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Biden Next Time

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

I hesitate to attribute settled views or even consistent attitudes to Donald Trump; his mind, such as it is, isn’t up to it.

Nevertheless, even as his manifest unfitness for the office he holds is, by now, beyond serious dispute, it is tempting to think that anybody who hates John McCain and thinks ill of NATO, the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon brass, Cold War revivalists (even if only the ones that target Russia), white Christian evangelicals, and other blots on the political landscape cannot be all bad. But Trump is.

With Democrats running Joe Biden and championing all that Trump (more often than not) inveighs against, this simple truth can be hard to bear in mind.

It must be, however, in order to defeat a menace of unprecedented gravity.

For the time being, no matter how distasteful the prospect, it is necessary to make common cause with even the most godawful Democrats. This will be the case until the dangers Trump poses are defeated or at least severely mitigated.

Thus, now is a time to go after Trump and Trumpism by any means necessary. Biden’s turn, and the turn for Democrats like him, the ones still calling the shots, is next.

**

By playing the decency card well, Biden is playing to his greatest strength. He couldn’t do it without Trump’s help, but the more indecent, stupid, and inept Trump is, and the more his most shameless lies are exposed, he has that by the truckload.

It would be better, of course, if Biden could somehow remain out of sight, and out of mind too, except as a notional alternative to Trump and Trumpism. But helpful as that would be, with Election Day less than two months away, he cannot stay holed up in his basement while Trump decomposes mentally in full public view.

The best he can do instead is put his ordinary human decency on display, turning the election into a referendum on Trump. With Trump acting out and mentally decomposing, that is almost as good – especially now that Trump has all but declared himself a deceiver and a fraud.

What an indictment of what passes for democracy in America!

Forget about thoughtful deliberation over policies and political visions. The task now is to secure the election of a center right, past his prime, mainstream mediocrity – because there is no other feasible way to save the world from the whims and wiles of a sociopathic ignoramus, a hapless septuagenarian with the mind of a troubled male adolescent.

And what an indictment of the millions of Americans who still, despite everything, stand by their man! What the hell is the matter with them?

No doubt, social media, along with Fox News and other, even more noxious, rightwing propaganda outlets are partly to blame, but how could so many seemingly normal people be so bereft of basic decency and intelligence?

If nothing else, how could they not recoil at the contempt Trump shows for them – by, among so many other things, exacerbating the inequalities from which they suffer, and encouraging them to put themselves and their families in mortal jeopardy from covid-19 disease for the sake of his own vainglory, cupidity, and determination to stay out of prison for the many actionable crimes he has plainly committed.

To be sure, increasing inequality was a problem before Trump came on the scene, and he didn’t set the covid-19 pandemic in motion. But, as with everything else he does, he has made those problems worse, a lot worse.

As everybody nowadays knows, black and brown people bear the brunt, but the white folks in “the Trump demographic” are not much better off. And yet they don’t defect. He has conned them well. How pathetic is that!

How sad too that there seems to be no “bombshell,” no outrage, that will move them to turn against the Donald, no straw that will break the proverbial camel’s back.

To hear the interviews aired on NPR, MSNBC and CNN, many of Trump’s marks seem to have learned nothing in the past four years. They still think that their Dear Leader is still a business genius who can “fix” almost anything. Some of them even go on about what a great father he is. In what universe is that?

Rats are supposed to desert a sinking ship. Hardcore Trump supporters stay on board. How is it possible that they would be bereft even of good, solid rat-sense?

There is however one, numerically small but not entirely insignificant group of 2016 Trump supporters who do seem to have wised up a little: those who naively, but not too foolishly, construed Trump’s words in ways that allowed them to imagine that, in at least some respects, he would, if elected, do more good (or less harm) than Hillary Clinton.

Tempting as it may be, when, for example, Democrats go on about “Russiagate,” no sane person who has been paying even the slightest attention could do that now; not with evidence of Trump’s incompetence – and malevolence – as overwhelming as it has since become.

Thus, four years ago, it was still possible to think that Trump would institute trade policies that would improve the condition of American workers.

That displaced American workers would be attracted by that prospect is entirely understandable. The neoliberal world order championed by Democrats and Republicans alike, and by the economic elites of all the world’s major capitalist powers, is an increasingly onerous burden for them to bear. Trump railed against it. What was there not to like in that?

Clinton – and Biden and, of course, Obama too – personified the politics that created and sustained those trade policies. There was every reason to think that, as president, she would maintain and perhaps even expand them. Trump seemed to offer an alternative.

It was also still possible to suppose that Trump would be less inclined than Clinton to launch or continue or otherwise promote wars that were in no way defensive of anything other than the interests of the “defense” industry and our bloated Department of “Defense.”

Four years ago too, the darker implications and resonances of Trump’s “America first” jibber-jabber were not as widely appreciated as they have since become.

Meanwhile, the moral and intellectual poverty of imperialism’s apologists – whether liberal or, insofar as there is a difference, neoconservative – has hardly abated, and neither have the many other problems sustained by mainstream Democratic Party orthodoxies.

But no thinking person in 2020 who has any idea of what has been going on under Trump’s aegis could possibly imagine that Trump would undo any of that. He could care less; and neither could the hardcore denizens of his base.

But not all the onus is on them; far from it. Trump enablers in powerful and influential positions are far more culpable.

That would be the entire Republican Party at the national level and at nearly all state and local levels too. It would be their media flacks. And it would be liberal corporate media too, on the principle that, even as they deride Trump and evince nothing but hatred of him, the publicity and therefore the legitimacy they lavish upon him does him more good than harm.

Most culpable of all, of course, are the plutocrats who see the Donald as a class brother, good for their bottom lines.

They have at least as much to answer for as the misogynists, nativists, Islamophobes, and bona fide white supremacists whom Trump has enabled, even as they enable him.

***

Trump is a narcissistic ignoramus, weak in courage, bereft of morality, but strong in cunning.

He is also fixed in his ways. Thus, in 2020, in 2016, he speaks with the same forked tongue. However, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

There is no way on earth that anyone could find anything to applaud in the mindless blather of anyone who would separate children from their parents and keep them in cages. That is vileness, pure and simple. It is the same with Trump’s zeal in calling forth “the darker angels of our nature.”

It is also impossible to find anything to praise in Trump’s self-serving contempt for scientific expertise, now the source of so much depraved indifference to human life and well-being, or in his lawlessness and corruption.

And while our political culture is replete with norms “honored more in the breach than the observance,” Trump’s likely refusal, in the face of electoral defeat, to cede power graciously or even peacefully, will merit serious prison time, not praise.

However, by overlooking the evidence of the past four years, persons with progressive values who find mainstream Democrats intolerably appalling can still construe at least some of what Trump says some of the time in ways that accord with their hopes.

This is only to be expected. Trump is a conman by nature; he knows instinctively how to equivocate in ways that can appeal simultaneously to gullible but unlike-minded audiences.

In 2016, that skill mattered more than it now does because, for all practical purposes, there are no “undecideds” anymore. This election therefore has less to do with winning over “hearts and minds” than the 2016 election did — or than did any other presidential election in living memory.

Meanwhile Biden and Harris go on about how now is a time to “think big.”

For the next two months at least, they have every reason to convey the impression that that is indeed what they are about to do – not because they need to convince anybody to prefer them to Trump, everybody whose head is screwed on right already does, but because they have to convince people who already would rather have them win to bother to vote at all.

If they pick up the votes of any Trump supporters in the process, that will help too, but good luck with that.

If the polls are right, no matter how much more outrageous Trump becomes, no matter how much more he mentally decomposes in ways that even the willfully blind cannot fail to see, very few – probably, not more than two or three percent — of his supporters are likely to defect. How much, if at all, that will help with the Electoral College is anybody’s guess.

For Biden, therefore, it all comes down to “turnout.” In practice, this means getting voters whose enthusiasm for Biden is (justifiably) nil, to vote for him anyway – because, if they don’t, Trump might actually pull off another upset victory, with consequences too dire to contemplate.

This is why the pillars of the party and the donors behind them cannot afford to alienate Sanders and Warren voters, or to get voters “of color” and younger voters of all colors eager for genuine, not Obama style, “hope and change” to vote in the numbers they did when Obama was the nominee.

Even so, it is plain that Biden and Harris are not about to tamper with the status quo in any serious way. In other words, they are not about to think big enough to embrace policies that many, probably most, potential Democratic voters want – a Green New Deal, for instance, and Medicare for all, or measures that would significantly regulate or re-regulate what politicians and commentators nowadays euphemistically call “the financial sector.”

Neither are they about to undo or seriously diminish the stranglehold that America’s military-industrial-national security state complex has held over the body politic since the end of World War II, much less institute an alternative industrial policy more suited to the needs of the vast majority of the American people.

Were they not concerned about losing the support of the millions of voters who much preferred Sanders to Biden or any other “moderate” Democrat, they would be as content as Trump himself to call even the most anodyne advances over the Clinton-Obama status quo “socialist,” and to take for granted that this is somehow a bad thing.

Trump is their Number One enemy, and they will do anything to rid the body politic of him. Beyond that, however, the last thing they want is to move society in a genuinely socialist direction – say, by altering the balance of power between Capital and everyone else, organized labor above all.

Thus, they even seem eager to stifle talk of “democratic socialism” within the party’s ranks – not because anyone is proposing anything particularly radical, much less anti-capitalist, under that rubric, but because they don’t want to encourage even anodyne challenges to the capitalist order. Who knows, after all, where such talk might lead.

Still, compared to where the Democratic Party was just four years ago, they will be a lot better, whether they want to be or not. They will also be more likely than the Obama administration was, to do the right thing when politically compelled.

Therefore, even with Biden at the helm, there is no reason to abandon all hope – not just because a new Democratic Party is slowly but inexorably coming into being despite the best efforts of Democratic mandarins to quash it, but also because, even at the top, there will probably be enough flexibility to move forward at least a little bit.

In that regard, the more Harris calls the shots, and the less Biden does, the better. Her politics is somewhat better (less stone age) than his, and she seems less wedded to the bad old ways.

But, so far at least, hopes for anything good coming from a return to pre-Trumpian “normalcy,” with or without Democrats “thinking big,” vanish at the water’s edge.

Trump-style “America First” foreign policy has made America a global laughingstock and an object of pity around the world. But whatever Biden and his co-thinkers believe, this is not an altogether bad thing, and efforts to restore pre-Trumpian American global hegemony should be challenged, not encouraged.

Would they, if successful, be better than Trumpian chaos? Very likely, they would. But this does not alter the fact that the foreign policy Biden favors, essentially the evolving but generally stable foreign policy orientation of the American imperium since World War II, is what has made the world the perilous place it is.

But no one should take Trump to be an ally in the struggle against any of that, regardless the words that he sometimes utters or tweets as they take shape in the blooming buzzing confusion of his mind.

What he says as he rants on, mercurially and obsessively, in response to perceived failures on the part of others to appreciate his greatness is of clinical interest only. It was arguably excusable not to realize this four years ago; it no longer is.

When, for example, he depicts “his generals” as base and servile tools of death merchants, it is not because he has anything against the military-industrial complex; quite to the contrary, he loves all those malefactors to pieces, at least when they sing his praises. It is only when somebody at the Pentagon or some “defense” contractor says or does something to which he takes offense or fails to offer him what he considers due obeisance, that he rails against them.

Or when he decided not to go to the Aisne-Marne cemetery in France to honor American Marines killed at Belleau Wood and in the Battle of Château-Thierry in the First World War, it is not because he wants to make a point about the senselessness of the carnage in that, or any other, inter-imperialist war. More likely, it was, as reported, because he didn’t want to muss his hair.

It is the same many times over when he calls amputees, veterans, and active duty soldiers, along with the war dead, “losers” and “suckers.”

He is not pointing out that all the wars America has waged — except perhaps for World War II (and then only in the European theater) – were basically wars of choice that that the United States didn’t even actually win in any clear or unequivocal sense; that all those wars did was kill and maim a lot of people, squander a lot of treasure, and perpetuate a social and economic order based on war and preparations for war.

He was only voicing the gangsterish view that anything not done for the basest, most self-serving reasons is not worth doing at all.

There is nothing praiseworthy in that, nothing that could be construed in ways that, in comparison, don’t make even Biden look good.

This is why, for now, ridding the body politic of Trump and all things Trumpian takes precedence over everything else. It is of paramount importance and, thanks to the laws that determine when elections are held, its urgency is undeniable.

Ridding the body politic of Biden and the politics he represents must therefore be put off, or rather put on the proverbial back burner, for a while.

But, for anyone even remotely interested in creating a substantively better possible world, that is, if anything, an even more important task.

Its time will come – soon, if all goes well – but, in any case, next.

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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