By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.
Photo by Roger Jones | CC BY 2.0
Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States had presidents who, by today’s standards, make even twentieth and twenty-first century presidents look good.
There were defenders of slavery and, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, of the institutionalization of white supremacy by other means. There were proponents of the extermination of indigenous peoples and of the theft of their land. There were champions of untrammeled capitalist exploitation and of the subordination of women.
For the most part, our presidents were indifferent to the despoliation of the natural environment, and hostile to efforts by governments to provide social services of any kind — leaving that to religious institutions and private charities.
They opposed regulations of all sorts, and tolerated, or even encouraged, levels of corruption that even their modern counterparts would find intolerable. In the century’s waning years, there were presidents who were gung-ho imperialists too.
But those were different times. It is therefore unclear how, or to what extent, contemporary standards apply. And, even in modern times, it is unclear how to factor in the murder, mayhem, and terror American presidents have caused by deploying, or threatening to deploy, the seemingly unlimited quantities of lethal weapons – from atomic bombs to weaponized drones – that they control.
What is clear, though, is that, if harm to stable international relations and world peace is the metric, George W. Bush was the worst president ever.
How remarkable, therefore, that the country and the world were better off with him in the White House than with what we have now. After all, to this date, no American president has committed more crimes against the peace than Bush.
Needless to say, however, this could change overnight, in the time it takes to send a tweet.
Before the election, there were thoughtful people who believed that Hillary Clinton would be the one who would wrest Bush’s title away. From Ronald Reagan on, American presidents have targeted easy prey. Clinton was hell-bent on provoking nuclear powers.
She seemed especially to have it in for Vladimir Putin, and she was certainly bellicose and Russophobic enough, on that account alone, to bring the world to the brink of destruction – and beyond.
She was also all for “pivoting” towards Asia; in other words, she wanted to provoke China too.
There were probably more than a few left-leaning contrarians who voted for Trump in order to keep her from doing any of that; or, if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to stoop low enough to vote for the Donald, who at least hoped that he would win.
However, it was clear enough, as the 2016 campaign ground on, that this was a mistake. It is many times clearer now.
Not to see how dangerous Trump is, one has to look beyond his inane palaver, overestimate his “deal making” prowess, and be willfully blind to his essential vileness and emotional immaturity. That was easier to do ten months ago than it is now.
It now is or ought to be clear to everybody that Trump is, if anything, even more likely to launch or fall into a war to end all wars, along with everything else, than Clinton ever was. The difference is that, with her, catastrophic mis-steps, if they came, would follow from revived Cold War instincts and misapprehensions. In Trump’s case, the danger is that a war could be set off in a fit of pique.
It had always been obvious that, on most counts, Clinton’s policies, essentially continuations of Obama’s, would be less noxious than Trump’s. But, since the chances of nuclear war seemed greater were she Commander-in-Chief, it was an open question whether, all things considered, she actually was the lesser evil. That question is no longer open. Trump is worse on all counts – worse, by far.
However, the feeling that there is something not right about comparing Trump to his rival, or to his predecessors, is hard to shake. It is not just that, by most relevant measures, he is way worse. The deeper problem is that his ways of being worse are so out of joint, but also so transparent, that it seems incongruous to make comparisons at all.
Trump is our first sui generis president; his presidency is in a class by itself.
The reason is not just that, to a degree that is unprecedented in presidential politics, he is in it for himself – for his own vainglory, and for his and his family’s bottom lines. The bigger reason is that like his nemesis and counterpart, Kim Jong-un, his power is secured and sustained by a personality cult.
Kim’s is effectively a state religion; Trump’s affects barely a third of the American electorate. But, because our institutions are so woefully undemocratic, that is enough to make ruination a distinct possibility.
The cult around Kim-Jong-un, and around his father and grandfather before him, is coercively enforced, highly disciplined, and embarrassingly servile. All the evidence suggests that it depends on fear as much or more than on love for the fearless and gentle Leader. North Korean propagandists would like the rest of the world to think that everyone in North Korea is on board. They surely are, at least for appearance sake. How deep pro-Kim attitudes run is another matter. Many a dictator has been dispatched in the blink of an eye, the moment his vulnerability became palpable and the people he victimized smelled blood; Kim Jong-un could become another in the list.
Repression and indoctrination lie behind the personality cult in North Korea. Trump’s cult is different: it depends on a variety of endemic American social pathologies, exacerbated by the sense of economic decline and social dislocation brought on by neoliberal globalization, immigration, and the vicissitudes of racial politics.
Thanks to good and abundant polling data, we know that, by now, some two-thirds of the American population want Trump out as soon as possible, but also that there is a distressingly large hardcore of Trump cultists for whom the hapless billionaire can do no wrong – no matter how plain it is that he can and does. The scales have already fallen from the eyes of many, though probably not yet all, Trump voters. But the delusions that keep the hardcore united seem unshakable.
Clinton famously called Trump voters “deplorable.” In truth, only some of them were; the others believed, or hoped, that, as president, he would, in some way or other, make their lives go better.
They thought that, with Trump in office, America’s economic decline would be reversed. Some of them even thought that the ravages brought on by our country’s perpetual war regime would finally subside — that there would be good relations with other nuclear powers and that the United States would stop, or at least tone down, its terrorism-inducing wars on the Muslim world.
They could hardly have been more wrong. Indeed, it was obvious from Day One that nothing good would come from the Donald. But there was nothing reprehensible in thinking that something might, especially with Hillary Clinton as the only viable alternative.
However, if we confine attention just to hardcore devotees of the Trump personality cult, deplorability, more than delusion, is indeed the name of the game.
And yet, for the time being, Trump’s hold on power depends on them.
Thus, in our so-called “democracy,” a minority of truly deplorable miscreants subjects the vast majority to a level and kind of tyranny that is so off-the-charts that the kind of comparisons with other presidencies that could normally be made are all but meaningless. In Trumpland, incommensurability reigns.
Personality cults are never good, though the one around Kim Jong-un can at least boast of genuine, albeit disingenuous and attenuated, connections to serious political theories.
For example, in The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau held that something very like a personality cult – rule by a charismatic leader who establishes basic institutional norms, practices, and structures through the force of personality alone — could be useful, and perhaps even indispensable, in the formative stages of political communities.
Rousseau was not the only political thinker of the early modern period to hold a view of this sort, but he was the most influential, not just through the force of his ideas, but also because revolutionaries in France and throughout Europe — before, during and after the French Revolution — held him in the highest regard.
It was through their influence on twentieth century revolutionaries that the thinking of Rousseau and others on the role of charismatic leadership became politically consequential – not so much for constituting political communities, as for forging revolutionary departures from old regimes.
Thus in Communist countries in the Stalin era and, to a lesser extent, after that, and in some of the states formed through the anti-colonial struggles of the post-World War II period, personality cults were actively encouraged.
Evidently, in Pyongyang, people still think that way.
The best that can be said for the theory behind the Kim cult is that it distorts ideas that, whatever their merits, do at least have an honorable lineage. The only thing that can be said for the personality cult that has formed around Donald Trump is that it is stupid.
What, after all, can be said in support for an electoral system that effectively cedes to a tyrannical minority, comprised of the most deplorable among us, the power to keep a clear and present danger in office against the will of the vast majority of citizens?
In American politics, what the majority wants is seldom decisive at the national level. Thus, at present, Republicans control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, though, in each case, their candidates got fewer votes than the candidates of the other, less noxious, neoliberal political party.
The problem was not that elections weren’t free and fair or conducted according to the principle that the candidate with the most vote wins. It was that, at the aggregate level, the institutional framework within which those elections took place effectively defied both the spirit and the letter of majority rule – in ways that, for contingent reasons, favored Republicans over Democrats.
This was, of course, bad enough, but the real offense to democracy was not so much Trump’s election as his continuing retention of the office to which he was elected now that large majorities, sensing impending disasters, desperately want him out.
Other liberal democracies and most American states have ways of correcting for grievous errors that large majorities come to acknowledge. There are recall elections, for example; and, in parliamentary systems, there are votes of no confidence. All we have is impeachment, a complicated quasi-judicial procedure. There is also the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, ratified in 1967.
The latter is almost certainly a non-starter, unless it becomes clear even to the most benighted Trump cultists that their Dear Leader has lost his marbles.
For Trump to be “fired” on Twenty-Fifth Amendment grounds, the Vice President and the cabinet would have to decide that he is no longer capable of exercising his duties. This means that as long as Trump is lucid and physically capable, they would have to stage a coup.
That would hardly be beneath them; loyalty is not their thing any more than it is Trump’s. But, with hardcore Trumpian cultists looking on, they would probably never dare.
In practice, therefore, for Trump to go involuntarily, he would have to be impeached.
For that to happen, the Republican controlled House of Representatives would have to bring charges (articles of impeachment) and the Republican controlled Senate would have to conduct a trial, following its own (largely uncharted and unspecified) rules. This would seem to be a non-starter too.
But unlike Democrats – who nowadays are a notch or two more cowardly even than the liberals Robert Frost famously described — Republicans sometimes will take their own side in an argument. Also, they do have a great deal to gain by substituting one of their own, Mike Pence, a bona fide conservative, for the opportunistic ideological non-entity they are stuck with now.
Therefore, all bets are off, especially if, as is more likely than not, the Mueller investigation turns up all kinds of indictable charges that could be leveled against Trump, his family, and his closest associates.
Unfortunately, sitting presidents cannot be indicted. They can only be impeached. In the circumstances, that might be even better.
As impeachment loomed, Richard Nixon, seeing the writing on the wall, preemptively resigned. Not long afterwards, Gerald Ford, his successor, issued him what amounted to a blanket pardon –and off he went to live unhappily ever after.
Will Trump have enough sense to do the same? Maybe. But Nixon was a broken man by the time his impeachment became imminent. Trump acts like a high roller in one of his defunct Atlantic City gambling dens. The man is not nearly actor enough to seem confident and brave while feeling desperate inside. It is therefore a safe bet that his head is not yet anywhere near where Nixon’s was; and it is unlikely that it ever will be.
Trump will do anything to look good, but he is too dense and self-deceived to realize what a bumbling fool he not only is, but also seems to be. Therefore, we cannot count on his vanity to save us.
It is remarkable that there are still pundits who will not concede how far in over his head the Donald is, but who instead go on about how, appearance to the contrary, Trump is smart like a fox. There is they insist, a method to his madness; perhaps even a strategy.
There is some truth in this: Trump is a mountebank, a good one when working the right audiences. On the “takes one to know one” principle, he knows how to win over Clinton’s deplorables. His invocations of flag fetishism – most recently while going after anti-racist protests organized by black athletes and their allies in the National Football League – attests to that.
But there are limits to how far even he can play the patriotism card – before it dawns even on his marks that there is something to the old quip about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels. Trump could care less about the flag or the national anthem.
What he cares about, besides himself, is the (formerly) almighty dollar. And even if he cannot grasp the extent to which the world sees him for the fool that he is, he surely can see when his ill-gotten gains begin to dry up.
As his legal bills mount, and as only the hardest of hardcore deplorables in his cult, along with the rent-seekers and sleazeballs, foreign and domestic, who book overpriced rooms at Trump hotels and resorts and who buy his brand, he just might decide that, all things considered, there is no percentage in staying on, and every reason to beat a hasty retreat.
Does he have enough good sense to go voluntarily? The jury is still out on that; but with a civil war looming within the party he has latched onto and that has latched onto him – a war between merely odious troglodyte “conservatives” of the Mitch McConnell – Paul Ryan type, and thoroughly execrable theocrats like Roy Moore — we may soon find out.
ANDREW LEVINE is 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).