democrats like the ones we have, the ones Pelosi speaks for, one would think that, to remain by far the greater evil, Trump would have to work hard to come up with fresh ways to be awful beyond compare. Lucky for him that it comes naturally to him; and that with each passing day he plunges to new depths.

Meanwhile, mainstream Democrats promote the veneration of national security state institutions, like the CIA and the FBI; and regard G-Man Mueller as their savior. There was a time when “progressives” might have gone a tad overboard calling for “offing the pig,” but the ways they now cluster around the opposite extreme is unseemly, wrongheaded, and nauseating.

With the exception of a very few brave souls in “the freshman class,” even the most progressive Democrats fall far short of paragon status. Thus, as Israel is rapidly becoming a country only ethnocratic nationalists, Evangelicals awaiting the End Times, and Sheldon Adelson could love, the left most flank of the mainstream Democratic Party has become the last redoubt for “progressive except for Palestine” liberals. This too is unseemly and wrong-headed; it is also an obstacle in the way of advancing a genuinely internationalist perspective into the mainstream political scene.

This bodes ill for the evolution of American progressivism. Its single most debilitating feature nowadays is that it stops at the water’s edge. Among presidential candidates, Sanders and even Warren may be moving slowly in the right direction, and again there is Gabbard. And, since the midterm elections, there are now the new “usual suspects” in the House. But none of this does anything significant to change which side the Democratic Party is on.

The mainstream Democratic Party has also been leading the charge against whistle blowers – that is part of the Obama legacy – and against any and all journalists and editors who have embarrassed prominent Democrats by publishing news of uncontested truthfulness and considerable public interest.

Hence, the cruel and fortunately still, for the most part, unusual war it has been waging against Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The main villain in this, as in the party’s Cold War revivalism generally, is, of course, Hillary Clinton.

I could go on, but the point is clear enough already: that the formation of a popular front against Trump and Trumpism that would unite the mainstream, Clintonized Democratic Party with the forces that erupted on the scene in the 2018 midterms, around this common purpose, is not for the politically scrupulous or the faint of heart.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should reflect on the fact that mainstream Democrats are seriously contemplating making Joe Biden their standard bearer. MSNBC and CNN are positively salivating at the prospect. It hardly matters to them that the man is a doofus, even more inept, and more Clintonite, than Hillary herself.

Part Two

Impeachment

The question these days in Democratic Party circles is: to impeach or not to impeach.

Had Richard Nixon not resigned, he might have been the first American president ever to be removed from office by impeachment. It is a difficult process, no matter how plainly removal from office is warranted on legal or moral grounds.

Trump’s awfulness is unprecedented, but the consensus view is that getting rid of him by impeachment would be next to impossible because the GOP would have to go along, and it never would.

Were our institutions more democratic, separating an out of control, clear and present danger from access to the nuclear codes and from the power to call the shots in a host of matters of grave concern would be easy peasy. But, then, were they more democratic, Trump would not be in office in the first place.

Rashida Tlaib famously said on the day she was elected: “impeach the motherfucker.” This was and is the fervent view of the large and growing Democratic “base.”

However, polls suggest that a majority of Americans disagree. It is not that they like Trump, though alarmingly many do. What so many fear is the resulting turmoil and instability. Trump’s brazen defiance of Congress and of the rule of law generally feeds this fear.

There is even fear that were his tenure in office to run its course and were he then to go on to lose the next election fair and square that he would not let go of power easily; that he would blame “fake news” or just about anything else, though probably not the Russians, for his defeat.

Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders are against impeachment, as are their media flacks.

They insist that the way to win the White House back in 2020 is to win Trump voters back, and that the way to do that is to veer as far to the right as the party can go without losing its base altogether.

They are surely right about the importance of winning back Trump voters – especially older, white men in de-industrializing and rural areas. But they are almost certainly wrong about how best to do it.

They ignore the old maxim – actually, there is nothing old about it; I just made it up – that in a contest between two corporate ass kissers, the one corporate assholes like better has a clear leg up. They also ignore evidence of “left populist” successes nearly everywhere that authentically progressive campaigns are decently funded and not rendered invisible by corporate media.

Instead, they claim that their view is obvious, and sneer at the naïveté of those who, like Tlaib, disagree.

But reality is catching up with them, especially now that there are people in office, not just Tlaib, who are not intimidated by the likes of them. Were someone writing a “Profiles in Courage” book today, several of the newbies would be candidates for inclusion; not just Rashida Tlaib.

As a Palestinian, in a party where, despite everything Israel does, Zionism still reigns, she was already walking on a razor’s edge. Her “expletive” brought out demands from the party’s suddenly sanctimonious dead center that she wash her mouth out with soap or else be impeached herself. Democrats, what pieces of work you are!

Poor Pelosi therefore has to walk a fine line. She has to placate her dead center comrades without curbing the enthusiasms of the majority of Democrats.

She has therefore taken impeachment off the table for the time being. First things first: investigate, investigate, and, when that is done, investigate some more. The time to impeach would be after all that – depending, of course, on how the investigations go.

Meanwhile, an anxious public seethes, as the Donald, guilty as sin, gets away with “high crimes and misdemeanors” more grievous than shooting a passerby on Fifth Avenue, as he famously boasted he could get away with doing.

This is not the first time that Pelosi’s has set out to keep impeachment at bay. It is the first time, though, that she has claimed to be waiting for a more auspicious moment.

When she became Speaker in 2006, she could have begun impeachment proceedings against George W., Bush 43. The base would have been with her. One wouldn’t know it now, what with all those former Bush-men and women deriding Trump in liberal media, but he was certainly hated enough back in the day.

Rightly so, too. Trump may be America’s worst president in modern times by many orders of magnitude, but he still isn’t responsible for nearly as many deaths as W. was. And even if superintending murder and mayhem is part of the job, there were no doubt plenty of supererogatory “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which Bush could have been charged; all it would have taken was a bit of resolve on Pelosi’s part.

In a more just world, the charges against Bush 43 would include crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace. Along with Dick Cheney, the man wrecked large parts of the Middle East directly and indirectly, and he set the Afghanistan War, the longest in American history, in motion. After some eighteen years, there is still no end in sight.

Even so, Bush would probably not have been removed from office back then for the same reason that Trump won’t be now: because reaching a super-majority vote in the Senate would have been out of the question. Nevertheless, the mere threat might have hamstrung him in ways that would have made his and Cheney’s wars less ruinous.

But Pelosi made her electoral calculations and decided that it was better for the Democratic Party to do nothing. She feared that launching impeachment proceedings would somehow jeopardize a Hillary Clinton victory in 2008.

As it turned out, HRC flubbed that sure thing too. And so, in the end, Bush escaped impeachment, with Pelosi’s help, and we got eight years of Barack Obama.

Evidently, on impeachment, Pelosi’s head is still where it has always been; she is fatally wary of anything that could be unsettling in ways that might cost the party she leads on Election Day.

***

I think she is wrong this time too – not so much because her reasoning is flawed, but because, unsurprisingly, she underrates the importance of fanning the flames of insurgencies within the party she leads.

Those who favor “impeaching the motherfucker” are where the action is. With a Democratic Party as noxious as the one that made Trump possible and arguably even inevitable, fanning the flames should be encouraged, not squelched.

I have to say, though, that but for that consideration, I think Pelosi’s position is more defensible than Tlaib’s, though not for the reasons she advances. Ironically, this makes it easier to join forces with her and others who think like her, on the model of the popular fronts of eight decades ago.

For Pelosi, it is all about electing Democrats. Inasmuch as good, or even minimally acceptable, Democrats are hard to find, even after the 2018 midterms, that is not exactly a compelling reason.

What is more compelling is the other side of the coin: the urgency of the need to send Trumpians packing and to decimate the GOP. This consideration is of course mitigated to a considerable extent by the fact that the election still a year and a half off, notwithstanding the hour by hour coverage it gets on cable news and in “the quality press.”

There are, however, two other considerations that weigh against supporting Tlaib et. al., that Pelosi and other leading Democrats would surely oppose.

Those Democrats put a lot of time and effort into promoting the idea that the peerless G-Man Mueller would become the nation’s savior by proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump was little more than a hapless tool of Vladimir Putin, America’s Demon du Jour.

For a few days in recent weeks, it looked like the Mueller Report would not serve their purpose well. To the dismay of the Cold War mongers on CNN and MSNBC, and to the embarrassment of Clintonites everywhere, intent on blaming Russians, not themselves, for Trump’s 2016 victory, it looked like Mueller’s report “exonerated” Trump.

Trump’s stooge, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Fox News along with other rightwing propaganda outlets and, insofar as there is a difference, Trump “influencers,” seemed to put the kybosh on Russiagate and, more generally, on the idea that Trump’s “no collusion” mantra was just him blowing air.

Much handwringing followed, along with efforts to explain this unwelcome development away.

But now that the Mueller report, not just Barr’s dishonest account of it, is out, this no longer seems to be the case.

All that can be said with certainty at this point is that Democratic efforts to make a federal case, as it were, out of Russian “meddling” are risibly hypocritical – coming, as they do, from the United States, the world’s foremost serial meddler in the affairs of other nations, especially Russia and other former Soviet republics, and inasmuch as almost the entire American political class tolerates and even encourages the meddling of Israel, another foreign power, into American affairs.

It will be said that Russia is, and Israel is not, an “adversary.” This too is risible at a time when Russia’s “aggressions” are defensive in nature, while Israel is doing all that it can, which is quite a lot with Trump and Jared Kushner calling the shots, to involve the United States in a war with Iran, and to form alliances with the murderous theocrats who rule Saudi Arabia and the more retrograde and anti-Iranian Gulf States.

Compared to Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin is positively statesmanlike. He also respects core doctrines of international law that Israel and the United States regularly offend.

A reason not to push forward now on impeachment but to investigate Trump and Trumpians in a more diffuse way is that investigations focused on impeachment would inevitably hone in more on the issues that Mueller was called upon to investigate, the core claims behind Russiagate, than would investigations more focused on the Trump Organization’s “collusion” with various financial institutions and crime bosses in Russia and elsewhere, and, more generally, on its business dealings around the world. It is not a matter of either-or, but there likely would be differences in emphasis.

Whether or not a Russiagate would backfire, it could hardly fail to increase the likelihood of nuclear war. This is one reason why the next year and a half will be an especially dangerous time.

The forces dragging the United States into World War I promised “a war to end all wars.” What they had in mind, of course, was perpetual peace, not a nuclear holocaust. As it turned out, World War I brought neither. If today’s War Party gets it way, there very likely will be “a war to end all wars” – not, however, because perpetual peace will be at hand, but because the peace of the grave will be.

The other reason to side with Pelosi against Tlaib et. al. is that if, on the (very) off chance Trump actually were convicted by a super-majority in the Senate, as an impeached president must be to be removed from office, or if he negotiates his “resignation,” like Nixon did, his successor would be Mike Pence. QED.

Of course, if Trump precipitates a major constitutional crisis that causes Republicans to bolt, we might end up with Pence anyway. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it is still more likely than not that it never will.

Whither Pelosi?

Where is Pelosi in all this? The short answer is that she has so far kept the party she leads together. But for how long can she keep that up?

Following Hillary Clinton’s lead, “moderates” these days call themselves “progressive pragmatists.” The term designates everyone from the likes of, say, Joe Manchin, the retrograde Democratic Senator from West Virginia, all the way to – Nancy Pelosi.

The intended contrast is with wild-eyed “idealists” like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

It bears mention that what “idealism” means to philosophers shares only a very highly attenuated connection to what that word has come to mean colloquially. When Clinton and Pelosi and other leading Democrats speak of “idealism,” it is its colloquial meaning that they have in mind.

For them, an “idealist” is a dreamer, someone whose understanding of what is feasible is naïve at best, and whose views are therefore either aspirational or dangerous or both. So understood, the term has pejorative connotations.

For philosophers, “idealism” denotes a view about the nature of the real that is rooted in medieval and early modern, especially Cartesian, metaphysical doctrines. Although Buddhist and other non-Western philosophical traditions have produced similar notions, “idealism,” strictly speaking, is a creature of Western philosophy and can only be properly understood in this context.

“Idealism,” so understood, contrasts with “materialism,” not “pragmatism.” It is therefore linked historically to defenses of theistic religions, Christianity especially, to conservatism, and to anti-revolutionary politics. There are conceptual connections as well.

“Materialism” is its opposite; it is joined historically and also conceptually to revolutionary politics, and also to atheism and to progressivism. This was, for example, how Marx and Marxists after him understood the notion; it is why core Marxist doctrines have names like “dialectical” and “historical materialism.”

Pragmatism is something else altogether. Colloquially, a “pragmatist” is a practical person, not a dreamer; pragmatists focus more on what is feasible that on what may be “ideal.”

For philosophers, however, the term denotes the strain of mainly American thought, pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and others, that is committed, among other things, to a theory of truth according to which what is true is what works – not, as in more mainstream theories, what “corresponds” to “facts” or what coheres with other beliefs.

Thus the colloquial and technical senses of the term are less out of sync than is the case with idealism. They each, in their own ways, privilege practice over theory.

The problem with the Democrats’ pragmatic progressivism is that, for all their jibber-jabber and even on the laxest plausible view of what works and what is progressive, Clintonian – and therefore Pelosian and therefore mainstream Democratic – pragmatic progressivism is like the Holy Roman Empire, according to Voltaire: neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

The idea also recalls a similarly illuminating witticism of the late Sidney Morgenbesser’s: that while pragmatism may be true in theory, in practice, it just doesn’t work.

***

This is why, instead of trying in vain to square the circle, Pelosi would do more good, and have a better chance of keeping her party’s insurgents on board, and generating enough enthusiasm for Democratic candidates to hand the GOP the thrashing it deserves, if when any of them are threatened in the way that Ilhan Omar has been – for saying, not even in an especially provocative way, what everybody knows to be true about the influence of the Israel lobby, and about the hard times Muslims have been going through since 9/11 – that she would go out of her way to demonstrate solidarity with her colleagues. Merely calling piously for reinforced protection by the Capitol police doesn’t quite cut it.

She might also stand up more for the others. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, has become a lightening rod for the rightwing imbeciles on Fox News and in even more preposterous social media venues, for no reason other than that she is smart, articulate, and more charismatic than any of them could ever hope to be, and because whenever they deride her, she easily, almost casually, wipes the floor with them.

Pelosi is, as I said, as good as a corporate Democrat gets – better by far than, say, Joe Biden, Plagiarism Joe, the liberal media’s newest (and also oldest) Great White Hope. But she was never, even in her dreams, anywhere near as cool as AOC is, even on a bad day.

But, back in the day, she probably was more than enough in tune with the spirit of the times to be on board with this:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

If she harbors any desire at all to be not just part of the problem, but also part of the solution, then now is the time for her to revive that part of her former self.

More articles by:

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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