The extreme right has a solid hold on the White House for the first time in decades and replacing Trump with another Clinton-type Democrat will only reinforce the forces that got Trump elected. Part 2 of our “Fire and Fury” book discussion with Doug Henwood
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. We just finished part one of our discussion with Doug Henwood about the book, Fire and Fury; Inside the White House, The Trump White House. We’re continuing now with part two of our discussion of this book. In a recent article, John Bellamy Foster wrote in Monthly Review that one of the main takeaways from <i>Fire and Fury</i> is the incredible role that the national, what he calls the national populist or even neo-fascist right is gaining in the upper echelon of US power.
Here Bannon, of course, was very instrumental. The descriptions of Bannon almost seem that Wolff provides seem almost admirable, that he’s admiring some aspects. I must say, he almost sounds like an evil genius in some sense. Let me just quote one of things that he says about Bannon, “In Bannon’s view, one, Trump was never going to change. Two, trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style. Three, it didn’t matter to Trump supporters. Four, the media wasn’t going to like him anyway. Five, it was better to play against the media than to the media. Six, the media’s claim to be the protector of factual property and accuracy was in itself a sham. Seven, the Trump revolution was an attack on conventual assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than to try to curb it or cure it.”
That’s just one aspect, but then also, of course, we have to keep in mind that behind Bannon was Robert Mercer who Bannon was trying to use in some extent. He talks about Bannon wanting to become the Svengali for Robert Mercer, the billionaire I should mention, who funded a large part of Trump’s campaign. Then it goes on to quote, this is Wolff again, “Their’s was a consciously quixotic mission. They would devote their sums but still a small part of Bob Mercer’s many billions to trying to build a radical free market, small government, homeschooling, anti-liberal, gold standard, pro-death penalty, anti-muslim, pro-Christian, monetarist, anti-civil rights political movement in the United States.”
So, my question is, what do you think is happening here with the far-right that is this nationalist populist faction and is it still in power? Considering we talked earlier about there being a consolidation of policy direction and now that Bannon is out, is this far-right agenda dropped? If not, who’s in charge of it?
DOUG HENWOOD: Well, I have to say, first of all that I found that in an extremely interesting figure in this book. He’s appalling. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, he’s just a nativist and he’s very, one of the recurring themes in the book too is that he’s just hot for war with China, which is a frightening possibility. But among this cast of characters, he’s the only one who has half a thought in his head, the only one who seems to have ever read a book. He has a political analysis of the world. And there’s almost this Leninist aspect to him, that ideological discipline and the eagerness for a confrontation, not playing nice with your enemies but fighting them.
That makes for an interesting reading, it makes of a very interesting character, but this kind of right wing nationalist politics. Last summer I read belatedly Jane Mayer’s book, <i>Dark Money</i>, on the Koch brothers and what I learned from that book was that the material basis of the far-right within the American politics, within the Republican Party and more broadly throughout American politics seems to be, or a very important part of it seems to be people like the Koch brothers like Mercer. These independent billionaires who don’t like to answer to anyone. They don’t want to be regulated, they don’t to be taxed, they just want to do whatever they want to do because dammit they made their own money, and they have the right to do what they want with it.
These are not people like Goldman Sachs. These are not American Express, they’re not elite Wall Street or elite Fortune 500 companies. They tend to be lone wolves in the corporate sector. You also see that with people like Peter Thiel, the hedge fund guy. You see some of these hedge funded private equity guys are the same way. They run small operations, they make lots and lots of money but they’re not really used to answering to outside shareholders. They’re mostly private operations, not public stockholder health companies, and they certainly don’t want to answer to the government. So, that is the kind of the class fraction I think that is behind a lot of far-right politics. It’s finding expression at least partially in the Trump administration.
Now there is the “Jarvanka” wing and their influence comes to the fact that their family, Trump is insofar is loyal to anyone loyal to his family. Although, Wolff quotes some stuff about how Trump told his sons, Eric and Don Jr, that they were in the back of the room when God handed out the brains, which is a remarkable thing to tell your children. I’ve also heard from a fairly reliable source that Trump goes around now saying that his youngest son, Barron, is a retard. This is a man who is loyal to his family to some degree but also willing to say appalling things about his own children. But Ivanka’s, the source of Ivanka’s powers is the fact that she’s his daughter, she is almost like some kind of quasi first lady because Melania has stepped out of the role.
“Jarvanka,” which I think originally comes from Bannon, are basically Goldman Sachs sort of Clintonite Democrats. You saw Ivanka, for example, promoting some World Bank initiative through women entrepreneurs, that’s pure Hillary Clinton. They’re kind of worried about climate change. They’re certainly not radicals but they’re somebody that Lloyd Blankfein and the Clinton Foundation could be comfortable with. So, there is that pull on Trump just based on those personalities, and then you have this group of professionals around him. These somewhat right-wing but not extremely so, former generals like Kelly and McMaster. Then, of course, you have all these Koch brothers types scattered about, you know, Pruitt and Price and all these characters who want to remake healthcare, and want to remake break environmental regulation and all that.
There’s still a lot of forces pulling in different directions with this administration. Bannon is gone and now it looks like he’s been cut off, at least his funding has been cut off dramatically. So, who knows how much power he’s going to have going forward as an independent operator. But this far-right, I think has a lot of power because of all their money. It’s not that they are numerous. It’s not that they’re the dominant portion of the American capitalist class, but they are a very important sector and they do have a lot of voices in this administration.
GREGORY WILPERT: I’m wondering if one of the voices that they have might be Stephen Miller who well basically wrote the immigration policy, and he seems to be following Bannon’s playbook to some extent. Let me just quote another thing that Bannon said about the immigration policy. This is again from Wolff, “But the first step in the new Trump administration had to be immigration, in Bannon’s certain view.Foreigners were the ne plus ultra mania of Trumpism. An issue often dismissed as living on the one-track-mind fringe—Jeff Sessions was one of its cranky exponents—it was Trump’s firm belief that a lot of people had had it up to here with foreigners. Before Trump, Bannon had bonded with Sessions on the issue. The Trump campaign became a sudden opportunity to see if nativism really had legs. And then when they won, Bannon understood there could be no hesitation about declaring their ethnocentric heart and soul. To boot, it was an issue that made liberals bat-shit mad.”
So, it seems like there might be several reasons why immigration is such a central issue. One of them being that it’s instrumental. It says it makes liberals bat-shit mad. What do you think? Is this kind of a foil that’s being used against progressives to distract them while other things are going on?
DOUG HENWOOD: Well, it also makes the corporate elite mad. The corporate elite, Silicon Valley loves having programmers coming in on H-1B Visas, awful lot of Silicon Valley enterprises are led by immigrants. The corporate America wants immigrant workforce at the high end because they think that the more diverse the workforce, the better it is. At the low end because it keeps wages down. This not only drives liberals mad, it drives the corporate elite mad, but it does appeal to a real nativist sensibility. I think Trump is deeply, deeply nativist xenophobe. I think it’s connected to, he’s a notorious germaphobe. And I think they’re related. He’s just very, very concerned about foreign bodies causing, interfering with his precious bodily fluids like that Dr. Strangelove character.
There’s something really deeply neurotic and paranoid about his germophobia but also his xenophobia. I think they’re very, very, come from the same psychological roots. His remarks about immigrants from shithole countries, that’s just it puts a few things together. It’s really a frightening and appalling view of the world but I think it really emerges from the inner most deaths to the degree that he has any depths of Trump’s psyche. It’s funny, this guy was born in Queens which is now one of the most ethnically diverse jurisdictions in the world but that’s not the Queens of his youth. The Queens of his youth was much whiter and much more full of Germans like him or other forms of white ethnics, but not all that diverse, otherwise.
And that, when he talks about making America great again, it’s very clear he must make it white native born great again. Maybe a few Norwegians as he said but I can’t imagine why Norwegians would want to come to the United States. Yeah, this, I think, comes out of Trump and a certain wing of the far-right which is deeply nativist. It goes back to 19th Century America when we first started getting immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Wasps and the Germans got very nervous about all these people coming in, and that lives on in Trump. There’s a passage where Trump, in Wolff’s book, where Trump defends the Klan which is just a remarkable thing for a 21st Century politician to be doing but there is Trump doing it.
GREGORY WILPERT: Right. One of the things about this book, I think it’s a little bit, how should I say? It’s a double edged sword because on the one hand you have, it’s extremely revealing as we said in the beginning about the inner workings, about the inner fights, about what’s happening in the echelons of US power and the power elite. But on the other hand, so much of it is personality driven. We were talking just now, rightfully so, I’m not meaning to criticize it but, about Trump’s personality and how he himself is an ethnocentric nativist, etc. And then, of course, all his other personality foibles and failures. And there’s this real danger though I think that progresses or people who are opposed to Trump will focus on these things.
And will provide basically an excuse to elect somebody similar to Hillary Clinton the next time around, saying that she’s or he is the anti- Trump, and therefore we should, you know, we’ve learned our lesson with Trump. Let’s go back to another Obama-Clinton type. But then there is the danger, I think people from the left might say and this what happened, I thought it was a pretty good slogan actually, during the French presidential election. When people had to decide between François Fillon, the neoliberal basically and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate. And many people on the left said we’d better abstain just because, I’m not saying that that’s a better strategy but the argument was that if we elect Fillon this time, we’re just going to enable a Trump election next time around.
I’m just wondering, and this is a much bigger strategic question. If we’re constantly criticizing Trump or just focusing on Trump, doesn’t this, I want to hear what you think. Doesn’t this increase the danger of electing somebody like Hillary Clinton next time around and how do we get out of this mess?
DOUG HENWOOD: Well, I would say that’s actually the case and another good example of what you’re talking about is what’s going on Italy for the last 15 or so years with Berlusconi, because the soft center left there would say elect us or you’re going to have this right-wing clown as your leader. When the center-left came in, they ended up promoting austerity policies, cutting pensions and doing all sorts of things like that, that center-left politicians like to do. That just opened up the way for Berlusconi to come back into power. Every time you think Berlusconi is down, he’s not and he’s coming back again maybe, who knows.
But that is a substantial risk. On the other hand, it’s hard not to talk about Trump. He’s so appalling and what’s going on around him is just so frightening and disgusting. And Wolff’s book is, I have to say a fascinating book. It’s really very well written and there’s something like striking on just about every page of it. So, it’s hard not to be interested in what’s going on and hard not to be critical of what’s going on. And now we have just, ICE just arrested a, and threatening to deport a leading immigrants rights lawyer in New York City. Just arrested him a day or two ago and are planning to deport him.
Just really, really terrible things are going on. And you have to focus on that and have to figure out how to resist it in whatever ways possible. That notion of the resistance that Democrats like to talk about. There’s not much there at all. There’s not much of a positive agenda there. We had people talking about Joe Biden or Oprah Winfrey or all these pathetic attempts at having an alternative to Trump, which like Trump or not, he is a strong force. And it’s really hard to beat a strong force with weak tea like Joe Biden or yet another billionaire like Oprah Winfrey. The Democratic Party, I often think that they’d rather lose to the right than lose to the left. It almost seems like they would have preferred, it looks like now the way they’re reconfiguring themselves, at least at the presidential level, is they’re doing everything they can to keep Sanders’ style agenda off, out of the conversation and promote all these mainstream media liberals whether it’s… Brand or Kamala Harris, or the older ones like Biden. All they can talk about is Russia and how terrible Trump is. Now people claim that they have this great agenda under the surface but they’re not really selling it very aggressively. They’re not talking about it pretty much. It’s all about how Trump is the puppet of Putin and nonsense like that. I don’t know, it’s a problem because one has to fight Trump and one has to recognize just how appalling he is.
At the same time one has to acknowledge that he’s not exactly unprecedented. He says things aloud that a lot of other politicians think in private. He comes out of a long tradition of like nativism, hucksterism, pride and ignorance that has deep roots in American culture. So, this idea that somehow he’s like a product of the Russians is preposterous. He’s a very deeply American character. Then at the same time, we have to figure out some way of coming up with an alternative to him without going for some kind of lowest common denominator like Joe Biden. It’s really a very, very challenging political moment. And I can see now among my friends on the left an awful lot of infighting going on, a lot of strained personal ties.
These are very stressful times. It’s really taking a toll on people’s individual psychologies and their capacities for collective action. And their capacities to think politically. Yeah, these are very difficult times. Fortunately, we’re only one year into this. Maybe we’ll figure it out sooner or later but it’s a tough challenge. I’ll say that.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, unfortunately, on that note, we’re going to have to leave it here. I was speaking to Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer and author of <i>My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency</i>. Thanks Doug, again for having joined us today.
DOUG HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.