Nation To Republican Party: Fool Me Twice, Shame On…Oh, Forget It.

Around the nation, there is much talk of Donald Trump firing the special prosecutor Robert Mueller, whose charge is the so-called ‘Russia investigation,’ and whose acquisitions of ‘top criminal lawyers’ has resulted in him putting together a prosecution ‘dream team.’  These are merely rumors for the time being–and strange rumors for liberals and progressives to be getting so excited about given that this is a nation which has generated a human rights crisis for itself through its mass incarceration policies–but speculation based on rumors is always quite delicious, so let me be a little self-indulgent. This firing is eagerly anticipated by, for instance, Rick Wilson and Adam Schiff, both of whom wrote and posted variants of what I will call the ‘bring-it-on rant.’ Please, Donnie, fire Mueller, because that act, and I really mean it this time, will bring about the impeachment we all so fervently desire, and if not, something even better will  happen: the American people will finally, and I mean it this time, finally, realize that we are a nation without laws, that the republic is dead, that the Republican Party is morally and intellectually bankrupt and so on.We haven’t gotten the memo yet, but once you fire Mueller, we will, and then we can get on with the business of rescuing and reconstructing and restructuring the American Republic.

There are camels and there are straws and there camel’s backs and last straws. Never has the meeting of the twain been so elusive in American politics.

Trump can fire Mueller, in broad daylight, on Fifth Avenue, and nothing would happen to him. Nothing, that is, from the folks that some Americans think should be doing something about it: Congressional and Senate Republicans. As Paul Starr makes clear, having a weakened President–and let there not be any doubt about it, Trump is a weakened President, incapable of asserting and securing power in the ways that the pros of old knew how to–is the best news possible for the Republican Party’s legislative agenda. Moving legislation along is the least such an enfeebled leader can do; prop me up, he says, and his minions comply, even as they press a quill into his hands and place an ink pot nearby, while they lick their fingers and turn over the pages, all the while pointing to the dotted lines to be initialed and signed.

We should remember that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton survived scandals that–in their time–were just as bad, just as ‘fatal’ to the presidency. Trump’s survival is all but guaranteed because he is a popular president among a vital, electorally crucial, demographic, and because by functioning as the dysfunctional, drunk, senile, grandparent, he can be propped up to provide cover to the real wrecking crew.

Moreover, let us not forget, the 2018 elections are in, er, 2018, which is a long ways away. Memories are short these days; the outrage over the Mueller firing, like all the other ‘this-is-gonna-sink-Trump-sure’ events, it will produce its ripples and then sink beneath the surface. The republic is politically unwell, and its malaise will not be healed by the mere removal of the most superficial pathology visible.

Democratic Party Afraid To Emulate Tea Party Success: Move, Or Get Out Of The Way

You might think that a political party which stands accused of one of the most embarrassing and momentous political defeats in American history, one which was almost entirely due to a series of well-aimed large-caliber shotgun blasts at not just one foot, but all bodily appendages, would be prepared to carry out some serious introspection and to check in for an overhaul at the polity’s nearest service station. You would be wrong. Your political instincts and sensibility do not apply to the Democratic Party, which follows a suicidal logic all its own.

The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to inform us that in recent days, as the ‘battle’ for the Chair of the Democratic National Committee has heated up, pitting Keith Ellisona man favored by the ‘Bernie Sander wing’ of the party–against the ‘bank-friendly’ Tom Perez, the favored candidate of the same folks who led the Democratic Party to the 2016 Nineth November Massacree, are determined to turn this nation’s politics into Groundhog Day:

“Is the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party going to push us too far to the left?” asked former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Only if they start going after incumbent moderate Democrats in primaries like the Tea Party did.”

Ah, yes, the Fear of the Land of Too Far Left, brought to you by the DNC Who Cried Wolf. Ah, yes, the Terrible Tea Party, whose ‘takeover’ of the Republican Party now stands revealed as a catastrophic failure: full control of the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and the Oval Office. With misfortunes like this, success does seem less attractive. The wise learn from their foes; the fool merely from himself. The Republican and Tea Party–a composite moniker which seems rather more appropriate given the nature of the entity the Democratic Party confronts–is not possessed of political genius; it merely abides by a crystalline commonsense wholly appropriate to electoral democracies: to govern, to assume power, you need to be voted into office; and to stay there, you must continue to listen to those who put you there. This political axiom is incomprehensible to the Democratic Party, which not content with having dismantled the organized ‘base’ that elected a black man with a Muslim middle name to the White House, intends to continue its ride over the beckoning cliffs. We would be wise to not follow.

The Democratic Party is not a political party; it is a retirement home for the politically incompetent, dedicated to nothing more than servicing the financial fortunes of a motley crew of boring policy wonks, Chelsbillary Clinton sycophants, and your garden variety neoliberal. It shrinks from conflict, the business of politics; it is afraid to govern, to take over the reigns of government. What is it doing, taking up space on the political stage? Perhaps insurance companies and banks and corporate law firms do not pay as much as they do. This trough must be deeper than we thought, bidding the DNC’s snouts to push just a bit further.

Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.

Donald Trump And The Art Of The Presidential Deal

Shortly after I arrived in the US in 1987, I began working in my campus cafeteria (at the then minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.) One of my non-student companions at work was a young man who worked on the weekends as a replacement for the weekday staff. He was frivolous and funny and irreverent; he brought a little sparkle to what was otherwise a dreary pair of eight-hour shifts. Among other things, he introduced me to the colloquialism ‘dead presidents,’ telling me that collecting them was his favorite pastime, the hobby that was way more useful and relevant, in this day and age, than philately or lepidoptery. (I realize the latter is not a hobby, but you catch my drift.)

And one fine day, he informed that the person he respected the most was Donald Trump. Who?

I did not know who ‘the Trump’ was. My friend informed me, in a slightly breathless and incredulous tone of voice, that Trump was a ‘go-getter,’ ‘a man who knew what he wanted,’ ‘a leader.’ He knew how to make money; he didn’t put up with bullshit. The evidence was there for all to see: all those buildings he had ‘built,’ the millions he had amassed–he was, you see, a great and accomplished collector of dead presidents.

Intrigued by this transparently sincere account of hero-worship–and still fascinated by the phenomenon of the American businessman as cultural hero, a fact which I had noticed in the adulation directed at Lee Iacocca–I resolved to read Trump’s ‘autobiography’, The Art of the Deal. (I had also read Iacocca’s autobiography, unimaginatively titled Iacocca: An Autobiography, by then.)

Book-length brags by corporate tycoons are not unknown in publishing; Iacocca’s book was a good example of it. Trump took it to the next level. The rest of the world merely put up barriers; Trump destroyed them. The world consisted of bureaucrats and those who would choke the honest, money-making ambitions of good Americans; they stood in the way of all that was good and pure about the American Dream[tm]. Trump fought them all. And he won. It was, truth be told, a curiously thrilling story. There was adversity; it was overcome. There was grime and dirt and squalor; majestic–even if gaudy and architecturally loud–buildings rose over it all. (One of them even offered the cleanest public restrooms in New York City; they had pink walls!.) And money, the thing that seemingly enabled the good life, was made. Lots of it. The Rising Tide of Trump floated the boats of all those who jumped in on the deals he made.

I lost contact with the legend of Trump after that. From time to time, I would receive periodic updates: perhaps a divorce, a television show, an intervention in politics. He never seemed to move too far away from the spotlight. His presidential candidacy was unsurprising; he must have known all along that he excited a curious fascination in the American mind, that his tale of big money and relentless ambition and hustle would resonate with many.

Trump is not a fool even if he is a buffoon. He is wealthy and ambitious; he knows what resonates with those who believe this rigged world is their oyster in potentia. He knows that if he spends enough money, he could win this all. And write another bestseller about the experience.

Confession: I do not know if Trump is serious about his presidency bid or if he is simply angling for a new television show.

Political Conventions Begone

Cometh the political convention and cometh the dreary return of speculative commentary about their usefulness, their substantiveness, their relevance. Cometh too, the sight of perfectly reasonable, sensible folks tuning in to them, wasting their time in the hope of picking up meaningful political lessons. (I’ve been told that some folks tune in for the comedic value of a convention, but I find that hard to believe. Bad comedy is bad first, and comedy much, much later. In the case of  conventions the ‘later’ comes well after the stage props and candidate busts have been put away.)  Somehow, bizarrely, despite seemingly universal agreement among adults with IQ’s north of 120 that conventions are primarily an occasion for the most graphic demonstration of the utter vapidity of the election season, a reassurance that yes, you were right, you have been relentlessly pounded by vacuity, and there are still a few months to go before the referee will ring the bell and put us all out of our misery, the convention is back as subject of media analysis, political punditry and psephological speculation. (Media folks can perhaps be forgiven their obsession with conventions but what is to be done about all the folks that tune in to listen to their babbling?)

My most prominent response when watching a convention of any sort–I indict Republican and Democratic conventions equally in this regard–is disbelief that any mature adult could not see through the utter silliness of it all. Does the audience, all those shrieking, silly-hat-wearing-flag-waving folks on the floor, really buy it? Of course they do. That’s why they are there. At moments like these, it occurs to me that the only sensible way to watch a convention telecast–if forced to at gunpoint–would be to be riproaringly drunk or under the influence of hallucinogens. (I’m optimistically presuming my tormentors have a decent streak to them and will supply me with these.) The colors might be more palatable and perhaps the visual perspective afforded from my vantage position on the living room rug would make the idiot box’s showcasing of idiocy a little more reasonable.

Perhaps the most dreary trope associated with conventions is that they feature ‘soaring speeches,’ stirring oratorical masterpieces, which catapult the nation’s future leaders into the political spotlight, and portend dramatic political change. What surprises me most about this is the idea that reasonable adults in this day and age could honestly get turned on by a party animal’s speech. I have responded favorably to precisely one convention speech myself: back in 1984, to Mario Cuomo‘s keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Pretty stirring stuff, sure. But I was seventeen then. I’ve grown up. And come to realize that speeches at political conventions appear to fall into two categories: off-the-wall, offensive barrages of falsehoods and posturing (best done by Republicans) and grand, pretentious, faux populist litanies packed with promises soon to be broken (best done by Democrats).

Turn off the television, folks. And don’t switch it on for the Democrats either.

Note: This year, a tropical storm threatened the Republican Convention; it was almost enough to make a believer out of me. You know:

From a distance

God is watching us

And she sure as hell can’t take this crap any more.

Must One Vote for President to Be Political?

I concluded yesterday’s post by saying:

There is a far more fundamental problem…it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities.

I should have been more specific above. I have acquired a profound dislike of presidential elections: the campaigning by candidates, the so-called ‘debates,’ the insincere campaign promises. I consider presidential elections the worst part of American democracy: for the opportunities for pandering and demagoguery they provide, for their choking off of reasoned discourse, and especially in the US, the inordinate amount of time, energy and money they consume. The Republican primaries began last year, or at least, it felt like they did. That’s a full year before the elections. Really, US polity, really? A year-long election season?

I dislike too, the elevation of the presidential election to the center-piece of American democracy–that somehow casting my vote for the president is the most important political act I can commit. This often results in guilt-mongering:  If you don’t vote for a presidential candidate, you’ve committed a grievous abdication of political responsibility. The propagandizing and resource consumption associated with presidential elections is especially insidious; their prioritization cripples a great deal of engagement with the political process; it denudes political activism of energy, purpose and resources by drawing too much attention to itself.

The privileging of these elections has meant all too many US citizens imagine that presidential elections are all there is to their democracy;’ that to participate in their polity, one need only show up once in four years to vote, followed by rapid disengagement. Presidential candidates, like Barack Obama, are guilty of the precise converse; they imagine that having won the election, there is no need anymore to engage with those that brought them to power. A fraction of the passion spent in engaging with the ‘base’ during the election season, had it been deployed during the last few years, might have earned Obama considerably more legislative victories, and not cost him the support of his ‘base.’ (It didn’t help, either, that the option chosen, instead, was denigration of the ‘base.’)

I’ve come to think of the presidential election as the deployment of a vast machinery of systematic obfuscation. The disappointed voter is a cliché now, precisely because he imagined that voting was all there was to it; better to ignore elections and do politics somewhere other than the presidential polling station. The real action lies elsewhere; in local elections where one might, for instance, vote for judges who can rule on important decisions affecting families and groups: divorce or bankruptcy proceedings for example.

A citizen can be political in many ways. I can be political by resisting the policies that my nation’s rulers seek to impose:  sometimes by writing here, sometimes by my daily utterances, sometimes in my teaching, sometimes in the lifestyle I adopt, and in those I encourage. My politics resides in my daily actions, in the many little decisions I make on a daily basis. The political process operates on many levels; it can be poked, prodded, and interacted with via a multiplicity of processes; voting for the president is but one of them.