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Unsimple Twists of Fate in an Election Year, a Pandemic Year, and Year Four of Donald Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

What we expect comes to pass far more often than what we do not, though it can sometimes seem otherwise because an improbable turn of events is remarkable in ways that an expected outcome is not.

Sudden transformations of longstanding states of affairs are especially remarkable, even when – indeed, especially when – they make so much sense that, in retrospect, they seem inevitable after having seemed impossible for far too long.

Two recent turns of events – the rise and fall of the most recent incarnation of the Sanders insurgency, and the reactions to police violence sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis policemen – are cases in point.

The former now seems to be entering its final stages, its unfortunate, Bidenesque, destination becoming increasingly clear.

The latter, still in its early stages, is full of promise, but headed who knows where.

***

For the first two and a half months of this year, it looked like a transformation of the American political landscape that seemed impossible, even as it made perfect sense, was about to happen.

The Democratic Party was on the verge of taking a few small but significant steps towards becoming better than the lesser evil party it has been for so long.

Then, almost overnight, the party’s power structure put the kybosh on that prospect, effectively kicking Bernie Sanders out and sticking Joe Biden in.

The inflection point was the South Carolina primary. Thank – or damn – some of the most pusillanimous Democrats in the Home of the Brave for that – especially “civil right icon” Jim Clyburn. Thank – or damn – many of his fellow civil rights icons too.

The years have a way of turning young militants in vanguard social movements into stalwarts of the old regime. Those who do not become renegades, but instead continue to see themselves and be seen by others as being on the side of the angels, often go along to get along with the powers that be. To that end, they often exploit moral capital they earned years before.

In that respect, for decades now, Clyburn and the others have been running true to form. Their efforts to turn the enthusiasms generated by a black led, multi-racial progressive insurgency into an electoral groundswell for Biden is the latest example.

Eight years ago, they did all they could, along with other establishment Democrats, to divert the energies unleashed by the Occupy Wall Street movement into Barack Obama’s campaign for a second term. Now they would do the same for Black Lives Matter.

This time, however, their efforts are more blameworthy than before – not just because, by almost any measure, Biden is more retrograde and less sagacious than Obama, but also because the prospects for real and fundamental change now are so much greater than they were in 2012.

Thanks to Clyburn and other long in the tooth African American politicians — and, of course, thanks also to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and their many co-thinkers – the Democratic Party’s candidate this year will be by far the worst in my lifetime. That is a long time indeed, inasmuch as I have been alive very nearly as long as their favored “presumptive nominee.”

Settling on the worst candidate in so many years is quite an achievement for a party that nominated Clintons three times – Bill twice and Hillary once. John Kerry and Al Gore weren’t exactly prizes either; neither were Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale. But the downward course of the trajectory after 1980 or, indeed, after 1972, is clear; the choice of Biden only accelerates the pace.

And so, barring a miracle, the worst nominee in living memory will be tasked with taking on the worst president ever — in the midst of a global pandemic, made worse by that president’s incompetence and blustering ignorance, an economy heading south thanks to his cluelessness and cupidity, and a mass movement for progressive change on the rise, thanks at least in part to the deteriorating social climate that godawful excuse of a human being has unleashed.

The immediate cause of that is, of course, police violence directed against African Americans and others not deemed white or white enough.

To be sure, Donald Trump did not make police violent and murderous. He does bring out the worst in them, however. That is his “thing”; he starts nothing but makes everything worse.

And what are mainstream Democrats doing about it? Are they seizing the time? Setting their party on a fundamentally better path? Hardly. That is not their thing.

However, facing an election ahead, they would like disillusioned Democrats to think otherwise. To hear some of their propagandists tell it, Biden is shedding his old skin, morphing into a later day FDR; one who, unlike the original, has no need to placate the Solid South or any other racist or nativist constituencies.

Moderates need not worry, however. With Biden, those propogandists tell us, we can have it any way we want. Moderate and progressive; somehow Biden is both. He is everything anybody grasping for a way to vote against Trump could hope for – exception made, of course, for those who fancy the idea of running candidates who call themselves “socialists.”

If only Team Biden would just remind people that voting for their man is the only effective way to vote against Trump, and leave it at that! The more the election is about Trump and the less about Biden’s purported virtues, the better they will do, and the better off we all will be.

A Biden presidency will of course be better by many orders of magnitude than a second Trump term. But it is Biden-like (Clintonesque, Schumeresque, Pelosiite) politics that made Trump possible, if not inevitable.

It did it once, and it could do it again – with the Trump role filled by someone more dangerous than Trump himself; someone smarter, less ludicrous, and therefore more capable of wielding state power for nefarious ends, while winning over the hearts and minds of more than just the most base and servile among us.

***

Beyond that, a Biden presidency is not likely to be good for much of anything — unless Biden effectively cedes power to the right appointees or the right vice president or both.

After all, it is practically axiomatic: the Biden who governs least governs best.

This could come to pass for any of a variety of reasons. Biden is not exactly in his prime, and while there is mortality and morbidity and extreme senescence, there is hope.

Nevertheless, the idea that what we will get under a Biden presidency will be something other than Biden and the politics he has always championed is basically just a theoretical possibility. No one should hold his or her breath on that account.

The presidency didn’t change Trump, not for the better anyway. Would it change Biden? In other words, is the current propaganda line on track?

I cannot help but be skeptical of that prospect. The old saw notwithstanding, you can sometimes teach old dogs new tricks, but it isn’t easy. Biden is and always has been, by sympathy and conviction, a corporate Democrat to the core. This is why I would venture that, by electing him, as we absolutely must, we are, in effect, voting to keep the Democratic Party on its current course. We are, in short, making a tragic choice.

It is therefore not at all surprising that, as we hear of Biden’s turn to the left, we see him and his co-thinkers trying to win over “independents” – not the kind who hate Democrats but end up voting for them anyway, for want of better alternatives, but the kind that have, and never have had, any serious problem with George W. Bush.

Poor Bush. He was only the worst American president in modern times (but not, like Trump, the worst ever) for eight short years. He may still have bragging rights, however, for being the most lethal president since Richard Nixon. It depends on how we calculate Trump’s responsibility for the tens of thousands of covid-19 deaths that would not have happened but for his flagrant stupidity and incompetence.

What irony! Trump’s maleficence and incompetence put transforming the Democratic Party fundamentally for the better on the agenda, despite the power wielded by that wretched party’s funders and poohbahs.

At the same time, however, because Trump is so awful, and because the need to dispatch him is so urgent, the very people who need him gone the most, fearing four more years of him, decided, unwisely but understandably, that the thing to do now, until Trump and Trumpism are vanquished, is to give free rein to their inherent pusillanimity – playing it safe (not in reality, but by their own lights) by grudgingly but resolutely letting their party’s donors and leaders have their way.

Thus, for now, what had seemed impossible for so long, and then seemed inevitable, is now, if not quite impossible, at least not on the agenda anymore.

Despite this, the impending presidential election could still continue the process that the 2018 midterm elections kick-started. If this happens, however, it will not be because of, but rather in spite of, the figure at the top of the ticket.

And so, what had seemed prospectively impossible and that could well, in retrospect, have come to seem inevitable suffered defeat – thanks to the machinations of the Democratic Party’s power elite and, let’s face it also, the defeatism of the Sanders and Warren campaigns.

Sanders crossed over to the dark side in 2016, but apparently only to live to fight another day. Now he has done it again, readily and without argument, and without any prospect of trying again four years from now. Could throwing in the towel and giving the other side his all be his thing?

As for Warren, one can only wonder at this point what she is up to — making nice to her former rival when she could and should be making mincemeat of him? It is too soon to tell.

All we can say now, for sure, is that defenders of the status quo don’t give up easily, even when real change all of a sudden becomes feasible and even likely. Eternal vigilance is not just the price of liberty; it is the price of fundamental change for the better as well.

***

Will the hopes raised by the events now unfolding in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder go the way of the hopes raised in the contest for the Democratic nomination before Clyburn and the others struck in South Carolina?

This depends, in part, on the same cast of characters, icons and all, who did so much to breathe life into Biden’s seemingly moribund campaign, and to drain life out of Sanders’ and Warren’s. That is the bad news.

The good news is that it also depends on what is happening in the streets, outside the electoral arena. It may be different in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, but out there, times are changing.

Even so, at this point, it would be fair to say that it is more likely than not that, as in 2012, the electoral circus will siphon off more energies that would otherwise go to direct expressions of peoples’ power than vice versa.

With the utter urgency of ridding the body politic of Trump and his minions increasing palpably day by day, this would not be an altogether bad thing.

It would be a very bad thing, however, especially with Biden in the Oval Office, if, as in 2013, developments in the streets were not to resume once the election is over. And it would be very nearly as bad if mainstream Democrats were to succeed in limiting the conceptual horizons of the black led, multi-racial movement that is now coming into being.

American policing has had a racist dimension since before Day One, and it is hardly news that police kill a lot of black and brown young men, many more than they would were they only protecting and serving the people, and not also keeping them down.

Workers and poor whites have been victims too, especially in times of labor strife, but persons of color – black, indigenous, Hispanic, and Asian – have always mainly borne the brunt.

Perhaps someday it will be clearer than it now is why the Floyd murder was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. No doubt, the very visible presence of the creatures that crawled out from under the rocks Trump has overturned have something to do with it; Trump does make everything worse.

But, even with Trump taking a page from his mentor, Norman Vincent Peale — making friends (of the vile and nefarious) and influencing people (susceptible to his enticements) — it has been worse before, not just in the distant past, but in Trump’s lifetime as well.

The level of police violence was worse in the sixties, for example – as the civil rights movement unfolded along with black rebellions in American cities.

Much has changed for the better since then, thanks to the work of civil rights militants, and also to the efforts of comparatively enlightened leaders of still overwhelmingly white power structures determined to keep rebellions from happening and, when they nevertheless do, to safeguard the interests of themselves and of the capitalist system generally.

One thing that evidently has not changed nearly enough, however, is the level of police violence directed at young black men.

What has changed, though, is the level and extent of white indifference. There is a lot less of it now than there was the last time “the ghettoes” were aflame.

One reason why is that nowadays black militants are less separatist than in the late sixties and early seventies. The idea in those days was that while there might sometimes be good reasons for radicals of all races to work together for particular purposes and to support one another in principle, it was best for black and brown and white progressives to organize and operate independently of one another.

That was a reasonable position back then for reasons having mainly to do with longstanding and deeply entrenched patterns of white domination, in the larger society, to be sure, but also in progressive organizations. As times and circumstances have changed, those reasons have become less compelling than they used to be.

It is also the case that racist attitudes have mellowed over the past half-century, especially among “millennials” and those born after them.

Another piece of the puzzle involves the limitations of the civil rights revolution itself.

Jim Crow is gone. Black cops nowadays abound. Black politicians are plentiful too, even in the highest places. And so-called “minorities” have educational opportunities that their parents and grandparents sorely lacked.

There is now also a sizeable black middle class. The professions have opened up too, as has Wall Street and corporate America.

Better-off African Americans still have many incumbrances in their way, and the problems that confront them remain significant. Even so, their situation now is a lot better than it was in the1960s.

And yet, cops still kill and terrorize black and brown communities, just as they did when Bull Connor and others like him were ruling the roost.

What this shows, beyond any still reasonable doubt, is that fitting black and brown people into slots that once only white people occupied is not nearly as transformative as people used to think it would be.

The structure itself matters too; indeed, it matters most. The slots themselves have to change, not just their occupants.

The old regime’s liberal stalwarts, including its civil rights icons, either don’t get it or else don’t care as much about non-elite social strata as much as they purport they do.

It was different when they were younger. Then, they, along with white radicals and others, mocked, for example, Nixon’s advocacy of “black capitalism.” Now this is item one on their agenda.

But Nixon was onto something. He may have been as much, or nearly as much, a crook as Trump, but he was a whole lot smarter. He knew that when the time comes that you must change the world in order to keep everything essentially the same, the thing to do is to tinker with the prevailing economic order in ways that do not fundamentally alter the operation of the capitalist system itself.

Thus, with his “fascist pig” credentials beyond dispute, he set about to make American capitalism more “inclusive.”

He did not, however, make it less repressive. No doubt, he never wanted to; but even if he had, there would not have been much that he could have done.

Police violence has always been indispensable for maintaining capitalist economic structures. It or its functional equivalent in different institutional guises plays an essential role in any and all economic systems based on some classes dominating others.

Unraveling the many historical and conceptual connections that link racial and class oppression is a complicated business.

Laying bare connections between capitalism, in its various stages, and social, economic, and racial inequality can get complicated too.

But the general idea is easily grasped: the more divided the working class is, the easier it is for capitalists to keep workers in line, and to enrich themselves.

The global pandemic now afflicting us puts all this in an especially sharp relief. This makes seeing and investigating these issues somewhat less vexing than was the case before. It can also make it easier to mobilize people to act in ways that address the problems these investigations uncover.

From now until November 3, Election Day 2020, dispatching Trump and Trumpism is job number one. Between then and January 20, Inauguration Day 2021, making sure that Trump actually is dispatched will be job number one in its stead.

Then, if all has gone well to that point, high on the list of jobs for “we, the people” to do will be holding Biden and his Attorney General to their historic responsibilities, at least to the extent of not following the precedent set by Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, when they gave Bush era war criminals get-out-of-jail-free cards.

Then the real work will lie ahead.

De-Trumpification will be part of it.

But the larger part, by far, will be done by those who realize that what began as a largely spontaneous effort to stop lethal police violence directed against young African American men can only succeed if it evolves, under their aegis and apart from electoral concerns, into a movement for fundamental social change so broad and deep that neither Democrats (icons and all) nor Republicans nor any of the other stewards of our overripe capitalist order and the “civilization” built upon it will be able to impede, deflect, or stop in its tracks.

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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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