Strange times, strange times. Within days of the leading lights of the American left penning an open letter arguing that the political imperative of removing Donald Trump from office is so great that ‘any blue will do’ Tom Perez, the head of the DNC, was caught stacking Democratic Convention committees with the same centrists and corporatists who rigged the 2016 election in favor of Hillary Clinton. With all due respect, isn’t the unrelenting evidence that the Democrats are constitutionally and institutionally incapable of acting by and for the people the reason that any old blue won’t do?
The Open Letter more precisely tells the Greens to STFU and vote blue. Where is Dale Carnegie when they need him? There is close to unanimity amongst those with anti-militarist, environmental and social welfare concerns, that Donald Trump isn’t constructive in a position of political leadership. Where differences on the left arise is over assessments of his institutional alternatives. For those who might have taken a mid-level college ethics class, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alasdair MacIntyre, and a host of others have taken on the ‘lesser evil’ conundrum to some avail.
Calculus of evil requires a ‘model’ of how the world works. A simple ranking of Donald Trump against, say, Joe Biden, might place Donald Trump at an eight (high is bad) and Joe Biden at a six. Simple choice, Biden over Trump. But what if institutional circumstances determine the preponderance of either political leader’s capacity to do harm, and Mr. Biden represents the party that is more skilled at perpetuating this system. Does ‘the left,’ whatever that might mean, want a better manager of empire or an end to imperialism?
In the realm of policies, Mr. Trump’s policies are more often than not particularly foul versions of the establishment Democrats’ basic tendencies. However, through the liberation and restoration of Wall Street— the primary institution of modern economic power, and serial trade agreements that pass factual legislative authority directly to corporations, the Democrat’s are better at hiding their actual legislative agendas. So, does one compare nominal policies or look through them to the factual ways that institutional power is expressed in America in 2020?
What is presented as a simple calculation— the ‘lesser evil,’ is an ideologically loaded morass that through its serial application can with reason be put forward to explain the extended and broad trajectory of political, economic and social decline for some fair portion of humanity. If, as the not-neoliberal version of left analysis might have it, institutions— state-capitalism, capitalist, what have you, motivate and facilitate state actions more than particular elected representatives, then the focus on particular elected representatives as the locus of systemic dysfunction might reasonably be understood to be misdirection.
If the establishment Democrats believe that there is a moral imperative to oppose Mr. Trump politically, why do they continually hand him major legislative victories? Likewise, if the DNC sees a moral imperative to defeat Mr. Trump, why does it (continue to) undermine one of its leading candidates? Central to the question at hand is that if the establishment Democrats don’t see major differences between their policies and Mr. Trump’s, why should anyone else? I forget who said it (apologies), but ‘when people show you who they are, believe them.’ This is as true of the establishment Democrats as it is of Donald Trump.
This point has been made since 2016: Russiagate, Ukrainegate and impeachment are intended to boost and consolidate institutional power— military, national security and surveillance state interests and power. While they may have energized partisans, they don’t appear to have changed a single mind in the electoral realm. And they have been put forward in place of substantive policy differences, rather than in addition to them. In other words, while calling Mr. Trump a traitor in public, establishment Democrats have enhanced his power as Commander-in-Chief legislatively.
Reports are (link above) that DNC re-shenanigans are likewise directional— in support of the corporatist – centrist institutions that tie the establishment Democrats’ votes to Donald Trump’s political program. They emerge from and support the state-capitalist and capitalist institutions that determine official policy. They aren’t intended to oppose and dislodge Donald Trump from power, but rather to ensure institutional continuity should a non-establishment Democrat be elected president. This supports my contention that institutions, not particular leaders, are the relevant realm of political contestation.
Differences on ‘the left’ have been between the chide that we need better management of empire versus the counter-argument that capitalist imperialism is the problem that needs to be solved. The charge, addressed below, that Donald Trump represents a ‘unique threat’ falls out on the ‘better management of empire’ side of this divide. The subtext is a contested analogy regarding the genesis of European fascism in the twentieth century. To state: the base difference between left and right political analysis has historically been a focus on society and institutions (left) versus individuals and ‘character’ (right).
As a child (and opponent) of the Vietnam war, I’ve argued for most of my now substantial years that assessments of the uniqueness of the Nazi threat depends on which side of American power you exist on. The horror of Nazi atrocities can’t be understated. But neither can the basic outline of American history, from slavery and genocide against the indigenous peoples to the people, friends, families, communities and nations destroyed. From Vietnam to Central America to Iraq to the present, I’ve met more than a few American ‘heroes’ who would be understood to be the moral equivalents of Nazi concentration camp commanders but for which side of power they reside on.
Following WWII, an argument was developed in support of the ‘uniquely evil’ nature of Nazism whose very purpose was to get past American history up to that point. And it depended on ideological explanations of history, purposely leaving aside the economic circumstances behind the rise of Nazism so as to avoid capitalist culpability for the Great Depression. This theory, tied to right-wing economics, is today known as ‘neoliberalism.’ This is the source of the charge that so much left analysis since 2016 has been based in right-wing political theory.
Here’s the rub— I agree that Donald Trump shouldn’t be given economic or political power, and I always have. But as framed, this is a misstatement of the issue at hand:
1) The ‘problem of Trump,’ and problems related to who holds American power and how it is used, is institutional, not personal. No one should hold the power that has been concentrated in the U.S. presidency. The question of the proper use of this power points to its institutional nature. George W. Bush and the senior leadership of his administration should be in prison for the rest of their lives. But the American genocide in Iraq served institutional purposes. So no one is being held to account.
2) As the largely benign impeachment charges against Donald Trump suggest, House and Senate Democrats are working to raise military expenditures and distribute ever more weapons, weapons ‘systems’ and materiel. Their central charge against Mr. Trump was / is that he impeded this process for personal gain. However, the U.S. military largely exists for the personal benefit of connected insiders through the ecosystem of military state-capitalism. Adam Schiff is a major recipient of legal bribes from the ‘defense’ industry. So again, the problem is institutional, not personal.
3) To the point made by multiple lawyers connected to the Democrats, all American presidents could be charged with multiple war crimes— they are intrinsic to the institution of the presidency. So, one more time now, what makes Donald Trump dangerous is the same for every president— the institution, its motives, affiliations, architecture and purpose. Every person given this power is uniquely dangerous.
After stating that the U.S. had killed three and one-half million Vietnamese in the U.S. war in Vietnam, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered that it wasn’t until after the war had ended that he realized that none amongst the American leadership had ever asked the North Vietnamese what they wanted. Lazy, stupid or insane? Does this make them less morally culpable than the Nazis? The neocons who supported George W. Bush’s war against Iraq, including leading Democrats, had decided years earlier to launch that war. When you read that the DNC is stacking committees, these are the institutional prerogatives they are working to protect.
The particular objection to Donald Trump coming from the neoliberal left (meant descriptively) is his racialized nationalism. Whatever he believes, and my sense is that he is the ideological ‘empty vessel’ of neoliberal economic theory, and therefore wholly transactional, Mr. Trump uses racial animosity and social division as political tools— the definition of a demagogue. The fear that has been expressed since he took office, that he is leading a racist and / or fascist movement analogous the rise of Adolf Hitler, raises far more questions than it answers.
For American slaves, the indigenous populations, the Vietnamese, Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Iraqis, Afghanis, Libyans, etc., who experienced (are experiencing) the other side of American power, Nazi and American atrocities might not be granted the same distinction. And to my recollection, it has been Adam Schiff and Hillary Clinton who have been goading Russia into a New Cold War. And through their overheated rhetoric, a nuclear conflagration. Any map of income distribution has the poor and vulnerable as those who would suffer most from such lunatic provocations.
But take the new Hitler argument at face value. Where did Mr. Hitler’s supporters come from? What made them Nazis? The neoliberal explanation is paradoxical, along the lines of intrinsic ideology. When the American left calls people fascists and / or racists without understanding, or caring to question, their political and economic circumstances, this ties them to the political theories of the American right through the premise of the essential character of ideology. If fascists and / or racists are ‘born that way,’ then they can either be controlled or annihilated, because changing their circumstances won’t affect their nature (goes the theory).
The political ‘next step’ is to ask why Donald Trump won election when and where he did? Were there enough ‘natural’ fascists and racists sitting around waiting for a new leader to unite them when Mr. Trump just happened along? Or have there been a series of capitalist crises like the Great Recession, de-industrialization and neoliberal degradation of life, that left desperate, dispossessed people looking for answers when Donald Trump offered them? Of note is that the social experiment that might answer this question— materially improving the lives of the dispossessed, hasn’t been tried in the U.S. since the early 1960s.
Glenn Greenwald recently made this comment from his home in Brazil, and it struck me because of my years of anti-war activism. Glenn said, to paraphrase, the use of American power seems normal to Americans, where it seems anything but normal from the outside. ‘Unique threat’ anyone? Drone wars, ‘targeted assassinations,’ resource coups, NATO bombing campaigns, regime change wars— if you don’t see the political and moral abomination of these as comparable to any of the monstrous regimes of human history, we have a difference of opinion.
The rhetoric of fascist ascendance needs to be placed against the persistence of state violence regardless of which Party holds political control. For all the talk of opposing racism, what is implied when ‘external’ violence— overwhelmingly carried out against brown ‘others,’ has been normalized, and only internal threats are considered sufficiently actionable? If the problem is concentrated power, then that is the problem in need of being solved. Economic democracy should be the first solution emanating from the American left, not the last.
Here is the political conundrum not addressed in the open letter (link at top of piece), if ousting Donald Trump fails to repair people’s lives, he’ll be back in a more virulent form in a matter of a few years at most. The political import of the DNC’s re-shenanigans is that they demonstrate that the establishment Democrats absolutely do not care either about repairing people’s lives or dislodging Mr. Trump as long as they stay in power. The centrists and corporatists the DNC is installing are being placed there to make sure that nothing changes— that people’s live aren’t repaired. That is where responsibility for Donald Trump lies, not with people who vote their conscience.