By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
A nightmare is unfolding: a stench envelops the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
It comes from an executive branch in the hands of malevolent incompetents, a House and Senate controlled by miscreants, and from totalitarian modes of thought exuding from out of the bowels of the White House.
That is the bad news.
The good news is that the election season from hell is over and a Resistance is being born.
Other positive changes, affecting media and the duopoly party system, may be afoot as well, though it is too soon to tell for sure.
The immediate context for all of this is the Trump v. Clinton fiasco. It is ancient history now, but its effects reverberate — in ways more consequential than anyone, a year ago, could have imagined.
The election season did have a salutary phase – it started when the Sanders campaign took off and ended when Sanders decided to make common cause with the Democrats who had rigged the nomination process against him. Also there were local and state elections that turned out well.
On the whole, though, it was a nearly eighteen month long disaster that culminated, at the national level, in a contest between a leading cause of all that has gone wrong with the Democratic Party over the past three and a half decades and an exemplar of much that is wrong with the human race.
The election was Hillary Clinton’s and the Democrats’ to lose; she and they outdid themselves. Therefore, Donald Trump is now in the White House, the world is out of joint, people suffer, and vileness reigns.
Expect the “populist” billionaire to make inequality and its tribulations worse too. Even more than under every other President since Jimmy Carter, with the Donald calling the shots, the words of the Apostle Matthew (25:29) ring true: “…unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
This would, of course, include Trump voters, especially the ones we now hear so much about from media pundits – those over-the-hill white guys in rural areas of “red” states who fell hook, line, and sinker for Trump’s spiel.
It will be a lot worse, though, for everyone who fails to pass muster according to Islamophobic and nativist standards. Women and African Americans are in for trouble big time.
Nearly everyone who is not filthy rich is going to suffer. Since the very unsubtle message implicit in “Make America Great Again” is “restore the values and norms of seventy and eighty years ago,” every vulnerable population in the country has reason to worry. All over the free and not so free world, people have reason as well.
Fortunately, Trump will have a harder time enforcing social and political conformity than his 1950s counterparts did. Count on him to try, though. Civil liberties are therefore more in jeopardy now than at any time since the McCarthy era.
Most of all, count on Trump to exacerbate real and imagined social divisions. The man cannot help himself, but that is only part of the story. Of greater importance is the fact that he has no way to hang onto power other than by keeping his enemies divided and riling us his fans.
With Trump acting out in the White House, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists saw fit to advance their Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight.
Even so, on this one point, he was arguably the lesser evil. With Hillary and Democrats generally determined to provoke Russia – to hobble it and make it subservient to America’s will — Doomsday would probably now be even closer at hand were Hillary the one calling the shots.
Or maybe not: in a fit of pique, Trump could start a war with a tweet.
And if there were something like a Doomsday Clock measuring movement towards an ecological midnight, Clinton, like Obama, would at least not try to accelerate its pace. Trump, like many of his appointees, is hell bent on doing precisely that.
He is not about to mellow into any less deleterious frame of mind either – not with respect to the environment.
And neither will he become less misogynistic or less hostile towards Americans who are other than fully white, according to the most stringent nativist standards – exceptions made, of course, for gusanos and rabidly ethnocratic Zionists.
He will instead ramp up efforts to exacerbate social divisions. That way of thinking comes naturally to him. It is also the obsession of his “alt-right” guru, Steve Bannon.
Trump is courting disaster; there is therefore reason to hope that he will undo himself. But even as he does, the burden will fall overwhelmingly on others – above all, on those least able to bear the load.
There is also reason to fear that if the resistance is unfocused and weak, as it has been until now, that the Forces of Darkness — of Trump and Bannon and the others – will ultimately prevail.
For the time being, though, war with Russia is less likely than it looked like it was going to be. And if, as seems increasingly doubtful, Trump remains true to the impression he conveyed during the campaign, other wars will be less likely as well.
What there certainly will be, though, is a war at home. Trump is already waging it; and a Resistance is already taking shape.
Trump’s supporters fall into three broad categories: dupes, deplorables, and opportunists.
Because there is no reliable data and because these categories are porous, there is no good way to estimate the respective sizes of these groups.
If only to maintain faith in humanity, however, I would like to think that the dupes – voters who thought, and mostly still think, that electing Trump would somehow make their lives better — are the most numerous.
How could they think anything so ridiculous?
In part, blame the culture. We Americans believe in success, and in “business.” The idea that rich businessmen (always men!) are heroes is not just a premise of the Ayn Rand stroke books that lead adolescent boys and Republican ideologues to libertarianism; it is practically a tenet of the civil religion.
“Self-made” businessmen are especially esteemed, but anybody who is obscenely rich and who did more than cash in on trust funds and then clip coupons to get that way is good enough. The idle rich are sometimes looked down upon and stigmatized, but having inheriting money or married into it is no problem at all.
Enter, the Donald. He got where he is thanks, in part, to his father’s money and the political connections his father, along with other nefarious mentors – the notorious Roy Cohn, for example – bequeathed him.
In fairness, though, it must be said that he has done some wheeling and dealing and tax evading on his own; and that he has stiffed a lot of “little people,” folks like the ones who would go on to vote for him, along the way. He therefore qualifies, even if calling him a self-made billionaire is a stretch.
People say: “if you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” What they are really thinking is: “if you’re so rich, then you’ve got to be smart.”
In Trump’s case, that thought is hard to square with the fact that much of what he says is nonsense, and all over the map. Neither is consistency among his virtues. This is, or ought to be, obvious, even to the terminally gullible.
But the dupes are convinced that because he is rich, he must know what he is doing. There are pundits who hold similar views. Because they are obliged to justify their beliefs, they will say that maybe Trump takes up idiotic positions to disarm his enemies, or to strengthen his hand in negotiations. Or maybe his ruses are too clever to be comprehended by anyone less cunning than himself.
The only possibility that they rule out is the obvious one: that Trump is, as the politically correct might say, “reality challenged” and therefore believes what he says – at least for as long as it takes him to say it.
Dupes and dupe-like pundits are not the only ones who suppose that there must be some cleverness there. We all think this to some extent; after all, the man did manage to get himself elected President. And just as nobody could be as great as Trump claims to be, nobody could be as idiotic and off-the-wall as he seems.
With sufficient ingenuity it is usually possible to find at least a semblance of method in his madness. For example, some commentators are now floating the idea that Trump’s wall on the Mexican border is actually directed against China, and is part of a scheme to revamp world trade. How, nobody knows.
Or they say that Trump’s Executive Orders – basically pasted together tweets – are part of a shock-and-awe campaign to bend Congress to his will.
But can anyone explain what Trump thinks he is gaining by taking on the CIA or by demonizing corporate media (Fox excepted)? The only plausible explanation is that he must be trying to commit a political version of “suicide by cop.”
The ingenuity of those who seek to account for Trump’s idiocies is laudable, but ingenuity has its limits. Many of the Donald’s “alternative facts” – like the ones relating to finger and crowd sizes – are simply pathetic.
There is no doubt, though, that he is shrewd in the way that mountebanks in carnivals are.. He knows how to sell snake oil to yokels – or Republicans, insofar as there is a difference.
The Republican Party was an alien world to the Donald, but he knew instinctively how to gain a foothold in it. All he had to do was stir up the nativist, racist, Islamophobic and misogynistic animosities of a large part of the Republican base.
He was clever enough too to see the usefulness of outflanking Hillary from the left, without alienating nativists, racists, Islamophobes and misogynists. This didn’t get people who hated Hillary for her neoliberalism or war mongering to vote for him, but it did dampen the enthusiasm of the lesser evilists among them.
After decades of neoliberal rule and endless wars, there was so much pent up animosity towards the status quo that many otherwise decent people were eager for anything different. All Trump had to do was delude those people into thinking that he would be their savior. For a conman of his caliber, this was easy peasy.
However, that ruse can’t work much longer; and, at some level, Trump knows it. This is why he is no longer even trying to hold the economic justice tiger by the tail; why, for him these days, vileness is all.
As this sinks in, scales will fall from a lot of eyes. The willfully blind will stand by their man, but the more clear-headed dupes will defect.
They will defect because they will own up to the fact that they fell for the old bait and switch. Some of them will also defect because they will realize, like the majority of voters who were not duped, that the Donald and his minions are too despicable to abide.
Were Trump living anywhere other than inside his own bubble, he would most likely reflect on his situation, and realize that he cannot go on. He would resign, return to his gilded monuments to bad taste, lick his wounds, and try to salvage his brand. Being “special,” though, he will instead buckle down; too bad for him.
However, his buckling down will delight his hardcore base, the deplorables.
Before Trump started his campaign for the White House, he was no more reactionary than the average New York real estate developer. The public saw him as a colorful nut case, not a proto-fascist.
The assumption then was that when he would conjure “alternative facts” into being or say something flagrantly off, it was for the sake of the publicity he could get from television entertainment shows and the tabloid press. Trump’s need to promote himself was too obvious not to see.
But the conventional wisdom was that Presidents have to seem presidential; and that even he would realize that. People therefore thought – wrongly, it turns out — that, once elected, Trump would drop or at least moderate some of his more outrageous campaign promises. Insofar as their point was to grab attention, they no longer served his purpose.
For that reason and because, on some issues, his views were less retrograde than Clinton’s, it was reasonable to conclude that the main danger he posed came not so much from himself but from the lowlifes whose cages he had rattled and whose passions he had inflamed.
This may still be the case even now that it has become clear how pernicious the 2017 version of Trump actually is. It is only a matter of time before his deplorables start acting out their fantasies and obsessions — as Trump (and Marine Le Pen) admirer Alexandre Bissonnette did a few days ago in Quebec City. Bissonnette killed six Muslims in a Cultural Center there, and wounded many more.
Because our media downplay terrorist events that cannot be blamed on Muslims, and because the world outside America’s borders hardly interests them, atrocities like Bissonnette’s don’t have much effect on the consciousness of most Americans.
This is why, even now, the “America firsters” whose Islamophobia Trump legitimates seem less scary to most Americans than refugees and immigrants from the seven mainly Muslim countries that Trump and Bannon have seen fit to target — countries in which, as it happens, Trump has no serious business interests.
If Republicans wanted to do what is right, or even if they only wanted to enhance their future electoral prospects, they would get rid of the Donald ASAP. Because they control the House and the Senate, only they can do this in the Constitutionally prescribed way – by impeaching him. Trump has already given Congress plenty of impeachable offenses to work with, and he adds to the list day by day.
But Republicans will only move on that if that if their paymasters force them or if they feel that an outraged public has them backed against the wall. It could come to that – the Koch Brothers, along with many other comparatively enlightened plutocrats, are showing signs of restlessness; so are increasingly many rank-and-file Republicans. But we are not there yet.
Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans are a despicable, unprincipled and pusillanimous lot; they actually make Democrats look good. Therefore don’t count on the initiative coming from them.
Before Sanders caved, Hillary and her supporters claimed that she was a “progressive pragmatist,” the implication being that she and Sanders were on the same page ideologically, but that she could get things done, while he, a pie-in-the-sky idealist, could not.
This was ludicrous; Sanders’ views left much to be desired, especially on foreign and military affairs, but he was far more progressive than she. And, as for getting things done, Clinton’s promoters had to struggle to come up even with dubious examples. In truth, there was hardly anything she did that she didn’t mess up.
Ironically, though, a Republican version of her campaign boast does apply to the current leadership of the Republican Party; they are rightwing ideologues of the worst kind, but they do know how to get things done.
When Obama was in office, they knew how to keep him from doing much of anything. And now that Trump has taken Obama’s place, they know how to use him to execute their agenda.
When the campaign for the GOP nomination was on, and then after the Republican Convention while it still looked like Trump would bring the Republican Party down with him, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would have nothing to do with the billionaire buffoon.
This changed abruptly once it became clear that Trump would prevail over the more conventional reactionaries they preferred. From that point on, it wasn’t just “if you can’t beat him, join him.” It was more like “use him for all he’s worth.”
Trump was OK with that too; not having a clue about how to govern, he needed them even more than they needed him.
But unlike the deplorables, and even more than the dupes, these “pragmatic reactionaries,” along with many ordinary Republicans and Republican-leaning “independents,” are ready, even eager, to desert Trump, if and when they come around to the view that there is no longer any percentage in sticking with him.
When the opportunists find that they are losing the war at home, they will be gone faster than the Donald can tweet an Executive Order.
Once it became clear that the Republicans would be fielding a gaggle of loony-tunes in their primaries and caucuses, the chance that a Republican would be elected President in 2016 fell to roughly 10%; the chance that it would be Trump stood at roughly 2%. These numbers are arbitrary, of course; but the general sense that they convey is about right.
Then Trump won. Even as it was happening, hardly anyone could believe it. More than two months later, many still cannot.
But this was only the first wildly improbable thing to happen.
Corporate media — not Fox, of course, but the rest — were solidly against Trump throughout the campaign. Nevertheless, even up to Inauguration Day, the likelihood that they would turn into what Bannon called an “opposition party” once the new administration settled in was, let’s say, 5%. This is another guess, of course, but the number is again on track. Major media in the United States are servile as can be.
However, this now seems to be changing. Thank Trump for that; thank him for being incompetent and vile, and for holding the media in contempt and rubbing it in their faces.
It is hard to believe that corporate media could become adversarial, as they are supposed to be in theory but never are in practice, but it is happening right before our eyes. When “the paper of record,” The New York Times, calls Trump’s lies “lies,” when that much truth becomes “fit to print,” it is hard to deny that times are changing. Other corporate media are following suit – including even the house organ of the regime (as distinct from the particular government heading it), The Washington Post. Even NPR shows signs of fighting back.
There is some backsliding, of course; there always is. It is most evident at MSNBC. Along with NBC, they are raiding Fox News for talking heads like Megyn Kelley and Greta Van Susteren. And to the extent that there is already a fissure developing between the Democratic Party and the anti-Trump Resistance, they are taking the Democratic Party’s side.
Following the Democrats’ lead, MSNBC (=MS DNC) is doubling down on efforts to provoke a war with Russia, the one respect in which Democrats are still more dangerous than Trump. The increasingly tiresome Rachel Maddow is an especially egregious example. I won’t belabor the point here: David Swanson has her number, and when Norman Solomon calls her “a liberal Glenn Beck,” he is right on the mark.
The moral of the story is that the Resistance should not just be about Trump. The Democratic Party is – or ought to be — an antagonist too. At least since the Clintons were in the White House, it has been more a part of the problem more than a part of the solution. Let’s say the difference is nine to one.
Before Inauguration Day, that number, though arbitrary like all the others, was still good; the chances that the Democratic Party could be anything other than useless for stopping Trump were too slim to matter.
After all, it is practically a law of nature: when Democrats lose, they turn right, not left. No exceptions – period!
Until now. Maybe. If so, again thank Trump for changing the Zeitgeist. Thank him for the fact that since the Women’s March the day after his Inauguration, American politics seems to have turned a corner.
The demonstrations that followed Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from “terror prone” areas from entering the United States brought droves of Democratic Congressmen and Senators out to stand with the people in the airports and streets. Who would have imagined?
Could the Democratic Party actually become good for something? I, for one, remain skeptical, but the jury is out. Two weeks ago, there was no need for a jury at all.
The question is not whether Clintonized Democrats have a role to play in a broadly based “popular front” against Trump and Trumpism; of course, they do. The question is whether, beyond damage control and prevention, they have a role to play in making a better world.
The answer to that, as per an old Second City line mocking academic discussions, is: “strictly speaking, possibly.”
When Trumpland was just a nightmare taking shape in the recesses of Steve Bannon’s mind, candidate Trump was on track for striking a mortal blow at America’s semi-established duopoly party system; he was leading the GOP to ruin. Then Hillary flubbed, the nightmare became real, and the duopoly survived.
This is why the people now taking to the streets against Trump who talk about launching a Tea Party strategy within the Democratic Party have a point. The idea would be to take advantage of the advantages that come with the label, while running against Democratic office holders and the Party establishment. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – and take ‘em over.
The danger, of course, is cooptation. This is a serious problem, but not an insurmountable one. The original Tea Partiers did reluctantly support Mitt Romney in 2012, but, in general, they seem to have escaped cooptation fairly well. It remains to be seen, though, what will happen to them now that they too are swept up into the Trumpian maelstrom.
Tea Party Republicans are sublimely stubborn – it is their one outstanding quality. Democrats, on the other hand, are “reasonable” to a fault. They might be too nice to be able to implement the Tea Party model, evem if they tried.
This is why it would be better to find a form of political expression outside the Democratic Party altogether. This is obviously what has to happen in the long run.
But Trump can only be stopped in the short run; and in the short run that option is out of the question. Democrats – can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em.
The Sanders campaign offshoot, Our Revolution, is, like Sanders himself, too timid and too tainted by its connections to Clinton and Clintonism to be of much use; and the Green Party seems as unable as ever to catch on – despite an outstanding platform and a first-rate standard bearer, Jill Stein. No other plausible initiatives are so far underway.
But, in the brave new world that has been taking shape since Election Day, something like the infinite improbability drive in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe seems to be directing the course of events. Anything can happen; nothing can be ruled out.
This being the case, all-of-the-above may be the only way to go: working with Democrats when they are not too awful, while taking care not to make the problem worse by becoming like them; working against Democrats, Tea Party style; and building alternatives to the Democratic Party whenever and insofar as one can.
In a large enough Resistance movement, these ways of moving forward need not conflict; quite to the contrary, they can actually complement one another.
In the end, there is no other choice. Whatever stands a decent chance of holding Trump back – or, better yet, of getting rid of him and his people altogether — is worth pursuing. The more secure he is, the bleaker our future will be, even if we somehow manage to have a future at all.
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).