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Clyburn’s Complaint

Photograph Source: Donald Baker – Public Domain

For the most part, when people use words like “sick” or “demented” or “insane” in political contexts, they are speaking metaphorically or for rhetorical effect. Sometimes, however, these and related words actually do denote phenomena of clinical interest.

The latest edition of the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. was published in 2013, when a prime example, relevant to the American political scene nowadays, was still in its infancy. That was one reason why it didn’t make it into the list of official diagnoses.

It likely never will — because psychiatrists and psychologists feel obliged to be, or seem to be, above politics as they discharge their professional duties. However, a mental disorder is precisely what it is.

Democrats suffer from it most, but it is a bipartisan affliction. It “presents” by rendering persons unable to think clearly or even sensibly about Vladimir Putin, an awful political figure no doubt, but one no worse than many others around the world and also, for that matter, on “both sides of the aisle.”

Now as a rank amateur in these matters, as far removed from the clinical priesthood as can be, who finds it difficult even to think about most members of the political class without becoming facetious and lapsing into sarcasm, my opinions on clinical matters that bear on real world politics should be taken with many grains of salt.

Nevertheless, for reasons I will presently explain, I would propose not only that this malady receive official recognition, but also that it be called “Clyburn’s Complaint” — in honor (or dishonor?) of House Majority Whip, James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina

***

First, some perspective.

Donald Trump is defeating himself – so thoroughly that, no matter how much skullduggery he and his minions contrive, he cannot possibly win in 2020, as he did in 2016. He was hard at it from Day One, long before the covid-19 pandemic struck, and he has upped the pace substantially in the past few weeks.

Nevertheless, by none too subtly disparaging and sometimes outright harming black and brown people, Muslims, women, and liberals, he still has a “base” that some observers have likened to a cult.

Within its ambit, no one seems to care that Trump is a vile ignoramus bereft of any moral compass whatsoever, or that he has turned the once great Land of the Free and Home of the Brave into a pitied laughing-stock around the world.

The Trump base has never consisted of more than some forty percent of the electorate. Therefore, in a political regime that was (small-d) democratic enough for anything like majority rule to prevail, he would never have been elected in the first place and would certainly not be reelected for a second term.

But we Americans are encumbered by electoral institutions that are not democratic enough even for that.

Worse, we live in the grip of a de facto duopoly party system in which two “bourgeois” parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, cut from the same capitalist cloth, are and long have been at each other’s throats over cultural matters and other issues peripheral to the usual bases of political contestation.

Therefore, while it was overwhelmingly likely in the pre-pandemic days, that Trump would lose this November, it was not a sure thing – not with Democrats for opponents.

Robert Frost famously said that “a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” That certainly goes for all but the most progressive and therefore marginalized Democrats It is why Democrats are born to lose, and always would lose without a substantial assist from the other party.

But times are changing.

Despite the best efforts of Democratic Party leaders, donors, and media flacks, the party is growing a new left wing, the old one having been wounded and left to die by the Clintons and others of their ilk.

More important for the months ahead, Trump’s monumental ineptitude in the face of the pandemic he has done so much to exacerbate is beginning to register in “the hearts and minds” of potential Trump voters.

So is the catastrophic economic crisis that the pandemic and Trump’s reaction to it has precipitated.

After decades of neoliberal attacks on egalitarian fiscal policies, organized labor, and social spending beneficial to ninety percent or more of the population, it was a miracle that the economy had not already crashed months or even years ago.

It had not, however, mainly because tax cuts for corporations and the hyper-rich, and reckless relaxations of social and ecologically vital regulations gave the economy a sugar-high that was taking an inordinately long time to pass.

But the covid-19 pandemic has made the fault lines in this latest phase of the class struggle so plainly visible that only the densest and most benighted Trump supporters could now fail to see how profoundly snookered they had been.

But, of course, there are still plenty of terminally dense and benighted Trump supporters out and about, and with money pouring into rightwing propaganda outlets, they may not all disappear in the next three months.

Now is therefore not a time to stop worrying altogether, but it is certainly a time to be more than cautiously, perhaps even a little bit rashly, optimistic.

It is no secret that black and brown people, especially those hailing from south of the border, are suffering most. But so too are long in the tooth white men without college degrees, along with others in the so-called Trump demographic. And, unlike as recently as just a few weeks ago, those who live in rural areas in Republican-led states are no safer than anyone else.

Conman Trump is more than willing to put his marks, their families, their friends, and their neighbors in mortal jeopardy. He likes them well enough, of course, when they come to his rallies, but he is happy to treat them as collateral damage whenever he the need arises. He will do anything to secure a second term.

For what it’s worth, I would blame his fixation on being reelected, at least in part, on clinically diagnosable delusions of grandeur. There is also another reason too that must also be factored in: once he is out of the White House, he could well be looking at criminal prosecutions for any of a zillion of plainly actionable offenses. And while the man is plainly not all there upstairs, he would get nowhere pleading insanity and throwing himself on the mercy of the court.

Bush-Cheney era war criminals could count on Barack Obama and Eric Holder to let them off scot-free. This time, it will be a lot harder for a Democratic president to do anything of the sort; and, beyond that, there is also, always, New York state.

Therefore, even Joe Biden, a doddering doofus well past his prime, a man who was seldom right about anything in all his many years in public life, should be able to glide to victory this November. Thanks to Trump as well, the Trump Party, formerly known as the GOP, should easily lose control of the Senate too.

Therefore, the more they make the election about Trump, and the less about Biden, the better Democrats will do.

Unfortunately, it seems that Democrats and their pundits think otherwise. But Trump’s presidency has been so godawful that, this time around, even they will have a hard time replicating the fiasco of four years ago.

Who would have thought that anti-Trump Republicans, former Bush and Romney supporters, would be so much smarter than the leading lights of the lesser evil party! But there it is. Anyone who doubts that this is the case should compare the ads produced by the Lincoln Project, by far the best thing to come along in this presidential contest so far, to the jibber-jabber on MSNBC.

What a loser Trump is! Even in comparison to other real estate machers, casino magnates, reality TV personalities, and hucksters of fraudulent commercial ventures, he is plainly second- or third-rate.

He may not even be the most loathsome autocrat in charge of a nominally democratic country on the world stage today, as citizens of the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and elsewhere could well attest. But as a president of a country with the largest economy and the most lethal military in the world, he is a disaster of unspeakable dimensions.

It is not for nothing that his niece has called him “the most dangerous man in the world”; and, in view of the power he wields thanks to the office he holds, it would even be fair to say, as Noam Chomsky has, that he is the most dangerous man in the history of the world.

In the face of that, it seems almost churlish to complain about the pathological obsessions of leading Democrats. But, once Trump and his underlings are gone, unless those Democrats too are called to account, we could well find ourselves back where we were four years ago, with someone more capable than Trump, and therefore more dangerous, waiting to carry on where his predecessor left off.

***

Cold Wars are godsends for ruling classes.

The Great Fear of our own titans of industry, finance, and commerce at the end of World War II was that without wartime spending, Depression conditions would resume. And so, along with Stalin and his successors, acting for self-interested reasons of their own, they figured out how they could harvest the benefits of war, without paying all the costs. They got a Cold War going, and kept it going for more than forty years.

During this time, there were proxy hot wars, of course – mainly, but not only, in Korea and Vietnam – and there were times when tensions ran dangerously high. However, thanks mainly to incredibly good luck, organized human life survived.

Because “Red China” was never quite the Soviet satellite it was made out to be in the fifties, and because it became impossible to maintain that fiction for long, the geopolitical situation became complicated as the Cold War wore on. Nevertheless, its basic contours never changed.

The end of the Communism – or, in the Chinese case, its radical transformation into a kind of managed capitalism — and then the demise of the Soviet Union itself, therefore posed a challenge to the principal beneficiaries of the post-war capitalist order that they were never quite able adequately to address. Even so, they managed somehow to muddle through.

For a while, the stewards of the old regime made do with “end of history” delusions, and with visions of a beneficent pax Americana.

When that was beginning to seem too hollow to last, blowback from Western, mainly American, predations in the historically Muslim world provided them with pretexts for greater and lesser, but always low grade, perpetual wars. By taking full advantage, they were able to transform America in ways that made everything worse for everybody except themselves.

Even so, from a ruling class perspective, there really was no satisfactory substitute for the Cold War that came to an end after 1989 and 1991.

Indeed, over the past seventy-five years, with only two impermanent interruptions – during World War II and then for the two decades or so that Russia, having taken a capitalist turn, was, for all practical purposes, reduced to a basket case — we Americans, along with many others around the world, grew up on Cold War nostrums and certainties. It is as if we imbibed them with our mothers’ milk.

In Too Much and Never Enough, her account of the ways that her family, her grandfather especially, created the monster that Donald Trump became, Trump’s niece, Mary, a trained psychologist, provides a great deal of information and insight into the relationship that obtained between her uncle and his mother. There were dysfunctionalities aplenty.

Could these account for Trump’s “Putinophelia”—in other words, his apparent immunity from Clyburn’s Complaint? The facetious answer would be: yes. As an amateur, thoroughly uncredentialed, psychiatrist, I stand by that answer, but, at the same time, I would also note that there are more straightforwardly pecuniary explanations, some of which may become clearer if and when the public finally gets to see the tax returns Trump refuses to make public.

Whatever the reasons, one of the very few things that one used to be able to say in Trump’s favor is that, with respect to Russia, he wanted to make “deals,” not wars. For a while, it could even seem that, unlike Hillary Clinton and the liberal imperialist advisors around her, he was not a Cold War revivalist at all.

But now that his electoral fortunes are sinking, this is no longer the case. For whatever reason, Trump is still there for his pal Vlad, but he is as ardent a Cold Warrior as anybody on the Democratic side, as ardent even as Clyburn himself. It is just that he wants China, not Russia, to play the enemy role.

Thus, within the duopoly fold, we have yet another far-reaching partisan divide. Cold War revivalists on the Democratic side target Russia, Trump Party Cold War revivalists target China instead.

Thus, they are the more batshit crazy of the two. After all, if the idea is to rev up a Cold War for prosperity’s sake, why make the enemy a country with a massive economy upon which America’s prosperity thoroughly depends?

There is the race factor, of course. Many non-white, non-Christian peoples live within Russia’s borders, but, in the minds of Trump and his followers, Russia is a great white nation. China, on the other hand, is a “yellow peril.”

This might explain why, along with Democratic governors and mayors, Trump blames the Chinese for the covid-19 pandemic; why he calls covid-19 “the Chinese virus.”

But still, if the idea is to launch a practicable Cold War capable of keeping an overripe capitalist economy going, you don’t do it in a way that will bring that economy to ruin. This is not a subtle or complicated point; even Trump’s “very big brain” should be capable of comprehending it.

Hardcore sufferers of Clyburn’s Complaint are harder to set right. For them, economic analyses and geopolitical considerations are irrelevant; the therapy they need would have to go a lot deeper than that. They need something more like psychoanalysis than philosophical or political analysis.

Needless to say, Clyburn is hardly the most afflicted of the lot. On either of the two “liberal” cable networks at virtually any time of the day or night, chances are that someone as bad or worse will be going on about Russia just as passionately, indeed just as obsessively.

But, for as long as there has been opposition to Clintonian politics within the Democratic Party’s ambit, Clyburn has been hard at work quashing it for the benefit of his party’s establishment.

He is tailor made for the role: a civil-rights “icon,” with a sophisticated political machine, from South Carolina, a state that, though staunchly red (in the CNN-MSNBC sense), nowadays plays an inordinately important role in selecting the Democratic nominee, thanks to the date of its primary and the fact that, in that still retrograde, still essentially segregated, Southern state, most Democrats are African American.

Clyburn worked tirelessly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and for Biden, Pelosi and the whole motley, Wall Street friendly, corporate crew this year – always to the detriment of the insurgency that, in both election years, grew up in and around the campaign of Bernie Sanders.

In short, he epitomizes the syndrome; hence, the appropriateness of its name.

Like most other Democratic politicians and liberal pundits who have lately taken to pontificating on the topic, Clyburn is a tad weak on the history of intra-war European politics. He is therefore prone to blowing out ahistorical howlers when the topic arises.

But how could he, or anyone not in the disabling grip of some diagnosable lunacy, come up with the one he let loose on August 2 in an interview on CNN with Dana Bash, in which he likened Donald Trump to Mussolini and Vladimir Putin to Hitler?

That is not just a case of a run-of-the-mill politician’s historical illiteracy; it is a genuinely demented utterance.

On the Trump-Mussolini connection, he could be forgiven; allowing for all the many differences, superficial similarities do abound, and he has ample company.

But Putin and Hitler?

As I have already made plain, Putin is no saint; quite to the contrary. It may even be the case that, in many respects, his instincts are as illiberal as Trump’s or as those of any of the other “strongmen” – Duterte, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orbán, and so on – that Trump admires.

But on the scale of world leaders, he is not all that bad – especially on matters pertaining to the rights of nation states, and the requirements of international law. In these respect and many others, he is no worse than his American counterparts – not just in the Trump era, but, in the Western hemisphere, going back to the early days of the republic; in east Asia and the Pacific to the late nineteenth century; and in Europe, Africa, and southern and south-east Asia since the end of the Second World War.

Perhaps he did “meddle” in the 2016 election, though the evidence is still unclear, and, in any case, nobody claims that his meddling was in any significant way consequential.

On the other hand, the United States has meddled as much as it could in Soviet affairs and in the Soviet sphere of influence from the moment the Soviet Union was formed. It meddled assiduously in the Soviet “satellites” established after World War II, and then, after 1989, in the former Soviet satellites. It has meddled and continues to meddle in the affairs of former Soviet republics since even before the Soviet Union imploded; Ukraine is just the most blatant example.

Compared to every American president since Harry Truman, Putin is, if anything, a hands-off guy in the meddling department. And the machinations he undertakes are almost always entirely of a defensive nature.

None of this puts him on the side of the angels, but neither does it make him in any relevant way like Hitler.

It bears mention too that before Russophobia reemerged as a chronic Democratic Party disease, partly in consequence of Russian reactions to blatant American meddling in Ukraine, Putin saved Obama from many a misstep in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Had he not, we might long ago have had troops committed to fighting in Syria and the never-ending Iraq war might well have taken a turn for the worse.

The Clinton State Department’s clueless meddling into situations arising out of the Arab Spring created all kinds of problems throughout the region. The consequences of many of them are still very much with us. They would be even more damaging than they are, but for the generally salutary role Russian diplomacy has played.

Again, all things considered, Putin is a bad guy for sure. But a Hitler?

That a Democrat could say that, and actually be praised for it, only attests to the urgency of the need, after Trump goes, to smash the actually existing Democratic Party, to transform it even more radically than the insurgencies Clyburn inveighed against envisioned.

Hitler’s name has, for the past eight decades, been virtually synonymous with evil itself. And yet, Clyburn likens Putin to him? In what universe? Certainly none of more than clinical interest.

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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