The dominant view on the Left is to press the urgency of voting Donald Trump out of office, claiming he is an existential threat to democracy, and then work with a Democratic administration to push for a more progressive agenda. Trump is to be seen as an unprecedented disaster, and we are asked to think of Joe Biden as a temporary measure, the lesser of two evils.
But all of this seems to be driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of where we stand today as an empire, and what this might mean for the actual possibility of change in a populist direction.
Behind the upset feelings caused by Trump’s “vulgar” rhetoric and style, the substance of his policies versus those of the Democrats goes unaddressed. What if Trump could be shown to be less destructive than the Democrats in every single policy dimension? On immigration, trade, inequality, surveillance, civil liberties, and even the environment, what if reelecting Trump actually would prove less harmful than returning a Democrat to the White House?
Such a case, in fact, can be made. Trump is the first president in modern American history not to start a war. It appears that he tried his best to unwind the existing wars, but faced unrelenting pressure from the deep state (let’s call it that, rather than the military-industrial complex, because it better captures the passionately symbiotic alliance that’s formed between all the liberal institutions and the war machine) against international retreat.
At the very least, it’s indisputable that none of us can remember another administration in living memory that hasn’t started a war. His efforts to lower tensions with North Korea, for example, should have been greeted with applause by the Left, but instead we saw it falling in line with the deep state’s consternation at scaling back that particular folly in East Asia. On Iran, Trump seems to have been the voice of restraint, getting rid of bellicose lieutenants fed up with his disengagement from the Middle East. On this factor alone—the downsizing of the perpetual war America has waged for 80 years—Trump deserves credit.
The line about cozying up to dictators, breaking up the Western alliance, and tearing up “free trade” agreements is propagated by forces in the deep state (Democrats and Republicans alike) interested in continuing the American empire at its most heinous into the indefinite future. A thinking person on the Left should take no part in such an iteration of the worst aspects of American militarism, as was true also of the witch hunt perpetrated under the banner of Russiagate, and the continuing obsession with Russian and other foreign interference in our elections, as if such a thing were even possible, and as if we don’t already do a good enough job ourselves of suppressing votes as a matter of vaunted American tradition.
On immigration, despite Trump’s child separation policy at the border, clampdown on legal immigration, and stern rejection of asylum seekers and refugees, he is to immigration as the Red Army’s rampage in Berlin was to the Allies’ burning down of German cities, a cynical attempt to stamp out German civilization as a potential threat to American capitalism. Both the Russians and Americans raped German women in large numbers at the conclusion of the “Good War,” but it was about the only depravity left to commit after the indiscriminate destruction that is completely excluded from the founding myth of the contemporary American empire.
Obama’s enforcement-only immigration policy, taking full advantage of the draconian apparatus set up by Bill Clinton, got rid of most of the long-term residents with ambiguous status, those who had been in the country for 20, 30, or 40 years, against whom it could be argued that the moral claim of children who have never lived in this country is of a far lesser order. Even “kids in cages” is not Trump’s invention. His restriction of legal immigration simply builds on the anti-immigrant rhetoric introduced into American discourse by neoliberal administrations for 30 years, taking those perversions to their logical conclusion.
Debasing the Language
Trump is no fascist, as should be clear after four years of his presidency. To apply that term to him, such as when he calls for “law and order” in response to racial justice protests (both American staples), or when he staged his appearance at St. John’s Episcopal Church with militarist bravado (as though this is not vastly overwhelmed by the military ordinarily dominating the civilian government), is to do a disservice to the very definition of fascism.
For five years every past policy failure of neoliberalism has been excused by way of the alleged return of white nationalism (mostly at the rhetorical level). But what is really racist? Trump’s ambiguous vocabulary feeding alt-right trolls, or 50 years of mass incarceration and assorted campaigns against civil liberties, the destruction of healthcare, housing, and education as public goods, and the loss of dignified jobs under corporate globalization?
The man whose great claim to legitimacy is his “character” and “decency”—as vouchsafed by deep state Democrats and Republicans alike—was, in fact, one of the key masterminds of those very policies that devastated the American middle class, creating racial disparities after the end of the 1945-1973 golden age of American capitalism that the Democrats have no intention of addressing. Trump might have said “there were very fine people on both sides” (the media oligarchy has harped on that ever since Charlottesville), but if you look at Biden’s actual policies—the drug war, mass incarceration, and evisceration of the safety net, all of them disproportionately affecting minorities—he is by far the greater racist, without any equivalence.
White privilege, used as pure abstraction (like the equally weaponized terms “hate crime” or “hate speech”), has become a means to divide according to class, and leftists have fallen for it.
It is no coincidence that since the beginning of Trump’s candidacy it has been the denigration of “norms,” rules and protocols above all that has been the greatest charge against him. And it is no accident that his violation of such norms has been critiqued by way of associating him with foreign, invasive elements, Russia above all, as a way of avoiding the question of what these norms actually signify.
The norms, in fact—as we can see from Barack Obama’s recent encapsulations of what the Left has been trained to consider as honor, decency and decorum—represent consensus about the imperial project, which is couched in a language that sounds democratic but in fact is highly authoritarian and unrepresentative.
Trump, in a distorted way, has tried to represent half of the American people, outside the neoliberal meritocratic bubble. This necessary and inevitable point of view—an undeniable populist upsurge, despite the temporary setback to fortunes as a result of the virus and the economic crash—has not receded and will not do so, as long as the Left continues to be swayed by the value of norms.
These norms, which have caused such devastation to the planet’s diverse human cultures and the habitat of non-human animals, in fact, deserve to be smashed. The Iran nuclear deal, which Trump trashed, was a way for empire to keep Iran under a chokehold, rather than any real effort to stop punishing Iran and be fair to its people. The same applies to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was the Obama Administration’s great diplomatic masterstroke, excluding China and incorporating peripheral Asian countries in order to counter China’s growing power. The neoliberal elites desperately want their mechanisms of power back, which has been their primary reason to demonize Trump for five years. They want to continue the project of empire under polite diplomatic subterfuge, in which we might include the Paris Climate Accord as well, which would not have been adequate to solve the climate emergency but certainly provides legitimizing cover for capitalism.
The Coming Crises
As in 1939 in the lead-up to World War II, the isolationists in the United States, who back then wanted nothing to do with Europe’s internal fight over the distribution of power, have been labeled outright fascists or fascist collaborators. It is a strange fascism indeed that does not make war, expresses deep disinterest in the political direction of other nations, and diminishes the explicit concordance of alliances and entanglements upon which any extension of fascism would rest.
The Trumpist movement is a deeply inward-looking movement, arisen in large part because the neoliberal elites of both parties didn’t permit reflection after the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters, unlike the relative space granted for public introspection after the Vietnam debacle.
As such, this aspect should be appreciated by the Left, which is currently being shepherded behind unquestioning revival of the war instinct. Obedience to this creed will be solicited from well-meaning liberals under the rubric of a revival of norms, such as human rights or freedom, the patently hypocritical discourse which has been refreshingly absent these last five years.
One might be pressured into voting for the lesser of two evils, believing that some revival of democratic norms is possible under a Democratic administration, depending on where one situates the trajectory of American empire.
To me, we are entering the culminating 2020-2030 period, at the end of which, after a couple of unmanageable crises, an internal one and an external one, the American federation will cease to exist as we’ve known it for two-and-a-half centuries. Just before the turn of the millennium, I expected some disaster to occur, which would violently sweep away the remnants of democracy, because the edifice holding it up seemed to me to have become too unstable and ripe for a shaking.
I didn’t expect terrorism to be the mode of the cataclysm, because I thought it had played itself out in the 1980s and 1990s, but the nature of the emergency is not so important as its existence, which the neoliberal elites always turn into a magnification of their own power at the cost of democracy. In late 2019, in a conversation with the prescient historian Morris Berman in Mexico, we shared the view that starting in 2020 we might expect a crisis, which would bring about an acceleration toward the dénouement we both anticipate by 2030. In January 2020, speaking with Keaton Weiss for his leftist “Due Dissidence” podcast, I wondered where Trump’s crisis was, not realizing that the coronavirus emergency had already occurred.
Yet I don’t believe that the coronavirus is the cataclysm that will push us to the other side, because it is a manageable one. The real pair of crises, which I expect to occur during the course of the decade, will not be manageable by the elites. Everything Biden proposes to do (or actually, not do) to address any of the urgent dilemmas facing America, and capitalism in general, confirms to me that these crises will be hastened by a return of the Democrats to the White House. The entire liberal campaign has been run on doing nothing, addressing not a single void of legitimacy with any substantive solution, but to return to “decency” and “honor,” which only means providing rhetorical cover for both empire and inequality.
To constantly bring up the specter of white nationalism, white supremacy, and white privilege is to delegitimize the New Right by whatever means necessary, often mendacious at an intellectual level. There cannot be a revived Left unless we account for the ideology of the revived Right, which has found in Trump its most articulate avatar so far, but is by no means limited to him. The New Right is essentially a loudmouthed protest against the power of the elites to enforce a certain way of life upon all the rest of us, a lifestyle conforming to the neoliberal economy’s redefinition of human beings as interchangeable capitalist free agents.
Many do not want any part of this anti-human proposition, as was certainly true of the New Left in the 1960s, from which arose important movements for human liberation. For the Left to give up an intellectual reckoning with the growing power of the New Right, and its legitimate questioning of elite control, is to foreclose any possibility of making a meaningful contribution.
The Democratic Party and its officeholders may only want to mock, deride, and delegitimize all shades of the Right, but should leftists engage in such a practice? If yes, then are we not guilty of the same dehumanization we allege our presumed mortal enemies on the Right to be practicing against us? The New Right is not going away anytime soon, regardless of whether Trump wins or loses.
Worst President Ever?
In the summer I thought that, despite the imbroglio of the virus, the election would come down to just three states in the Midwest, the same as last time, namely Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with the last one possibly decisive. This may still come true. At the moment, the sense of doom about the virus is at its most extreme, so it may not pan out that way, but the reversion to the norm is a country where large swaths are greatly attracted to the Right, so that Ohio, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina and many other states which used to be in the swing column have moved over to the other side. A paralyzed, intentionally small-minded and severely self-centered Biden Administration would provide a sharp jolt of reawakening to this electoral reality, which is driven by half a century of elite disinterest toward the forgotten areas of the country.
Earlier this year I was trying to rank all the post-LBJ administrations from worst to best, and I put Clinton, Reagan, Bush Jr. and Obama at the top, with Ford, Bush Sr., Nixon and Trump bringing up the rear as the least-damaging post-1968 presidents. I could switch Reagan with Clinton for first place, considering that Reagan was the godfather of neoliberalism more than anyone else, but Clinton was the one who fully implemented it at the global level, freed of Reagan’s Cold War preoccupations, so he probably ranks at the top. At the domestic level, with the cost and nature of healthcare, education, and housing permanently altered, Obama carried Clinton’s neoliberal reordering to its most extreme state, and therefore belongs up there with the most damaging of all presidents.
Nixon, with his détente and attempt to lower tensions with Russia and China, and his relative sympathy toward leftist programs that would be considered far out of reach today, was actually one of the least damaging of presidents, despite the extension of the war in Southeast Asia.
None of the liberal elites yelling fascism at Trump dared to do so with Bush Jr., who was much farther along that spectrum, and with his illegitimate war on terrorism alone, taking war crimes to a new peak, destroyed according to recent official reckoning 37 million brown lives, and dismantled the Bill of Rights in favor of a surveillance state that’s here to stay.
Carter, universally lauded by liberal elites these days as a paragon of virtue, in fact inaugurated neoliberalism by way of deregulation, privatization, and austerity, and also reversed Nixonian détente by starting the final round of the Cold War that was completed by Reagan.
To compare these colossal global misdeeds, which under the last two Democratic presidents created unprecedented inequality (fewer than 10 Americans owning more than half the nation’s wealth) and put the planet on the path to ecological destruction, with Trump’s tantrums about the fake media, or his effective closure of the Southern border, or even the mismanagement of the virus, is to engage in intellectual dishonesty that doesn’t suit the Left.
The claim that Trump is the worst modern president, which is the entire predicate for returning one of the prime architects of war, incarceration, bankruptcy, inequality and unaffordability to power, thus dissolves quickly upon inspection. To Trump’s credit, he hasn’t even made a power grab in terms of surveillance or increased state authority in response to the virus. Imagine how a neoliberal administration, taking cues from the reaction to 9/11, would have accumulated power in response to the virus, accelerating a dystopia of surveillance and control. The fake media and deep state never called Bush Jr. a fascist, so when these same dilettantes label Trump a fascist and warn of a coming coup d’état, you know that neither of these claims is true.
When the entire emphasis is on tone and language as the measurement of crimes against humanity, when actual such crimes, instigated under the rhetoric of American exceptionalism from Kennedy to Obama, go unnoticed, then we have entered the realm of hyperreality. As in the academy lately, policing the tone has become the predominant concern, which will actually facilitate a return to far greater internal and external violence than Trump has attempted. The inflated rhetoric about decency, the sum of Biden’s campaign, prevents, in inverse proportion, any actual advance toward progressive goals, as one can tell by Biden’s reactionary cabinet in waiting.
To give Trump just one term would be to accelerate the polity toward the condition of what I call “armed libertarianism,” whose glimpses we’ve already seen for the last five years, and which occurs when the frustrations of a populist Right unwilling to go along with the conformity imposed by the corporate media, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and Wall Street are dismissed out of hand as paranoid or rooted in conspiracy theory. A Biden-imposed lockdown will rightly be resisted, and most vigorously, because it won’t be accompanied by UBI (universal basic income) or debt forgiveness or universal healthcare, putting the population under unmanageable strain.
Legitimizing the Neoliberal Project
The question for some of us just before the turn of the millennium, as we anticipated a 50-year decline of empire arriving in phases, was whether there would be a soft landing or a hard one toward the end of empire. It certainly looked from the beginning like it would be a hard one, but to bring back the Democrats so soon, without any reckoning as to what led to the Trumpist reaction, seems to me to guarantee the hardest possible landing.
To eject Trump now would be to rejuvenate the neoliberal order at a time of showdown and to accord it the legitimacy it desperately needed after its failed response to the last economic collapse. The whole exercise of beating down Trump is meant to procure public legitimation for the next stage of internal and external colonization, both of which will be greatly assisted by the virus catastrophe. Once again, experts, scientists, and doctors in this case—how could the Left forget the fake testimony of military experts of every kind during our calamitous wars, the scientists who are handmaidens to capitalism’s destructive projects, and the technicians who support the surveillance state and the conversion of the citizen into the consumer?—will ascend the pinnacle, after years of attack by Trumpism. We will go back to the norms of bureaucratic-murderous language, rather than the aching symbolism that has crept into our political discourse.
Whether or not Trump or Biden have Chinese or Russian bank accounts or peddle influence there is code for our subconscious fear that the new century is fated to be China’s, with American power increasingly taking a back seat to the new rising hegemon.
But if Trump is eclipsed so soon, this slowly encroaching language, by way of Russiagate or Burisma or Chinese bank accounts or even the “Chinese virus,” will be replaced by backroom negotiations involving a revived form of the TPP and more militarist maneuvers against China. The defeat of Trump now would mean a dramatically escalated entrance into a new configuration, a leapfrog over the reality of American misery and conventional progressive demands toward a reconstitution of neoliberal order in a more hyperreal space. The digitization of most public and human functions for the proletariat—in essence their disappearance, the great fantasy of the technocrats who have been waiting for a Democratic administration to return to power and permit its efficient execution—is just one of those changes the Left will deeply regret if Trump loses.
Large sections of the American Left have become convinced, after five years of relentless state propaganda, that this is the most important election in American history (as we’re always told they are), that the opponent is the devil incarnate who wants to end American democracy (as we’re also told each time), and that salvation lies in electing a consummate neoliberal Democrat who instigated the carceral, punitive, unequal and divisive state over 50 years of actual policymaking.
Let’s break this cycle, and think rationally as people of the Left about the ideological substance behind Trump (the economic populism from the Right that might have been) and its liberal-corporate opponents who want us to return in short order to endless wars and the re-legitimation of an economic order well on its way to destroying the planet.
The Left characterizes Trumpism as an America First ideology, but when we show disregard for what happens to brown and black people around the world (during this welcome slackening from 80 years of continuous bombardment) or historical amnesia toward what has been happening to brown and black communities at home, and indeed poor whites and rural America for 50 years, then this is our own form of America Firstism that far exceeds Trumpist short-sightedness.
A social justice movement cannot take place in the absence of minimal assurance of civil liberties (which includes free speech, a value that the Left, more than the Right, is quick to abandon these days, in the name of any number of righteous causes, such as protection from the bugaboo of white nationalism), or the guarantee that democracy will function well at the minimal level of vote counting—but even that has been missing from Democratic Party discourse, and in fact has been part of a systemic policy of making mundane democratic practice as difficult as possible.
The meaning of the social unrest this year lies in the elites having decided that they are not going to share the tiniest bit of power. Whether or not Trump instigates racial violence is an issue that doesn’t even go to the heart of the unrest that we saw. In the midst of a pandemic, the winning Democratic candidate explicitly promised to avoid doing a single thing that could actually alleviate pain.
It is around this elite consensus of changing nothing that the entire establishment from both parties has come together, browbeating ordinary people into believing that voting out Trump is like beating back Hitler, who was explicitly mentioned in the final debate. The Democratic convention was based on that singular premise, as various discredited deep state figures were trotted out to announce the return of a deadly hegemony, assuring us that things would return to “normal”—normal in this case meaning what to any thinking person should feel abnormal, namely trafficking in universal death.
Trump’s crime has been to speak with “dictators” outside the pale of American empire. Should leftists be opposed to that? Trump has exposed the hollowness of American democracy and exceptionalism at every turn, stating that this is his intent. Is that something a leftist should quarrel with? Trump has made us confront the reality that elections in America have always been corrupt and unfair, as any study of the degree to which ballots are not counted or barriers erected to voting will amply testify. Should leftists be on the side of those who proclaim the American system of voting a model to perpetuate? What if, in identifying the lesser of two evils, we have misidentified?