By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.
Photo by Orin Zebest | CC BY 2.0
The Doomsday Clock has been edging closer to midnight since Donald Trump got his hands on the nuclear codes – not for ideological reasons, as would have been the case had Hillary Clinton not blown her chance to become Commander-in-Chief, but because he is morally inert and psychologically unhinged. Giving such a miscreant control over a nuclear arsenal is like handing a troubled teenager a loaded gun.
And although he has yet to score even one major legislative victory after eight months in office, he and the hyper-rich, ideologically driven troglodytes he installed in key cabinet and agency positions have already done grave, perhaps irreversible, harm to America’s feeble efforts to address the catastrophic problem of global warming. Their record on other environmental issues has been similarly appalling.
Trump’s appointments to the federal judiciary have done irreparable harm as well; Neil Gorsuch is only the tip of the iceberg.
Nevertheless, credit where credit is due: to the dismay of guardians of the status quo, Trump has diminished the majesty of the office he occupies and has undermined the moral standing of the United States in the world. He has also done severe, probably irreparable, harm to the Republican Party.
Cutting the imperial presidency down to size is a necessary step in the democratization of the regime. The situation was a little better for a few years after Watergate, but these days there are no significant political forces opposing the powers assumed by the executive branch since the end of World War II. Ironically, with Congress being bought and paid for as it is, this may actually be a good thing.
Ultimately, though, (small-d) democracy is about according “power to the people,” not to the people’s leaders. Therefore, even under present conditions, knocking the office of President down a notch or two has its progressive side.
How ironic that a buffoonish autocrat wannabe would be a means to that end!
How ironic too that the man who says he wants to ‘make America great again’ would do so much to undermine its moral standing throughout the world. Peoples struggling to break free from American domination have reason to be grateful.
Might is indispensible for global or even regional hegemony, but right is more important still. Without it, the kind of cultural influence upon which the exercise of “soft power” depends lies beyond reach. Hegemons must be moral leaders; military stockpiles are not enough.
No doubt, within the military-industrial complex, there are those who are grateful for Trump’s support and largesse. Nevertheless, for the empire’s more thoughtful stewards, his presidency has been a nightmare. If only for this reason, it has not been entirely without redeeming features.
Trump is doing it all unintentionally, of course; and, under his aegis, the cure is worse than the disease. He is, as it were, an accidental nihilist. How pathetic that, in our “bipartisan” political universe, bereft as it is of (small-d) democrats and principled anti-imperialists, this can almost seem, and perhaps sometimes even is, as good as it gets.
Despite the efforts of Clintonite Democrats to revive and then ratchet up the Cold War, the GOP is still the more noxious of our two semi-established, neoliberal political parties. This being the case, whatever harms them is not to be despised.
The benefit is diminished, however, not just because their rival’s malign neglect of the (many hued) working class has made it all but irrelevant, but also because its leaders are disinclined to upset the status quo even to the extent that they can; Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and the others actually seem to view the Donald as a godsend. Why wouldn’t they? Democrats have nothing else to offer, at this point, except milquetoast opposition to Trump. They call it “resistance.”
This is why, to remove the Trumpian menace in the Constitutionally prescribed way, Republicans are going to have to lead the way, and carry it through to completion.
This isn’t going to happen, however, as long as their leaders think that they can get more of what they want by working with Trump than by working against him.
What they want is what the capitalists they work for want; and, after Charlottesville, those capitalists have been running away from Trump like rats fleeing a sinking ship. One would think that this would seal his fate. It doesn’t in this case, however, for reasons peculiar to the Trump phenomenon itself.
Many of the people who thought that Trump would somehow improve their material conditions have already defected, and others will surely follow before long; reality always exacts its toll.
But there seems to be a hard core of what are essentially Trump cultists who will never defect – unless Trump, at age seventy-one, somehow changes his personality completely and stops going rogue.
For them, there seems to be nothing that Trump could do that would cause them to turn on him; not even, as Trump once bragged, were he to shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue.
These are the people who are most likely to turn out in large numbers to vote in the mid-term election next year — because they are energized, while no other segment of the electorate is. Trump cultists are therefore able to call the shots,within Republican ranks.
Meanwhile, what Congressional incumbents want more than anything is their own re-election. They want that even more than they want to serve their corporate and Wall Street paymasters or to advance the causes to which they are ideologically or opportunistically committed.
Thanks to voluntary population sorting (people like living among people like themselves) and gerrymandering, most Republican incumbents nowadays are unlikely to lose their seats to Democrats. However, they could easily lose their seats to challengers in next year’s primaries.
Democrats are, of course, in the same position, but it is unlikely that many of them will be sent packing by challengers running to their left. The will is there, but Democrats are inherently pusillanimous and cautious to a fault. Most incumbent Democrats have little cause to worry.
But Republicans who cross Trump do have cause; they are all but guaranteed primary challenges that they could very well lose.
Therefore, even though Trump is a problem not just for the country and the world but for them as well, expect them to be reluctant to rattle his cage.
In twelve or thirteen months time, when the threat of primary challengers will have faded, the calculation will be different. For now, though, much as they might like to see Trump go, don’t count on many of them doing anything about it.
Needless to say, this could change in the bat of an eye. Life under Trump is life on the edge, and potential tipping points abound. Charlottesville might yet turn out to have been a tipping point; if it is followed by two, three, many Charlottesvilles, all bets are off.
At this point, though, it all depends on the attitudes of likely Republican voters in states that could go either way, and in so-called red states where Republican victories are all but assured.
Even moderate Republicans are not, by any means, people whose good sense and moral decency can be assumed Sadly, however, the fate of the world depends on what Republican voters think.
And that depends, in turn, on the extent to which they are able to resist what might be called WTF fatigue (WTF, that is, as in “what the fuck”?)
This never used to be a factor in our politics, but under Trump it has become a problem for everybody – not only Republicans who are coming to understand what Trump is all about, but everyone else as well.
Thus what seemed outrageous a year or even eight months ago now seems barely worth mentioning. One, comparatively innocent, example will illustrate what I mean.
In 1988, Joe Biden, seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, stole a line from the Leader of the opposition Labor Party in the UK, Neil Kinnock, and forever after became “Plagiarism Joe.”
When Melania Trump spoke at the Republican Convention in Cleveland last year, she or whoever wrote the words she read on the teleprompter did Biden one better; she plagiarized from Michelle Obama, the First Lady at the time. For this she was widely derided, though, with Trump himself already flaunting ethical norms more egregiously day by day, the incident got sucked down into the memory hole and was soon forgotten.
Then, last week, she did it again, after the murder of Heather Heyer by the twenty-year old self-described Nazi, James Alex Field Jr. Before Melania’s husband had tweeted a word about Heyer or anything else pertaining to the white supremacist, neo-Nazi assault on Charlottesville, she or her speechwriters put out a statement, taken almost verbatim again, from Michelle Obama. Hardly anyone cared or even noticed.
Why would they? With unbelievable WTF outrages piling on daily, sometimes even hourly, plagiarism is small potatoes.
This is the mentality one has to break through to get to the point where Republicans will turn on Trump. If his presidency continues to disintegrate, along with his mind, this could happen. But since it is up to the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan whether or not it does, the chances, though getting better all the time, remain poor.
It is, in fact, more likely that, some combination of financial and legal jeopardy, along with humiliation and embarrassment, will cause Trump to “self-impeach.” This isn’t likely either, however, because Trump is too much of an egotist to cut and run in full public view.
But this is surely what he would do if he still had the sense he was born with, if indeed he was born with any sense at all. Trump has so many more reasons to flee than to stay.
Were he to remove himself from office “voluntarily,” as Richard Nixon did, he would save himself and the Republican Party a lot of trouble. Trump could care less about the Republican Party. But he does care a great deal about himself.
And, with six bankruptcies under his sizeable belt, it is plain that flight is in his nature. To be sure, those bankruptcies were, for the most part, good for his bottom line, even as they were disastrous for his workers, contractors, and investors. But they nevertheless do reveal character traits that could well come into play now.
If, as is likely, the Mueller investigation is closing in on legally actionable crimes committed by Trump, his family members, and his close associates – money laundering, for example — he could probably “negotiate” pardons for all concerned parties in exchange for his resignation, but it is far from clear that even he could finagle any financial gain out of leaving the White House in disgrace. If anybody can, however, he is the one; cashing in by running away is one of the few things he is good at.
Legal jeopardy is not the only consideration that could get Trump to budge; financial losses and mounting challenges to his self-esteem could do the job as well.
If even those CEOs who fled Trumpland after Charlottesville could see how jumping off that sinking ship was in their interest, how much harder could it be to get the Donald to see for himself that his brand is becoming toxic — that his presidency is not only bad for his fellow capitalists and for business generally, but bad for his own businesses as well?
Although he could care less, it is bad for the GOP too. The poltroons in charge of that nefarious operation may be among the last to realize that their party would be better off going after Trump than standing by him, but even some of them are already seeing the light. That is how bright that light has become.
Therefore expect more and more Republican incumbents to realize that their worries about primary challengers in 2018 are misguided — that the harm Trump is doing to all Republicans, themselves included, is a more important determinant of their electoral fates.
Those of them who do have the sense they were born must now be salivating at the prospect of replacing Trump with one of their own, Vice President Mike Pence.
It must surely have occurred to those Republicans how easy it would be to find cause for dumping the Donald; he has given them many times more grounds to work with than they need.
But, again: don’t except Ryan and McConnell et. al. to move against Trump until they have exhausted all other alternatives. After Charlottesville, they were good only for a few pious banalities. It will take a lot more of “Trump being Trump” to get more out of them.
However, don’t despair if it takes Trump a while, or forever, to figure out the message of the writing on the wall. Pence is no prize; compared to Trump, he may not even be a lesser evil.
Unlike Trump, who has foul instincts but no fixed ideas, Pence is a bona fide reactionary whose views are retrograde even by Republican standards.
Were he to take over, there would be a groundswell of relief that, for a while at least, would likely break through the gridlock paralyzing Washington. The liberal pieties of cable news pundits notwithstanding, that would not be a good thing at all. With a political class comprised of Clintonite Democrats and Republicans, gridlock has been a blessing. When it goes, if it ever does, it will be sorely missed.
With Trump out and Pence in, Republican reactionaries will be back in business, “independents” will resume their quiescence, and the anti-Trump “resistance” in the Democratic Party will dissipate just as quickly as the anti-war movement did when arch-war maker and Nobel laureate Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush.
On the do-no-harm – or as little harm as possible – principle, immobility under Trump might therefore be preferable to retrograde movement under Pence.
It is impossible to say for sure because it is impossible to know in how much greater peril we are with Trump in charge of nuclear weapons or what the consequences will be of his penchant for bringing out the inner fascist in an appallingly large segment of the American public.
Pence is awful on immigration and his Islamophobic credentials are beyond dispute, but at least he is not an epigone of neo-fascists and the KKK. After Charlottesville, we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Trump is.
In the end, though, there are too many incommensurable factors to take into account, and too much indeterminacy, to say, with any confidence, which of the two is worse. The only sure thing is that with either Trump or Pence in charge, expect trouble ahead.
An urgent duty, for anyone with a progressive bone in his or her body, is to work to transform the conditions that make Trump-Clinton elections and Trump-Pence administrations possible.
This is hardly a radical objective, though it might seem so from within the purview of the Democratic Party. We can do better than we did in 2016 – maybe not without transforming the Democratic Party beyond recognition, but certainly within the confines of actually existing capitalism. Even those damnable CEOs whom liberal pundits have been praising so exuberantly since Charlottesville understand this well.
The job has needed doing for a long time — since long before anyone took Trump seriously or even knew whom he was.
Now, with Trump and/or Pence calling the shots, there is another, more immediately urgent task: damage control.
Given the very limited options our not very democratic Constitution accords, and in light of how useless Democrats have become, probably the best we can do at this point, at least while President WTF is still around, is to shame and, whenever possible, shun any person or organization that in any way supports the Trump brand.
In the right conditions, and with the right support behind them, boycotts work.
The CEOs who broke with Trump after Charlottesville understood this; fearing boycotts and other expressions of public disapproval, they prudently put on a preemptive display of moral rectitude.
The Israeli government and its supporters abroad understand this too. Why else would their realization that the BDS movement is growing, despite their efforts to crush it, drive them bat shit crazy?
Would boycotting all things Trump drive Trump crazy too? How could one tell? But even someone as narcissistic and deluded as the Donald could hardly fail to notice the Trump name being transformed from an asset to a liability.
For good or ill, we probably won’t get to see the back of him on this account alone. But the more tied up he is with it, the better off we all will be.
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).