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How To Make the Best of the Mess Our Ruling Class Has Made

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It seems like eons ago, though, according to the calendar, it has been barely more than two months, since social distancing, compulsive hand washing, and other manifestations of acute germaphobia stopped being colorful eccentricities or, in extreme cases, signs of mental illness, rather than unavoidable underpinnings of daily life; and since, on the political scene, modest but nevertheless fundamental changes for the better were in the air, this time, unlike in 2008, for real.

Since then, however, the covid-19 virus has made anything like the normal life of pre-pandemic times impossible, and Democratic Party malfeasance has, once again, made words like “hope” and “change” stick in the craw.

Even so, for those who look hard enough, there are silver linings to be found. Thus, shutting down economic activity to combat the virus’ spread has improved air quality all over the world; and the Democratic Party’s determination to take up where Hillary Clinton left off has made the ineptitude and decadence of our ruling elites even more evident than it used to be.

When the struggle for hope and change resumes, as it well could once Trump and his minions are dispatched, that clarity could be useful in efforts to figure out what is to be done and how best to do it.

***

What we call the elites who rule us, and how we conceptualize elite political rule, can matter – in both theory and practice.

Such venerable but arguably anachronistic terms as “ruling class” and “power elite” are apt of course, but, in some contexts, they can also be misleading. There are times when it is necessary to venture into this contested terrain, but this is not one of them. For getting a sound purchase on electoral politics in the United States in 2020 at the national level, “ruling class” is more than good enough.

As ruling classes go, the American specimen is pitiful. To be sure, its two political parties are doing a fine job maintaining their duopolistic stranglehold over our electoral system, but they are both, in their own ways, blights on the country’s political landscape.

The one that has been more odious than the other for as long as anyone still living can remember, the Republican Party, has been, for all intents and purposes, hijacked and turned into something rather like a cult by a narcissistic conman, Donald Trump, the worst American president ever.

Trump did not pull off this hostile takeover by guile alone; indeed, he has had less to do with it than is widely assumed. The political and moral depravity of the party’s leaders and of large segments of its rank-and-file are more important factors. So is the largesse of reactionary plutocrats.

Meanwhile, their Democratic Party counterparts are capable of little more than warding off occasional, generally anodyne (small-d) democratic challenges to their power arising out of the efforts of progressives within the rank-and-file of the party they continue to dominate.

At the same time, in their dealings with Republicans, the Democrats running the show are too cowardly, and too much like their rival ideologically, to do more than put their own party’s worst foot forward.

That would be Joe Biden.

Compared, say, to Barack Obama, the former Vice President is a second-rate, but nevertheless ardent, proponent of neoliberal, Wall Street, corporate, and military-industrial-national-security-state complex friendly politics.

However, he is second to none in the upper echelons of national politics, except Hillary Clinton, when it comes to advocating a liberal-imperialist line in foreign affairs. In his view, as in hers, and in the thinking of the “responsibility to protect” ideologues she and Obama empowered, every nation’s business is America’s business, national sovereignty be damned.

Obama and Clinton let a few neocons and like-minded political realists throw their two cents into the pot as well. Clinton was not even beyond lionizing Henry Kissinger, the twentieth century’s most villainous, never-to-be-indicted war criminal. On that, Biden was with her all the way.

Biden considers himself an expert on foreign affairs. In truth, though, he is an inveterate doofus, who is almost always wrong about everything. Thus, he is second-rate or worse in the foreign affairs department too. However, when it comes to promoting ruinous, unnecessary wars, he is right up there with the worst of them.

Also, in the one area in which Democrats actually make Trump look good in comparison, Cold War mongering and otherwise taunting nuclear powers capable of bombing the United States back to the stone age, he is easily the equal of any other establishment Democrat. Clinton may have him beat on Russia, but on China, Biden “trumps” them all.

It is the same on dealings with Iran and Iraq, as well as with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies; and he is as much in the pocket of the government of Israel as anyone who purports to be a liberal can be. Jared Kushner and Trump’s real estate cronies are worse of course, but, compared to them, the bar is set so low that pointing that out doesn’t even qualify as faint praise.

In short, the best the Democrats could do this year was come up with a pitiful exponent of the politics that made Trump or someone like him all but inevitable. As it likely will be with the virus now ravaging the entire planet, a second wave of that kind of politics will be even worse than the first.

And despite all the bruhaha about women and people “of color” and the young, and about the importance of charisma in bringing out the vote, the best that the geniuses who call the shots in the lesser evil party could come up with is a dirty old man, in his late seventies and on the verge of undisguisable senescence, who is about as charismatic as a jelly-fish.

Our best hope now is that a rising tide of credible testimony from Tara Reade and others will make the dirty old man characterization stick. Don’t count on it, though; not with zero tolerance ladies like Kirstin Gillibrand, the Senator who did one of her few decent colleagues, Al Franken, in, and the MeToo militants who caused John Conyers, arguably the most progressive House member in recent decades, to resign in disgrace keeping silent or otherwise doing all they can to insure that nothing impedes Biden’s assent.

It didn’t have to be that way; not with the Sanders insurgency flourishing and with Elizabeth Warren still in the running; and even, for those misguided fools who think that only a “moderate” can defeat Trump, there were plenty of less preposterous ones that they could have fallen in behind.

But the various party machines, the African American ones especially, were adamant – Biden is the anointed one. Corporate media were fine with that too. And so, the party honchos clamped down and got their way.

It is tempting to say that they were able to hold on as they did because, in the final analysis, you can’t trust anybody under thirty – or even fifty, the new thirty. That would be unfair, of course, to many of the most progressive voters around, but it is undeniable that, within younger age cohorts quite a few potential Sanders or Warren voters couldn’t be bothered to come to the polls.

We therefore now have a campaign ahead of us in which the best strategies of both candidates will be to stay as much out of sight as they possibly can.

Since, alas, the only way now for Trump to lose is for Biden to win, this means that Democrats, if they have any brains at all, will do all they can to make the election a referendum on the sociopath in the White House, keeping their man out of the picture as best they can.

This assumes, of course, that Trump and his underlings will allow a free and fair election to take place, or that their efforts to prevent it will be defeated, and that Republican governors and legislators won’t be able to suppress enough votes in key states to win, notwithstanding the contrary preferences of the majority of would-be voters.

Trump is so godawful that he would probably be soundly defeated even were Biden on full display, especially now that the Trump name will forever be associated with Chlorox cocktails and Lysol injections. Nevertheless, the more Biden and his handlers can make the election a referendum on Trump, as if Biden were not the alternative, the better off they will be.

***

By promoting the ingestion of cleaning fluids and suggesting that ultraviolet light applied internally will send the virus packing, it just might be that Trump has finally crossed a tipping point; that, at long last, his base of bona fide “deplorables” will fall apart and vanish into the ether.

My guess is that, as the weather warms up and the number of new covid-19 cases declines, at least for a while, even as the danger persists, defections from the Trump base will also increase – but, as with the virus, not to a point that will render diehard Trump supporters anywhere near harmless.

The reasons why the virus will continue to menace are fairly well known and the science is advancing at an astonishing pace. Trump supporters are harder to figure out.

How can so many otherwise normal people be so unconcerned by Trump’s flagrant imbecilities and obvious unfitness for the office he holds? How can people able to negotiate their way through the world in their work and leisure and in social and family contexts be so stupid? And how can people who are normally generous and kind be so vile?

Mainstream Democrats, Biden supporters especially, are stupid too in a way. But their stupidity is of an altogether different order. It is fueled by fear and loathing of the Trump party and, above all, of Trump himself. Who can fault them for that?

Moreover, it is conditioned by their internalization of false beliefs about electability and other misleading media-inculcated “truisms,” and by their pusillanimity. These dispositions have been under construction, as it were, for generations, but they are not immutable.

Quite to the contrary, the party’s leaders and their media flacks have had to work hard this election season to keep their control over rank-and-file Democrats’ hearts and minds secure.

Liberal corporate media that function essentially as their propaganda arm could hardly have ignored Sanders more at key points both in 2016 and in the current election season; and when that became impossible, they went into disparagement mode as best they could.

Meanwhile, they could hardly have given Trump more free publicity than they did. They are still at it, nightly on MSNBC and CNN.

To be sure, the more exposed Trump is, the more despised he becomes by anyone whose head is screwed on right. But alarmingly many American heads are screwed on poorly, if at all; and unfortunately, the old maxim – that all publicity is good publicity – remains on point.

It is at least arguable that in 1972, the last time a decent Democrat, George McGovern, stood a chance of becoming president, that the counterparts of today’s party leaders did as little as they could to help him win. Some of them seem even to have preferred that Nixon would defeat him. Better that, in their view, than McGovern or the people propelling his candidacy forward emerge victorious, taking over the party that the old guard had held under its collective thumb.

Since then, defenders of the old regime have gotten better at nipping challenges to their power in the bud. However, they are no less determined to maintain control over the party they consider theirs. If there is a difference this time it is not because Nancy Pelosi is more genteel than Mayor Daley, though she certainly is more cloying and prayerful, but because ceding power to Nixon is not like letting Trump continue to have his way. That is more dangerous by many orders of magnitude; it is something that no one with any moral sense could willfully let happen.

Nixon was a more lethal president than Trump has so far been, notwithstanding the fact that Trump’s mismanagement of the covid-19 pandemic has already led, at least to some extent, to many more deaths within the United States and around the world than anything Nixon did deliberately and with malice aforethought to Vietnam and throughout Indochina.

But Nixon was also our last liberal president. There is no denying that he was a crook and that he had an evil streak second to none, but he was a complicated man with many redeeming features. Trump has none.

The sheer obtuseness and obduracy of hardcore Trumpians is therefore one of the wonders of today’s world. That he or anyone like him – a child (some might say a toddler, others a boy adolescent) in an overweight, orange tinted septuagenarian body would become the object of a personality cult defies comprehension.

The benign explanation is that however vile and repugnant Trump may be, he is good for advancing the interests of constituencies that feel despised and insecure or even endangered, and that out of enlightened – or rather benighted – self-interest, they believe that their best course is to stand by him.

This is the explanation often given for why white evangelicals support Trump so adamantly, even though he is, as earlier generations of their co-religionists might have said, the least godly of men.

In their view now, he is God’s instrument – figuratively or literally, it isn’t clear which — for making (or remaking) America into a great white, Christian nation, in which gender is, as per the current jargon, “binary,” and in which women know their place, and where old-fashioned manners and morals are, if not always scrupulously practiced or enforced, at least given the honor they are due.

They figure that with Trump calling the shots, fetuses will be protected, as God intended and, as God also intended, actual human beings will be left pretty much on their own — free to choose and free to lose. Praise the Lord; Hallelujah.

However, this is not the whole story; the loyalty Trump demands and receives from his base involves more than invidious calculations such as these. It has more to do with identity politics – not the kind that advances the causes of individuals and groups oppressed in non- or extra-economic ways, but the kind that leads nationalists to stand by their nations or their functional equivalents, right or wrong, come what may.

The Trump base’s faith will soon be tested. Before long, it will therefore become clear just how deep their stupidity runs.

Even if, over the next six months, everything goes as well as it is reasonable to hope that it could – if covid-19 infections and deaths decline, if the bipartisan Cold War saber-rattling that has lately moved into high gear is muted and contained, if there are no new shocks to the system from earthquakes or hurricanes or terror attacks, if the recent spate of cautiously optimistic reports of progress in treatments for those affected by the covid-19 virus are born out, and if there is significant progress in developing a vaccine, neither the public’s health nor the economy’s could possibly rebound enough for anything like “normalcy” to be restored before Election Day.

Ironically, we are now at a point where what is good for the nation and the world is, unfortunately, also good for Trump, but there is no reason to think of this as the downside of an otherwise promising course of events.

Indeed, it is not a reason at all, not even a bad one, for hoping that things turn out poorly, as they usually do. It is not even a reason to be concerned about Trump’s hold on the country becoming more secure. However much good news about this or that might be welcome news for Trump, nothing in the offing could be nearly good enough to put him back on keel, not as bodies pile higher, as they surely will even if the pace slackens, and as the economy tanks a whole lot more than it already has.

The economy is going to hell, and it is not about to rebound quickly. This is something that even the most ardent Trump supporter could hardly fail to notice, and it is something that only the super-humanly obtuse could fail to blame Trump for, at least to some extent.

Therefore, if the Trump base stays on board, it will not be because the tide has turned in any way that is advantageous to them or otherwise to their liking. It will be because their determination to remain stupidly obstinate is indefeasible.

The stupidity that made Biden the Democratic nominee is not like that. In Democratic quarters, hardly anyone actually likes Biden; they just see nominating him as their best way to fight back against the existential crisis that Trump poses.

This is ridiculous, but with there now being only three and a half months for Democrats to come to their senses, and with no sign that they are even beginning to contemplate that prospect, the chances that they will see the light in time are practically nil.

There was going to be even less time than there now is, but that was in the pre-pandemic era. The party’s national convention, formerly scheduled for July in Milwaukee, is now rescheduled for August 17-20. In this brave new world of zoom and skype and who knows what else, that is when Biden’s nomination will be set in stone, whether or not an actual convention takes place. That is when the foul deed will be done.

When buyers’ remorse eventually does set in, it will be brutal. But, with all leading Democrats, including most of the ostensibly progressive ones, and with all major corporate media outlets falling in line behind the monumental mistake the party’s leaders, desperate to maintain their power, have already made, it is extremely unlikely that it will set in soon enough.

The fact that Trump and his people will make all they can out of Tara Reade’s account of Biden sexually assaulting her in 1993, and even if, as happened with Brett Kavanaugh, more women come forward, and if Trump succeeds in making a federal case, as it were, out of Biden’s son Hunter’s machinations in Ukraine and elsewhere, and of Biden’s role as an enabler, it is extremely unlikely that the hypocrites and cowards who run the lesser evil party will withdraw their support.

As a sexual predator and as an unseemly, if not outright corrupt, enabler of his children’s financial, and, in the case of his deceased son Beau’s, political ambitions, Biden is a poor man’s version of Donald Trump. But that won’t faze the ostentatiously self-righteous and implacably corporate Democratic women and men who are now standing by Fingers Biden a thousand percent — not enough, anyway, for them to do anything about it.

Trump ran for president to boost his brand, but, like everyone else, he gave his opponent too much credit; he didn’t see how she could possibly lose. Once she did, he found that he liked being president; it didn’t cut too much into his golf or TV time, and the adulation that came with the office suited him. It hardly mattered that it came from base and servile sycophants, perhaps he gets a certain sadistic pleasure out of that, and neither does it seem to bother him that the vast majority of his most ardent supporters are his marks, the hapless fools who see him as their savior. Most of all, he seems to have found the many opportunities available to him for outraging the “elites” that despise him and that he envies irresistible.

But now that the pandemic he has made so much worse has cramped his style and exposed his incompetency so clearly that he has reason to fear that significant numbers of those hapless fools might defect, he has a new motive for fighting tooth and nail to win a second term.

That would be to stay out of prison once he can no longer hide behind the Justice Department dictum that sitting presidents cannot be criminally charged.

Biden might be tempted to give Trump and his minions a pass, just as Obama gave upper level Bush era war criminals a pass – ostensibly for the sake of “moving forward.” But, even if he were, or if Trump were somehow to make one of his vaunted deals with him – say, that he would vacate the White House peacefully, without calling on his followers to unleash mayhem, in exchange for an amnesty — it still wouldn’t be clear that he could get off scot-free, since he is vulnerable to being charged and prosecuted by New York state authorities and could face charges in other non-federal jurisdictions as well.

Facing hard time, Trump will fight like an animal cornered. Is Biden up to dealing with that? With the machinery of a restored federal bureaucracy behind him to do the heavy lifting, perhaps he could. But in this regard, as in so much else, the Democrats could do a whole lot better, if only they would come to their senses in time.

Trump has no notion of his own limitations, but the worst American president in modern times before him, George W. Bush, plainly did. This is why he let Dick Cheney make himself Vice President and éminence grise, and why he let him do so much of the actual governing.

That hardly worked out well, but only because Cheney was such a malign figure, not because it was a bad idea.

Ironically, the Bush-Cheney model might be applicable here; it might be the most, perhaps the only, effective way to control the damage Democrats have already done. If Biden alights upon a running-mate more competent than he, one with better politics – hers could hardly be worse – things might work out tolerably well, even if Biden somehow makes it through the next four or eight years.

What with our decrepit and decadent ruling class still holding onto power, and their two wretched political parties so deeply entrenched, that just might be the best, perhaps the only, feasible damage control currently at hand.

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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