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Where the Fault Line Lies

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

With Inauguration Day 2021 now “only” seven months away, it is becoming more likely than not that the world “as we know it” (more or less), will survive the Trump presidency.

Trump becomes increasingly unhinged with each passing day but, with his allotted time in office running down, the prospects for resuming something like the world we used to know are looking better than they were a short while ago.

Indeed, with covid-19 bodies still piling up and with the likelihood on the rise of a surge or even a second wave of infections and deaths in the near future, with the economy still headed south (irrespective of the ways Trump spins the numbers), and with black lives on the threshold of actually mattering, the polls are now showing that all but the worst of the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton spoke of are in retreat.

The more his handlers let Trump be Trump, the more likely his reelection chances will continue to fall, even if Joe Biden’s handlers let their charge out in public any more than they absolutely must. In his case, any exposure is too much, but since he has to be carted out from time to time, the less the better.

In short, the more the election is a referendum on Trump, the better off Democrats will be. The more Biden figures in peoples’ thinking, the worse off.

There is no need to worry a whole lot, however; Trump is so much more vile than Biden is empty-headed, retrograde, and senescent that he is bound to defeat himself.

***

When it finally becomes possible to look back upon the Trump years with the wisdom of hindsight, it is likely that his remarks, after Charlottesville, about how there are “some very fine people on both sides,” will still stand out as a defining moment.

That is certainly how it seems now, even as each day brings yet more inane and alarming Trumpian bloviations and tweets, and even as palpable examples of his and his minions’ vileness multiply. As much or more than any of the other gems for which the Donald will be remembered, that August 2017 remark of his “has legs.” Count on it to resonate, loud and clear, for a long time to come.

Although hardly anyone realizes it yet and perhaps hardly anyone ever will, it is nevertheless the case that, as the mass demonstrations sparked by the police murder of George Floyd unfold, leading Democrats and their media flunkies have been saying something similarly revealing. It is less obviously preposterous and not nearly as odious, but it is almost as indicative of what they and their party’s mainstream is about as Trump’s Charlottesville remarks are of him and of the party he leads.

It may not be nearly as consequential politically in the months ahead, but it does reveal a basic truth of the utmost importance about our politics. It shows where the true fault lines in our duopolistic party culture lie.

In Charlottesville, in the Trump worldview (insofar as his mind can be said to entertain such a grandiose notion), there were two sides, each comprised of people of varying degrees of militancy. What would make some of them “extremists” is just how militant they are; at a strategic level, everyone on the same side is cut from the same cloth.

This is classic Trump; there are always only two sides: his and his enemies’. Trump could also be said to think that, as Barry Goldwater might have put it, extremism in defense of Trump is no vice, and opposition to Trump is no virtue.

Mainstream Democrats are more subtle and less paranoid, but very nearly as wrong-headed. For them, there is always a benign center, which they see themselves representing, and there are extremes – of both the left and the right — distinguished by a good deal more than their levels of their militancy.

In their worldview, when all is in proper order, the center is huge, and the extremes are miniscule. The extremists are also typically, nutty. The best of them are starry-eyed, insufficiently “pragmatic,” idealists; the others are merely outlanders in the real world of American politics.

Their extremism is a nuisance, but, in “normal” times, the problems it raises are easily addressed. However, when the world is out of whack and the center is fragile, there is cause for concern.

Thanks to Trump, the world has become out of whack and the center has indeed become fragile. And so, they tell us that blame for the mayhem that occurred in the early days of the demonstrations that took off as news of Floyd’s murder on May 25 began to dominate public discourse, has nothing to do with their own politics, the politics that made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable. It lies instead with extremists of both the left and the right.

They could hardly deny that the right is more culpable by far, but, being interested above all in maintaining their own power and in keeping their donors happy, they have a lot invested in claiming that what they think of as “the extreme left,” is culpable too.

Had there been no cell phone pictures, those Democrats and Trump too would probably have let the matter of Floyd’s murder pass; it might not have been paid any heed at all. But there were cell phone pictures, and so it soon became clear – “on both sides of the aisle,” as they say – that the murder struck a nerve, and therefore that silence was not an option.

That the forces of order kill, and that, in America and elsewhere, race, along with social class, is always a factor in police violence, is hardly news. However, to everyone’s amazement, Floyd’s murder affected public opinion in ways that few, if any, murders of African American men by our forces of order ever have.

Mainstream Democrats, along with “liberal” and “centrist” pundits and (comparatively) enlightened capitalists, therefore found themselves having to choose between riding the wave or trying, likely in vain, to turn it back by calling, Nixon and Reagan style, for “law and order.”

There was never any doubt about what Trump would do. Bereft of self-awareness but true to the image he wants to project as a tough guy, War President Bone Spurs would do his level best to bluster and bully his way through to the bitter end. He has been doing precisely that – with consummate insensitivity and reckless abandon.

Neither was there ever much doubt about what the Democrats’ response would be. Mustering the skills they have acquired and perfected in the execution of their many hypocrisies, they would play the goody-goody card, with all the pompous solemnity Nancy Pelosi and the others could muster.

To that end, they and their media flunkies have been telling the world that while most of the demonstrators are “fine people,” there are also some not-so-fine people – not just on the far right, but on what they call “the far left” as well. How ironic that, on that last point at least, they and their Trumpian nemesis are of one mind.

When Trump said that there were “fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville, he was half right: there really were “fine people,” quite a few of them, on the side that was not his.

Mainstream Democrats are half right too, but in a different way — because, while the extreme right is blameworthy as hell, the situation on what the pillars of the party consider the extreme left is a good deal more complicated than they would have voters believe.

Part of the problem is that Democrats have bought into rightwing narratives about the evils of “antifa.” Trump has even said that he wants to designate antifa a “domestic terrorist” organization.

At first, mainstream Democrats let that pass, suggesting that they would not mind too much if he did. However, now that Trump has taken to blaming antifa operatives for faking police violence – the assault on an “elderly” protestor in Buffalo, for example – even they are beginning to strike a different, less Trumpian, note.

By the way, that protestor is younger than their presumptive nominee, the man they’ve chosen to combat the demons Trump has unleashed, and yet they go on and on about his age, and about how he should be treated gently on that account.

There is one small problem, however, with Trump’s jibber jabber: “antifa” – a contraction of “anti” and “fascist” – is not really an organization at all. Such organization as there may sometimes be among militants who call themselves “antifas” is so radically local and decentralized that the idea hardly applies.

Moreover, except for the few sad sacks who expressly identify with fascism, their fellow-travelers, and perhaps also for Trump and others like him who find it expedient to project ambiguity on the issue, one would be hard put to find anyone who has ever given the matter any thought at all who would not proudly claim to be anti-fascist.

To be sure, they are not all, like those who call themselves “antifas” and many others as well, committed to the view that the way to oppose fascism is to fight fascists in the streets.

But the idea that fascist violence can only be defeated by anti-fascist violence is hardly an outlandish view. For more than half a century after the first expressly fascist political movements emerged, the consensus view, throughout the entire political culture, was that, once established, fascism would never, as it were, wither away.

Either it would be defeated militarily — generally, but not necessarily, with the help of foreign forces – or it would remain in place for an indefinite, but very long, time.

In the 1970s, as political conditions changed, it became impossible to hold onto that view dogmatically, but the general idea behind it persists to this day.

Thus, what distinguishes the antifa way of being anti-fascist from views that no one would think to villainize has more to do with the cultural markers antifas adopt than with their views about the efficacy of one or another anti-fascist strategy. Being antifa is more like being a goth or a hippie than, say, a Nazi or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

A more intractable problem is that the whole matter is rife with conceptual confusions and muddles – pertaining, among other things, to fascism and anti-fascism, the theory and practice of anarchism, and what it means, in this context, to talk about a left, a right, and a center.

So many muddles, so little time. There is barely enough to do more than scratch the surface of a few of them.

***

Now that it has become almost commonplace in respectable (corporate) media circles to call Trump a “fascist,” it is well to bear in mind how anachronistic that term is and how different Trump’s fascism is from the classical fascisms of the interwar years, and from the fascist-like authoritarian regimes of southern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

It is easy to be misled, however, and the misunderstandings that result can be, to say the least, unhelpful. Nevertheless, the resemblances are striking enough, and our political language is impoverished enough, that, for want of a better alternative, it is reasonable to use the term to describe Trump, the kakistocrats he has empowered, and many of his hardcore supporters.

In a similar vein, and for many of the same reasons, now would be a good time to start calling the (mainstream) Democratic Party and its duopoly rival, the Republican Party, “bourgeois.”

Niceness matters, of course; and those two parties could hardly differ more in that regard. Democratic politicians are sometimes nice people; their Republican counterparts are loathsome.

But, in the final analysis, politics is, and always has been, about class interests, class power, and class struggles. From that perspective, there is another, deeper line of demarcation that calls out to be drawn.

For reasons both rhetorical and substantive, we have no better, readily available, way to formulate that distinction, forced upon us by reality itself, than by resorting to terms that arose in and that more adequately describe political struggles of an already distant past.

Thus, it would be fair to say that, notwithstanding their many differences, Republicans and mainstream Democrats are on the same side. That would not quite be the side of some modern-day version of the classical (nineteenth century, ideal-typically French) bourgeoisie, but of a class configuration that is relevantly like it in crucial respects.

From that perspective too, it would be fair to say that insurgent Democrats – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and their co-thinkers (in office and currently running for office), along with a few other veteran Democratic legislators who have been obliged in the past to cave too much into the mainstream fold — are on the other side of the relevant divide.

Before Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren crossed over to the dark (Pelosiite-Bidenesque) side, each in their own way and under extreme pressure from their party’s leaders, the Sanders and Warren campaigns were focal points around which those insurgencies coalesced.

It grieves me to have to say it, but at a tactical level, they may actually have done the right thing, given the circumstances they confronted. It could even be said – again, anachronistically but aptly — that they were following a relevant historical precedent.

Like the fascist menace in the late 1930s, the Trumpian menace is potentially catastrophic. And then, like now, the differences between fascist and bourgeois political forces, though real enough and consequential at many levels, were not fundamental. Like Republicans and mainstream Democrats today, the fascists and the bourgeois parties were ultimately on the same side.

At first, this sense of things led Communists and others on the hardcore Left nine decades ago to regard bourgeois anti-fascists as enemies, not allies, even as fascists were beginning to flex their muscles. It was not until the final years of the 1930s that Communist and other hard Left political forces realized what a dangerous mistake this had been.

When they did, the idea that the first order of business ought to be to form a “popular front” of “bourgeois” and “proletarian” forces took hold.

The democratic socialism that Sanders almost succeeded in bringing into the American political mainstream is cut from a very different cloth, historically and conceptually; and Warren has conspicuously and repeatedly denied that there is anything socialist about her politics at all.

The insurgent Democrats who associated, in various way, with their campaigns are a mixed lot. Few, if any, of them have any deep connection to the historical Left, though many of them call themselves “socialists” too. They are too busy reinventing the wheel to bother with issues that are of interest nowadays only to persons with irrepressibly sectarian dispositions. For the most part too, their views, as best they can be ascertained, fall entirely within the Sanders-Warren parameters.

Nevertheless, for combatting Trump and Trumpism – in other words, for keeping “fascism” at bay — they all, like their hard Left predecessors decades ago, appreciate the necessity, at a tactical level, of joining “bourgeois” and “proletarian” forces together into a “popular front.”

The words behind the scare quotes are anachronisms; “proletarian,” above all. But with that one exception — we could as well say “authentically leftwing” — there really is no better way to say what needs to be said; at least none that is as historically resonant and as expressive of the importance and urgency of removing Trump and his minions from the political scene, of holding them accountable for their actionable crimes, and, as much as possible, of extirpating the harms they have done.

But, again, not all anti-Trumpians are created equal. No matter how welcome or even indispensable their contributions to the struggle may be, it is of the utmost importance not to lose sight of the fact that some of them are not just allies, but also enemies as well.

This goes for the mainstream Democratic Party, especially now that it is dead set on making Joe Biden its standard bearer, for the military and national security state “experts” on the ostensibly liberal cable networks, and for the many anti-Trump Republicans whose punditry is featured daily on those networks and in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

It even goes for the retired, top drawer military honchos, the Mad Dogs and the rest. Because of the offices they held, their views carry the most weight in public opinion. But they are also among the very worst of the lot – not just for all the harm they did while aiding and abetting the Donald before finally seeing the light, but also for finally taking a turn towards moral decency and political rectitude only because, by their lights, using the military against American civilians is beneath their dignity and what they take to be the dignity of the armed forces.

Destroying everything and killing and maiming everybody is fine with them; it is what they do. Just not in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

They go on about their oath to the Constitution, and perhaps they really do care about First Amendment rights. But it is hard not to see that what drives them, most of all, is their conviction that they are on earth to run the world by force – so that American and other capitalists can prosper — not to keep the lower orders down. There are police for that, after all.

Where the dignity lies in being a company cop for the American bourgeoisie as it dominates the world is a question that will no doubt be much pondered in the distant future, when history has moved further along and voices of reason are no longer drowned out by choruses of fools, thanking them, along with the economic conscripts they command, “for their service.”

In time, if their service doesn’t do humankind in first, it will be clear that our military is, if anything, even less involved in protecting and serving the American people than America’s police forces are.

They protect and serve themselves, the shareholders of America’s death merchants, and the class allies of the whole rotten bunch. That is, ultimately what our military-industrial-national security state complex is about.

But if these rats deserting a sinking ship want to help out in efforts to send Trump packing, then welcome aboard. Welcome too the titans of American finance and industry, the real beneficiaries of police power at home and of the “defense” establishment abroad, if they want to lend a hand.

Evidently many of them, having decided that he best way for them to ride out the storm now raging around them – and also to instrumentalize their longstanding desire to replace an embarrassingly risible president with a kinder, gentler doofus they could live with more easily – is to do precisely that.

Uniting all anti-Trump forces in order to elect Biden president is a gruesome prospect, though it may be the best we can do for now.

But then the task is to assure that the tactical alliances that must be forged don’t become entrenched. Ridding the world of Trump and Trumpism is job number one, but ridding the world too of the conditions that have brought on this sorry state of affairs is not far behind.

This is why even now as anti-Trumpers of all stripes blather on about the importance of uniting behind the Democratic candidate, it is crucial to acknowledge and keep in mind where the real fault line in American politics lies.

That would not be where most people think it does.

Needless to say, with the GOP entirely under Trump’s thumb, it is of great importance to rid the body politic of as many Republicans as possible, even if that means voting for Democrats of the Bidenesque kind.

However, the most fundamental fault line in American politics nowadays does not lie between those two bourgeois parties.

It lies within the Democratic Party itself.

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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