Monday, February 6, 2017

Trump -- Reflections on the state and the revolution

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for barely two weeks and if you did not know any better it would seem as if the Great Republic was already in an existential crisis unprecedented in its history since at least the Civil War.

A surprising number of liberal and left types from Michael Moore to CNN say a "coup" is occurring while countless others see this as the advent of fascism or Nazism (which are not the same thing) and draw all sorts of grand specious allegedly historical analogies that fall flat rather quickly if one bothers to actually check out the history and conditions of countries like Italy in the early 20's or Germany in the early 30's. If you do you will find they bear scant resemblance at all to the United States of 2017.

Some have even compared Trump and his alleged puppet-master Stephen Bannon to Lenin due to apparent comments Bannon once made and their supposed desire to destabilize and destroy the state as Lenin did, as if all efforts towards destabilization or destruction of the state amount to the same thing! Neo-liberal politics has, in a certain sense, already been trying to destroy the state for 40 years since the ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher.

Let us be clear -- Donald Trump is a despicable, narcissistic, authoritarian and very dangerous reactionary who does, absolutely, represent a threat to established democratic institutions and to the rights of women, the marginalized and racialized, the LGBT community, workers and people living in poverty. His ideas and the ideas of those who back him are deeply awful on issues from immigration to foreign policy to abortion and on and on.

There can be little doubt, also, that due to his populist and aggressively anti-democratic style and posturing (from implying the judiciary is illegitimate, to implying that the media is, to implying that even the election he won was!) he represents a somewhat new and especially heinous variety of lowest common denominator recent hard right wing politics.

This has lead to an incredible and unprecedented level of push back and fightback, for this early in a term, from remarkably diverse groups of people and also to legal challenges to attempt to stop his efforts to rule by executive order as if these are imperial fiats.

His disgraceful and established personal misogyny and his desire to work to set back the rights of women by decades also led to the largest single day of mass protest in American history thanks to our sisters in the feminist movement and to the willingness of women to mobilize generally against him.

I think it is clear that Trump, his closest advisers and the political class and pundits more broadly deeply underestimated the amount of resistance he would face right out of the gate and we on the left should feel really encouraged by this.

It is also true that we have a President who massively lost the popular vote and is the least popular President to be elected in a very long time (arguably ever) and this fact is not lost on anyone.

But none of this amounts to a coup and, more importantly, much of what Trump has epitomized or brought into focus is actually not at all new to the American political discourse or to American governance.

I am not entirely sure what people think a "coup" is, but it is not the (even aggressive) flexing of the muscles of office by a democratically elected government using what are entirely legal means (which is why these edicts can and now have in one case been blocked if they are deemed to be unconstitutional in the courts). Nor do "coup" governments back down or moderate their proposals if they get blow back as has happened with the Trump regime already as well (in the case of Green Card holders and the immigration ban and in the case of the floated 20% Mexican tariff idea.)

The nature and structure of the American state has not been altered at all as yet and the methods being used for what is happening are all methods granted by the laws as they are now.

As Arun Gupta pointed out in The Anarres Project:
The Trumpkins have phenomenal contempt for everything from bourgeois political norms to the idea of democracy to the left and progressives. But stop thinking this is Year Zero, as many pundits are calling the Trump regime.  Their power grabs fit into a history of power grabs by presidents of both parties, going back to FDR. There are moments where some limits are placed, such as after Watergate, but then a new president undermines most controls and expands powers further. That is true, in different ways, of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
Democratically elected governments can use, and have used, legal methods to profoundly undermine or even fundamentally destroy the very nature of bourgeois democratic governance, but that has not actually begun to happen yet (all hyperbole aside) and the United States is a long way from having its constitutional safeguards rendered meaningless and having a single figure or military junta who can rule by mere decree.

It is also like people have suddenly forgotten the Nixon, Reagan and post 9/11 Bush Jr. administrations whose contempt for democratic and constitutional norms went on for years. 

That Trump is trying to delegitimize the mainstream press and undermine the public's confidence in institutions like the judiciary and is doing so in an unusually aggressive, dangerous and crass way is without question true. But it is also true that the American right and right wing American elected officials have been doing this in various ways for a long time now as have right wing leaders in other countries (Berlusconi in Italy most notably comes to mind). 

Also, it is essential to remember that many of Trump's edicts are hardly a break from "mainstream" politics in the US and some of the ideas in them have won wide support from Democrats in the past. 

The very first executive order made by Trump to reinstate the "Mexico Policy" on abortion brought back policy first introduced by Ronald Reagan and introduced again by George W. Bush when he became President. While odious and disgusting it is, sadly, nothing new. 

More significantly though, as Michael Sainato notes in his article Everything Trump Is Doing, Establishment Democrats Set in Motion:
The Democratic Party has actively participated or remained complicit in several of the policies and plans now being pushed by the Trump administration, despite their rhetoric conveying a blanket opposition.
He notes as a prime examples:
On January 27, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, “divisive and unnecessary.” But in 2006 Obama, Clinton, Biden, Schumer and 20 other Democrats in the Senate at the time voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act, which called for a physical barrier to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. Bernie Sanders, who was a Representative in the House at the time, voted against the bill. The fence was never completed due to Congress failing to provide the necessary funding. President Trump’s recent executive order to build a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border cites that the order falls under the 2006 Secure Fence Act that Bush signed into law.
The same executive order expands the government’s deportation priorities, which President Obama helped set in motion by deporting more people than any other president—2.5 million between 2009 and 2015. Due to his record on immigration, immigrant activists have dubbed Obama the “deporter-in-chief.”
Trump has begun stripping sanctuary cities of federal funding if they fail to comply with his proposed immigration limitations. Many, like Boulder, Colorado, declared themselves “sanctuary cities” in protest to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement efforts.
His article deserves to be read in full.

But an ugly, reactionary hypocrisy around immigration issues on the part of Democrats goes back long before that. One need only listen again to President Clinton's shameful comments on "illegal aliens" from his 1995 State of the Union address to see just how much Democrats have enabled these narratives:

In fact, it is rather easy to forget just how broadly Clinton embraced right wing ideas to get to the Oval Office in 1992:

As you watch Clinton in front of all those cops supporting the death penalty remember that it is was but a few short years later that he collaborated with Republicans to institute sweeping and deeply racist "anti-crime" bills that were an horrific attack on people-of-colour and blacks in the United States and that led to staggeringly awful incarceration rates and levels among them. 

While Trump is certainly very different from mainline Democrats in both the nature of the threat he poses and some of the ideas he supports, these facts, while inconvenient, are worth keeping in mind.

The speed at which a number of these proposals and orders are happening historically also reflects  the predilection of relatively radical right wing governments to hit hard upfront and rapidly after being elected.

Governments like Mike Harris' "Common Sense Revolution" one in Ontario did that. They initiate a number of changes very quickly to:

 - Thrill supporters who feel that the government is doing what was promised, is really shaking things up, taking on the vested interests, etc
- Front load the disruptions to disorient opponents and force them to fight on a number of fronts all at once. Who, for example, is talking about the anti-abortion executive order now? Far fewer than were a few days ago.
- Create a new normal and make it so that the future steps of the regime in some cases almost seem "moderate" after the impact of the initial waves of attack.

This is not a new strategy, it is just happening on a very big stage in this case and a very dangerous one.

Trump also reflects an anti-social nihilism that is manifesting itself on the right and in right wing populism and has been for quite some time. Rob Ford in Toronto was a very good example of that as well. I wrote about the parallels back in August 2015 when most still regarded Trump as a joke in a piece There is nothing funny about Donald Trump. And he is dangerous as hell:
It is a politics that takes broad themes of unfocused popular rage and attempts to embody them in an over-the-top, megalomania driven persona. In this politics it is the going ever further, the always "going too far" and forever resetting what "too far" means, that is the appeal and the draw. The audience watches as the reality show continues and they want the main character to get even more outrageous and to make those around him even more outraged.
I wrote in 2014 of how Rob Ford -- a fact that was mystifying to his opponents -- became Toronto's "entertainer-in-chief" echoing the antics of Nero centuries before who had been very popular with sections of the people while loathed by the elites. Trump takes this and elevates it to a bigger and far more dangerous stage....
When it comes to countering attacks on him from opponents, I noted at the time that his responses would be predictable:
 ...attacks on him play into his own persecution narrative. They allow him to portray himself as the victim of dark forces intent on stopping his quest for the people to "Make America Great Again", a slogan that is a perfect blend of banal grandiosity and vague meaninglessness.
In an era of terrible disaffection, when people feel genuinely disempowered and unrepresented by mainstream politicians, and where regardless of who gets elected the broad outlines of the way the economy functions changes very little -- if at all -- this type of political nihilism and lashing out by Trump will appeal strongly to a section of the electorate. We are likely to find  that his supporters will be staggeringly and tenaciously loyal whatever he does or says.
I think it is important to understand this as we mobilize to try to counter Trump and the effects of his administration both for those doing so in the United States and those seeking to stop manifestations and ripples of it elsewhere.

His anti-social nihilism flows rather easily from three decades of neo-liberal political contempt for community, government, workers, the poor and whatever else did not fit the triumphalism of ultra-capitalism, deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state that, while it began before it, came so catastrophically to a head in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But that leaves us with a question. How do you truly combat over the long haul a President who takes the very worst logical extensions of the reactionary and nationalist pandering of what we now see as "mainstream" bourgeois political ideas -- remember that Reagan was regarded as an insane extremist by many both inside and outside the Republican Party in the 1970s, and he was one -- and channels them through an authoritarian personality and rhetoric, without also confronting what led to him, despite how that will alienate liberals who find it easier to see Trump as some kind of fascist apocalypse that has fallen holus-bolus from the sky like a thunderbolt?

While that question is complex and not easy to answer, one thing that is certain is that you cannot do it by pretending that Trump represents a total break from recent American political narratives or something entirely new in American political discourse, or that he is a revolutionary departure from them like a far right Lenin or a new Mussolini.

Because he is not that. He is the chickens coming home to roost and while it may be easier for liberals and a certain stripe of conservative to insist otherwise they definitely helped build the coop.

If we are going to forge movements to stop the Trumps of our various national politics, we are going to have to also begin to tell real truths about the misdemeanors and crimes of the mainstream liberal and conservative governments and politics that have brought us here to this terrible place we are now.

See also: The wages of liberalism is Trump

See also: Obama, Trudeau & Clinton -- Feeling good about the lies of liberalism

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