By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Ralph Nader was among the first to take the Trump campaign seriously.
Since early June, he has been saying that Donald Trump will become a major problem for the Republicans unless they can find a way to marginalize his candidacy — soon.
Nader was ahead of the pack. It took mainstream pundits four to six more weeks to come to a similar view.
What Nader argued weeks ago, and what most observers now believe, is that if Trump isn’t gone by Labor Day, it may be too late.
They are on to something. As the primary season heats up, all hell could break loose – either because Trump will be on his way to becoming the GOP nominee, alienating all but the most extreme lunatic fringe of the electorate; or, more likely, because, seeing that he cannot win the nomination, he will bolt the Party and run independently — taking a large chunk of the Republican base with him.
It has been clear for some time that the GOP would nominate one or another buffoon to run for President in 2016, and therefore that the Democratic nominee – most likely Hillary Clinton – could look forward to an easy time of it once the primary season is over. This would be the case with or without Trump in the picture.
However, if she does run against Trump, she might as well declare victory now. It would be the same for any Democrat, even the faux socialist Bernie Sanders. If, heaven forbid, the nominee is Joe Biden, he’d have a cakewalk too.
Trump is not why the Democrats will retain the White House. The reason for that is that the best the Republicans can offer isn’t good enough even for voters capable of electing Ronald Reagan and two George Bushes.
But as long as Trump is in the picture, Republicans have a problem that involves more than just the 2016 election. The Donald puts the political fortunes of all Republicans –Tea Party loony tunes and country club poltroons alike — at risk.
Before he arrived on the scene, the cultural contradictions afflicting the GOP seemed insurmountable; it was a wonder that the party could survive.
That it could bears witness to the irrepressible greed of America’s richest capitalists — to the willingness of so many of them to court riffraff they despise and would otherwise cross the street to avoid in order to be able to field a horde of useful idiots at election time.
It was a dangerous game they were playing. In every election since 2010, the lunatics have almost taken over the asylum.
But it is now looking like the Trump phenomenon will render the GOP’s several divides unimportant, at least for the time being. As the biggest buffoon of all sucks up all the oxygen in the room, all the party’s movers and shakers have no choice but to stick together – to save their political lives.
Will the GOP survive? Probably. Thanks to the many ways the duopoly party system we suffer under is built into America’s political DNA, it would take a major crisis – or a genuine, not just a Sanders-style, “political revolution” – for either of America’s two semi-established parties to go away.
But, at the national level, Trump could turn the GOP into a shadow of its former self.
No wonder, therefore, that the party establishment, together with the GOP’s otherwise troublesome base, is mounting a full-scale attack.
Marginalizing Trump won’t be easy, however; the man is battle-hardened. What could even the wiliest Republican operatives come up with that the tabloid press hasn’t already milked for all it is worth?
They could point out, over and over, that the man is ridiculous; but that is the point. Ridiculous is his schtick.
Trump has been run through the mill in New York City a thousand times over; and, as the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Nader thinks that American voters love voting for filthy rich men (always men), especially ones who made some or all of their billions themselves. This is probably an exaggeration; it is certainly a slur on the electorate. But there is plenty of evidence supporting his claim.
Remember H. Ross Perot; in 1992, his money bought him more than 19 million votes. There are other, less flagrant, examples.
In Trump’s case, media savvy is at least as important as obscene wealth. Even if he couldn’t buy all the publicity he needs to stay on top of the heap, he would get it anyway.
The man is worth, he claims, some $10 billion. He is also a reality TV star. Put the two together and voilà – the perfect candidate. He can buy his own way in, and his skill set is perfectly suited for winning all the primaries and caucuses he cares to enter.
Academics with heads full of high-minded political and moral theories babble on about “deliberative democracy.” But the deliberative democracy of political philosophers – and of America’s “founding fathers” (not a mother among them!) — has almost nothing to do with electoral politics in today’s United States. Neither does it have much to do with how the United States is governed.
Electoral politics is about marketing candidates to target audiences – selling snake oil to chumps. Governance is about keeping challenges to the status quo at bay — not entirely, of course, but to a disturbingly large degree.
Paying off debts to donors is a big part of what successful politicians do. It is what gets them reelected, so that they can peddle their snake oil again.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the moral and intellectual level of our politics is so abysmal.
Because it involves blurring the line between art — or, rather, artlessness — and reality, and doing it in full public view, electoral politics in the United States is just like reality television.
Tuning in to the goings on can be a guilty pleasure for those so inclined. But the experience is, to say the least, unedifying. It is not even as consequential as is widely assumed. For the most part, how the state is run and for whose benefit is decided in other ways.
High-minded critics sometimes fault media coverage of electoral campaigns for focusing too little on ideas and too much on the “horse race.” They are too kind.
In American elections, ideas hardly matter; they seldom even come up. And, when they do, is there anyone who thinks that there is any serious connection between what politicians say about them and what they would do in office?
In 2008, there were plenty of people inclined to take at least one politician’s ideas – or rather what he let them think his ideas were — seriously. Once elected, though, it didn’t take Barack Obama long to disabuse them of their illusions.
And if the next neoliberal imperialist president is Hillary Clinton, there will be no illusions to be disabused of. Clintons lie; that is what they do. Anyone who doesn’t know this after three decades of that dreadful family in our public life is either in denial or a fool.
Sad to report: self-deception and foolishness still survive in liberal precincts. As a wise man once said: “there is one born every minute.”
Even so, most voters hardly care about what pundits call “the issues.” Issues only matter when a subset of the electorate, a tiny one usually, has a sufficiently intense interest in one or another of them to organize and make its views felt. This is why, for example, candidates’ positions on gun control can affect electoral outcomes – or on abortion or Israel.
Otherwise, voters vote for candidates who appeal to them on a more visceral level. Ideas, such as they are, play little or no role.
And so, our elections are more like elimination contests on reality television shows than horse races. The race does not go to the swiftest; it goes to the last pathetic character left on the island.
Usually, this would be the most likeable one. Needless to say, Trump is hardly likeable; “detestable” is a word that comes more readily to mind. If niceness were the determining factor in his case, he’d have been voted off the island on Day One.
What sets GOP voters’ hearts aflutter over Trump is his show-no-mercy persona; and his tendency to attack, attack, and then attack some more.
Only the terminally prissy can fail to appreciate this; this is why liberals don’t get it.
But for anyone whose instincts remain unspoiled by liberals’ efforts to uphold “civility” at all costs, it is a very appealing trait — especially when the targets are members of the political class.
Each and every one of the politicians Trump has gone after deserves to be attacked – brutally and many times over.
Their limitations notwithstanding, Republican voters do appreciate this; they admire Trump’s pugnaciousness. Progressives should too. As the critical critics who have overrun university literature and cultural studies departments would say, it is spectacularly “transgressive.”
Trump’s strategy for winning Republicans’ hearts and minds seems to be to violate Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment as brazenly and as frequently as he can. Bravo to him for that!
The Eleventh Commandment holds: “thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans.” Common decency demands that this Commandment be broken as often as possible – because unlike at least some of the other ten, it has no redeeming social or political value whatsoever.
Trump is a serial Eleventh Commandment violator: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker, the whole sorry crew – he has spoken ill of them all.
There will be a lot more of this too if the Trump phenomenon is not soon quashed – because, at this point, it makes more sense for him to go after Republicans than Democrats.
Trump seems to understand this instinctively. Let the other Republicans bad-mouth the lesser evils. There is no percentage in it for him – not these days. It is yesterday’s news.
It wasn’t always this way. Obama used to be a lightening rod who drew all the animosities and all the economic, social, and racial anxieties of the Republican base upon himself. But that was a long time ago. Going after Obama is pointless now; we will soon be seeing the back of him.
One thing that the true left and the right should be able to agree on, though for different reasons, is that this is something to look forward to; or rather that it would be but for the likelihood that the next ruling class flunky in line will be even worse.
Old Democratic Presidents, like old soldiers, never seem to die; Bill Clinton won’t even fade away. He and his wife decided that enriching themselves – and then moving back into the White House under her aegis (since he is no longer eligible) – makes more sense.
How much better off the world would be had Bill Clinton decided, like Jimmy Carter, to redeem himself by devoting the rest of his life to good works. Good work Number One would have been to send Hillary packing. Instead, the mischievous old horn dog turned her loose upon the world.
What will Obama do when he becomes a free man? I’d bet that he will follow the Clinton model, just as he has while in office. Time will tell.
For now, though, for Trump, a self-promoter acting out – and “loving it,” as Maxwell Smart would say – Obama hardly matters. When Republicans attack him these days, it is barely worth reporting – even on a slow news day.
A Republican attacking Obama is the same old same old; and nothing is more boring than that.
Going after Hillary is pointless too: she has been around for so long and messed up so many things so thoroughly that there is hardly anything left to say. Besides, in Republican circles, she attracts the enmity she deserves well enough just by being there – albeit, like her husband and Obama, for the wrong reasons.
At this point, the other Democratic candidates don’t warrant Trump’s attention either; they are not in the news enough – at least not in news that Republican voters heed. Corporate friendly corporate media see to that – especially in Bernie Sanders’ case.
Even were one or another Democrat running to Hillary’s left to win the nomination, even were Sanders to win – and therefore to run against a Republican and become President — corporate America would have nothing to fear.
But corporate media evidently take a longer view. Apparently, their guiding principle is that if they publicize what Sanders – and, lately, Martin O’Malley — talk about, people just might get the idea that there is an alternative, after all, to austerity and inequality and the neoliberal war on welfare state institutions. This could indeed have political consequences — and they can hardly allow that!
But they have to find something to talk about if they expect to keep interest in the election and therefore advertising revenues up. And so, they take the Republican goon show seriously.
As long as they do, Trump will shine.
We are all better off for it too – because his is the loudest voice berating politicians’ malfeasance; and his attacks on the shortcomings of his Republican rivals are worth more than all the sneers Democratic media flunkies can muster.
Making fun of Republicans Rachel Maddow style only amuses and reassures self-congratulating liberal do-gooders. What Trump is doing is more worthwhile than preaching to that ever so sanctimonious choir.
Demonstrating, yet again, that it takes one to know one, he is making Republican know-nothings cognizant of the fatuousness of the clowns who purport to champion their interests.
Democrats should be thanking the election gods that he is out there doing their work for them. And they should be praying to those gods that, after tearing the GOP apart, he will decide to make an independent run for the Presidency.
There is nothing stopping him, after all; even in an age when obscenely wealthy capitalists can and do spend all they want buying political influence, Trump can afford to stay in the race.
If the other Republicans cannot deflect his challenge, and if he continues to find it worth his while to press on, Democrats should build a Trump Monument, worthy of his enormous ego – if not on the National Mall, then next to one of Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas properties or on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
It is the least they could do — for helping to assure that they, not their even more ludicrous counterparts in the GOP, will be the ones shepherding the neoliberal project on. For this, Democrats owe the Donald a phallic symbol even bigger than George Washington’s.
But, because they are liberals, they cannot bring themselves to appreciate what Trump is doing for them; how he has unwittingly made himself Hillary’s secret weapon. All they can think to do instead is put on their prissiest faces – in order to point out how racist and nativist Trump is, how misogynistic, and how ostentatiously he displays his copious ignorance. Well, duh.
It would be more helpful if they dwelled on how, if at all, Trump is different from the others – not in style (this is obvious), but in substance. But then they wouldn’t have much to say.
There is only one “issue” on which some of the other Republican wannabes are less reprehensible than Trump: immigration. This is because some of them and some of the moneybags behind them – the Koch brothers, for example – think that they can enlist Hispanics to their cause. They therefore find it expedient to distance themselves from Trump’s well publicized anti-Mexican and anti-Central American tirades.
But the difference is more cosmetic than real. They all pander to nativist sentiments as they prattle on about “securing” the border.
Democrats aren’t great on this either; only more two-faced. Obama sets the pace: out of one side of his mouth, he sweet-talks Dreamers; out of the other, he goes on being the Deporter-in-Chief.
Trump is different only for saying what the others think. However awful his words are, they hardly set him apart.
In fact, some of Trump’s views are less retrograde than those of most of his Republican rivals, or, for that matter, than Clinton’s or Obama’s. For example, he advocates public works spending on a grand scale.
He is also against the “common core” and other Bush-Obama era education policies.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, he was, from the very beginning, against the invasion of Iraq; and unlike Obama, he did nothing to make the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere inevitable.
He talks a good line too about the mistreatment of veterans.
And he opposes neoliberal trade policies – especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP.
Trump’s reasons for opposing the TPP are, to say the least, dubious – he thinks the Chinese and Japanese will take America’s negotiators to the cleaners. No doubt, he is overstating their prowess, though he probably does have a reasonable view of the abilities of the neoliberal advisors Obama relies upon.
And he is surely right in saying that the TPP will cost many American workers their jobs.
In this respect too, he is like candidate and fellow plutocrat Ross Perot. On trade, their arguments — Perot’s against NAFTA, Trump’s against the TPP, “NAFTA on steroids” — may be off, but their bottom lines are spot on.
Because he is rich, Trump doesn’t need to dial for dollars; and because his arrogance knows no bounds, he can be counted on not to look befuddled or out of his depth in those ridiculous, but all-important, PR events that we call “debates.”
All in all, an Intelligent Designer could not have fashioned a candidate more suited to the exigencies of what passes for politics in the Land of the Free.
Liberals who describe his campaign as an exercise in self-satire are not mistaken. But so what! At worst, a few comedy writers, having become superfluous, will have to look for other jobs if Trump continues to monopolize the news.
But, for those with eyes to see, the Trump campaign is an inexhaustible source of teachable moments. It reveals, without mystification or meretricious adornment, what Hegel might have called the truth of electoral politics in America today.
* * *
On domestic policy matters, Bernie Sanders may get a few good ideas out, and even push Hillary Clinton to the left – for a while.
In the end, though, he is sure either to collapse his campaign into hers or, on the very unlikely chance that he somehow does win the nomination, to become like her.
But there is little need to worry about that; it is far more likely that he will jump on the Clinton bandwagon, along with other acquiescent liberals.
This is why, for all the good his campaign may do, it will also do harm.
To the extent that it does get people thinking, more power to his efforts.
But, except perhaps in some long run sense, the Sanders campaign will do nothing to advance left, much less “socialist,” alternatives to neoliberal capitalism.
What it will do is keep progressives within the Democratic fold, turning them — the ones who don’t choose quiescence when their efforts for Bernie founder — into unwilling promoters of imperialism, austerity, inequality and environmental catastrophes; in other words, into foot soldiers for Hillary Clinton, the latest “lesser evil” to come along.
I did – and still do – think that Jim Webb’s candidacy could do more good than Sanders’. He is hardly the left-most Democrat running, but he is the only one who could get the Democratic Party off its Clintonite-Obamaite track; and the only one who could bring workers – white and black, rural and urban, northern and southern – together to fight again for their economic interests.
But Webb has yet to find his stride; so far, his campaign is going nowhere – and unless he soon finds a billionaire backer or two, nowhere is where it will remain.
Because he is running as a Democrat, Webb cannot fail to attract at least some media attention. He is all but certain to make it into the debates. At present, though, it would be fair to say that he is hardly better known than, say, the Green Party’s standard-bearer, Jill Stein.
Come November 2016, I expect that I will be voting for Stein – again. It will be a protest vote only, however — because “third party” politics at the national level in America today is, and long has been, a dead end.
When Nader ran on the Green ticket fifteen years ago, he received only 2.74% of the popular vote. In 2012, Stein didn’t do nearly as well. Next year, perhaps she will do a little better, but it will still take a miracle for her to do even as well as Nader did back in the day.
Must we therefore conclude that no significant, tangible good will come out of the electoral circus this time around? With the primaries and caucuses still months away, it would be premature to jump to conclusions. And because the future is always uncertain, it is possible that something unforeseen and unforeseeable will emerge.
Nevertheless, it is looking increasingly likely that if anything good does come out of the 2016 electoral season, it will be thanks to Donald Trump, the most god-awful candidate of all.
Most likely, the Republicans will find a way to keep him from becoming their nominee.
Nevertheless, his campaign could peel away some of the disabling civility that enshrouds public life in the United States today, thereby contributing to the political education of the American electorate.
And it could mightily improve American politics generally – by leaving the GOP in shambles.
Democrats will retain the White House in 2016 because they are less awful than Republicans. This is so obvious that even ill informed and chronically obtuse “moderates” can see it. Their votes will put the Democrats on top.
Nevertheless, another lesser evil presidency, following on the heels of the one that is about to end, will leave a lot more than one wretched party in shambles.
A neutered GOP would be some compensation for this disaster, even if the neutering is only temporary and is eventually reversed.
In times like the present, this may be the most that opponents of neoliberal nonsense, ecological insanity, and perpetual war can reasonably expect.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, 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).