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Enough Absurdity: Time To Get Smart

Photograph Source: General Artists Corporation-GAC-management – Public Domain

There are places and seasons in which the old quip about how, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few hours, is good advice.

Fixed points in the political landscape can be like that too.

Not long ago, “red” and “Commie” were practically interchangeable; nowadays “red” and “Republican” are.

Back then, Russia (or the Soviet Union) was America’s number one bogeyman. This was taken for granted across the political spectrum, but with varying degrees of intensity.

On the Right, anti-Communism, which was more or less the same phenomenon, was an almost pathological obsession. With a zeal rarely seen since the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, rightwing politicians and newspaper columnists would accuse liberals of being “soft on Communism.” They ruined many peoples’ lives this way.

Anti-Communism was an obsession in liberal circles too. The idea that liberals were not anti-Communist enough, that at least some of them, the more progressive ones, were “pinkos” — not quite red, but reddish –was widely believed.

Nowadays, of course, talk of reds and pinkos has gone nearly extinct, and Democrats are blue. To some extent, this reflects the demise of Communism and the more general decline of vestiges of the old Left. It also reflects the fact that we live, as Gore Vidal put it, in the United States of Amnesia.

These days, no one calls Republicans “reds,” though Republican liberals have all but gone extinct, yet somehow the states they live can be, or be said to be, redder than, say, Red China ever was. Go figure!

Neither does anyone call purple, a combination of Republican red and Democratic blue, “the new pink.” Perhaps this is because no one thinks that voters who could go either way ought to be investigated.

The idea instead is that they ought to be targeted in campaign ads, especially if they happen to live in “battleground” states. For the hucksters, pollsters, bloviators, and scribblers who run our electoral circuses, and who therefore shape and deform public opinion, selling candidates to voters is what democracy is all about.

Meanwhile, on the far Right, Russophilia has largely replaced Russophobia.

Thus we have rightwing “intellectuals” promoting the idea that Russia has become the last best hope of those who despise Western decadence, godlessness, “political correctness,” and, of course, multiculturalism, the root cause, in their view, of much of what has put America’s “greatness” – and whiteness — in jeopardy.

On the other side, there are Cold War revivalists in the Democratic Party and in corporate media who miss no opportunity to point out how besotted Republicans have become with Vladimir Putin and the political regime he leads. Demonizing Putin has been their obsession since even before Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign got underway. I am still waiting, however, for Democrats to fault Republicans – or their cult leader, Donald Trump – for being soft on “Putinism.”

The political “weather” has done other about faces as well.

The conventional wisdom nowadays is that “white ethnics” and poorly off, less educated descendants of immigrants from the British isles and northern Europe have deserted the Democratic Party en masse, leaving it to “persons of color” and to white “elites,” clustered along the two coasts and in urban areas and college towns in between. These would be the kinds of people that the late Spiro Agnew called “effete intellectual snobs.”

This is a misleading exaggeration, at best. There have been defections galore, but the party’s base is still largely intact. Low turnout from what we now call “persons of color” was probably a more significant factor than white flight in the 2016 electoral fiasco that put Trump in office. Nevertheless, there is more than a little truth in the idea that it would not have happened but for the many “white” voters who crossed over to the dark(er) side.

Old school Republicans have either gone Trumpian or, repelled by Trump and his minions, gravitated over into the Democratic fold. Thus, the GOP, formerly home to the country-club set and to pillars of commerce, industry, and finance, is now becoming the party of those who shower after, not before, going to work.

In the process, a little light has shown through into mainstream public discourse.

It used to be said that, unlike everywhere else, America has no class divisions – that regardless of wealth, social standing, and occupation, everyone who is not lumpen is “middleclass.” This is not said so much anymore, largely because it is more plainly out of line with reality than it used to be.

Meanwhile, the realization that contemporary rightwing “populism” is a creature of neoliberal globalization – and therefore of declining working-class influence — is gaining ground everywhere. With Trump in the White House, America is no longer seen as quite the “exception” that thoughtful, but willfully blind, people used to think it was.

All this did not happen just because, for the second time this century, the Electoral College elected the candidate who lost the election.

The Electoral College is arguably the most undemocratic of the many undemocratic institutions our founding fathers inflicted upon us. This time, the loser “won” with some three million fewer votes than his main rival. Yet, he won fair and square in the “greatest democracy on earth.”

What a miserable insult to the democratic idea! And what a misfortune, inasmuch as the “winner,” this time, is a miserable excuse of a man whom a substantial majority of Americans loathe, and whom an appallingly large minority seem determined to stand by come what may!

Those same founding fathers made it all but impossible too to get rid of him, regardless of the majority’s will. Even impeachment, longed for by so many for so long, is seemingly of no avail. How pathetic is that! And how absurd!

Trump makes everything worse, typically by many orders of magnitude; the general air of absurdity that currently engulfs the political scene is no exception. But he didn’t invent it; he hasn’t even done much to shape it.

We got into this fix because our political and economic elites never quite figured out how to execute a soft landing in a world in which “the American century” was becoming undone by demographic changes, geopolitical exigencies, and the increasingly evident dysfunctionality of our overripe capitalist system.

Neoliberal globalization and Third Way politics are plainly not up to the task, and the historical Left has, for the most part, gone missing. Thus, a large segment of the general population is left without constructive means for addressing a host of justifiable grievances.

A reconstructed Left is the solution, but its first intimations are still in their infancy. This could change quickly, for better or worse, but for the time being, there is just not enough there there.

And so, all over the world, “populists,” rightwing nationalists essentially, have rushed in to fill the void, just as their counterparts did nearly a century ago, after the revolutionary upsurge that followed the Bolshevik revolution sputtered out, only to be swamped before long by forces of darkness even more odious than the ones now on the rise.

This process has been in the works at least since the dark days of the Reagan administration; it has taken its toll in both the Republican and Democratic parties, causing them to drift, or, in the Republican case, to gallop to the right.

The idea that, in America, there is only a middleclass has been another casualty of these on-going transformations. Thus, it has become harder than it used to be to deny the existence of a ruling class, or to deny that, at least in some quarters, working-class politics has revived.

As they say, “what goes around comes around.” There are two reasons, though, why the stakes are a little different this time around, and a lot more urgent.

The first, the increasing likelihood of nuclear annihilation, has been a fact of life for so long that the public has become numb to it. There have been a few close calls over the seven decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but, humankind has so far been lucky. So much good fortune is enough to make anyone cocky. Even so, the situation is increasingly dire.

With Trump calling the shots, the chances of remaining lucky have become more precarious than they have been since the dawn of the Cold War. This is one of the many reasons why it is urgent to get rid of him as soon as possible; or, failing that, to assure that he is hobbled and effectively restrained by sensible “adults” willing, if need be, to disobey their Commander-in-Chief.

Trump’s impeachment should help with that. Two and a half cheers, therefore, for the Democrats who saw it through.

Had they impeached him for more of his dozens or hundreds of impeachable offenses – had Nancy Pelosi been less wedded, in other words, to the get-Al-Capone-for-taxes model – and had they not taken every opportunity themselves to revive the Cold War politics that their still unreconstructed Clintonite party promotes, they would deserve a full three cheers.

But Democrats will be Democrats.

The second is that there is now a new real time constraint that was only theoretical before or that seemed too far off to cause immediate concern.

This would be the impending, irreversible ecological catastrophes brought on by the wanton and unrestrained use of fossil fuels that began with the rise of modern industry and that has accelerated mightily in recent decades. The United States is not by any means uniquely culpable for this, but it has done more than its fair share.

If humankind has a future after Trump, and if there are historians in it, they may well find that the crimes of commission and omission that followed from his and his party’s pernicious climate change skepticism did the most harm.

The clock is running, but there is still time to get onto a better track. To that end, the next general election – now less than eleven months away – is critical. It will be our best and perhaps our last chance to deal Trumpism a decisive blow.

If Trump himself is still around, it will also be our best chance to rid ourselves of him once and for all, and to mete out to him, and to everyone who collaborates with him, the justice they deserve.

It will also be our best chance in the foreseeable future to make radical change happen, to make life better for the vast majority, and to undo the conditions that made Trump or someone like him all but inevitable.

When he became president at the dawn of the Great Recession in 2009, Barack Obama could have changed the world for the better, but he muffed a rare historical opportunity, and the consequences continue to resound.

Were it not for Obama et. al., we would not now have Trump et. al. Ironically, though, thanks to Trump and his kakistocratic minions, the next president will inherit an even greater historical opportunity than Obama did.

He or she can expect fierce “bipartisan” opposition, but there is good reason to think that a President Sanders would be able to avoid following Obama’s example, and at least some reason to think that a President Warren would as well. At least, unlike Obama, neither of them would be on the wrong side, Wall Street’s side, from Day One.

However, for anything good to come of the opportunities ahead, supporters of “a return to normalcy” must be resoundingly defeated, and illusions about how “moderation” would bring on bipartisan comity must be nipped in the bud.

Pelosi can go to hell too — and she can take her solemn black dresses, her prayerful demeanor, and her theatrical posturing with her, along with the rest of the Democratic Party’s leaders.

What is needed now, as the impeachment crisis unfolds, is not solemnity but joy over the prospect of moving Trump out of the White House and, before long, into one or another Club Fed. And, in the electoral arena, as the Democratic Party selects candidates for 2020, what is needed is emphatically not the same old, same old but the insurgent spirit of “the squad” and of those who think like them. We could do with some action in the streets as well.

***

Greed runs rampant in ruling class circles, as do other character flaws; ignorance and stupidity, for example. Trump and his children are hardly outliers.

But there are also many in the ruling class or close to it who, like some fifty to sixty percent of the general public, hate Trump and Trumpism with all their heart, soul, and might.

Good for them! However, when it comes to wanting to keep the Democratic Party on the wrong side of the class struggle, the vast majority of them, including many of the most vehement Trump-haters, are standing at the head of the line.

Meanwhile, the pundits are hard at it, pulling out all the stops — trying to convince potential Democratic voters that, notwithstanding an abundance of polling data suggesting the opposite conclusion, only a moderate can defeat Trump.

That the gods keep holding back the next, long overdue recession is not helping matters. What kind of “deal” did Trump make with them for that “quid pro quo?” Did he agree to sacrifice his last-born son? Or Tiffany?

But corporate media are worse even than gods “making playthings of us all.”

According to the story they tell, Democrats who oppose Sanders and Warren are not exactly against universal healthcare, the green New Deal, student loan forgiveness, free tuition at public colleges, universities, and vocational schools, taxes that diminish income and wealth inequality, and so on. They are just not for such radical departures from the old, familiar ways because, they assure us, they have to be to send Trump packing.

For progressives to get anything useful done, they have to be what Hillary Clinton called “pragmatic progressives.” They are as sure of that as they are that the sun will rise tomorrow. The trouble with that way of thinking, though, is the trouble with pragmatism generally, according to a quip of the late Sidney Morgenbesser, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University: “that while it may be true in theory, in practice it just doesn’t work.”

Dewey was the greatest, or one of the greatest, pragmatists ever; I would imagine that, if she took it, Clinton had trouble in Philosophy 101.

No doubt, many, maybe most, Democrats do sincerely believe that defeating Trump is what their support for Biden or Buttigieg or whomever is about. They may think, as a pundit on CNN put it, that, in America, a sociopath will beat a socialist every time.

The truth, though, is that for them, deep down, whether they realize it or not, someone, anyone, who supports the continuation of the role the Democratic Party has always played in sustaining the old regime, trumps pretty much anyone who does not.

Even as they would prefer a Biden or a Buttigieg, they would, if it came down to it, prefer even someone as odious and unfit as Trump himself to someone who, if elected would make a serious dent in the wealth and power of the ruling class.

Support for the old regime is what the moderation they champion is all about. Moderates will accede to cosmetic changes, of course; if need be, they will even go beyond that. But only, in the end, to keep everything the same.

Thus, their media have effectively lowered a “cone of silence” over Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Warren, while militating against progressive challengers to retrograde Democratic incumbents in the House and Senate.

Not wanting in any way to follow the lead of the very worst of the moderates corporate media are currently cheering on, the one once known as “Plagiarism Joe,” I note that I owe the cone of silence reference to one of my favorite TV shows of all time, “Get Smart.”

Sticking with that theme, I would also confess that, of all the moderates who met the DNC’s criteria for participating in the last televised debate, the one held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the only one I find significantly more bearable than Jim Jordan or Devin Nunes or Ted Cruz or, for that matter, anyone despicable enough to run on the Republican line, is Amy Klobuchar.

I say this despite the fact that she advertises her moderation more shamelessly than the others, and that her politics generally is the worst of the lot – except Plagiarism Joe’s.

I used to think that I must have a weakness for “Minnesota nice,” or maybe just for Minnesota –since, it seems, she may not actually be all that nice. There have been press reports to that effect, and nothing I could see in the debates suggested otherwise.

But then, having “Get Smart” in mind, I realized that I like her best because she reminds me of Simon the Likeable, the KAOS agent who was so sweet and unassuming that he could get away with anything, no matter how heinous, because no court would convict him, even for the most grievous crimes.

**

So there we have it.

After almost three years of Trumpian rule, it has come to this. The worst American president ever, along with a bunch of embarrassingly servile flunkies, are calling the shots; while the opposition party’s establishment is working overtime to stifle changes that would undo the conditions that made Trumpism all but inevitable.

How surprising is it, then, that a TV classic from half a century ago would shed more light on the 24/7 reality TV show we are now living through than the feckless columnists and pundits corporate media inflict upon us.

Under Trump, absurdity reigns; not just the ordinary garden variety, but an absurdity of unprecedented intensity and scope. We are positively awash in it.

Unless this changes before the Democrats again make a major mistake in their choice of a nominee, then while we may get rid of Trump in a years’ time, true de-Trumpification will be indefinitely postponed – with consequences potentially as calamitous as any that would follow from another Trump victory.

The time finally to break free, to get smart again, is, since it cannot be yesterday, not even in the anything goes world that America has become in the Age of Trump, is ASAP, as soon as possible.

That would be when, as they say in Bidenese, the “malarkey” churned up by proponents of moderation is rejected and definitively laid to rest. We have had enough of it already, just as surely as we have had more than enough of the miscreant everyone whose head is screwed on right cannot wait to dispatch.

 

 

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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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