If Nancy Pelosi Is So Great, How Come Donald Trump Still Isn’t Dead in the Water?

Photograph Source: DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos – Public Domain

To hear Democratic Party propagandists and anti-Trump Republicans on the cable networks tell it, Nancy Pelosi is the shrewdest, most politically savvy Democrat in living memory. MSNBC is the worst, and Rachel Maddow is the worst of the worst, but, in effect, they all speak with one voice, and they all agree that the woman is a genius.

Maybe, they are right. Just not so as you can see it.

Pelosi and her cohort of corporate Democrats led the sixty percent or so of Americans who hate Trump’s guts into the G-man Mueller era and then into the impeachment era. They did a good job at a tactical level. And yet, Trump not only survived their efforts, but actually advanced in the polls.

One would therefore expect that the consensus view by now would be that their strategic thinking is not quite up to snuff. However, just the opposite is the case.

Somehow, the good (less bad) guys (and gals and whatever) have managed to reconcile their view of Pelosi’s skills with the plain fact that with her calling the shots for the Democrats, Trump’s boast about being able to shoot some random passerby on Fifth Avenue, and becoming more popular for having done so, no longer seems like a facetious hyperbole. Quite to the contrary, it rings true; indeed, obviously true.

It goes without saying that anyone whose level of rationality and moral decency falls not too far below world standards could hardly fail to find Trump’s politics and Trump himself – his face, form and figure, and his manners and morals — appalling.

Unfortunately, though, quite a few of the people who feel that way don’t vote. For some, it is because they believe, not unreasonably, that, in our duopoly party system, they have no one to vote for; for some it is because they cannot be bothered.

There generally is someone to vote for down ticket or some referendum worth supporting; that excuse therefore seldom holds up. This time around, it doesn’t hold up at all because, with Trump in the running, all good people have someone to vote against. The laziness excuse never holds up.

The forty percent or so of Americans who like Trump vote at higher rates.

Some of them are plutocrats whom Trump has won over with tax cuts and by overturning regulations that were getting in the way of their greed. Because there aren’t that many of them, they are important to Trump more for their deep pockets than for their votes.

Some of them are thugs, enamored of their own stupidity and possessed by “the darker angels of our nature.”

And some, the vast majority, are victims of the neoliberal turn in American and world politics. That “bipartisan” ruling class offensive has been going on for some four decades. It has been merciless.

Had the Left not gone missing, and even if mainstream Democrats had not been so godawful, something good might have come of it. Instead, what has come of it, at least for the sad sacks in the Trumpian orbit, is a kind of self-destructive nostalgia for the days when white supremacy and male supremacy were at their zeniths.

That nostalgia renders them easy prey for a conman who knows how to pull their strings. Trump knows how instinctively — because their insecurities accord with his own.

Hillary Clinton famously called Trump voters “deplorable.” It would be fair to say that Trump himself holds them in even greater contempt; that he despises them for giving him freely what he craves from the “elites” he rails against. Poor Donald; even when he buys them off, their scorn for him is palpable.

There is a school of thought that maintains that conman Trump’s marks will stand by their man come what may; that their loyalty is tribal if not cult-like, and that it has more to do with (white, male, and rural or Archie Bunker style working class) identity politics than with the more ideologically-driven Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or Pat Robertson political fixations that Trump finds it opportune to promote.

There are others who think, as I do, that many, maybe most, Trump supporters are not quite as hopeless as they seem to be, and therefore that they can be shocked by circumstances out of the Trump-inflected lunacies that envelop them.

Trump’s own deplorability won’t do the trick, however, no matter how extreme it becomes. Neither will any magic bullets that Pelosi has up her sleeve. We’ve been there and done that before, and nothing has changed, at least not for the better.

However, the pestilence and economic ruination that Trump’s narcissistic incompetence has made so much worse than need be, in ways too obvious for even the willfully blind to ignore, are, I believe, a different story.

After all, deplorability is not in our genes; it is in those of our non- and anti-democratic institutions that have given rise to the untenable but deeply entrenched notion that freedom is about putting oneself and others at the mercy of market forces.

In my former life as a political philosopher, I spent years arguing for socialism and trying to convince philosophically minded libertarians of the errors of their ways. The issues can be complicated, but no matter how good the arguments, they change hardly anything. Changes in on-going philosophical “conversations” have more to do with changing fashions in the larger political universe than with philosophically substantive developments of any kind.

In the real world of politics, nobody cares anyway; philosophy changes nothing at all.

The situation reminds me of what Tom Lehrer said of the Spanish Civil War: that “they won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.” It is worth recalling, at a time when George W. Bush, the worst president in modern times before Inauguration Day 2017, is held in high regard by liberal commentators, and when Pelosi is not the only Democrat to uphold the moral rectitude of John McCain, that Lehrer famously stopped doing satire when Henry Kissinger, another world historical scoundrel held in high regard nowadays by Hillary Clinton and more than a few other high flying Democrats, won the Nobel Peace Prize – because, as he put it, after that, there was nothing left to satirize.

Is engaging Trumpian politics in a thoughtful and serious way worth the bother? Perhaps. Even if philosophy changes nothing, at least, as a former teacher of mine put it, “it’s a living.” And there have been times when it does seem to have changed the world. The French, Russian. and Chinese revolutions are arguably cases in point.

But however that may be, in our time and place, a clear and distinct contrast with the Trump exacerbated catastrophe we are now living through, is undeniable. It plainly is world-altering.

It could change everything for the better too, provided Trump is blocked from turning the catastrophe to his own and his cronies’ advantage; and Pelosi and her cohort are impeded from setting the Democratic Party back on its pre-Trumpian course.

With Joe Biden for a standard-bearer, that will be no small feat, but it is not impossible.

We Americans are not born with heads full of false and misleading information about how the world works either.

Thus, the Murdoch media outlets, Fox News especially, and other rightwing purveyors of mis- and dis-information have had to work hard to get forty percent or so of us to the point of believing the nonsense they purvey, just as liberal corporate media have had to work hard to keep the sixty percent or so of us who know better on board and in line.

It goes without saying, but must nevertheless be said, that the two are not morally equivalent.

It takes some doing on the part of Fox and the others to get “deplorables” enthusiastic about putting themselves and their families’ lives in mortal jeopardy in order to protect the investments of predatory capitalists; and it took some doing on the part of MSNBC et. al. to quash the Sanders and Warren insurgencies in order to make Joe Biden the chosen one.

What Fox and the others are doing menaces public health in ways that could, and likely will, take a catastrophic turn. What liberal media are doing is merely foolish, especially inasmuch as the insurgencies in question are more anodyne than revolutionary.

Even so, they seemed threatening enough to scare the pants off corporate Democrats and the Democratic Party’s “donor class,” and therefore to get Pelosi and the other party leaders to do them in. By so doing, they have been doing their part, unintentionally but inexorably, to keep Trump and Trumpism alive and well, just as surely as has Rupert Murdoch.


The underlying problem is that they, along with most other nationally prominent Democrats, are concerned, above all, with maintaining their own power and the power of the monied interests they represent and serve.

Many good Democratic stalwarts may also care about the well-being of the peoples of the world and the health of planet earth itself. No doubt, many of them would be pleased as well to live in a more peaceful, less inegalitarian world. But these and other high-minded concerns, to the extent that they are real, pale in comparison to their identification with and dedication to the old regime.

This underlying problem began to manifest itself in a particularly disabling way during the final years of Barack Obama’s first term.

By then, the George W. Bush–Dick Cheney “global war on terror,” continued under various guises under Obama’s aegis, had been going on for more than a decade with no end in sight. It is going on still.

Obama’s wisdom and rectitude is axiomatic in mainstream Democratic Party circles, notwithstanding the fact that he not only continued but, from time to time, actually surged up the wars that Bush and Cheney started, while transforming their war on terror into a war – sometimes hot, sometimes cold – directed against the entire Muslim world.

Insofar as Obama is thought of nowadays as more of a peace maker than a “war president,” which is how his successor, President Bone Spurs, depicts himself, it is mainly because the peace movement that existed in the Bush-Cheney era went missing after President Drone took over, and because, where Obama is concerned, Democrats do their level best to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

But that is only part of the story. The larger part is that the usefulness of the war on terror to America’s military-industrial-national security state complex, the basis of American prosperity and world “leadership” (domination) since World War II, was already wearing thin by the time that Obama’s stewardship of it got underway.

The problem wasn’t just that there was no glory in it. There was also the fact that, once the Arab Spring erupted, the cluelessness of the American foreign policy establishment and the incompetence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exposed the hopelessly counter-productive nature of American machinations in the historically Muslim world.

The Bush-Cheney and then Obama war regime just wasn’t cutting it anymore – neither materially nor “spiritually.” Where is the glory, after all, in being blown to bits by roadside bombs or in directing “targeted killings” (assassinations) from afar?

Thus, the Cold War, sorely missed in ruling circles ever since it ended two decades ago, was ripe for revival.

However, the problem all along had been, and still was, that the enemy had gone missing. After the Soviet Union imploded — its constituent republics, including Russia, reduced to pale shadows of their former selves — there was no one on the other side.

Ironically, blame for that turn of events lies in part with the American and other Western ideologues that post-Soviet leaders turned to for advice. What they got for their trouble was a brutal capitalist economic order that made nearly everyone who was not a kleptocrat worse off.

The form of socialism that was lost was flawed in many respects but, still being essentially socialist, it was also, in many other ways, more socially advanced than regimes based on kinder and gentler (more social democratic) capitalist market relations.

It surely could have been reformed, but post-Soviet leaders would not hear of it – to the detriment of the peoples they led, but also, ironically, to the dismay of an American ruling class desperate to find an enemy suitable for waging a sustainable Cold War against.

Russia’s situation was bound to improve in time – changes were already underway – but our generals and captains of industry were growing impatient. And so, the Obama administration attempted to “pivot” towards Asia – in other words, to target China more and, as far as possible, the historically Muslim world less.

That was a risky business, however; not just because China, like Russia, is a nuclear power, but also because its huge economy is so thoroughly intertwined with our own.

Moreover, wars, especially Cold Wars, need pretexts. In the original Cold War, there were at least different and sometimes incompatible political economic systems in place, making “peaceful coexistence” problematic.

In the current dispensation, however, the Chinese economy, like Russia’s, is, though more centrally managed, essentially capitalist. Systemic conflicts are therefore out of the question.

In the war on terror, foreign policy gurus could at least conjure up “clashes of civilizations.” In this case, while “east is east and west is west,” and while it may indeed be true that “never the twain shall meet,” the twain need not be at each other’s throats. If ever there is no reason “why we can’t all get along,” this is it.

But with Hillary, a barely reconstructed Goldwater Girl, preparing to assume her anointed role in the 2016 election, and with Russia having become much less the basket case that it had been as its regression to capitalism was getting underway, the temptation to revive the old Cold War became hard for Democrats to resist.

And although hardly anyone, not even Trump, seriously expected that she would lose the election, the need for a scapegoat became increasingly palpable in the Clinton camp, just in case the unthinkable were actually to occur.

Among many other, more directly political commonalities, Clinton and Trump have that in common: a need always to blame someone or something other than themselves for their own failures.

Thus began the demonization of Vladimir Putin.

To be sure, the man deserves it, but not more than many of his counterparts around the world and in the United States itself. His government has been a lot more respectful of international law than American governments, Bill Clinton’s especially, have been; and he did several times save Obama from going down some of the disastrous paths favored by his Secretary of State and the liberal imperialists she empowered. But for Putin, the United States might have intervened in Syria sooner, more directly, and more disastrously than it subsequently did.

Putin is no saint, but Trump is surely more right than the Clintonite Democrats, including Biden, who would rather strike up a Cold War with Russia than get along for the sake of a more secure peace. This is one of those very rare instances in which the lesser evil’s evil is not lesser at all.

Why is Trump the lesser evil in this case? The question may be unanswerable because it assumes a level of clarity and coherence that alludes the Donald’s “large” and “very stable” brain.

But there are many explanations, or partial explanations, in general circulation: among them, that Putin and Trump are authoritarian soul brothers under the skin; that Trump has or wants to have commercial interests in Russia for which he needs the Russian government’s support; that the Russians have blackmail worthy information on the Donald, though it is hard to imagine what there could be that is worse than what Trump routinely admits and even boasts of. It is also possible, of course, that, in this instance, Trump’s attitudes and instincts are more commonsensical than those of mainstream Democrats.

These and other explanations are best left to future historians, with access to relevant information to ponder from an informed retrospective vantage-point.

The more immediate problem, for now, is what to do about Russiagate, that confabulation so dear to the heart of Wonder Woman Pelosi. As the Mueller and impeachment fiascos make plain, Russiagate was – and still is — a road to nowhere. Democrats, however, are stuck on it.

The Trump Party is as committed to Cold War revivalism as its duopoly rival. However, Trump has a different villain in mind – or as much in mind as anything can be in “the blooming buzzing confusion” (the expression is William James’ and refers to the mental lives of infants) that resides beneath Trump’s skull. That alterative is, of course, China, the one that Obama considered but had the good sense to reject once its problematic nature became clear to him.

Surely, some of Trump’s capitalist cronies understand the enormity of the dangers inherent in their meal ticket’s anti-Chinese machinations. There are, first of all, risks similar to those that Pelosi and her Democrats incur, as they target Russia. By turning China into a Cold War enemy, Trump is increasing the likelihood of nuclear war. He is also destabilizing an already fragile world order, increasing the likelihood of proxy wars of various kinds, and of domestic and international mayhem.

And, while Trump’s nefarious antics may make some of them better off, at least in the short run, how could they not be concerned that he is putting their own economic fortunes at risk — for the sake of what he takes to be his own electoral fortunes?

The United States has a history of living with the risks of targeting Russia, the devil we know. China is by no means uncharted territory but, with respect to managing the risks of unintended lethal hostilities, it is also, to some extent, terra incognita. More important, its economy is many times the size of Russia’s.

These are among the reasons why while all Cold War revivalism is stupid, Trump’s version is stupider than the one Pelosi Democrats champion.

Has Trump gotten the capitalists who are bankrolling his campaign so buffaloed that they won’t tell him to stop? That is unlikely. The rich and heinous are not easily bullied, and Trump follows the money; when the money talks, he listens and does as he is told.

I would therefore venture that he and they and also the hardcore deplorables upon whom Trump’s electoral prospects depend are basically of one mind; that, for them, Russia is a great White nation, blessed with a Leader and a political class determined to keep it that way.

Real Nazis hate Slavs, but American racism has taken a different course. The problems Eastern Europeans (other than Jews, whose problems follow a different trajectory) have faced in the Home of the Brave have had more to do with old-fashioned Protestant anti-Catholic animosity than with pre-Reformation contestations between the first Reich, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Orthodox lands to its east.

Thanks to the unholy alliance of rightwing Protestants and conservative Catholics on abortion and other social issues, Protestant anti-Catholicism has had hardly any significant political impact in the United States for many decades now. Slavs, Russians especially, on this side of the ocean if not in the heartland of the Third Reich, are, like the Irish, as white as the driven snow.

Anti-Chinese racism, on the other hand, is as American as lynching and apple pie.

Americans of east Asian ancestry, Chinese especially, had been doing rather well one these shores in recent decades; they were the model minority.

Trump saw no percentage in rocking that boat – at first. He was too busy promoting Islamophobia and keeping Mexicans and Central Americans south of the border or in concentration camps awaiting deportation.

On the score, Trump was determined to outdo his predecessor, the Deporter-in-Chief, even going so far as to warehouse the children, even the babies and toddlers, of asylum seekers and other migrants, keeping them in frightful conditions, out of reach of their mothers and fathers and other relatives. Trump’s vileness knows no bounds.

However, for the first three years of his presidency, he had no interest in reviving nativist fears of “the yellow menace.” He had no need, and his plate was full.

But, like all capable conmen, where there is an opening, Trump can sense it, in much the way that a wild animal can sense the proximity of prey.

Having campaigned against neoliberal trade policies and therefore against China, even while heaping praise on China’s leaders, Trump had little trouble “pivoting.”

Needless to say, opposing neoliberal trade policies is a good thing; Democrats who champion them are dead wrong. Trump was therefore on the right side on this too, but only in an abstract way. Because his opposition was neither principled nor internationalist, just crude and racist, it was, wrong-headed too.

And so, when the covid-19 pandemic struck, leaving Trump in need of scapegoats, he pounced; he could hardly resist. True to form, he set about blaming China, not himself, for precisely what he has done that merits blame. And so, predictably, “conservatives” mouth on, as he does, about “the Chinese” – or is it “the Wuhan” – virus.

All this shows is what was already plain: that deep down, where it matters most, the two duopoly parties serve the same interests and are essentially the same. Russia or China, what difference does it make, after all? The important thing is that there be a functionally adequate, reliably sustainable Cold War, directed against a worthy adversary, a war for war’s sake, that can be kept contained.

In a sense, therefore, the differences between Democratic and Republican war-mongering are more cosmetic than substantive. But those differences can be enormously consequential too, especially when the more loathsome of the two parties is under the thumb of a consummately wicked Leader, as has been the case for the past three and a half years.

If Pelosi is as politically adept as she is made out to be, how could she, with the House of Representatives under her party’s control and with public opinion massively behind her, have let this happen?

Could it be that being politically savvy isn’t all that it is cracked up to be?

If all her purportedly stupendous talents lead to is Joe Biden, the question practically answers itself.

Of course, it is not just her; she has had a lot of help from other Democratic Party bigwigs – for example, from Jim Clyburn, the Congressman who more than any other revived the Biden candidacy from the near-dead state it was in before the South Carolina primary, sinking the Sanders movement in the process; and Stenny Hoyer, the spam king, whose pleas for contributions overflow countless junk mailboxes.

And regardless what we make of Tara Reade’s unproven but also not disproven allegations, we must not forget the MeToo ladies in Congress and the media who, without looking into the matter except in cursory ways, have given hypocrisy a bad name and Fingers Biden a pass.

The list goes on and on, but Pelosi is primus inter pares, first among equals.

In a just universe, she and they and all their co-thinkers would spend eternity in that special place in hell that Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s former Madam Secretary, wanted to reserve for women who didn’t support Hillary in 2016. Inasmuch as she remains proud of her role in putting in place the sanctions that led to the deaths of some half-million Iraqis, she could hang out there with them as well.

From those lower depths, they could all look down, way down, on that vastly more horrendous place – the bottom of the barrel, as it were – where, again in a just universe, Trump and his enablers would reside in torment to the end of time.

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).