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On the Issue of “Electability”


The consensus view among Marxists and others on the hard-Left years ago was that while individual fascists could be talked out of their beliefs or forced by circumstances to see the light, fascism itself, once established, could only be dislodged by military force.

This is what happened in Italy and Germany, but, by the early seventies, counterexamples began to emerge – in Greece, where something like a classical fascist regime existed between 1967 and 1974, and in Spain and Portugal.

The nature and trajectory of fascist movements in Latin America was somewhat different than in Europe, Chile under Pinochet notwithstanding. Differences were even more pronounced elsewhere in the Third World. As time went by, examples multiplied of fascist or quasi-fascist regimes becoming dislodged or transformed beyond recognition more or less peacefully.

Thus, it is now conceded that war is not the only way to defeat fascism; fascist regimes can even undo themselves.

Anti-Communists, across the political spectrum all over the world used to think much the same way about Communism: that, barring a fatal military defeat, it was here to stay.

States in the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself proved that notion wrong. In very different ways, so did China, Cuba, and Vietnam. North Korea remains an exception to the rule.

The hardcore Trump base is vile in many of the ways that bona fide fascists were, and as is Trump himself. Even so, calling it “fascist,” though tempting, inasmuch as the word is still a term of abuse, is ahistorical and misleading. “Rightwing nationalist” or “rightwing populist” are more exact and to the point.

Unlike true fascists, Trump’s supporters have no coherent ideology, only a vague attachment to white supremacism, and they have no organizational structure other than the Republican Party itself.

That wretched agglomeration of toadies and retrogrades is nowadays joined to Trump in something like a marriage of convenience, an alliance forged in hell. Its Trumpism is only skin deep, and the part of it that Trump has most decisively under his thumb is more like a cult. But inasmuch as it is held together not so much by sympathy or conviction as by stupidity and fear, it doesn’t even quite rise to that level.

Cult members are true believers. Trump voters are more like the befuddled followers of the Wizard of Oz who haven’t yet realized how thoroughly they have been conned.

Nevertheless, in much the way that fascist regimes were once thought to be immutable unless overthrown by brute force, the Trump base’s unwavering support for the worst American president ever seems unchangeable. Trump becomes more pathetic, more corrupt, and more criminal, tweet by tweet, day by day – and yet they stand by him.

Thus, it has become almost a cliché that, as Trump himself boasted, he could shoot someone in plain sight on Fifth Avenue and not only get away with it but also become even more popular with his supporters as a result.

Trump hasn’t actually done that yet, but he does have a point. He acts out in ways that show him to be emotionally and intellectually immature, sadistic, and without anything like a moral compass. His support for tearing babies away from their mothers and putting them in cages is emblematic. His base finds this endearing.

He also has a macho reckless side, epitomized by the way he decided to launch his 2020 campaign by ordering the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, an act of folly that might well be a step on the way to World War III. That we are not currently careening down that path already only shows that the Iranian government, unlike our own, is still, for the most part, under the control of “adults in the room.”

According to news reports, Trump’s military advisors presented the Soleimani assassination to him as a possible option, never thinking that he would go for it. Evidently, they are not playing with a full deck either.

What a way for the world to end! I can picture it in my mind’s eye: the Donald, on vacation for a change and mentally decomposing in plain view, deluding himself with visions of virility, initiating the final conflagration with a tweet issued from a golf cart at Mar-a-Lago! He is reported to have been stuffing his face with ice cream when the news reached him that the foul deed had been done.

Were he a tad less ignorant, it might have crossed his mind that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria set off World War I, and that, as someone who really did have “a very big and very stable brain” famously put it: great events often do repeat themselves, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Trump’s murderous antics would be a case in point except for the fact that a hundred years ago even a war as devastating as the First World War turned out to be could not lead to the end of life on earth “as we know it.” This, however, is a fine point that Trump is neither interested in nor capable of understanding.

There is still a vanishingly small probability that some substantial part of the Trump base would have enough sense to be put off by such dangerous recklessness and manifest incompetence, or that the onset of the next, long overdue, major recession would have that effect, were it to come in time.

For now, though, it seems almost certain that the forty percent or so of the American electorate that supports Trump will continue to support him, if not forever then at least through the 2020 election.

It would therefore be foolish for voters in the Democratic caucuses and primaries this spring to suppose that the Trump problem will take care of itself; that they could nominate just about anybody and still win.

That would be the case in a slightly better possible world, one in which reason is more in control. Then Trump would lose running against a potted plant. But in the actual world — the world of rightwing talk radio, Breitbart, and Fox News; and of a working class beaten down and made desperate by decades of neoliberal economic policies, things don’t quite work that way.

***

According to pundits and pollsters, electability or, what comes to the same thing, defeating Trump, will be by far the most important concern of nearly every Democrat likely to vote in the caucuses and primaries this spring. Pundits and pollsters are often wrong, but probably not in this case.

Voters’ views about the electability of one or another candidate will therefore matter more than their views about the merits of the several candidates’ positions on issues of such paramount importance as healthcare, the Green New Deal, just taxation, foreign policy, military spending, and making America a decent society again.

If only our elections had less to do with selling candidates like bars of soap and more to do with rational deliberation and debate. Then it would be easier to press the point that defeating Trump by electing an alternative whose politics embody all that made Trump and Trumpism possible, and arguably even inevitable – in other words, a “moderate” in the Obama-Clinton mold – is not exactly a genius idea, no matter what corporate media pundits tell us.

It would be easier too to reflect on the reasons why Clinton lost in 2016.

Chief among them was insufficient turn-out of black, brown, and younger voters of all genders and hues. There were, of course, some union members and voters from other traditional Democratic constituencies who defected – not so much from conviction, as out of desperation. But, the main problem in working class quarters too was apathy; Hillary left them cold.

Unlike her husband and unlike Trump, she is profoundly uncharismatic, and her campaign made serious mistakes, such as campaigning too little or not at all in states she thought she couldn’t lose. But these were not the main reasons why enthusiasm for her was as weak as it was.

Of far greater importance was her politics: the sheer wrong-headedness of her continuing support for neoliberal nostrums that harm the many for the benefit of the very few, her liberal imperialist sympathies, and her support of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and other generators of the obscene levels of inequality that afflict the American body politic.

How anybody could think that electing someone with politics like hers – a Buttigieg or a Biden or even the likeable, but politically noxious, Amy Klobuchar – is baffling.

More baffling even than that, though, are the efforts of corporate pundits to claim that Trump’s decision, or whatever it was, to put the world on track for World War III somehow boosts the plausibility of Buttigieg’s and Biden’s candidacies.

In Buttigieg’s case, the reason, it seems, is that for six years, he was an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves, six months of which he spent in Afghanistan. I suppose the idea is that he imbibed military expertise there, or that he could hold his days in uniform over President Bone Spurs’ head. A better idea would be to “thank him for his service” (service, that is, to those who benefit from America’s never-ending wars) and then wish him “good- bye and good luck.”

And if being thankable for his “service” is a reason to favor him, then why not Tulsi Gabbard? The reason is obvious: she thinks outside the box in ways that, even when moderate, aggravate moderates. She gets Clinton’s goat, and the goat of every corporate pundit in sight.

Claire McCaskill, the former Missouri Senator who is now a regular on MSNBC is a good example; any mention of Gabbard in her presence elicits a sneer. Gabbard’s candidacy is a non-starter, if for no other reason than almost the entire Democratic Party is against her. I have my doubts about her politics too, but anybody with enemies like Clinton and McCaskill and all those other Democrats and pundits can’t be all bad.

As for Biden, all I can say is: are they serious? I can understand why Trump is making such a big deal about him and his son Hunter; Trump is an idiot. But Democrats are smarter than that; it ought to occur at least to some of them that there is basically nothing in his zillion years of foreign affairs experience that he has gotten right. Before they mouth off again, his boosters should take a week or two off to try to come up with an example that would prove me wrong.

Biden’s support for the Bush wars in Iraq are the least of it; what about his plan to divide that country into three parts? Or his machinations in the late nineties when Bill Clinton, along with some nefarious European leaders, were doing their level best to dismember Yugoslavia; back then, Biden might as well have claimed that the Serbs ate their own children.

Over the years too, hardly anyone of major significance in Washington has been more hostile to Palestinian interests or more eager to oblige Israeli officials intent on ethnically cleansing the Promised Land.

Moderates were bad news before Soleimani and they are even worse news now, not just morally and politically, but from the standpoint of electability as well. We are at a watershed moment now out of which much good could come. Shame on liberals for wanting to squander it.

In Sanders and perhaps also in Warren, there is hope. The others, along with mainstream Democrats generally, should either join up or step aside — or, better still, be swept away.

***

Of course, it is still possible that Trump will go one step too far, even for the Trump Party. I wouldn’t count on it, however.

It is more likely that the Trump base will crack, like the proverbial camel’s back, by the addition of one straw too many. What a few spectacularly heinous high crimes and misdemeanors cannot accomplish, a massive accumulation of greater and lesser ones might. I wouldn’t count on that either.

To be sure, were fissures to develop, any Democrat could beat him easily, even with the Electoral College working its ill effects. Is there any real prospect, though, of anything like that happening?

I think there may be – if the anti-Trump vote grows massive enough.

It surely will in deep “blue” states, but this will hardly matter in the Electoral College. Trump is already a minority rule president. In 2016, he got some three million fewer votes than Clinton. So what if he gets five or six million fewer in 2020, if, once again, they come from the wrong places – in other words, from states that are so Republican or so Democratic than their Electoral College votes, calculated on a winner takes all basis, might as well be assigned now, eleven months in advance.

However, in so-called “battleground states” – in Pennsylvania, say, but not in California – upping the anti-Trump vote, by fielding a candidate worth voting for, could be consequential. Voters in Philadelphia and San Francisco may be equally likely to vote for a Democrat, even one with moderate, Clintonite politics, but an extra voter in Philly will be helping to determine who will get his or her state’s Electoral College votes, while an extra voter in San Francisco will just be piling on.

This is an absurd and patently undemocratic state of affairs, but, at this point, there is nothing to do but suck it up – and perhaps also, because they deserve it, to curse those vaunted “founding fathers” of ours for saddling us with institutional arrangements that benefit states with small, mainly rural, populations. They did it to get slave and “free” states to sign on to the Constitution, but why we put up with it still is almost as hard to explain as it is to justify.

Therefore, for now and the foreseeable future, upping Democratic turnout is all. It will only be decisive in eleven or twelve states, but there is no better way to make it happen where it needs to happen than to make it happen everywhere.

Republicans understand: it is why the most loathsome plutocrats stuff so much money into GOP coffers, and why Republican Secretaries of State do all they can to suppress the black, brown, and youth votes in “purple” states — Georgia, Texas and Florida especially — and also in states that are historically blue like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but that fell to Trump in 2016.

Trump base voters cannot or will not abandon their Feckless Leader but, just as surely as Democratic enthusiasm for Clinton waned in 2016 and would wane again this year should Democrats be foolish enough to nominate someone Clinton-like, Trump voters might well succumb to Trump fatigue in time for many of them to decide not to bother going to the polls this time around.

After all, eager as they might still be to give liberal “elites” the middle finger, and loath as they may be to turn against the miscreant who liberated their demons, surely even they must be finding it difficult to embrace endless barrages of incoherent Trumpian preposterousness.

Clinton lost in 2016 because, despite the efforts of liberal media outlets and the several, mainly black, political machines that the Clintons cultivated over the years, many potential Clinton voters stayed home, as why would they not.

The same could happen with potential Trump voters. Even if no rays of light will ever break through the impenetrable thickness of their skulls, their enthusiasm could wane.

But there is no need to vest all hope in that possibility when it is plain as can be that going genuinely progressive and bold is a sure path to victory in November, whether the Trump base cracks or not.

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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