A Mostly Serious Response to the Semi-Satirical Ken Silverstein on Trump’s Second Term

Many if not most writers have penned and sent off for publication something that would have been best left on their laptop or in a drawer. Take Ken Silverstein’s recent depressing, semi-satirical Washington Babylon piece “Eight Reasons the Left Should Root for Donald Trump in 2020 in Ilhan Omar in 2024,” is a case in point.

Clearly the essay is exercising in trolling (looking for views and reactions) and a kind of gaslighting, where the author messes with his readers’ sense of reality. It’s not full-on satire ala The Onion, where the trick is to make an openly and unashamedly absurd premise seem almost plausible but in ways that leave no doubt that the whole thing is a put-on. In Silverstein’s piece, the line between what he believes and what he doesn’t is never quite clear.

Online sources have reported different things on this. One informant, a Facebook commenter and French Revolution student named Shawn Parkhurst, told Street that Silverstein claimed to believe “eighty to ninety percent of what he wrote.” A different source, fellow CounterPuncher Andrew Stewart, reports Silverstein writing the following: “It seems like a perfectly practical, logical argument to me — and also one that was meant to be partly satirical and provocative and not meant in any way to suggest I support Trump for reelection. I don’t like him and have spent a great deal of the last year, when not working on Washington Babylon, covering his administration’s horrible immigration policies.”

It’s nice to know that Silverstein “do[es]n’t like [Donald] Trump.” We certainly didn’t think he did. Still, in what follows, we respond to his essay (somewhat semi-satirically) as if Silverstein really does believe much if not most of his eight-point argument. This is perhaps somewhat unfair, but we think it is useful for a depressing reason. Whatever percentage of the “perfectly practical, logical argument” Silverstein would seriously defend, his presentation of that argument channels some very real pathologies on the nominal Left, part of which can strangely enough be called (despite its outraged protests and denials, frequently combined with statements of dislike and even hatred for Trump) a TrumpenLeft.

On Not Liking Trump

One reason we don’t believe Silverstein “like[s] Trump” is that his essay starts with the author saying that “I don’t like Trump as a man and find most of his views repellent” (emphasis added). Cool. So that’s a thumbs-down on a malignantly narcissistic creeping fascist who makes fun of handicapped people, idolizes authoritarian despots around the world, locks migrant children up in cages, sexually assaults women, criticizes other peoples’ looks, begs off rape charges by saying his accusers “aren’t my type,” calls for violence against journalists, makes ten false statements a day, says that the falsely accused and subsequently exonerated Central Park Five should have been executed, half-jokes about staying in office beyond two terms, encourages violence against his political enemies and journalists, tries to kick millions of people off health insurance, provides cover for the Saudi regime’s vivisection of a Washington Post journalist, declares a national emergency to secure funding to help the Saudis kill more Yemeni children, tries to stage a coup in Venezuela, tortures Venezuela and Iran, turns the White House into a corrupt fiefdom, abrogates international asylum law, supports white supremacists, leads a tax cut for the already absurdly wealthy Few, does everything he can to advance the extermination of the human race by turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas chamber?

We could go on, of course. It’s good to not like Trump.

Silverstein says he doesn’t “like Trump as a man” but of course the real question is how he likes him as the chief executive of the most powerful nation on Earth. In his semi-satirical essay at least, his dislike isn’t great enough to stop him from presenting the “perfectly practical, logical” Trumpenlefty/Trumpenproletarian case for the monster getting a second term (how about a third?) in the White House. (We know he doesn’t really mean it, but, well, maybe he does a little, and see our fourth paragraph above…)

It’s a Done Deal So Let’s Get It Over With

Silverstein’s first semi-satirical reason for backing Trump is this:

“He’s going to win anyway, in all likelihood. The Democratic field is primarily a joke, filled with halfwits and cretins. You don’t like Trump’s misogyny? Me neither. I hope you feel good voting for Joe Biden. Elizabeth Warren. Spare me. She’s so robotic she makes Hillary Clinton look and sound authentic. The rest of the field has no chance, barring something like a stock market crash or nuclear holocaust that cause Trump’s poll numbers to drop. Let’s just get this shit show over with and accept the inevitable.”

We agree that Biden is a sexist. He is also something of an ongoing racist (despite his denials), an imperialist, and a revolting corporatist. Neither of us will be terribly surprised if Trump gets a second term over some creepy neoliberal Democrat like Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, or the new Wall Street darling Pete Butiggieg.

Still, it’s a little early in the game to be prognosticating the outcome. Trump’s approval numbers are not good. A stock market crash is a possibility. And Silverstein’s attack on Warren is excessive. “Robotic”? We have to wonder if he has paid much attention to Warren’s recent success in “connecting with voters” (as they say) on the campaign trail in ways that Hillary Clinton never did. (Of course, maybe Silverstein’s description of Warren is just a put-on – you never know with semi-satirical pieces).

We appreciate the dark cynicism of “let’s get this shit show over with and accept the inevitable.” That’s kind of funny for a few seconds – and then it isn’t. Trump45 is evil and dangerous as Hell on numerous levels. With the reports of racist, sexist, and even fascist abuse coming out of Herr Donald’s nativist concentration camps this week, black humor seems a little out of place right now. It’s not about the crystal ball, it’s about getting this sick regime off the stage of history as soon as humanly possible.

Sadly, there is no reliable political science research on the electoral consequences of nuclear holocausts – though we should remind Silverstein that atom-bomber Harry Truman defeated Dewey in 1948.

We don’t like the Democratic field beyond Sanders either. Like Silverstein, we are both left of Bernie. But Silverstein’s first point is over the top, even for a semi-satirical piece.

DNC Overlords Will Block Sanders All Over Again

Silverstein’s second semi-satirical reason for Keeping America Great with Herr Donald in 2020 is that:

Bernie Sanders, whose politics are closest to my own among the major contenders [will be defeated] by the elite, [by a] …Democratic establishment and media [that] is never going to let Bernie win. He’s unacceptable and our overlords will block him, just as the DNC did in 2016 to keep him from winning the Democratic nomination and ensuring that Hillary Clinton did.”

We will not be surprised if this depressing outcome happens, but, again, Silverstein might want to take a more existentialist and less fatalistic approach. The defeat of Sanders within the Democratic primaries, caucuses, and convention may well occur (neither of us is betting it won’t). Or it may not. Who knows? Again, there’s the crystal ball and there’s human agency: why do they even play the NBA Finals instead of just letting the oddsmakers proclaim the winner in advance? Perhaps the odds of Sanders securing the nomination are just 2 in 10. Why does Silverstein want to help bring his favorite candidate’s chances down to zero in 10 by giving up in advance. If Sanders is Silverstein’s candidate (with reservations, to be sure), then maybe he’d like to do some work for the Sanders campaign when he feels up to it.

Dead (Literally) Bernie Walking

Silverstein’s third reason is especially hard to take seriously and probably isn’t supposed to be taken that way at all:

Let’s say I’m wrong and Bernie wins. Great, he’s old and he’ll die in office, and the shit vice presidential nominee he inevitably selects to reassure the ruling class and New York Times op-ed board will take over and really fuck things up. I want a generational, gender, racial and class change. Bernie is an old white guy and that’s not what the country needs.”

We assume Silverstein is joking around (darkly) here, but we semi-satirically wonder if he’s gotten ahold of Sanders’ blood work and knows something the rest of us don’t. Bernie is old, there’s no doubt about it, but he seems healthy and vibrant for his age. Some people have long lifespans and some people don’t. (Bertrand Russell was railing eloquently against the Vietnam War well into his nineties. Look at the remarkable insights flowing from the mind and pen of Noam Chomsky today). If Silverstein has gotten ahold of Bernie’s medical chart, he really should come clean.

We doubt Silverstein is serious about criticizing Sanders for being old, white, and male. He’s probably making fun of (neo-)liberal identity politics there. If that’s not a sarcastic fake-criticism, however, we’d like Silverstein to remember that the progressive and solidarity politics needed to meaningfully address the nation’s racial, ethnic, generational, and gender disparities is about much more than the color, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and class origin of “faces in high places.”

We agree that Sanders would likely be compelled to put some nasty corporate Democrat on his ticket in order to win the presidency.

After Trump, Us!

Silverstein’s fourth reason for backing (or pretending to back) a second (how about a third?) Trump term is (as probably intended) to be chilling:

“Let Trump win, destroy what’s left of the country and then the nation will be so angry that it will be ready for an Ilhan Omar/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ticket in 2024 (*). That’s a ticket I could get behind and would knock on doors for, and one that is plausible for 2024 given the sheer state of U.S. decline and carnage that will be the legacy of Trump’s second term….The media will rail and flail against an Omar/AOC ticket, but to no avail. By 2024, the media, and the political elite, will have zero credibility with the American people, representing a drop of about two percent from current levels. Most of the population doesn’t give a shit what the media thinks now and no one will by then. (*Yes, I realize that Omar cannot be president unless the U.S. constitution gets changed because she is not American-born. Don’t let reality intrude on my daydreams.)”

Hilarious – NOT. Perhaps Silverstein is making fun of accelerationist Maoist theories wherein making things even worse than they already are sharpens the contradictions to the dialectical point of revolutionary change. Or maybe he’s not poking fun and believes this paragraph – or some of it (who really knows? Semi-satire is hard to call). If he does believe it to any degree, we would suggest that the hastened destruction he rightly posits as a likely outcome of a second (and third?) term is just as probably give rise to something more like classic fascism (more on fascism below) than an Omar/AOC presidency.

Whatever, the awfulness of the Trump presidency and what it could become if given a second term is too depressing to contemplate with the bemused complacency that Silverstein exhibits. We asked the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas what he thought of Silverstein’s argument:

“I actually agree with most of his points (especially the stuff on HRC and foreign policy [ see below]), but that doesn’t lead me to consider Trump, either directly or indirectly, our best opportunity for radical change down the road (2024 or whatever.) I fear a second Trump term could mean all sorts of bad shit, including serious attacks on already eroded basic civil liberties and who knows what else. He’s pretty damn creative in coming up with malign things to perpetrate on the world’s people. How far he would go, I would just as soon not find out. I fear Trump more than this guy does. I especially fear what four more years of carbon infused Wall Street driven economic policy will do to climate change and economic inequality (emphasis added).”

“I don’t fear Trump enough to support the vast majority of Democrat Party alternatives. I think the author’s probably right that Sanders’s campaign is being marginalized in a shameful manner by the powers that be… I might be willing by default to take up this guy’s argument that four more years of Dumpster-fire might stir up sufficient opposition to produce a younger, more radical alternative in 2024, but that’s not a given at all. And of course, the issue of climate change remains. Unless serious action is taken immediately (preferably yesterday) a lot of this might be academic.”

We agree with less of Silverstein’s real/mock/semi-satirical Trumpenleft argument than Thomas does, but we think Thomas is correct to find Silverstein insufficiently alarmed about the prospects of a second Trump term. We share Thomas’ concern on the environmental issue. (One of us [Street] is on record repeatedly saying that the acceleration of ecocide is Trump’s worst sin among many.)

We would also take issue with the notion that electing (and re-electing) right-wing reactionaries is the best strategy for galvanizing mass disgust and progressive action and channeling it into eventual victories for left causes and electoral candidates. The recent history of social movements reveals how quickly the air is sucked out of the room when left movements run up against reactionary regimes. The beginning of the end for the Iraq anti-war movement was apparent after George W. Bush’s re-election in November 2004. Anti-war rallies saw turnouts in the hundreds of thousands from early 2003 to late 2004. But nothing remotely similar in scope was observed following Bush’s re-election, and the fall-off came quick after Bush began his second term. It was clear to at least one of us (DiMaggio) that Bush’s re-election was the kiss of death for the positive energy that had driven college anti-war activism in the early 2000s, as the utter defeatism among progressives was impossible to miss amidst the certainty of “four more years” for a president who could have cared less what anti-war activists had to say.

The poverty of the “elect a reactionary” approach to furthering progressive movements is undeniable late in Trump’s first term. While there were extensive mobilizations against Trump for the first six months following his election, those protests quickly dissipated as Republicans moved to enact their arch-reactionary social, political, and economic agenda on many fronts. Protest burnout quickly ensued, and now two and a half years into Trump’s first term, the momentum of the anti-Trump “movement” has completely dissipated. One can only imagine how dejected and resolved to failure the anti-Trump faction in this country will be should Trump win another four years in office.

Furthermore, other historical lessons are hardly comforting for those believing Trump’s re-election will mobilize “the left.” Remember the German Communist Party’s (KPD) argument in the early 1930s: “After Hitler Us?” That didn’t work out so hot. And eighty-plus years later, it isn’t just the specter of 21st century fascism (unduly dismissed by Silverstein – see below) we have to worry about now. It’s something even worse: Ecocide.

We question Silverstein’s semi-satirical tone when it comes to something as terrible as Trump coming back for four more years. It’s not an even darkly amusing possibility to contemplate.

(We admire Ilhan Omar. At the same time, since Silverstein acknowledges that the foreign-born Omar can’t run for the presidency and since he jokes about “reality intrud[in] on my daydreams,” we don’t really know quite how seriously to take his broader fourth point.)

Peace President

Silverstein’s fifth reason for semi-satirically backing a second Trump term is interesting:

“Trump is reckless and dangerous when it comes to foreign policy but if he doesn’t invade Venezuela or Iran or some other country — a big if admittedly — and continues only bombing a country or two with minor casualties and saying stupid things, he’ll have compiled a far better record than liberal-beloved Obama, who was at war with or bombing at least seven countries. And there is no doubt Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would have been far more bellicose than Trump’s because, A) That’s just who she is, and B) She would have had to invade a country or two to prove that she had the balls it took to be a Republican war criminal.”

“Trump recently called off a last-minute strike on Iran, saying the Pentagon’s projected death toll of 150 Iranians was ‘disproportionate’ to Iran’s alleged downing of an unmanned drone. Name me a time that a U.S. president told the American people he would not go to war or launch air strikes because he didn’t want to kill foreign nationals, even though if he had it would have boosted his popularity immediately and won praise from the media. Go ahead, rack your brain and get back to me.”

“Trump is being goaded by evil people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, but thus far, for whatever reason, he has not given in to their worst impulses. His policies have been dreadful in many instances — i.e. starving the Venezuelan people with sanctions and trying to overthrow that country’s government — but up until now, and this could change in an hour, he has not started a war. Good for him.”

This is probably Silverstein’s strongest point. Maybe Trump’s neo-isolationism is a big part of what has far kept a lid on full-on U.S. war-making over the last two-and-a-half years. Bush43 had Iraq – a monumentally criminal and mass-murderous regime-change war with disastrous consequences across the Middle East. Drone-killer Obama44 had Libya, a horribly criminal and mass-murderous regime-change war with horrible consequences across North Africa. God only knows what kind of chaos Hillary Clinton might have unleashed.

Still, Trump could give a flying fuck about peace or the lives of innocents abroad. Look at his economic sanctions against Venezuela and Iran. Look at the great extent to which he has gone to override Congress and sustain criminal U.S. funding of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen – a war that has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Look at how close his insane tearing-up of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal has brought the U.S. to a shooting war with Iran.

Anyone who seriously thinks Trump’s stand-down from bombing Iran had anything to do with “not want[ing] to kill foreign nationals” is buying into White House manipulation. Trump held back because the Pentagon was surprised by Iran’s air defense capabilities and because a war with Iran would NOT work for him politically at all – quite the opposite.

At the same time, Trump has wondered aloud why the U.S. can’t use nuclear weapons. He is an avowed militarist wo has move forward with imperial Obama’s insane nuclear modernization program. He has asked for and received from a compliant Congress record-setting military budgets. He has openly threatened annihilation to North Korea and Iran.

The frothing imperialist war-mongers Bolton and Pompeo are his appointees. Trump put them in office. He could easily dog-wag and/or get manipulated by Bolton into a war.

Meanwhile, Trump’s gigantic defense budgets suck vast resources away from the world’s most powerful government’s capacity to meet human and social needs. Trump is waging lethal economic war on Venezuela and Iran, a nativist war on immigrants, and an ecocidal war on a livable environment. He’s a war president.

Anti-Neoliberal President

Silverstein scores a point or two with his sixth argument:

“Trump’s policies in other areas are better than standard Democratic policy. A few honest people in the labor movement — and there are very few — acknowledge that Trump’s policies on tariffs and free trade are better for working class people than what most leading Democratic candidates propose. That, and his natural skills as a communicator — to a significant section of the population, no matter what you personally think of him — is why he has a strong chance to again win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with significant support from workers. Professor Elizabeth Warren is going to appeal to that constituency? Fat chance. Joe Biden? Maybe, but Biden sucks. Bernie could but I’ve already said why I don’t want Bernie to win in 2020.”

There’s no doubt that the Democrats since the corporatist Clinton42 reign have been a pro-NAFTA and pro-Trans-Pacific Partnership party of globalization under the parasitic command of capital. There’s also no doubt that Trump’s tariff-wielding tirades against globalization, the “yellow peril” (China), and Mexico have been popular with certain “heartland” sections of the white working-class, including many union members. There’s no mystery there.

Still, Trump is a major if sloppily super-corrupt neoliberal when it comes to the evisceration of government regulation and the corporate take-over of state agencies and policy. Trump’s reactionary populism, which more than just borders on fascism (see the next section), is overlaid with thick layers of racism and nativism and a gigantic regressive tax cut for the wealthy few and their corporations. It bears no serious comparison with Bernie Sanders’ progressive populism, which calls for working-class solidarity across racial and ethnic liens and for social-democratic policies that most of the working-class and national majority support: Medicare for All, the restoration of union organizing rights and collective bargaining, a significant increase in the minimum wage, free college tuition, federal jobs programs, progressive taxation, and a Green New Deal that would put millions of people to work in jobs that could help save livable ecology.

Silverstein knows this very well but tells us again (essentially) that “Sanders will die in office.” What, and the great trade union leader (that’s a joke) Donald Trump, 73 years old, is going to live forever – on Big Macs, fries, and shakes?

“Fascism? Grow Up!”

Silverstein fails badly, we think, with his seventh point, semi-satirical or not:

Many will say that the U.S. is teetering on the brink of fascism and a Nazi regime under Trump is right around the corner. I believe that is completely ahistorical and dumb. This country is supremely fucked up but you can denounce Trump on the street and not go to jail and it requires no bravery at all to sit behind your laptop at a Starbuck’s and write up a blog post calling him a traitor. The secret police are not going to pick you up and drag you off to a concentration camp. [Note: If you are an immigrant without legal papers who runs a stop sign, they probably will.]”

“So grow up. We are going through a scary time and Trump has encouraged ignorant racists, but if Barack Obama had done anything serious to redistribute wealth and not been a Wall Street toady, or if Bill and Hillary Clinton had not successfully pushed for the 1994 crime bill that criminalized and led to the imprisonment of a good chunk of young African-Americans in this country, I might have more respect for the Democratic Party and take your claims of a GOP-led fascist takeover more seriously. But I don’t. This is a dangerous moment and the GOP is overwhelmingly populated at its leadership level by lunatics, but we in the United States are not living in the Weimar Republic. It’s a preposterous analogy.”

It is difficult to deny that the U.S. of 2019 isn’t quite the modern-day equivalent of mid-to-late 1930s Germany. But Silverstein would have benefitted from expanding his parochial understanding of fascism to encompass more nuanced discussions of the concept, which extend far behind the black and white “fascism-not fascism” distinction that frames fascism so starkly against the benchmarks of Hitler’s Third Reich or Mussolini’s corporatism. Much of the contemporary debate over right-wing white-nationalist extremism in the U.S. and other western countries rightly utilizes a “creeping fascist” framework, seeing contemporary fascism on a spectrum, rather than reflecting only one “classic” form that menaced Europe and the world 80 years ago. Many perceptive and knowledgeable Left intellectuals, including Henry Giroux, Carl Boggs, Alexander Reid Ross, Jason Stanley, Eric Draitser, Yoav Litvin, David Niewert, and Bertrand Gross (among others), have added critical distinction and depth to our understanding of fascism by exploring the many ways it manifests itself in divergent political and historical contexts, past and present.

Within a more expansive and nuanced understanding of fascism, there are many warning signs in the contemporary United States. Clearly there is an aspirational fascist impulse, apparent in Trump’s rhetoric, seen in his romanticizing of violence against critics and his flirtations with dictators. Trump has floated numerous creeping fascist trial balloons over the last year, pushing the envelope in his attacks on democratic and civil rights and the rule of law. One example was Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions following the latter’s refusal to criminalize the New York Times after it ran an anonymous critical op-ed from a member of the administration. Trump attacked the Times as “treasonous,” and pressured the Department of Justice to consider taking legal action against the paper for running the embarrassing op-ed. Such actions are a classic sign of authoritarianism and should gravely concern those with even a minimal commitment to press freedom.

Even more disturbing is the embrace of fascistic politics among Trump’s base, much of which openly supports authoritarian, racist, and violent politics against immigrants, people of color, and other perceived enemies. One of us (DiMaggio) has documented this extremism in painstaking detail, including mass support among Trumpeters for engaging in violence against civilians for political, economic, and social causes, for the demonization and criminalization of immigrants, and for the president usurping power from and ignoring Congress and the courts with regard to policymaking. And this support for violence is not merely rhetorical. The rising frequency of mass shootings and domestic terrorism, committed mainly by members of the American right, raises the specter of full-blown fascism, rather than merely rhetorical or aspirational fascism.

A second trial balloon relates to Trump’s immigration policy. We ignore at our own peril the dangers of rising fascism at a time when the president of the United States has declared a national emergency to illegally confiscate national funds to build his wall with Mexico, rationalizing the power grab via his (and his son’s) comparison of unauthorized immigrants to animals, coupled with the institution of sadistic, nightmarish living conditions for those detained in immigration centers, which are being described by critics as concentration camps. It seems irresponsible and insensitive to dismiss concerns with fascism when Trump has: instituted needlessly and viciously punitive immigration policies against unauthorized immigrants, including mass separations of parents and children; imposed prolonged detentions in grossly overcrowded holding facilities (widely reported as “dangerous” and “ticking time bombs”); denied basic goods such as soap, toothpaste, and basic medical treatment to detained immigrants and asylum-seekers. The Trump administration’s flat-out racist and sexist dehumanization of immigrants, coupled with its assault on checks and balances and the rule of law, are hallmarks of authoritarian, fascist politics. Sadly, a discussion of fascism and the Trump administration is being preempted by the problem of white first-world privilege, which Silverstein falls into (either seriously or satirically) when he insists that Amerikaner fascism isn’t real because privileged liberals haven’t yet been imprisoned.

Silverstein concludes with some observations that we find uncontroversial in his eighth point:

“Trump is a cretin but he’s the son of a slumlord from Queens. What else would you expect? He wanted to join the social elite and craves their approval, but they rejected him because he’s too gauche. He likes his steak well done and smothered with ketchup. I find that disgusting — I prefer steak rare and smothered in garlic — but at bottom it’s this sort of thing that drives the elite crazy, not the fact that he robs from the poor to give to the rich. They love that part. The social and media elite spurned him and Trump, who has the emotional maturity of a kindergartner, is fucking with them to get his revenge. It’s fun to watch.”

We agree. That’s very well and cleverly said. Street doesn’t eat steak at all. DiMaggio eats steak occasionally and prefers it medium-rate, without ketchup or onions.