Insurgents and Iconoclasts Needed (But for Now Lay Low)

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Even before Donald Trump and his trophy bride rode down that gilded escalator in Trump Tower, launching his campaign for the White House by denouncing “Mexican rapists,” it was plain as day that he was, at best, a sick joke, unfit for the office he would go on to win in the Electoral College after losing the popular vote.

Hardly anyone, however, had any idea how monumentally awful he would turn out to be.

Four years ago, it could even seem that, compared to the obviously better but still horrendous alternative, some good might come from his presidency – a diminution of Clintonesque Cold War revivalism, for example, or trade policies less injurious to American workers.

My fear was that he would launch a nuclear Armageddon on a whim or in a fit of pique, or at least stumble into disastrous proxy wars against imaginary adversaries. This was not an unreasonable concern. Trump does have the gift of guile, but it was clear from the moment he stepped into the public arena that, despite his aging body, he had the mind and temperament of a spoiled adolescent boy.

We seem to have dodged that bullet – thanks in part to Trump’s fondness for Vladimir Putin. To what extent their bromance is motivated, on Trump’s part, by greed, or by fear of what, if anything, Putin holds over him, or by the psychological pathologies that Mary Trump laid out and accounted for in Too Much and Never Enough, is unclear. Unlikely as it may be, it could even be motivated by common sense.

Whatever the explanation, we are fortunate that, compared to Bush and even Obama, Trump’s inclination seems to be to keep military adventures down. We have been especially fortunate that, with regard to the one nuclear power that could do us in, his inclination is, for whatever reason, to seek peace and follow it.

However, there are similar though slightly less grave dangers confronting us that Trump seems to care little about.

For one, the Netanyahu government in Israel could succeed in getting the U.S. into a war with Iran. With any luck, we will dodge that bullet too – thanks in part to Israel’s increasingly disabling, pandemic exacerbated, political crises and a growing awareness, on the part of those who seem to have the president’s ear, that starting another unwinnable war in the Middle East now would do his electoral prospects more harm than good.

China is another story. I used to think that however much the stewards of our military-industrial-national security state complex might yearn for a new Cold War, that China was an implausible adversary because the American and Chinese economies are so intertwined that no good could come from turning China into an enemy state.

Somehow, though, pre-Nixonian views of “Red China” have sprung back to life – spurred on by the liberal imperialist human rights hypocrites that Obama and Madam Secretary Clinton empowered, by the media that serve them, and by diehard Trumpian lowlifes in key positions in the Departments of Commerce and State.

This unexpected and dangerous turn of events has more to do with the kinds of inter-imperialist and geopolitical rivalries that led to the First World War than with the ideological concerns that contributed to the post-World War II red scare and subsequent Cold War. How could it be otherwise at a moment in history when the functional equivalent of Red China is anything but red, either in the sense that was taken for granted back in the day, or in the CNN-MSNBC sense according to which “red” and “Republican” are effectively interchangeable.

Between now and the election, and the time when power eventually does change hands – if not the normal way, then one way or another – Trump will probably be unable to do a whole lot more to get a Cold War with China going than he already has.

The man is a moron, but even he is capable of understanding that, come November, he has more to lose than to gain by adding on to the economic harm he has caused by handling the covid-19 pandemic as ineptly as he has.

This is not to say that his and his administration’s malfeasances are about to subside. The damage that he and the kakistocrats he has empowered have already done to the environment, to the rule of law, and indeed to nearly all of the progressive achievements of the last hundred years will persist and be difficult to correct. [“Kakistocracy” means rule of the worst, the most vile, corrupt and odious.]

It is urgent that we get to the point where that process can begin, even as the first order of business, now and for some time to come, will be cashiering Trump and his minions and smashing Trumpism to smithereens.

For that, as in the anti-fascist popular fronts of the late thirties, we will need all hands on deck; all anti-Trump forces working together in unity.

This is why, though I shudder at the thought, I intend to force myself to vote for Joe Biden on November 3 (or rather by mail days before that).

In more normal times, because I live in a state where it has been certain all along that the Electoral College votes would go to any Democrat running against Trump, a state in which Biden is a native son with a political machine behind him to boot, I would never even think of piling onto the bandwagon. Why accede to a prospect that sickens?

Indeed, I am proud to say that I never voted for the Obama-Biden ticket even before I lived in Delaware, because, again, there was no need to support a lesser (but still considerable) evil in the “blue” state in which I was living, and because, by voting Green, I was able to cast a protest vote that at least a few bean counters might notice.

Also, since hope springs eternal, I was able, by voting for Jill Stein, to convince myself (more or less) that I was helping to build a third party that would stand a chance someday of breaking through the disabling duopoly party stranglehold that afflicts American “democracy.”

This time, though, it makes sense to pile on. The more soundly Trump loses, the less able he will be to convince anyone besides himself and the gaggle of true believers that will stand by him to the end, that the election was rigged against him. Thus, the better off the country will be when the time to dispatch him and begin the de-Trumpification process finally arrives.

How pathetic that the best way for voters who live outside so-called “battleground states,” to help make that happen is to cast votes for a doofus from the Democratic Party’s rightwing. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt.


The Republican Party’s leftwing (its center-right contingent in the pre-Bush, pre-9/11 days) was often no more odious than the Democratic Party’s mainstream. This began to change as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, his éminence grise, took aim at what passed for liberal democracy in the post-Clinton era by letting loose their Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

From that point on, even comparatively decent Republicans began migrating over to the Dark Side. Then the Tea Party came along, accelerating the process. The Tea Party made everything worse by many orders of magnitude.

Then enter Donald Trump, proving everybody wrong who thought that the Republican Party couldn’t get any worse than it already was. That Trump would be a disaster was clear as could be, but that the entire GOP would turn into a Trump cult was an unexpected, revolting development.

To be sure, Republicans had shed their leftwing, such as it was, long before his arrival on the scene. But they had not yet sunk anywhere near as low as they subsequently have.

However now, because they have sunk so low, it has become almost as important to smash the GOP as it is to kick Trump and his minions out of every office in which they can do harm. This is plainly the case at the national level. Allowing for historical and geographical differences, the situation is more or less the same at the state and local levels in all parts of the country.

And so, unpleasant as the prospect may be, given the state of the Democratic Party nearly everywhere, it is important to maintain unity on all fronts — in the race for president and all the way down.

This means tolerating and more often than not voting for the corporate Democrats who still call the shots in what is still nothing more than a lesser evil party.

But once the full brunt of the Trumpian menace has subsided, another imperative must assert itself as quickly and as thoroughly as possible – to make the party better, not just less bad.

If this does not come to pass, all that will have been achieved by uniting all anti-Trump forces is that Trump and Trumpism will be replaced by the conditions for their possibility.

Foundations for transforming the Democratic Party radically for the better took a great leap forward in 2018. It is not too soon to shore up those foundations and wherever possible to build upon them. The more Democrats with “squad”-like politics get elected, and the more they pull their weight, the better – even now.

Thanks to fear and corporate money, insurgent Democrats are more likely to lose than to win most primary battles this year; they have already lost quite a few. But they have also won some, and, by the time the current electoral circus has concluded, there may be sufficient numbers of genuine progressives at all levels of government for the insurgents to have significant leverage.

That was how it worked with the Tea Party. If even those bozos can do it, then surely insurgents running as Democrats, for want of a better but also viable alternative, can as well.

Therefore, once Biden is ensconced in the Oval Office, job number one will be to see to it that the insurgency asserts itself boldly and effectively.

Insurgents are on the scene already and more are coming soon. There will surely be enough of them to start turning things around, if they play their cards right; and they are chomping at the bit.

Iconoclasts are another story. They have gone missing lock, stock, and barrel. This has been the case for quite a while now and although one would have thought that the revival of militant, anti-racist politics would have produced iconoclasts aplenty, this does not seem to be the case.

After eight years of Barack Obama in the White House, it ought to be plain to one and all that, regardless of color, just being there, even if “there” is the very top of the heap, is not enough; that, as a James Carville with better politics than the actual one might say, “it’s the politics, stupid.”

But no one is saying that. The consensus view instead is that “identity” matters more than politics, and therefore that the person Biden chooses for a running mate must be a woman and ought to be a woman “of color.”

Let Biden follow that advice. Whomever he chooses will very likely be the next president; given the perils of old age, especially as the Trump-exacerbated covid-19 pandemic rages, maybe even before his first term has expired.

Moreover, to get out of the identity politics cul de sac, it seems that we will have to get stuck deeper into it. If Obama was not enough, then perhaps a woman “of color” will be.

Fortunately, the ones reported to be seriously under consideration all seem to have slightly better politics than Obama did – with the exception, of course, of Susan Rice, the Clintonesque liberal imperialist foreign policy maven.

So did the late John Lewis, the consummate “icon” of our time.

This is not to say that his politics was anything like what will be called for once Trump and his cronies are successfully dispatched. If it were, it would not now be the case that, from the moment he died, heaping praise on civil rights “icons” has become a media obsession.

Inasmuch as it is unseemly to speak ill of the (recently) deceased, and because, compared to his colleagues in Congress, Lewis may well have been the saintly paragon of humility and kindness that he is now being made out to be, I will restrain myself as best I can.

However, I cannot fail to note the fact that someone who was alive just a few days ago and whose memory is therefore not yet shrouded in self-serving mythologies, a Democrat who receives praise even from Mitch McConnell and Republicans more loathsome than he cannot be all good.

Neither can I resist pointing out how that word, “icon,” is so over-used in “liberal” media that a fortune could be make marketing it as an emetic.

To be sure, as a young man more than a half century ago, Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But he was hardly the first, nor the last, to be beaten savagely or worse, while fighting to bend that “arc of the moral universe” that we now hear so much about towards justice.

Police repression or its functional equivalent has been going on for as long as human history has been a history of class struggles.

Lewis’s ordeal, like, say, George Floyd’s murder stands out because it marked a tipping point. Floyd’s murder became historically significant, as it were, by chance; he just happened to be in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time.

Lewis, on the other hand, was an activist; like Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of the bus also marked a tipping point.

Their travails therefore resulted from more than mere happenstance. Because they were fighting for their rights and the rights of others in ways that made them political figures in troubled times, they effectively put themselves not quite in harm’s way, but in a place where harms of varying degrees of intensity could easily befall them.

There is nothing unusual about that. It can be and often is perilous to fight on the side of the angels.

Lewis was on the side of the angels on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and he never strayed far from the path he was on, though he did become more quiescent than he had been as the movement he came out of radicalized in the late sixties and early seventies.

But then as he and other “icons” assimilated into the political mainstream, he and they increasingly also found themselves on the side of the Clintons and others of their ilk.

Icons are prone to that; they wouldn’t be so venerated if they weren’t. And they wouldn’t now be doing yeoman service for the stewards of the Democratic Party’s old regime, as they struggle, under Nancy Pelosi’ leadership, to hold onto power and to serve the interests of the less benighted faction of “the donor class.”

Thus, however much Lewis and the others may be about loving thy neighbor, they are also about carrying on in the ways Democrats have been operating since even before the Clintons set out to purge the party of its never very militant or radical left wing.

Thus, even as they support Black Lives Matter, they seldom step outside the liberal comfort zone. Neither, of course, did Lewis and other leading figures in SNCC a half century ago, before the Black Power era dawned.

That is the icon way.

Love thy neighbor, of course, if you must, but Palestinians only get malign neglect, except when AIPAC says it is OK to talk more like someone trying to bend the arc a tad more in the direction of justice would.

More generally, accommodate to the interests of the Democratic Party’s leading interest groups, even when large segments of the party’s rank-and-file — white, black and brown — are way out ahead.

Above all, be careful not to get too far out in front. Liberal pundits go on about how Lewis was “the conscience of the Congress.” That is all well and good. But rare were the times when he would rock the boat, even slightly, and rarer still were the times when he would lead the party off in new more radical directions.

For an icon, Lewis was not half bad – unlike, say, Jim Clyburn, the icon behind the resuscitation of the Biden campaign and the mortal foe of the insurgencies that grew up around the Sanders campaigns in 2016, when the fix was in for Hillary, and then in the South Carolina primary this spring.

If we are to get a partial respite for a day or two from Trump exacerbated strife in order to mourn a Congressman’s passing, better John Lewis than just about anybody else.

But what our situation calls for now, even as the Trumpian menace rages and fighting against it takes precedence over everything else, is piss and vinegar, not saccharine. We need insurgency and iconoclasm, not acquiescence to mainstream Democratic politics.

Until Trump is gone, punches must be pulled.

But, before long, if all goes well on the Trump front, and if the insurgents and iconoclasts then go on to force the Bidenites either to get out of the way or else, despite their natures, actually to lend a hand, the time to heap praise on famous icons will have passed, and the time to embark instead on a more militant, more radical, and more just course, starting out along the lines of what Clyburn and the others quashed, will finally have arrived.

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).