By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Coonterpunch.
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Even troglodytes concede that Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban was poorly thought out and poorly executed. More evolved citizens understand that it was also stupid and odious.
Was this just a case of Trump being Trump? Or is there something more sinister going on? Most likely, the former, but perhaps not; the only sure thing, at this point, is that it would be foolish to wait to find out.
Trump is wicked and capable of doing grave and irreparable harm. He could start a war out of desperation or in a fit of pique. But, by all accounts, Steven Bannon, Trump’s “chief strategist,” is qualitatively worse.
Insofar as the ban was an indicator of Bannon’s increasing influence within the Trump bubble, it is all the more urgent to deepen and expand the resistance to Trump and all things Trumpian in every way and by every available means.
It is more important still to turn that resistance into a determined and capable political opposition. There is now no real opposition at all; there is the Democratic Party, and it is worse than useless.
As a candidate, Trump would say whatever popped into his mind at the moment; this was usually determined by whomever he had spoken to last.
To his everlasting credit, he would also sometimes utter forbidden truths — about the mediocrity of his rivals and about how corrupt both Democrats and Republicans are.
He did something like that again recently in a Fox News interview on Superbowl Sunday when, in response to a question of Bill O’Reilly’s about the evils of Vladimir Putin, he replied: “ do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, however, he would jabber on without regard to evidence or logic, and, when it served his purpose, he would flip flop with reckless abandon.
This was not just the mindless babble of a man in the grip of “alternative facts.” It was also a sales pitch targeted at one or another or both of two broad categories of voters — white, middle aged victims of neoliberal economic policies, and the miscreants whom neoliberalism’s standard bearer, Hillary Clinton, called “deplorable.”
Now that the end of Trump’s first month in office is in sight, he is still peddling the same snake oil to the same people. This is all the more remarkable inasmuch as the pre-Trump world already feels like a distant, barely remembered past.
One thing that has changed since those long ago days is that reactionary millionaires and billionaires, and rank incompetents, are now ensconced in the highest offices of government. What a gaggle of scoundrels!
George W. Bush is therefore losing his claim to be, by far, the worst President in modern American history.
This is no mean feat: with Dick Cheney calling the shots, and with some real doozies of his own for advisors and in cabinet and cabinet level positions, Bush did incalculable harm to the United States. Worse still, his wars – all of them wars of choice — destabilized large swathes of the Muslim world. It could take decades to put back together all that he broke, even if all goes well. Meanwhile, the consequences reverberate around the world.
It is already clear too that it will not be long before Barack Obama is no longer the unsurpassed, and seemingly unsurpassable, Deporter-in-Chief.
Hardcore deplorables must be pleased with the way things are going, but the scales are starting to fall from the eyes of at least a few of the marks the Donald conned. It helps that nearly everything Trump does and says is embarrassing.
Naturally, it will take a while for most of them fully to fess up. Nobody likes to admit to being wrong, and as long as they are not feeling the pain themselves, they can remain willfully blind.
Even now, though, when pressed, many of them struggle to find hopeful things to say. What they come up with usually comes down to Trump’s “authenticity.” He may be a badass, they say, but what you see is what you get.
Seriously? The man is as phony as a three-dollar bill. Even the Clintons are better than that.
This is why there really is no way to say what he wants to get out of his Muslim travel ban or anything else, for that matter — except glory, of course – fat chance of that! — and money. The problem is not that he is secretive; quite to the contrary. It is that there is no there there.
He probably does believe what he says when he says it. This is only human; even pathological liars are momentarily sincere. But this is a psychological phenomenon, not an indicator of relatively stable political views.
Even so, there is no need to deal with each utterance – or with each Executive Order –without any purchase at all on the beliefs and desires behind them.
To find method in the madness, we can impute rationales – rationally reconstruct them, as it were, regardless of what Trump or his appointees are thinking.
Getting this right can be helpful. The more that reasons can be discerned, the easier it will be for the anti-Trump resistance to understand what it is up against, and therefore to defeat it.
The Muslim travel ban poses particular challenges in that regard, not least because it is so stupid.
The stupidity starts with the claim that the Executive Order that initiated it was not actually a ban on Muslims. It is, the story goes, just a ban on persons coming from seven “dangerous” countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.
Trump and his people have to say this. A ban on Muslims as such would be so ridiculously unconstitutional that even Trump knows not to go there.
Leave aside why Trump targeted those countries, but not others – for example, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, historically Muslim countries whose citizens actually have been involved with terrorism directed against Americans. There is no mystery about that: as with all things Trumpian, follow the money – see where the Donald has business interests, and where he does not.
The Trump line – fashioned, it seems, in the crack legal mind of Rudolph Giuliani – is that the travel ban is not a Muslim ban at all because the Executive Order Trump issued does not use the word “Muslim,” and also because there are plenty of Muslims in the world who do not fall under its scope.
The first of these contentions is too idiotic to dignify with a response; the second makes as much sense as claiming, say, that when the police kill an African American in their custody, it cannot be because their victim is black, since they don’t kill every African American they detain.
The most implausible of all the rationales for the Muslim travel ban currently in circulation is the one that Trump keeps repeating: its purpose, he says, is to keep Americans safe.
No matter that the seven targeted countries have never been implicated, even indirectly, in terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil or directed against Americans abroad.
No matter too that the ban actually makes Americans less safe by lending credence to ISIS and other jihadi groups that claim that the West is at war with the Muslim world.
In this respect, it is only an extreme version of the normal politics of the Bush-Obama era.
Obama did seem “kinder and gentler” than Bush and Cheney, but only because the wars they started in Afghanistan and Iraq had evolved in ways that made this possible, and because the weaponized drones and special ops assassins he favored didn’t raise nearly as much domestic opposition as “boots on the ground” or CIA “dark sites.”
But the Nobel laureate changed nothing fundamental. Under his aegis, just as under his predecessor’s, the United States made more terrorists than it killed or maimed.
In the final analysis, the slogan “no justice, no peace” rings true; and nothing Trump said during the campaign indicated even the slightest interest in a just foreign policy. But he did talk a lot about negotiating “good deals” for America. It is far from clear what that would mean, but, insofar as the goal is to make America safe, it could hardly be worse than what Bush and Obama have been doing.
Don’t count on any changes for the better, however.
Indeed, we already have some inkling of what counts as a good deal in the Donald’s mind; in the case of Israel and Palestine, it comes down to additional support for the settler movement and for politicians even more viciously ethnocratic than Benjamin Netanyahu.
At his joint press conference with the Bibster last Wednesday, Trump volunteered that it would be fine with him if Israel were to drop its nominal support for a “two state solution” altogether. Needless to say, what he had in mind was not a democratic and secular state that accorded full and equal rights to all of its citizens; he meant an Apartheid state governed by a Jewish Herrenvolk.
This may be a good deal in the eyes of his hyper-Zionist son-in-law and the bankruptcy lawyer he chose to be his Ambassador to the ethnocratic settler state, but it would be a disaster for the United States – and for Palestinians and, whether they know it or not, for Israeli Jews as well.
The conclusion is clear: what Trump says he will do, and what he does are often worlds apart, even when he and the people who speak for him go on endlessly about how he is fulfilling his campaign promises.
What a risible lot those spokespersons are!
Kellyanne Conway is, by now, even more a laughing stock than the Donald himself; and if Steven Miller didn’t look quite so goofy, he could do a respectable parody of a film noir sadistic killer. That boy’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows last week could have been scripted by “Saturday Night Live” writers. And even if there were no “Saturday Night Live,” Sean Spicer, the Donald’s press secretary, would still be a cartoon.
Yet this is what they trot out to show the world how they are making America safer!
There is also the slightly more plausible idea that the apparently mindless way that the Muslim travel ban was set out was purposeful; that, it was somehow a riff on Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.”
Nixon is said to have thought that he could prevail in Vietnam and force the Russians and Chinese into submission if he could get his opponents to think that he was crazy enough to do anything, up to and including unleashing a nuclear apocalypse.
Of course, not even Trump would go that far just to keep a few Muslims out of the United States. But seeming to be chaotic and out of control can be nearly as effective as being, or seeming to be, bat shit crazy. Instead of scaring people into submission by acting nuts, the idea would be to drive people nuts – by acting like a spoiled brat beyond the reach of reason.
But this is a tactic; and tactics only matter insofar as they advance some strategic objective.
Nixon understood that; he always had an objective in mind – usually a demented one, but an objective nevertheless. If Trump does, he has yet to tweet it out.
Another possibility is that he issued that Executive Order because, as a conman, he understands that he has to seem to be doing something, anything, to keep his marks on board. In a good con, “atmospherics” are all.
Then the point of his travel ban would be of a piece with his fondness for appearing on stage with generals, the more bloodthirsty the better, and with mouthing off about the effectiveness of torture.
This makes him look tough to the deplorables in his base. It also deflects attention away from what has always been obvious: that his efforts to “fix” the economy are bound not only to fail, but also to worsen the material condition of nearly everyone who is not already hyper-rich.
The only way to fix the economy is to change it. As a class conscious capitalist that is the very last thing that Trump would do.
Trump also understands the importance of keeping the public in a state of fear. A frightened people is a docile people.
Before Communism imploded and the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalist elites, with the political class and mainstream media in tow, managed to scare the hell out of Americans by invoking the Communist menace.
Trump’s travel ban is of a piece with that: with the Red Scare that followed the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, and with Cold War anti-Communism. The difference is that “radical Islamic terrorism” is the Great Fear now.
Since even before 9/11, our leaders have taken it upon themselves to encourage that fear – a complicated business in view of the close political and economic ties between the Muslim world and the West.
Nevertheless, with the help of jihadis intent on provoking a “clash of civilizations,” they have been more than up to the task. Insofar as Trump acts for reasons larger than his own needs, it may be that he wants is to keep fear alive. From that purview, his Muslim travel ban almost makes sense.
It is possible and even likely that Trump’s ban is the result of nothing more sinister than the nefarious instincts and clueless flailing about that is the Donald’s standard operating procedure.
When Trump is being Trump, people and institutions are harmed egregiously. The good news, though, is that Trump is also harming himself. Nixon finally got the axe because he was what he said he was not – a crook. If and when Trump falls, it will be because he is an embarrassment.
Perhaps, by then, he will not have done too much irrevocable damage to the body politic and to American society generally. There is at least some chance of that, especially if he goes sooner rather than later.
There is another more noxious possibility, however: that the man behind the Muslim ban is not so much Trump himself as his ethno-nationalist Svengali and consigliere, Steven Bannon.
Reliable journalists say that Bannon has been consolidating his power within the administration. If they are right, this would be a disturbing development indeed.
Unlike Trump, Bannon does seem to have an ideological streak; and also unlike Trump, he does not appear to be empty upstairs.
What his ideological commitments are is unclear however; he is an ideologue without writings – unless a half dozen rightwing film documentaries count. There is his work at Breitbart, but he was an editor there, not a journalist – the views he was trying to promote therefore have to be inferred from what he published, not from what he wrote.
Even so, his political orientation is clear enough; it is of a piece with ways of thinking current on the European hard Right – the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, for example, and the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik.
Classical fascism was a creature of the class struggles of its time and place. It suffered an historic defeat at the end of World War II, and can never be revived.
But the social and psychological factors that made mass fascist movements possible can be, and have been, revived – to the point where they pose a grave danger. Insofar as they seek to explain themselves to the world and to each other, they draw, for want of better or more recent alternatives, on strains of classical fascist thought.
There never was a single fascist ideology, but there were philosophers who gave theoretical expression to the various facets of fascist politics. Bannon may not be steeped in this literature, but he is plainly acquainted with it; and he seems to be drawing on it — picking and choosing what suits his interests.
Fascist thinkers opposed democracy and glorified political violence; they also developed distinctive aesthetic and moral theories, and had views about how capital, labor and the state ought to collaborate for the good of the Nation. If Bannon cares about any of that, he has kept his interest hidden.
However there has been discussion of his apparent familiarity with the writings of some esoteric fascist thinkers – Julius Evola, for example – noted for their opposition not only to Enlightenment values but to modernity itself.
That strain of fascist thought glorifies notions of racial purity and of the collective wisdom of the Volk — the people, purged of outside, corrupting influences.
As Catholic and Protestant anti-Judaism gave way to anti-Semitism, Jews were the quintessential outside, corrupting influence. Now that Muslims are the new Jews, and now that Israel has become a love interest of right-wingers the world over, the endemic anti-Semitism of the European hard Right has been muted to a considerable extent.
But deeply entrenched habits of mind die hard, and this one never did quite fade away in the first place.
Bannon, and therefore the Trump administration, is not many degrees of separation away from the hardest of hard core anti-Semites. But hard core Zionists like Jared Kushner and David Friedman are OK with that, and vice versa. Hard core Zionists are honorary white Americans; ordinary Jews not so much.
What an odd ethnos white America is! Elsewhere, history and demography have conspired to make the state and the nation one (or nearly one). But the United States is exceptional. Therefore, our ethno-nationalists have a harder time of it than, say, their counterparts in the Netherlands or France.
Dutch and French nationalists can plausibly ground their imaginings in the purported reality of the Dutch and French nations. Like all others, these nations are socially constructed and based, as Ernst Renan famously put it, on forgetting a great deal, but at least they are fixtures in the collective consciousness of the Dutch and French publics, respectively.
The United States is, and long has been, too “diverse” for anything quite like that. American ethno-nationalists have only the ravings of white supremacists to work with.
Even so, there are insiders and outsiders in America too. And like everywhere else, large influxes of outsiders can exacerbate insiders’ feelings of economic and social insecurity, causing the inner fascist in some of them to break free from the normal constraints of human decency.
Bannon, it seems, would make a virtue of this moral and psychological debility; that is what the classical fascists did, and it is what the hard Right around the world is doing today.
If Bannon’s way of thinking is, or becomes, the functioning ideology of the Trump government, we are in for big trouble.
The Muslim travel ban would then be just a foretaste of what is about to come down.
With Trump in office, it can only get worse – there will be two, three, many Muslim travel bans. The odiousness will become qualitatively worse as well.
This, again, is why it is imperative to resist all things Trumpian by any and all available means, and why it is urgent to move from resistance to effective opposition.
Rule the Democrats, the party of the Clintons and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, out for that. By now, inveterate Trump-haters in the GOP – people like John McCain and his sidekick Lindsay Graham — are showing signs of calling for Trump’s impeachment. But from the ranks of the mainstream Democratic Party there has been, until very recently, only deafening silence.
That now seems to be changing, for reasons that are true to form and far from good.
Redbaiting is pointless when there are no reds to bait; but that didn’t stop Clinton when she needed an axe to grind during the campaign. Now that the campaign is over, Democrats – “progressive” and otherwise — won’t let it go. Neither will Republicans of the McCain – Graham variety. Hallelujah — bipartisanship at last!
Of course, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans can’t exactly redbait, but they can do the next best thing; they can go after Russia.
What is it with them? Are they itching to start World War III? Anyone who can stand to watch MSNBC (MSDNC) for long cannot help but think so.
The silver lining in this is that Trump’s purported ties to Russia are at least getting Democrats to start talking about impeachment. But for all the good there is in that, there is their newfound affection for the CIA and “the intelligence community” generally, and for other nefarious components of the so-called “deep state.”
Thus the evidence mounts: while civil society may sometimes force some Democrats to do the right thing the Party itself is hopeless.
Its record on impeachment is especially pathetic. When there was a chance in 2006 to hobble George W. Bush’s war machine by launching impeachment proceedings against him, House Leader Pelosi, Clintonite extraordinaire, put the kybosh on the idea. She didn’t want to do anything that would put Hillary Clinton’s election in 2008 at risk. Neither, before Obama came on the scene, did any other leading Democrat. Too bad for all of them that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley…”
The Democrats were the Party of Pusillanimity in 2006; they are worse now.
This is why, as resistance to Trump grows, it is important to bear in mind that Trump is not the only enemy, and to realize that if all the energy that is now spilling out into the streets ends up benefiting the Democratic Party “as we know it,” it will all have been a spectacular waste.
According to news reports, Schumer wants Bernie Sanders to tell anyone who still listens to him to support Democrats come what may. He well might; he has already betrayed the movement he started on just those grounds.
But whoever follows his advice is going to make matters worse. The only issue worth pondering for anyone with a progressive bone in his or her body is whether to try to smash the Democratic Party or to try to take it over Tea Party style.
Resisting Trump is Job Number One, but unless and until the Donald causes the politics of our time to change fundamentally, Trumpism is only the symptom; Clintonism (or Schumerism or Pelosiism) is the disease.
Therefore, now is the time to resist — not only Trump and his posse of vile incompetents and ignoramuses, but Democrats too.
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).