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Get Trump First, But Then…

Photograph Source: Paul Sableman – CC BY 2.0

Were Donald Trump and the Republicans who support him slightly less relentless in giving reasons to despair for the human race, it would be a lot harder than it now is to maintain a proper perspective.

Trump and those hideous GOP House members defending him on TV are so execrable and pose such a clear and present danger to so much that is crucial to maintain, that we dare not forget that even mainstream Democrats, for all their many failings, are still by far less odious.

Therefore, with the impeachment hearings that Democrats are leading now bringing to center stage the several Cold War narratives they have been actively promoting since even before Barack Obama’s second term, Trump’s announcement, that he intends, if he can, to terminate the DACA program and deport all the “dreamers” his police can round up, is not entirely without a silver lining.

Lacking moral outrages of that degree or worse, people intent on keeping an annihilating nuclear war at bay might find themselves in danger of forgetting which party actually is the lesser evil.

Democrats, after all, have been working overtime, along with the base and servile “experts” and media flunkies on the liberal cable channels, to promote myopic and flagrantly misleading understandings of Russian and Ukrainian politics and history, while doing all they can to revive the anti-Russian animosities that flourished on the American side during the original Cold War.

To hear them tell it, the United States is a paragon of international morality and respect for international law that seeks only to make the lands and peoples of the world better off, while “Putin,” their term of choice for the Russian government, almost makes Stalin look good.

The level of hypocrisy is stupefying, as is the degree of ignorance required to buy into it.

But it does help donors and party stalwarts sustain the dead center of their wretched party, even if only by keeping the national conversation focused more on Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” and his all too obvious unfitness for the office he holds than on the ways that Democrats, from the final days of the Carter presidency on, have helped make Trump’s rise to power possible and even inevitable.

Ordinary citizens who buy into the line that the only way to rid the world of Trump and Trumpism is for the Democrats to field candidates like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, candidates who reek of “moderation,” have a lot to answer for too.

Questions about how to rid the world of Trumpism, and how to assure that, under more capable hands, something like it or worse does not come rebounding back, get short shrift too, again to the advantage of the Democratic Party establishment.

To be sure, Trump is worse by many orders of magnitude, but this is a “high crime and misdemeanor” in its own right – perhaps not in the quasi-legal “originalist” sense that has somehow come to dominate our political discourse, but according to the simple meaning of the words.

Of course, the most urgent task now is to get Trump – even if that involves tactical alliances with Cold War revivalists of the Clinton and Obama variety. Much good came from the anti-fascist popular fronts of the late thirties; something like that is called for now.

But to keep it all from going astray, even as opposition to Trump’s reelection takes precedence, it is crucial, at the same time, to keep another eye on another prize – the radical transformation and reconstruction of the Democratic Party.

Trump and Trumpism must go; so too must the Democratic Party “as we know it.” These exigencies are distinct, but notwithstanding the efforts of corporate media to promote the opposite view they can be mutually reinforcing. It is better on both counts when they are.

***

With that thought in mind, and with the 2020 election about to suck up even more political oxygen than it already does, it is timely to point out that there are only two Democrats contending for their party’s presidential nomination who deserve to be taken seriously. Of the two, I prefer Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, notwithstanding the fact that, being roughly eight years younger, she stands a better chance of keeping at it for a full eight years.

For all Sanders’ talk of a “political revolution,” efforts to implement genuinely new departures in American politics will take a lot longer than that to secure. Even if all goes better than we have any right to expect, a one term president could barely move what can only be a protracted process beyond its opening phases; other things equal, a two-term president could do better.

Also, I fear that Sanders’ election would risk unleashing an anti-Semitic scourge of a kin that had been practically unthinkable in the United States since Nazism suffered an historic defeat at the end of World War II.

This would not have been anything like the problem it now is had the DNC not rigged the nomination process in 2016 in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Had the process been more fair, Sanders would likely have become the nominee.

Then, more likely than not, he would have gone on to see to it that Trump would go back to being an ordinary hyper-rich sleazeball, and “the darker angels of our nature” would likely now be as neutered and inert as they recently were.

But, with a little help from her friends, Clinton won the nomination, and so, to everybody’s amazement, including his own, Trump became president.

In that capacity, he soon started turning over the rocks under which long dormant, effectively moribund, anti-Semitic demons slept.

With friends like Sheldon Adelson and others of his ilk, advisors like Steven Miller, and grandchildren fathered by Jared Kushner, that may not have been his intention.

But anti-Semitism was bound to revive once Trump’s vile words and viler deeds directed against Muslims, Hispanics, and black and brown people generally let vileness reign.

Those are reasons to prefer Warren, but I prefer Sanders, nevertheless.

The main reason why I do is that I think he is more instinctively on the right side of the long dormant but never even remotely superseded class struggle that has defined world politics since the days of the French Revolution; the right side is, of course, the left side. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the left side has been mainly the side of the working class.

My belief that Sanders is more securely there than Warren has more to do with intangible atmospherics than substance. At a policy level, there is not much light between them.

The difference that is talked about most is that he is, by his own account, a “democratic socialist,” while she says that she favors an indefinite continuation of a modified version of the existing capitalist order. Her more or less self-declared aim is, like FDR’s, to save capitalism from the capitalists.

Like FDR too, she, as much as he, elicits the hostility of those capitalists whose greed and venality put capitalism at risk; also, like FDR, she welcomes their hatred.

Sanders, I would expect, welcomes it too – as much or more.

In FDR’s case, the hatred was undergirded, in part, by the fact that he was, and was perceived to be, a “class traitor.” No one can accuse either Sanders or Warren of that. Both came from humble beginnings.

But this does not cause the rich and heinous to hate them any less. Neither does it cause the Democratic Party establishment to fear them less.

What a pitiful lot those Democrats are; just watch them on the liberal cable channels and read what they have to say in The Washington Post and The New York Times. They claim that their great fear is losing to Trump; what they actually fear is losing power to their party’s rising leftwing.

Their fear is so great that even one or two billionaires have thrown their hats in the ring. Imagine a President Michael Bloomberg, and cringe accordingly; only the likes of a Thomas Friedman, the Times’ sententious nitwit extraordinaire, could go for that! Now add, God help us, Deval Patrick to the list.

Listen Democrats! Get serious! Even if all you want is to defeat Trump, the way to do it is not to restore the conditions that created him. It is to start moving the country forward again.

***

Ultimately, the differences between Sanders and Warren are more verbal than substantive, but they are important nevertheless.

Sanders, not Warren, has put socialism – the word and therefore potentially some of the ideas behind it — on the mainstream agenda. Bravo to him for that. This is reason enough to prefer him to her.

It must be said, though, that, strictly speaking, Warren is the one who gets it right. Sanders’ “socialism” and her “capitalism” come to much the same, essentially capitalist, thing. They both advocate policies that have socialist aspects, but neither has proposed anything that would fundamentally alter underlying capitalist property relations.

Sometimes nowadays, Sanders – and Warren too, though less so – are called “social democrats.” This is not exactly wrong, but, applied to them, the term is anachronistic; it can also be misleading.

From the 1880s until the First World War and the Russian Revolution put European and then world history on a new track, most socialists in Europe and elsewhere, including the United States, were members of political parties affiliated with the Second, the Socialist, International. They called themselves and others called them “Social Democrats.”

After the Bolshevik led October (November in the new calendar) Revolution and later the formation of a Third, Communist, International, the term came to designate political formations descended from those Second International political parties that had rejected, and often actively opposed, Third International Bolshevism.

Before long, the term also came to describe political parties with different histories. This would include some that did not even exist when the Second International split apart. The term nowadays also designates generic political orientations associated with the Social Democratic movement.

For the most part, Social Democratic parties were and often still are closely affiliated with the labor movements of their respective countries. They were generally also nominally anti-capitalist.

Thus, they would sometimes endorse public ownership of principal means of production, though, in practice, this seldom amounted to more than helping private capital out when it was too weak to get by on its own.

Nevertheless, for a long time, they did try to maintain the pretense that their long-term goal was to overcome capitalism, not to save it. Almost without exception, they no longer try anymore. There is still a thriving Social Democratic left in northern Europe and elsewhere, but contemporary Social Democracy has ceased to be anti-capitalist, even in theory only.

This rightward drift is not as extreme as might appear. In large part, Social Democratic anti-capitalism was less an aspiration than a gimmick, concocted to keep workers who wanted a genuinely socialist economic order from defecting to Communist parties believed, not too unreasonably, to outflank them from the left.

Of course, before long, those parties became bureaucratized, denatured, and neutered, their revolutionary origins amounting to little or nothing at all. But they still served as beacons of hope for workers and others around the world, and their existence kept Social Democracy on course. After Communism imploded, that could no longer be the case; Social Democrats no longer needed to dissimulate.

But even when the need to seem anti-capitalist was at its strongest, Social Democrats seldom opposed capitalist market relations as such. They did however strongly support the establishment of state institutions to do what markets can only do poorly or not at all. They still do. This is enough, it seems, to make our leading capitalists and pro-capitalist ideologues tremble at the very thought of Social Democracy coming to the USA.

Sanders talks a lot about “democratic socialism” in the Scandinavian countries; they are, it seems, his lodestar. Good for him. Their Social Democratic achievements have lately fallen on hard times, and their Social Democracy is not quite what it used to be, but the Scandinavian countries are still home to some of the most progressive and successful egalitarian policies and institutional arrangements on the planet — even now, with forward progress stalled by the global neoliberal turn, and with xenophobia on the rise there, just as it is everywhere else.

Strictly speaking, “democratic socialism” and “Social Democracy” are not the same. The democratic socialist societies that Sanders – and militants in the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, and most other self-declared socialists of the so-called millennial generation – are bastions of Social Democracy, but by calling their political orientation “democratic socialist,” the intent is not so much to stress that side of them, but rather to contrast the socialism they defend with the authoritarian socialisms of the former Communist countries and with the several self-described socialisms of the less developed world.

Democratic socialism is more of a political than an economic designation; in Social Democracy the emphasis is reversed.

Perhaps when self-described democratic socialists speak of “socialism,” they are taking Social Democracy for granted, while homing in on the political forms of the states that sustain it. This would seem theoretically impoverishing inasmuch as no one nowadays defends Soviet-style Communism, but then, absent a continuously developing socialist tradition, it can become necessary, especially after a long hiatus, in whole or in part, to reinvent the wheel.

Or perhaps, wittingly or not, Sanders and the others are tapping into some of the most advanced strains of Scandinavian Social Democracy in its glory years. For a while in the 1970s, Swedish socialists did envision the Social Democratic advances they proposed – using pension fund money to buy up shares in capitalist enterprises, instituting forms of worker self-management in capitalist and state owned firms, equilibrating salaries – as ways of peacefully euthanizing the old capitalist order, and moving on, gradually but inexorably, to bona fide socialist property relations.

With the demise of the three decades long period of capitalist expansion that followed the end of the Second World War, that experiment was, unfortunately but inevitably, cut short. It was then done in more definitively by the worldwide neoliberal turn.

In any case, Sanders’ socialism is more like an up-dated version of the most progressive strains of New Deal liberalism than of Swedish or any other form of Social Democracy. Warren’s capitalism is even more plainly cut from that cloth.

Fearing a return to Depression era economic conditions after World War II, and seeing no other way to avoid that outcome except by maintaining military spending at or near wartime levels, American presidents of both parties, military Keynesians all, supported what Dwight Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex”– by keeping inordinately large chunks of public monies flowing their way.

If only Eisenhower had stood up against what he warned against while he still could have done something about it! Instead, he waited until the very last moment of his final term to speak out. This was hardly to his credit. Nevertheless, it puts him way ahead of most other contemporaneous Democrats and Republicans.

For the Pentagon brass and the death merchants to have their way, they needed a worthy enemy, frightening enough to keep a public cheated out of much of their nation’s economic surplus on board. The Soviet Union was good for that.

Thus, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society strayed from the course Roosevelt had set, encouraging a transformation of New Deal liberalism into Cold War Anti-Communism.

Roosevelt’s Vice President in his third term, Henry Wallace, was a liberal in the best tradition of the Roosevelt era. Had conservatives in the Democratic Party not prevailed upon FDR in 1944 to run Truman for Vice President in his stead, or had Cold War anti-Communists not quashed his run for the White House in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket, who knows what perils might have been avoided, and how much better off the world would now be.

However, Cold Warriors got their way instead. The Great Society did advance New Deal style liberalism in domestic affairs; it even partly overcame the modus vivendi that had existed between New Dealers and Southern white supremacists from the dawn of the Roosevelt era. But Johnson, like Kennedy before him, was an unreconstructed Cold Warrior. It is both fitting and telling that his best efforts ultimately came to grief in the jungles of Vietnam.

The original Cold War ended, or seemed to end, when Communism imploded, and the Soviet Union split apart. The threat to our Masters of War, and to an economic system dependent upon wasteful and socially maleficent public expenditures was palpable. However, our economic elites and our political class succeeded somehow in keeping the anticipated “peace dividend” at bay, and keeping the bottom lines of major capitalist firms on solid ground.

Russia did not fare nearly as well. Homegrown kleptocrats and liberal ideologues — some of them supported by American money, others actually coming from the United States – exacerbated the inevitable problems inherent in that country’s regression to capitalism.

The former Soviet republics endured similar difficulties, made worse by the fascists and quasi-fascists, in Ukraine and elsewhere, let loose by the demise of Soviet control.

And so, in the Clinton era and for a few years into the tenure of Bush 43, Russia was, for all practical purposes, a basket case that not even the most ardent anti-Communist or the most venal military-industrial complex promoter could turn into a credible threat.

But that was then. Now that Russia is at least somewhat back on track – though still with an economy smaller than Italy’s – Truman, not Wallace, style liberal foreign policy has returned with a vengeance, even as, on the domestic front, Democrats have become so profoundly coopted by Wall Street and corporate America that even Eisenhower Republicans look good in comparison.

If you have the stomach for it, watch a few minutes of MSNBC or CNN in the evenings, and see what I mean.

***

In his many years in public life, Sanders has sided with the U.S. foreign policy establishment more often than not – he is hardly a principled anti-imperialist like. say, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. He is no Henry Wallace either.

I am fairly confident that, throughout most of her life, Warren was as bad or worse. It is hard to say for sure however, since, before being elected to the Senate in 2012, she really had no involvement with foreign affairs, and she has not shown a great deal of interest since.

On this too, then, my slight preference for Sanders is more atmospheric than substantive.

It is also on that basis that I believe that, with the possible exception of Tulsi Gabbard, who has no chance at all to be the Democratic nominee, either of them would be better than any of the other, more “moderate,” contenders.

The only sure thing is that anti-Trumpers – and who except the most deplorable of our fellow citizens is not an anti-Trumper nowadays! –would do well to bear in mind how, in 2016 and perhaps even still, Trump’s appeal depended, to at least some extent, on the fact that, to his credit, he was less bellicose and interventionist than his very bellicose and interventionist rival, even if it was already plain three years ago that nothing much of substance would come of it.

By making impeachment hinge on fatuous mainstream foreign policy establishment narratives about Russian malevolence and plucky, virtuous Ukrainians, not a fascist among them, yearning to breathe free — confabulations that Clinton shamelessly promoted and that she and her co-thinkers continue to endorse — Congressional Democrats are again doing what might otherwise seem impossible: making the greater evil seem the lesser of the two.

Making the Democratic Party part of the solution, not part of the problem – not, of course, as much as the GOP is, but still to a considerable extent — will be no easy feat. But with the impeachment process now finally on and the caucuses and primaries not too far off, the time to start working on that, since yesterday is no longer possible, is now.

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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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