By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Conterpunch.
That Donald Trump is erratic, emotionally immature, and stunningly ignorant is hardly news. Neither is his fondness for communicating with the world via Twitter. What could be more fitting? One hundred forty characters are all that he can string together, and all his thoughts deserve.
Lately, though, there is news about the Donald — not just because everything a President-elect does is newsworthy, but also because his tweets have taken a turn for the worse: from merely worrisome to downright alarming.
Even the fools who voted for the Donald “to make America great again” must be noticing.
All they ever wanted was the level of social and economic security of the years before the neoliberal (Clintonite) turn. They wanted to live in a world in which a man (always a man) could earn a family wage and in which “the American dream,” whatever that means (it seems to have something to do with upward social and economic mobility) is within every good (white) American’s reach; and in which troops, marching under the banner of Old Glory, always win the wars they fight. USA, Number One!
Sore losers say Hillary lost because Trump voters were xenophobic and racist. Many of them were concerned about immigration — for dubious, but not entirely “deplorable,” reasons. Only a few were overtly racist, however. They weren’t even all white.
Even so, most Trump voters did want to hold onto the privileges that come with white skin. And if they were descendants of immigrants who came from Europe long ago, as the vast majority of them were, they wanted to secure the privileges that status provides as well.
It hardly mattered that the lost world they yearned for is more imagined than real. For them, “history is bunk,” just as Henry Ford said; and nostalgia trumps reality every time.
Even so, before long, most of them are bound to figure out that they have been had; that what they got is not what they voted for. They are easy marks, but they are not stupid.
And, while circumstances have made them desperate, they are no more reckless than anyone else; no more likely than Hillary voters to put loaded guns in the hands of troubled children.
Therefore, as increasingly alarming tweets exude out of Trump Tower – calls for a new arms race and for massive additions to America’s nuclear arsenal — it is sure to dawn on them that turning the entire juggernaut, nuclear and conventional, over to a thin-skinned, egotistical real estate mogul with the emotional maturity of a teenager, was not such a great idea.
This is not the place to rehearse the arguments for and against lesser evil voting – either in general or in the 2016 election. My view is that the case against — especially when the choice was between Clinton and Trump — is compelling, but I won’t press the point here.
By now, the Clinton v. Trump election is ancient history, and the “what is to be done?” questions it raised are moot. Qhen similar issues arise again, the circumstances will be so different that there will be little point in revisiting debates pertinent mainly to the debacle we just endured.
However, with the consequences of that debacle about to come crashing down upon the world, there is a different, though related, question that remains timely: which of the duopoly’s two candidates was, in fact, the lesser evil? Getting clear on that can be useful for getting a deeper understanding of what we are in for.
Most people with views worth taking seriously would say that the answer is obvious – that, compared to the Donald, the lesser evil was Hillary.
They have a point: awful as she is, Trump seemed worse, even prospectively. Now that we know who Trump’s picks for cabinet and cabinet level appointments are, he seems a lot worse. And he will seem incalculably worse when he starts filling lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary.
However, there was, and still is, one overwhelmingly important countervailing consideration that has to be factored in: the likelihood that Clinton’s neoconservative and liberal imperialist leanings — and therefore her passion for regime change in countries that don’t tow the empire’s line — combined with her inveterate Russophobia and dislike for Vladimir Putin, would propel the world into a nuclear conflagration.
Trump’s latest tweets make it harder than it used to be to be confident that he would be a whole lot better. But, even in defeat, the warmongering recklessness that Clinton did so much to instigate continues to accelerate – in both government and media circles.
It is still more likely than not that it will slow down or even turn around when Trump and his cronies kick the Clinton-Obama War Party out. If Trump is true to his word – always unlikely, but not impossible in this case – America’s relations with Russia will be on a saner course; and that will, in turn, cause the demonization of Putin and the vilification of Russia to subside. Corporate media go where the power is. Therefore the scribblers and talking heads that were, and still mostly are, in Clinton’s pocket, will be drawn into the Trumpian fold like moths to light.
What has our politics come to when it takes a Donald Trump to keep the Clintons and their minions from setting chains of events in motion that could very likely end in the destruction of the world, “as we know it.” How pathetic is that!
Hillary’s take on American-Russian relations is ideologically driven, but there is a psychological side to it as well; she and Putin hate each other’s guts. Trump’s equal and opposite fondness for Russia’s leader is grounded in psychological factors too. It isn’t just Putin’s machismo and scorn for “political correctness” that appeals to the Donald. As a would-be autocrat, he sees Putin as a role model. And as a wheeler-dealer, he sees him as a formidable rival, a man with whom he can do business.
This would mean working out mutually beneficial relationships between Trump’s capitalist cronies, the people Bernie Sanders called “the billionaire class,” and the Russian oligarchs Putin favors.
It is an altogether unsavory prospect, but a less lethal one, most likely, than the alternative, which was to give Hillary and her minions have free rein, and secure the bomb shelters tight.
This is not certain, however, because Trump’s thinking is anything but consistent, especially in areas – like geopolitics — in which his ignorance is exceptional even for him. His appointees to key foreign policy positions — Rex Tillerson at the State Department, for example, and Michael Flynn at the National Security Council – are even less likely than the Donald to keep an overblown empire in decline from lashing out.
Perhaps, in time, consistent patterns will emerge from the chaos that is about to descend upon the world. But, for the foreseeable future, chaos is all there will be.
Thus Trump says that he wants to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, but also against Russia’s main ally – also the most important protagonist in the anti-jihadi struggle — Iran.
The policies of the Obama administration were contradictory too, but at least his foreign policy tea,, during and after Hillary’s Madam Secretary days, had the excuse that they were stepping into strategically murky situations. Trump plows forward into the abyss in the plain light of day.
Then there is Israel-Palestine. There were moments, early in the campaign, when Trump gave the impression that he wanted to deploy his vaunted deal-making artistry to fix the Israel-Palestine problem. Despite media hype about how intractable that problem is, he could do it; any American President could.
Israel depends so much on American diplomatic, military and financial support that all a President would have to do is make its government an offer it couldn’t refuse. The reasons this hasn’t happened yet have more to do with American than Israeli or Palestinian politics. A President willing to stand up to the Israel lobby – a Paper Tiger, if ever there was one — and to Christian Zionists could bring Israel along in a New York minute.
And, after nearly a half-century of disabling occupation, it would not take much to get the Palestinians to go along. Ever since the Abba Eban days, the conventional wisdom was that the Palestinians would “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In fact, just the opposite is, and always has been, the case. Especially now that other options seem foreclosed, the Palestinians would surely accept any reasonable offer, anything that would leave them with a viable state.
But for Trump to deploy his “artistry” in this case, he would have to treat Israel like a normal country; not a spoiled brat. The original Zionists would have demanded, and expected, no less; and, insofar as they care enough to have an opinion, this is what the vast majority of Americans, and probably also of American Jews, want as well.
But thanks to decades of successful lobbying, bullying, and “campaign contributions,” major Zionist organizations have seen to it that the very idea of treating Israel like a country among others is a non-starter. Democrats and Republicans alike are as determined as ever to let the brat get away with whatever it wants.
The jury is out on whether Trump rules the GOP, the party he would have inadvertently destroyed had Hillary not flubbed so badly, or whether, because he needs Republican help to govern, they control him. Both could be true.
To the extent that Trump calls the shots, “just say(ing) No” would be within his means. If morally reprehensible bought and paid fors like Paul Ryan, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain object, all he would need to do is contrive a functional equivalent of the line that made him a TV star – “you’re fired.”
It looks increasingly like he won’t bother with anything like that, however – because, in this instance, Trump, or rather Kushner, family values trump deal making “artistry” and basic common sense.
Benjamin Netanyahu seems confident of that; and although he is not the brightest bulb on the tree, he is probably right.
The Bibster got a dash of comeuppance from the United Nations Security Council last week, thanks to President Obama’s decision not to block a Security Council resolution decrying the illegality of the Israeli occupation of lands it conquered almost a half century ago. It would have been better, of course, had Obama put the United States on the side of justice; but, on this issue, for an American President just to sit on the fence, leaving it to others do the right thing, is a major advance.
Nevertheless, dealmaker Trump is crying foul, and threatening to do all he can to turn the clock back. Insofar as he can, he will; the writing is on the wall.
He has already appointed the vilest and most incompetent rightwing Zionists in his circle to advise him and make – or execute – his policies on Israel and Palestine: one of his several bankruptcy lawyers, David Friedman, will be the American Ambassador to Israel (he might as well be the Israeli Ambassador to the United States) and the Trump Organization’s chief legal advisor, Jason Greenblatt, will be his “Representative for International Negotiations.” With those appointments and after a recent flurry of Trumpian tweets, the Israeli settler movement is riding high.
“Stay strong Israel,” the Donald tweeted, “I’m coming.” Indeed, he is.
Needless to say, the alternative would have been awful as well. Clinton is no more on the side of justice than Trump is; and, along with nearly all Democrats and Republicans, she is not beyond debasing herself by displaying obeisance to the Israel lobby. But Friedman and Greenblatt? That is simply absurd.
There are some who say that Trump is making contradictory statements deliberately; that he is drawing on Richard Nixon’s “madman” strategy. The idea is that if your adversaries think you are crazy, they will submit to your will out of fear of what you might do.
There were indeed nuclear strategists in the fifties and sixties who were themselves crazy enough to recommend nihilistic recklessness. Nixon seems to have latched onto their ideas, proving only that a little knowledge can do a lot of harm. There is no consolation in the thought that Trump might be following his example.
More likely, he just does not know what he is doing. Who, after all, does he want to scare into submission? Russia? The Chinese, with whom he would rather do business than make war? Democrats? Thanks to Hillary et. al., they are so defeated that there is no need. Republicans? It isn’t worth trying to frighten them either; they are already falling all over themselves surrendering unconditionally.
The long and short of it just is that while Trump may be a fiendishly clever huckster and conman, as a President-elect he is in way over his head. He is floundering about now, and there is little chance that it will get better after he moves into the Oval Office.
The situation is therefore dangerous indeed. The sooner, and more profoundly, Trump is restrained, the better off we all will be.
It Democrats were less pusillanimous, they could do to the Donald what Republicans did to Obama; they could obstruct his every move. Too bad that they don’t have it in them to pull it off!
To the extent that they try, they should be supported of course – provided they steer clear of the one area where Trump still seems less awful than Hillary. Diminishing the power and influence of the War Party is the most urgent task of all.
The problem, though, is the all-too-familiar one: that, in power or out, the Clintonized Democratic Party is effectively useless. Fortunately, it is also not essential.
For one thing, it is becoming clear that the financial machinations and entanglements of the Trump organization and its offshoots will land the Donald in a thick nest of legal trouble.
And, in addition to all the usual corruptions, there are Constitutional issues with which he will have to contend. As everyone who pays attention to the news these days now knows, thanks to the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump will be committing an impeachable offense the moment he is sworn in on Inauguration Day.
If any semblance of the rule of law survives in the months and years ahead, the courts, though full up with rightwing and center-right judges, may be our best chance for holding Trump in check.
But the battle to stop him and the horrors he will unleash will be waged mainly within civil society. A good part of it can be engaged at an individual level, without the need for significant organizational backing.
Someday, when people in the know start cashing in by writing tell-all books, we will have a better idea than we now do of what exactly Trump was thinking when he got into the Presidential race. One of his reasons is obvious already: he wanted to promote his brand.
Wealth derives ultimately from the production of goods and services, but, in capitalism’s current, overripe stage, great fortunes seldom depend directly on commerce or industry. The more usual way that capitalists enrich themselves egregiously these days is by gambling with financial instruments that make money out of money, without adding anything except money to what Adam Smith long ago called “the wealth of nations.”
Trump started out with a lot of money; that makes making more money easier. Then he increased the amount – by making deals enabled by the political influence and business connections that his father additionally bequeathed him.
To many Americans, raised on the Gospel of Wealth, this somehow makes the Donald qualified to lead the executive branch of a government that superintends what is still the world’s largest economy, and to be Commander-in-Chief of a super-power involved directly or indirectly in ever increasing numbers of never-ending wars. They could hardly be more wrong.
Trump’s wealth also derives from another asset that is a lot rarer than political juice. Hard as it is to believe, the Trump name is something people will pay to be associated with.
This is even more pathetic than the idea that wealth is a qualification for running a country, especially one as large and complex as the United States. If humankind has a future and if there are historians in it, they will look back and marvel at the level of moral and cultural degradation these beliefs exemplify. They may even decide that what Hillary said about how deplorable Trump supporters are, though ruinously impolitic, was nevertheless spot on.
Tasteful displays of great wealth are rare in human history, but they do exist, and the world is better off for them. However, good taste is not what Trump is about. The stuff he peddles is about something else: conspicuous, over-the-top vulgarity.
The phenomenon is not new; like the poor, the nouveau riche, it seems, have always been with us. In fact, they have been with us only for as long as there has been a bourgeoisie rich enough to put on aristocratic airs.
Marketable celebrity, another creation of bourgeois society, is newer still. Without mass media, the phenomenon could hardly exist, and thanks to social media, there is a lot more of it nowadays than there used to be. Some substantial portion of the Trump fortune derives from this source.
Is it because his immigrant ancestors changed the family name from “Drumpf” to a name associated with winning hands at bridge?
No doubt, the Donald would like to think, and like others to think, that “Trump” is the new “Ritz.” However, the Ritz name connotes not only luxury but also good taste; Trump’s name is associated with nothing more edifying or aesthetically pleasing than misinformed notions of what good taste is.
For the time being, many, maybe most, Trump supporters are still in wait-and-see mode; Trump’s cabinet appointments and increasingly alarming tweets don’t faze them. But this won’t last; before long, reality will intrude. Ask the Wizard of Oz; it always does.
And as the scales fall from Trump’s supporters’ eyes, the Trump name will change its valence – from a kind of talisman useful to marketers of luxury goods, it will become a stigma that even the rich and heinous will want to avoid.
Trump will bring this upon himself, but we can help the process along by doing our part to damage his brand’s reputation and therefore his bottom line. He surely cares a lot more about that than about anything he might do under the guise of “making America great again.”
The more he worries about his ill-gotten fortune, the less able he will be to focus on ways to harm vulnerable populations or to turn the fate of the planet over to polluters and climate change deniers.
Boycotts of all things Trump are a place to start; that could do a lot of good. Shame could do even more. Anyone and everyone who consumes or utilizes anything with the Trump name should be made to bear the weight of the stigma.
This won’t end the horror that is about to befall the world, but it could cause Trump to back off a little, softening the blow; and, in conjunction with other forms of politicking — some traditional, some new and creative — it could help create conditions in which good and decent, not Trumpian, alternatives to Clintonite politics can emerge and flourish.
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).