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Beyond Obama and Bernie

“What Can We Do?”

Photo Source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza – CC BY 2.0

Future NBA Owner Barack Obama: “Voting is the Most Important Action We Can Take”

One of the Democratic Party’s main missions is to keep people off the streets no matter how urgent it is for the masses to flood the nation’s roads, sidewalks, town halls and public plazas.

As failed state America sinker further into an apocalyptic and authoritarian catastrophe that has been in the making for many decades, Barack Obama tells young people that “the best way to protest is to vote.” That’s bullshit. As the radical historian Howard Zinn noted in March 2008 essay “Election Madness,” penned as Obamania spread across the Democratic electorate:

“The election frenzy… seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple-choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students…Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to meet them by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war….Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

The remarkable George Floyd rebellion, the biggest protest wave in American history, forced Obama to briefly acknowledge some of the power of people in the streets but only with the caveat that voting is still the main thing – and another one of his many shots at the supposedly dysfunctional 1960s.

Obama reiterated the counsel at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis. There Obama devalued the significance of social movement protest beyond the election cycle—the type of political engagement that had brought John Lewis on to the stage of history[1]—by telling his audience that “the right to vote” is “the most powerful tool we have” and that voting is “the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.”

That was also Obama’s advice to LeBron James when he counseled the hardcourt superstar to call off a threatened National Basketball Association (NBA) player strike in the name of Black Lives Matter – a potentially powerful statement that Black men will not entertain white America with their bodies while Black bodies are regularly murdered and maimed by racist white cops and vigilantes. One NBA player after another can be heard and seen selling the ballot “Vote!” – as the solution to America’s ills on television and Internet.

The sports nut Obama is, incidentally, scheming to convert part of his post-presidential hyper-wealth – reward for eight years of dutifully serving his Wall Street masters in the White House – into part ownership of an NBA franchise.

As Zinn knew, one does not have to choose between voting and protesting. The problem is that the “election madness” tends to trump (pardon the word) social movement politics, with millions diverted from taking to the streets by the fantastic notion that they garner significant input on the nation’s direction by making little marks next to names selected in advance for them by the ruling class once every two or four years:

“I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools” (Zinn, “Election Madness”).

The savagely time-staggered big money major party candidate-centered electoral spectacles are powerfully sold as “politics,” the only “politics” that matters. The two sides of the protest-vote dichotomy are not evenly balanced.

Authoritarian Collapse, Underway

The current ugly quadrennial electoral spectacle poses an interesting test for citizens’ commitment to the notion of politics as voting alone. For this is an election cycle unlike any other in modern American history. We have a wannabe fascist dictator of a president who is attacking the nation’s revered electoral process itself. Trump’s threat to steal the 2020 election is a serious danger with a significant chance of success if people don’t rise up beyond merely voting. As Umair Haque explains in a recent reflection on why full “authoritarian collapse” is NOT “a low probability event” in a nation where electoral “democracy” has long been badly weakened:

“Trump has a complex, sophisticated, meticulous, multilayered strategy to finish the job of destroying American democracy. To those of us who’ve lived all this before, it is a battle plan par excellence, extremely well designed, carefully thought out, meticulously planned, redundant, interlocking, self-reinforcing. That should make you shudder. Yes, really. It’s in open view, for anyone who cares to look.

“It consists of five interlocking elements. One, delegitimise the vote. Two, refuse to accede to a peaceful transfer of power. Three, use one and two to mount legal challenges, at a granular level which gum up the works, throwing the election into legal jeopardy. Four, arm-twist electors to vote Republican on the basis on one, two, and three. Five, wait for the Supreme Court to decide the election in Trump’s favour — as it inevitably will now.”

“…when pundits say that ‘Trump is just trying to scare you!’ they couldn’t be more wrong. They are making exactly the same mistake they have been for years now. They dismissed Trump when he spoke of camps, bans, raids, purges, when he backed literal Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. That is how things got this bad. Trump has been telling Americans who he is all along, but Americans have been too foolish to believe him. And now it’s almost too late. This is the last chance. So listen carefully. Trump is telling you exactly who he is and what he wants. If you don’t believe him now, the final failure of democracy rests on your shoulders, too.” (emphasis added).

(For my own extensive reflections on how Trump and his party’s rolling neofascist coup is proceeding and could well succeed, please see my last Counterpunch essay: “The Rolling Constitutional-Fascist Coup in the World’s Most Dangerous Nation.”)

A Forgotten Obama Speech: “America[ns] First”

Now might be a nice time to review leading neo-Weimarian Obama’s counsel to the American people the day after the repellent beast animal he privately (and accurately) considered to be a “fascist” was elected as the nation’s 45th president:

Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country. That’s what I heard in Mr. Trump’s remarks last night. That’s what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that. That’s what the country needs — a sense of unity; a sense of inclusion; a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law; and a respect for each other. I hope that he maintains that spirit throughout this transition, and I certainly hope that’s how his presidency has a chance to begin…

…The point, though, is, is that we all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens — because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy…And that’s why I’m confident that this incredible journey that we’re on as Americans will go on. And I am looking forward to doing everything that I can to make sure that the next President is successful in that. I have said before, I think of this job as being a relay runner — you take the baton, you run your best race, and hopefully, by the time you hand it off you’re a little further ahead, you’ve made a little progress. And I can say that we’ve done that, and I want to make sure that handoff is well-executed, because ultimately we’re all on the same team (emphasis added).

Ain’t that some shit? Thanks, Obama, that was great.

The First “Presidential” “Debate” as Monstrous Fascist Performance

The “presidential” “debate” last Tuesday night is a case in point. Let’s be clear about what was going on with the vicious Orange Monstrosity during that “horrific” (CNN’s Jake Tapper) “shitshow” (CNN’s Dana Bash). Yes, it was a nationally embarrassing “hot mess” ruined by Trump’s pathological bullying, browbeating, and interrupting. Yes, Biden looked flustered and the world was shocked by the brutality on display.

But it was worse than all that. It was a corporate-sponsored fascism-telegraphing throw-down full of dark historical significance. The Tangerine Demon went far beyond mere far-right “dog-whistling” by telling the neofascist Proud Boys to “stand back, stand by.” That was a full-on shout-out to neofascist streetfighters from the man who holds the nuclear codes.

The Bedminster Beelzebub refused to denounce white supremacism. It told its armed backers to descend on polling places. It refused to commit to a peaceful transition. It refused to tell its supporters to stand down from violence. It lied, twisting the truth at least 50 times. It continued its insane attack on the mail-in ballots required by the pandemic it fanned. It looked forward to its coming far-right Supreme Court deciding the election in its favor. It ominously said this about the election: “this is not going to end well” – a presentiment of the far-right violence he’s been egging his backers to engage in if the count doesn’t go his way.

The flabby orange brute was absurdly obsessed with the mythical threat to America supposedly posed by “the radical socialist left.” Its whole approach was designed to make Biden look “weak,” a word that the monster repeatedly used to describe Biden. These are key and core fascist narratives, of course: the supposed threat of Marxism/socialism/Bolshevism and the weakness of the liberals and centrist in the face of the alleged radical Left threat to take over the virtuous and aggrieved nation.

The Trumpenstein made it clear that it was making no effort to win over moderate and undecided voters so as to win the election in a “normal” way. All it is trying to turn out is its hard-core base and by turn out it doesn’t just mean coming out to vote – it means coming out to smash what’s left of the constitutional republic. As my fellow left historian and journalist Terry Thomas wrote the day after the “debate”:

“This was a made-for-television movie about a rabid fascist dog attacking a tottering, stammering, and somewhat confused old man. It was bizarre entertainment even for the ‘pundits’ on CNN and MSNBC…representative of what might be called the neoliberal response to naked authoritarianism. They described the performance as everything from a ‘shit show’ to a train wreck to ‘dumpster fire.’… But the descriptions I did not hear were: this was frightening; this was dangerous; this was a declaration by the The Thing in the WH that he understands he has no legitimate shot at winning an actual election and he doesn’t care, because he has armed militias covering his back and waiting for his marching orders; as importantly he has stacked the courts, which he sarcastically thanked Biden for, so that elections no longer mean much in his scheme, only serving his purposes in as much as they provide the excuse for the actual takeover attempt. This was about exposing his opposition as weak, an important thing in the fascist playbook, and generating the sort of emotional lather to keep his essential followers poised.

In short, Donito Trumpolini continued signaling that the “rolling coup” (as Refuse Fascism co-founder Andy Zee calls it) is underway and that he has every intention of staying in office by stealing the poisoned election in ways both constitutional and extra-constitutional. So, yes, Trump’s performance was “embarrassing,” “disgraceful,” and “shameful” and all that but, let’s get serious about what the fascist fuck is really happening here.[2]

You Can’t Just Vote Fascists Out of Office

Having diagnosed the problem brilliantly thanks in part to his understanding of an institutional setting that failed the democracy test well before Trump became president, Umair Haque should write a follow-up piece about what is to be done. One thing history teaches is that you don’t just vote fascists like Donald Trump, Mike Pence (an open Christian fascist), William Barr (Trump’s personal fascist attorney general), Stephen Miller (Trump’s fascist political advisor), Betsy DeVos (the fascist head of the U.S. Department of Education) Amy Coney Barrett (a Christian fascist Handmaid jurist soon to become the sixth Republican on a nine-person appointed-for-life Supreme Court), Tony Pham (interim director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Derek Benner (director of the Department of Fatherland Security) out of power. Authoritarian rulers like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Recep Erdogan (Turkey), and Jeanine Anez (Bolivia) don’t just go away because of elections. You have to remove them out with prolonged mass action in the streets like the people of Puerto Rico forced out Rickey Rosello in Puerto Rico in 2019, like the people of Tunisia forced out Ben Ali in 2011, like how the people of Lebanon forced out their corrupt prime minster last year, like the people of Belarus are heroically acting to force out Alexander Lukashenko right now.

It’s going to take people in the streets, in the town halls, in the public plazas, in the workplaces, in the schools, ceasing and desisting from narrow business as usual, marching, banging, money-wrenching, street-preaching, striking, blocking, disobeying day in and day out before, during, and after this election to remove Trump. It’s going to take consistent mass protest, a giant popular presence beneath and beyond mere voting. The sooner we mobilize for Trump’s removal beneath and beyond the election, the better. If we don’t start organizing until after the count is stolen by a far-right wing president, a far-right-wing U.S. Senate, numerous far right-wing state governments, a far-right-wing Supreme Court, a right-wing police state (the nation’s white cops and sheriffs are heavily indoctrinated by FOX/Fatherland News and other hard right-wing propaganda outlets), and far right militias and streetfighters (who often overlap and coordinate with state gendarmes), it may be too late.

Will the Democrats drop their mission of keeping people off the streets even when staying true to that mission is dysfunctional for their own electoral purposes? Could the ongoing rolling authoritarian/fascist coup dent the party’s sheepdog electoralism and ballot-fetishism enough for them to defend what’s left of bourgeois electoral “democracy” and constitutionalism in the U.S.?

Recent history does not bode well. The corporate Democratic establishment has twice trumped its party’s most electable candidate, Bernie Sanders, who ran in accord with majority progressive public opinion (imagine that – he paid the price) on numerous key issues (Single Payer is now backed by 7 in 10 Americans) with dismal corporate warmongers – the highly unpopular Hillary Clinton and the insultingly uninspiring right-wing clown Joe Biden. The Democratic “leadership” would rather lose to a white nationalist neofascist party, the Trumpified Republicans, than cede any significant measure of power to the nation’s popular working-class majority. The party is about serving corporate and financial sponsors, first and foremost, not winning elections, and the Wall Street election investors who prefer Biden by a wide margin are not interested in seeing the kind of popular upheaval we will require to compel the ruling class to make Trump exit by January 20th of next year – much less to remove him before that (and the notion of Trump staying in office four more months is frankly insane: the genocidal racist COVID-45 has already killed more than 200,000 Americans with the virus he fanned and will have killed half a million if not more by Inauguration Day).

Bernie, Bernie

Even the so-called socialist Sanders can’t seem to break from the false dichotomy of voting versus protesting to acknowledge the need for mass direct action and civil disobedience. Sanders predictably but despicably failed to call people into the streets in a recent address to the nation about how to stop Trump from lifting the election:

“In this unprecedented moment what can we as a people do in the struggle to preserve American democracy?

First, it is absolutely imperative that we have, by far, the largest voter turnout in American history and that people vote as early as possible…A landslide victory for Biden will make it virtually impossible for Trump to deny the results, and is our best means for defending democracy.

Second, with the pandemic and a massive increase in mail-in voting, state legislatures must take immediate action now — now — to allow mail-in votes to be counted before Election Day, as they come in. In fact, 32 states allow for the counting or processing of absentee ballots — verifying signatures, for example — before Election Day. All states should do the same. The faster all ballots are counted, the less window there is for chaos and conspiracy theories.

Third, the news media needs to prepare the American people to understand there is no longer a single Election Day and that it is very possible that we may not know the results on November 3rd.

Fourth, social media companies must finally get their act together and stop people from using their tools to spread disinformation and to threaten and harass election officials.

Fifth, in the Congress and in state legislatures, hearings must be held as soon as possible to explain to the public how the Election Day process and the days that follow will be handled. As we count every vote and prevent voter intimidation, everything possible must be done to prevent chaos, disinformation and, yes, even violence.

Lastly, and most importantly, the American people, no matter what their political view, must make it clear that American democracy will not be destroyed.”

Fine recommendations, I’m sure, but what great “American democracy” is Sanders talking about? I’ve written at length on this, citing one solid academic-empirical study after another on the absence of anything remotely like a functioning democracy in the U.S. Does Bernie read books? Has he ever read the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page’s (Northwestern) volume Democracy in America?? The late political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated? Ron Formisano’s (University of Kentucky) American Oligarchy? My 2014 book They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (Routledge, 2014)? My 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Routledge)? Noam Chomsky’s 2006 book Failed States? (that’s just for starters).

“Preserve American democracy”? What, because before Trump there was a functioning “American democracy”? Really? Did Bernie miss (among many things showing that the U.S is under the “deep state” command of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire regardless of which major party or party configuration holds nominal power). Does Bernie recall what happened to him in 2015-16 and 2019-20, running in accord with majority progressive opinion but rigged out of the nomination process so that depressing corporatists could ascend to the Democratic Party nomination? You cannot tell people the U.S. is anything like a “democracy” when 7 in 10 Americans support Medicare for All but corporate power mandates that no viable presidential candidate can advocate Medicare for All.

In a recent interview (on Bill Maher’s HBO show) about what to do when Trump refuses to leave office, Bernie couldn’t say one word about direct citizen action, civil disobedience, political strikes, marches, occupations, actual collective struggle. When pressed by Maher on whether mass upheaval “like in other countries” might arise, Sanders grudgingly said “the outrage could be that high.”

The Tumor Must Be Removed, the Revolution Must Follow

Would you accuse a surgeon who removes a patient’s malignant tumor of thereby supporting cancer and the conditions that giver rise to it? No, you wouldn’t, or at least you wouldn’t unless you were a hopeless moron. (In the medical metaphor I posit, the tumor must come out or the patient will die very soon. The conditions that give rise to cancer continue.)

Why then say, as I am still hearing from some people who say they are on the left, that they think efforts by leftists to remove Trump amount to support for the conditions that gave rise to Trump? The Trump regime is a malignant (I would say fascist) tumor that needs to be cut out in the hope of living on to undo the conditions — class (capital and commodity) rule, imperialism, sexism, racism, nativism, bourgeois political institutions and culture — that give rise to authoritarianism and fascism. To say that one backs neoliberal (or any other model of) capitalism and Joe Biden because one acts to remove Trump is like telling a surgeon that he supports cancer and/or the conditions that give rise to cancer by removing a patient’s malignant tumor. The bizarre passivity that is induced by this moronic claim amounts to saying that “it would be better for the patient to die.” Better to die than to cut out the tumor. How absurd.

To say this is to mark myself as a target for a by now standard tragically Trumpen-leftish lecture on how awful the capitalist and imperialist Dems are, as if I haven’t written four books and at least 300 essays on how awful the capitalist and imperialist Dems are. The lecturer wants a Lenin Prize for having figured out an elementary point: that the Dems are a capitalist and imperialist atrocity.

So just to be clear: the struggle in the streets that I and others advocate would NOT be just be about removing the tumor and saying “okay, all good now.” Not at all. Rather, it would be about setting a precedent of popular power that activists would strive to deepen and broaden going forward to take on yes, the conditions that gave rise to the tumor. Those conditions include the absolutely pathetic corporate-imperial Democratic Party that Sheldon Wolin rightly dubbed “the Inauthentic Opposition” as Obamania spread across the nation and the Western world in the late winter and early spring of 2008.

The mass endeavor that I and others promote to remove the fascist (and racist and sexist and nativist and eco-exterminist) Trump-Pence-Barr-Miller-DeVoss regime and then, after that, the whole damn capitalist-imperialist-racist-patriarchal system (a fake, corporate-managed democracy) that gave rise to it must begin now, not merely after Trump goes forward with the election theft he is telegraphing and setting up for all to see. It would seek not only to save what little is left of “democracy” (bourgeois constitutional republicanism and “rule of law” at best) in the U.S. but also to create a real and functioning popular democracy in the U.S. We need to institute democracy from the bottom up. It’s never been done before. It would be called the first real American Revolution.

The notion that one embraces neoliberalism by refusing fascism is idiotic slander. I do not encourage people taking to the streets (now, just after the election) merely to secure the ascendancy of the corporate-imperial buffoon Biden, an insultingly slow-witted and racist candidate (thanks, Obama!) who can be counted on to serve the wealthy Few and oppress minorities and the working class as president – and to thereby set the nation up for another white nationalist political ascendancy in 2022-2024. Not at all. We will have to undertake a mass people’s uprising of the kind that could blossom into a revolutionary confrontation with the whole rotten authoritarian system, the Weimar Democrats included, that hatched Trump and Trumpism in the first place. It starts with cutting out the malignant fascist tumor both constitutionally and extra-constitutionally.

Endnotes

1. John Lewis walked into the pages of American and world history in the early 1960s by putting his body on the line occupying segregated southern lunch counters and buses. He didn’t wait for savagely time-staggered ruling class elections to change history.

2. Richard Duda writes this to me from Florida: “So all the signs are now here and his intentions and game plan are crystal clear. We will soon be an authoritarian, undemocratic fascist failed state with a White Nationalist group leader self-installed as dictator. He’s telegraphing his moves clearly as he activates his civilian militia troops by dog-whistling through a megaphone as he PROACTIVELY sows the seeds that the election WILL be a self-fulfilling prophecy of fraud. Unprecedented that the POTUS is the greatest threat to the electoral process, delegitimizing it IN ADVANCE! Wow. So we have 5 weeks of ‘OMG, wow!’ reporting, then five weeks in purgatory while the lawsuits after the election move through the courts, and then in early/mid-December, the reckoning will come when election certification is due. We will likely have several winners reported by several different entities. Then when the new Congressional winners are seated, more fun begins, as we spend the time before the inauguration not knowing the fate of our country, with several sets of rules — one of which is nearly uninterpretable — will be deferred to by different actors.”

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

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