By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counter Punch.
With Jeb Bush as the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, the 2016 Presidential election promised to be unusually strange even before it got underway.
Jeb’s big brother, George W., was the most destructive and god awful American President in modern times. The enduring harm that blunderbuss laid on the United States and the world is incalculable. And yet his dopey little brother was the favorite candidate of the Republican wing of the American plutocracy. This is what our politics has come to!
Jeb crapped out thanks to an even stranger development that no one anticipated: Donald Trump’s triumph over his Republican rivals and over the Republican Party itself.
It was plain from the get go that the Donald would be a contender. But no one quite believed it; least of all, the fabricators and defenders of conventional wisdom. For as long as they could, they refused to take Trump’s campaign seriously.
But their bosses could not resist the boost that Trump, a seasoned reality TV star, gave to their ratings; and so the Donald proved the pundits wrong.
It was part of his appeal that he has more than enough money to buy all the publicity he could want on his own. But why pay for what ratings-hungry corporate moguls were giving him for free? If the cable news networks are not all Trump, all the time, they are the next best thing.
Trump therefore started off polling higher than any of his Republican rivals; and drawing enthusiastic crowds at staged events, while the others could hardly arouse any interest at all. Then he started winning primaries.
His successes put the cultural contradictions and economic fissures inherent in later-day Republican politics into sharp relief. This had devastating consequences for the formerly Grand Old Party.
When it became impossible not to take Trump seriously, the talking heads that had deemed his candidacy a joke took to deriding him – at first for being a buffoon, then for being racist, nativist, Islamophobic, and a fascist to boot.
Their talk of “fascism” is anachronistic and overblown, but the general idea is sound; and, the other charges are spot on. But Trump’s critics, the Republican ones anyway, might as well have been talking about themselves; their hypocrisy knows no bounds.
By now, seeing Trump as a real threat to their power and privileges, Republican plutocrats and their flunkies in the political class have pulled out all the stops: anything to keep him from becoming their nominee.
Too bad for them that the only “anything” that stands a chance against Trump, as the rules for nominating candidates at the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer now stand, is Ted Cruz — someone more vile, and a thousand times more retrograde, theocratic, and bellicose than the man they want to stop.
The Trump phenomenon is a lot less strange than Republican “establishment” types turning to Cruz. Cruz has based his entire political career on vilifying the very people who, for want of a better alternative, now find themselves supporting him.
All this is strange, but not inexplicable.
Neoliberal globalization is the bipartisan political project of our time. Under its aegis, the fortunes of most middle and working class Americans have deteriorated substantially. In times past, African Americans and other “minorities” would have born the brunt; now everyone who is not super-rich does.
Discontent is therefore bubbling up just under the surface of our seemingly placid consumer society; the economy is volatile, and so are peoples’ hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, since the 1960s, when African Americans secured the right to vote in practice, not just theory, Republicans have been recruiting displaced and alienated white voters into their ranks, taking advantage of racist and nativist animosities, and anything else that they could put to use.
Now the chickens are coming home too roost.
How ironic because this is the last thing that the pillars of the Party want – not for anti-racist or anti-nativist reasons or because they want to maintain the integrity of the Republican brand, but because even reactionary populists like Trump challenge aspects of the neoliberal consensus that benefit them and the money interests they serve.
They may think that Cruz is a bastard – how could they not? — but at least, in their minds, he is, if not quite their bastard, he is one with whom they could probably get along.
At the same time, it has become an axiom of theirs that there can be no getting along with Trump. They cannot forgive him for exposing the corruption of the system from which they benefit, and for saying outright how much their policies harm the useful idiots they have been bringing into the Republican fold.
The explanation for the turn to Cruz is ultimately that Republican politicians and Republican-leaning plutocrats are too morally and intellectually depleted to develop and sustain a less noxious alternative within the framework of the GOP. Thanks to Trump, the Republican Party is damaged beyond repair. But they are not yet ready to scuttle it; and so, Cruz is all they have left.
The Sanders phenomenon seemed similarly implausible as recently as six or seven months ago. What chance would a septuagenarian Jewish man, a self-described “democratic socialist” with a Brooklyn accent, who was technically an “independent,” not a Democrat,” have against the Clinton juggernaut – especially in Democratic Party primaries and caucuses where the full weight of the Clintonized institutional Party could be mobilized to save Clintonism (Wall Street-inflected neoliberalism, liberal imperialism, reckless militarism) and its Queen?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Neoliberal capitalism’s problems resonate not only in the quarters that Trump has tapped into, but throughout the entirety of that broad swathe of the population that the Occupy movements of five years ago called “the ninety-nine percent.”
This is why, even with the Democratic Party and its acolytes against him, and despite the malign neglect of “liberal” media, Bernie has been giving Hillary a run for her money.
The Clintonites and their corporate backers are not about to fold, no matter how many primaries and caucuses Bernie wins. They may not have to either — so long as they can keep their vaunted “super delegates” on board. But what used to seem impossible is now an almost decent bet.
In retrospect, this too makes perfect sense.
It is different with Hillary.
On the one hand, she has yet to upset longstanding expectations. She was slated to become the Democrats’ nominee, and although Sanders is causing her grief, the smart money is still on her.
And yet there is nothing going on this electoral season that is stranger than the role that she and her supporters are playing. Nobody seems to notice, however. For that, the narrative that she and her publicists have been developing for more than a quarter century is to blame.
Everybody knows what the pro-Hillary line this electoral season is; it is the same old story, modified to meet the challenge of the Sanders campaign.
It comes down to this: because she is more “moderate” than Bernie, she is more electable; and because she is a levelheaded “progressive” who knows how to get things done – unlike Bernie, who is a well-meaning but ineffectual dreamer — she, not he, is the “progressive” voter’s best hope.
Never mind that no one seems able to come up with examples of anything progressive or even worthwhile that Hillary has ever accomplished. As First Lady, she set the cause of health care reform back a generation, laying the groundwork for all that is wrong with Obamacare; as a Senator, she did nothing noteworthy at all; and, worst of all, as Secretary of State, all she has been good for is facilitating world-endangering disasters.
Libya is at the top of the list, but at least some of the blame for Syria and for destabilizing adjacent areas, including Turkey and Iraq, is on her.
Therefore so is some of the blame for several ongoing civil wars, including the one in Yemen.
Her mismanagement of events surrounding the Arab Spring helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State. The resulting refugee and humanitarian crises afflicting the entire region are partly on her too. So is the strain on the European Union that has followed from it.
And, as if all that weren’t bad enough, she and her minions deserve blame too for unfolding crises in areas around Russia’s borders – most notably in Ukraine. The mess she helped make there is now coming back to haunt her.
Her support for the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009 has come back to haunt her as well.
The lesson is clear as can be: put Hillary on the scene and all hell breaks loose.
And yet, liberals – including some, like Tom Hayden, Bill de Blasio, and Sherrod Brown, who plainly know better; along with alarmingly many union bosses and over-the-hill civil rights “icons” — say we must fall in behind her to stave off the Trump menace. Seriously!
Could it be that, with them, it somehow doesn’t register that, largely thanks to Trump, the Republican candidate, whomever it may be, is bound to lose in November, rendering this consideration moot?
And don’t they realize that on “issues” that don’t directly cater to the nativism, racism and Islamophobia of the voters Trump is currently bamboozling, that his views are, by any reasonable measure, more progressive than hers?
Would Hillary’s judicial appointments be less retrograde than Trump’s? Maybe, but does even the Donald have any idea what he would do if it were up to him to nominate judges to the Supreme Court and other federal benches? And isn’t it relevant too that Sanders’ appointments would be far less likely than Hillary’s to fall in the center-right range favored by Barack Obama?
Anti-Trump Republicans are fighting a rearguard battle to hang onto the Party that has served them well for so long; anti-Trump Democrats, many of them anyway, are doing Clintonism and the Clintons yeoman service for no reason at all. How pathetic is that!
Sanders is soft on imperialism too, though he is plainly more sensible and less bellicose than Hillary. At least he didn’t prostrate himself before the ethnocrats of AIPAC, the way that she did earlier this month. On foreign and military affairs, Bernie leaves much to be desired, but the ways in which he is better than Hillary are significant nevertheless.
Needless to say, this is not what inspires Sanders’ most ardent supporters, the ones who see more in his candidacy than an acceptable way to strike a blow at Clintonism and to stop a Clinton in her tracks.
What inspires them is his opposition to neoliberalism.
In this respect, Sanders’ politics is of a piece with the politics of anti-austerity movements in Southern Europe and elsewhere. This is not exactly “socialist” politics, Bernie’s professions of “democratic socialism” notwithstanding, but, for the time being, it is as good as it gets.
Not long ago, there were genuine socialists who sought to break free from capitalism’s grip and to change the world radically for the better. Thanks to changed circumstances and dashed hopes, those aspirations are off the agenda for now; the Left, such as it still is, has become less radical. No one now talks of building a new, better form of civilization, but only of enhancing (small-d) democracy with a view to retaining and then building upon progress achieved decades ago, before the neoliberal turn.
The first order of business in that regard is to make anti-austerity politics succeed. This makes perfect sense – because if anything radically better is to come onto the agenda in the foreseeable future, quashing neoliberalism is an indispensable first step.
Small wonder then that there is enough fervor in the Bernie camp that Clinton’s publicists, and the media hacks that serve them, are now warning that, like the Republicans, the Democrats could splinter apart, thanks to Bernie’s refusal to turn his operation over to the Clinton machine. If only this were true!
Whether by design or not, Trump has delivered a mortal blow to the GOP. No Clintonite, much less Hillary herself, has ever done, or could ever do, anything nearly so wonderful and historically significant.
If only the Clintonized Democratic Party would implode too! Even Trump couldn’t top that – because, at least at the national level, Clintonites are even greater impediments to progress than disempowered know-nothing Republicans.
But even if, all things considered, it would be better that the Democratic Party remain united for a while longer, it would still defy comprehension how anyone could think that the Clintons are on the side of the ninety-nine percent or that, on matters of war and peace, they do not constitute an even clearer and more present danger than Trump.
It is more astonishing still that anyone could defend Hillary’s ability to get things done. She is as clueless and inept as they come. Each day’s news brings more corroborating evidence.
And yet, the conventional wisdom remains fixed in stone. Team Hillary does spectacularly good work. Too bad that it is all for the benefit of a dunce.
She has been helping them out lately – by talking the talk. But how could anyone who is minimally sentient not know that one of the bedrock truths of recent American politics is that, when it suits their purpose, Clintons lie.
Because Hillary is running against a twenty-first century New Dealer, it now suits her purpose to fake left, positioning herself just a tad to Bernie’s right. This means nothing, however, except to liberals grasping at straws.
All it does is confuse the political landscape.
Nowadays, there is so much pro-Hillary drivel emanating out of desperate Clintonite circles that it is a wonder that the cyber-cloud where it all ends up doesn’t fall from the sky (or wherever it physically is).
I, for one, have had to give up on National Public Radio. Though useful still for keeping current on conventional wisdom and pro-regime propaganda, NPR has become useless for providing background noise, which is, after all, what it was always mainly good for. Its political commentaries are too intrusive and too annoying not to draw attention to themselves.
It is the same with the broadcast and cable news networks when they take a break from covering Trump 24/7 in order to confabulate tales of Hillary’s competence. In a less befuddled possible world, it would take all the self-discipline a reasonable person could muster to keep from running amok.
That this is not a widely shared sentiment even in the actually existing world is seriously strange, stranger even than that liberals who should know better think that now is the time for all good women and men to come to the aid of the decrepit wreck that the Wall Street and corporate-friendly Democratic Party has become.
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).