Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

Trump Campaign Rallies And Presidential Imagery

Donald Trump kicked off the 2020 election season with a campaign rally in Florida last night. These campaign rallies enable Trump to keep lines of communication–besides his Twitter account–open to his faithful; they rejuvenate his ego, one presumably battered by the endless ridicule heaped on him by his political opponents; they enable him to switch from his usual self-pitying moaning to his preferred mode of narcissistic boasting; they allow him to send out a message that will be faithfully amplified by a media eager for ‘newsworthy events’; he is, after all, the President.

If the staging of these rallies is any indication, they will supply a stream of rhetorically powerful imagery–the awesome paraphernalia of the American Presidency is now Trump’s to command–that will animate his public presence over the next four years. Trump is not just any ordinary candidate now; he is an elected President running for reelection, supported by a party which controls both houses of the legislative branch.

The American polity should have thought long and hard about how it has, over the years, allowed the pomp and circumstance of the Presidency to continue to increase to levels that resemble those of the monarchs of days gone by. Servant of the people? I think not. Those who occupied the Oval Office before Trump have left many loaded weapons lying around for him to use: the disregard of the legislative branch in the declarations of war; disrespect of the judicial branch; and of course, a wallowing in the perks and privileges of residency in the White House.

During the 2012 election season–in response to Charles Blow criticizing Mitt Romney for speaking ‘rudely’ to Barack Obama during a presidential debate–I made note here of how we seemed to have become excessively reverential of the presidency, and by association, of presidents too:

Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

Well, the indecorous are here, and they intend to use the presumption of respect to their fullest advantage.

Note: The perennial election season, a perpetual motion electoral machine, has long been staring the American polity in the face, nipping at its heels, breathing down its neck–pick your favorite metaphor, and it works–for many years now. It is finally here. Talk of opposing Democratic candidates began on November 10th, 2016, and it won’t stop till November 3rd, 2020. Talk of the 2024 election will, of course, begin on November 4th 2020. Trump filed papers as a candidate for the 2020 election on the day he was inaugurated. His filing was a deft political move:

Having filed…as a candidate, Trump would be able to coordinate with PACs and other similar organizations. More importantly, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations would no longer be able to engage in “political speech” which could theoretically affect the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election without running the risk of losing their nonprofit status. The move effectively bars interest groups from creating nonprofits which they could funnel money into for the purposes of opposing Trump’s initiatives. This will likely create chaos for political opponents of Trump such as George Soros, who has sunk significant amounts of money into various nonprofit groups with the intent of opposing Trump’s government.

Wanted: Presidential ‘Leadership’ In North Dakota (#NODAPL)

As I have noted on this blog before (here and here), America is not done with Native Americans yet. You might have imagined that banishment to impoverished reservations was the final insult to historical injury, but apparently much work, like the denial of clean drinking water–the provision of which in certain communities seems increasingly beyond the capacities of our great republic–remains to be accomplished.

Ever since the Standing Rock NODAPL protests began–inviting an impatient, intolerant response by local law-enforcement authorities–a superficial sense of unreality has pervaded proceedings: Are we really, seriously, in the process of yet again violating another treaty with Native Americans? Have we no shame? Matters have worsened, of course. In a delightfully old-fashioned move, one evoking nostalgia for days gone by, as air temperatures have dropped below freezing on the North Dakota plains, police have used water cannon on protesters at nighttime. Some German shepherd dogs and some tobacco-chewing cops speaking in Southern accents were all that were missing from those classic American mise-en-scènes; these provided a salutary contrast to images of policemen chatting with those brave pioneers who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year, and desecrated Native American lands in the process. Sooner or later, the strong arm of the law will descend on the Standing Rock protesters to evict them; their presence is an embarrassment to those who have routed the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American lands, and to all those who let them do so.

The history of past interactions with the Native American in this land is so sorrowful and shameful, so redolent of betrayal, that the very idea of a paleface not speaking with forked tongue when it comes to land treaties strikes most dispassionate observers as risible. You’d imagine that under these sorts of historical circumstances, politicians would consider it easy to go out on a rhetorical limb, and utter protestations about the need to redress past wrongs, to correct injustice, to suggest there might have been an implicit national agreement–a moral one–to the effect of ‘Never Again.’ Apparently not. For instance, during the election season, Hillary Clinton could only offer a familiar, mealy-mouthed, triangulated response; that attempt at cultivating that mythical creature, the ‘moderate Republican’ failed, and needless to say, it did little to suggest the Standing Rock protests were distinctive in any way. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, perhaps trying not to disrupt his carefully cultivated image as a measured, unflappable, reconciler of extremes, has stayed well above the fray, not deigning to put his considerable presidential authority and prestige on the line in speaking up for the protesters. But time is running out; the Oval Office will soon be occupied by a Wall Street bootlicker; and further waves of exploitation of lands out West will soon commence. The president has nothing to lose, and much to gain. Speaking up on behalf of, and intervening by any means necessary, shouldn’t just be thought of as a political tactic; it should be a moral imperative.

Note: In saying the above, I do not mean to suggest that protests are reliant, dependent on, or cannot proceed without the White House speaking up on their behalf; it would be just, how you say, nice to see a display of moral backbone from those quarters.

Demonizing Organized Labor And The Road To Fascism

The word ‘union’ occurs five times in Jedediah Purdy‘s Jacobin essay ‘How Trump Won.’

On the first two occasions, Purdy invokes unions as part of an analysis of the demographics of Trump voters:

[U]nion voters abandoned the Democrats dramatically

Clinton was much weaker than Obama with union-household voters: he won them 58–40, she only 51–43. That’s a sixteen-point loss.

Then, Purdy goes on to speculate why union voters might have voted thus:

[L]ower-income and union voters [developed] a post-2008 sense of economic abandonment by the Democrats based on how the party has actually governed in recent years, including both the trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA and a finance industry that it strongly embraces.

A chunk of those voters are working people who, fifty years ago, might have been getting their basic political information from a union, and are now getting it from a conspiracy-minded far right that convinced them they had a civic duty to vote against the corrupt liar in the race.

On the fifth occasion Purdy makes note of Richard Rorty‘s prescient remarks about a possible evolution of American politics:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.

Unions and their workers have cottoned on to one essential fact about so-called American liberalism and progressivism: its extremely thin patina is revealed by its attitude toward labor unions. You might be a liberal when it comes to climate change, same-sex marriage, and the reproductive rights of women, but chances are you are united with conservatives in believing ‘bosses’ and ’employers’ should be able to ‘hire and fire’ their workers as they please. Without this, you believe that workers will not be motivated to work; that incompetent workers cannot be weeded out; that workers will seek out laziness and complacency; that they will wreck public and private sector budgets with their extravagant contracts and retirement schemes. Unions–like teachers unions which prevent brilliant reformist pedagogical schemes from being implemented, public sector unions which destroy municipal budgets–are the causes of all social and economic ills.

With these attitudes towards the right of workers to indulge in collective bargaining, you reveal a very poor understanding of power and how it is acquired and exercised. You show yourself willing to let one economic class be immiserated and disempowered even as another one is simultaneously enriched and empowered.

All too many who fancy themselves social progressives or liberals–and who find themselves impatient with the protections and benefits union demand for their members–need a reckoning with the possibility that they are merely technocratic elites who find the lower classes a little too grubby for their taste and wish they could whip them into shape somehow through the latest management consultancy schemes. There is a common, shared, set of American values that unite liberals and conservatives and it includes the following principle: workers are lazy and can only be motivated by fear of dismissal. From this the corporatization of American social and political values follows. From this follows contempt of populism, of the expressed sentiments of those who cannot speak the technocrat’s language.

The abandonment of the working class and organized labor is America’s greatest scandal–and it has been for a long time. Once upon a time, unionized workers–like in the Lehigh Valley–lived in houses, drove cars, and sent their children to colleges, secure in the knowledge that the American Dream was working for them, that the upward mobility of the next generation was visible in their own lives. There is no such comfort now, and none is forthcoming. The economy has been financialized, manufacturing of tangible commodities sent overseas, unions disbanded and demonized, wages sent plunging, new systems of values put in place.

The insecure, nonunionized worker is perennially on edge, worried about losing his or her job; their wages fall without contracts to hold them up; long-term economic planning is impossible. Scapegoats for misery are demanded; some will be found. by any convoluted reasoning necessary. Relief from fear and paranoia is sought; perhaps in the form of a strong man promising deliverance.

The union makes us strong; without the union, workers seek strength elsewhere.

The 2016 Elections: Chronicles Of A Disaster Foretold

In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)

Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)

Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.

The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.

The ‘But The Supreme Court’ Argument For Hillary Clinton

One ‘hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-evil’ argument currently making the rounds for the Hillary Clinton candidacy–ostensibly intended to address the ‘schism’ in the Democratic Party, among the ‘Left’ and ‘progressives’–goes something like this. Vote for Hillary Clinton, even if you disagree with many of her policies, do not consider her entirely trustworthy, and would much rather vote for Bernie Sanders–because she will nominate the right person, the right Justice, to the US Supreme Court. (The Senate will not confirm a nominee put up by President Obama, so this will be one of the first tasks awaiting the new President next year.) No matter what you think, you cannot allow a President Trump to nominate a right-wing ideologue to the Supreme Court, who will then roll back years of hard-won legal victories in many domains: perhaps abortion restrictions, perhaps voting rights, perhaps the power of regulatory administrative agencies to keep our work spaces safe and our drinking water clean.

It is worth noting how much this argument presumes and concedes.

First, and most importantly, the American political system is broken. There is no separation of powers; the judiciary and the executive branch are the new legislatures. The Supreme Court is now a full-blown political institution. Political change will not come about because people’s representatives will legislate their desires and demands into existence; rather, an unelected group of Yale and Harvard educated lawyers will respond directly to petitioners who seek to address some perceived injustice. Persuade the justices; do not bother with the ballot box. Unless you are voting for President.

Second, it places too much faith in the ability of the Supreme Court to drive substantive social and political change. The poster child for this sort of claim is Brown v. Board of Education, which left segregation intact; and as a vigorous debate among professional court watchers–a motley crew of legal scholars and political scientists–confirms, supporting examples can be found quite easily. Despite the expressive impact of the courts and their rulings, political change does not happen because courts direct the polity to change; rather, it occurs because citizens organize and exert pressure at and on the right places and the right actors–in a variety of political domains and institutions.

Third, it suggests–as if acknowledging the unprecedented obstruction of a sitting President by the Republicans over the last eight years–that the President is a lame-duck from the moment he or she drops his or her right hand on being sworn in. No substantive legislation can be driven by that office; the Constitution offers no escape; a recalcitrant House of Representatives and Senate cannot be forced to do perform their legal duties. The President can merely nominate a Supreme Court Justice; and that too before the final year of office (apparently the new normal now given what has transpired since Justice Scalia’s death.)

It is into this impoverished and diminished political landscape that we are steered by the ‘but the Supreme Court’ argument for Hillary Clinton. We are being asked to settle for an immensely diminished Republic.

No Happy Endings To This Election Season

Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008. With approximately fifty-three percent of the popular vote and a 365-173 electoral college margin over his rival, John McCain. His party, the Democrats, commanded a 235-278 majority in the US House of Representatives, and a 57-41 majority in the US Senate. Despite this electoral and popular mandate, an obstructionist opposition, the Republican Party, aided by the results of the 2010 elections, soon made it the case that sixty votes in the Senate–a majority immune to the filibuster–became the new standard for passing legislation. From that determined standard for throwing sand in the legislative wheels to the current declaration that no Senate vote will be forthcoming on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a long and sometimes winding, but consistently traveled on, road. (The many actual and threatened shutdowns of the Federal government were particularly well frequented destinations on this Republican-Tea Party activist route.) That journey conveys an ominous warning for what lies ahead, even if a Democratic president were to be elected in the fall of 2016.

First, even if Donald Trump is defeated–in the most optimistic of scenarios, by a landslide of overwhelming proportions–the forces he has unleashed, that particular febrile nativism and populism, which animated by a smoldering resentment over its systematic economic disenfranchisement, targets immigrants (or non-English speakers or Jews or blacks, take your pick), are not going away any time soon. That genie is out of the bottle; it has skipped smartly several steps down the road. The next president has to deal with it; as does the nation. The most charitable view of ‘Trump supporters’ is that they are a group looking for scapegoats, turned out to pasture by policies that have sent jobs overseas and by income inequality that has shrunk their wages.  Even under that presumption, whoever becomes president has to address the populist instincts that make Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump formidable opponents to Hilary Clinton. Failing that, that same discontent will continue to roil the American political landscape, to find the ugly–and increasingly violent–forums for expression that it has during the Trump presidential campaign.

Second, were Hilary Clinton to become president, the opposition she will face will be as fierce as any that Barack Obama had to face in his term. At least in one domain, and for all the wrong reasons–sexism and misogyny being prominent ones–Hilary Clinton is a unifier, not a divider. An electoral loss to Hilary will provoke unprecedented gnashing of teeth, much wailing and rending of garments. The same reaction to her that will animate Republican vitriol during the general election season–we have most certainly not seen the worst of it–will return during a Hilary Clinton administration. It will dog her steps too, just like another version of it did Obama’s–racism in that case, sexism in hers. Without an altered political environment (including a non-gerrymandered House of Representatives), there will be little prospect of substantive legislation during Clinton’s term(s).

This election season is going to have to answer for a great deal.