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.

Historical Amnesia And Stasis In Political Action

Over on his blog, and on his Facebook page, in response to a series of repeated claims stressing the uniquely dysfunctional and authoritarian nature of the present administration¹, Corey Robin has often made remarks which echo the sentiments expressed in the following:

We have a culture in this country that is relentlessly, furiously, ferociously, anti-historical. Whatever we’re going through, it’s always unprecedented. [on Facebook status]

The flip side of the ‘anti-historical’ regarding of one’s particular moment in time as being ‘unprecedented’ of course is a corresponding desire to believe that we are living through a historical moment–one that will be regarded as ‘historical’ by those who follow. The ‘anti-historical’ impulse is only directed at the past; for the present the impulse is  most definitely one that would like to write it, and crucially, oneself, into history. After all, what better way to make meaningful our lives, to grant them more significance, than to believe that the present moment is truly ab initio, bringing something to life ex nihilio? Put this way, political amnesia about the past becomes understandable as a kind of grasping for significance in the present, a refusal to believe that there can be meaningful novelty in the familiar–the study of whose particulars is likely to be far more revealing and edificatory than the hasty scramble to award it medals for novelty.

(A related, possibly converse, instance of this yearning was visible in the media reactions to La Affaire Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton–as it broke in early 1998. Those hyperbolic reactions made clear that Watergate had indeed cast a long shadow–especially as its associated mythology had anointed some ‘select’ members of the press as those who had ‘brought the administration down.’ Now, another possibly historical moment was upon the Republic and its ‘media corps’; which member of the media would ‘go down in history’ as the one who had broken the story, reported it to the nation, and finally, supervised the abdication of the old king and the coronation of the new one? Please dear God, let this happen on my watch; let me be written into the history books. Let me elevate the world-historical significance of this moment; in that act lies the existential redemption of my life.)

Thus a curious paradox of political action and resistance in the current moment: because we are so willing to grant novelty to the present, we confess ourselves puzzled and nonplussed and bewildered, cast astray and adrift. The stasis, in both thought and action, that results should be unsurprising.

Note: In a post on the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, I had noted:

Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is…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.

Presidential Elections, Marks, And Con Men

On the night of 15 October 1992, I watched a live telecast of the second presidential debate between George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. As I watched three men in business suits–walking back and forth on a ‘town-hall’ stage–explain how they would run the nation, manage its economy, and conduct its international affairs, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that were was something of the salesman to all of them. In the case of Ross Perot, that feeling was even more accentuated. Indeed, it was with some incredulity that I watched him go on to earn the vote of almost twenty million Americans in the general election that followed. (Perot earned precisely zero electoral votes for his efforts, a bizarre side-effect of the US’ bizarre electoral system.) Perot was almost universally mocked and reviled by the national press, but he still managed to convince almost half as many Americans who voted for George Bush Sr. to vote for him. This despite being a short man with an almost comical speaking style–his incipient populism and his claims to bring his background in business management to the running of the presidency were enough. His candidacy sparked a very uncomfortable thought: what if some billionaire with adequate money to blow on an election, someone with more charisma and style than Perot, decided to run and buy himself a presidency?

Some twenty-four years later, we have the answer. As a New York Times/CBS poll reports, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now in a virtual tie nationwide. And we have confirmation of that ghastly suspicion: the American electoral system is a mark,  ripe for exploitation by a conman. The ‘right’ economic conditions–it is instructive to return to 1992 and see how many of the current worries about rising inequality and the losses of jobs to overseas manufacturing were present even then–are at hand, media coverage has sunk to new lows of superficiality and vacuousness, and a weak opposition cannot get its campaigning act together.

Ross Perot did not stay on message; he did not tone down his ridiculousness; he paid for it. Donald Trump seems to have learned the right lessons from his campaign: go full-bore populist, mark yourself as an outsider, brag about your business acumen, strut your patriotism. And avoid Perot’s mistakes: get disciplined; provide your supporters a fig-leaf for their commitment to you. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump hired new campaign leadership in mid-August and has been more disciplined in his public statements. His poll numbers have been steadily rising.

It had always seemed that if Donald Trump ever toned down his act a bit, he’d become a genuine threat at the polls; it would allow ostensibly nose-holding Republicans to vote for him. He seems to have imbibed this lesson: say what you want to say, cloak it artfully; drop the megaphone, pick up the dog-whistle. And of course, be blessed with an opposition candidate like Hillary Clinton who is not a very good politician, has been weakened by a stream of political attacks over the years, and cannot trust her supposed electoral base enough to give them–even if only in promises–what they really want.

We live in interesting times.

 

 

Hillary Clinton Prepares The Inaugural Ball’s Invitee List

This is an election season about the rich, the richer, and the richest. As it should be, since multimillionaires are running for election, and on their way to the presidency, hanging out with the folks who will have the most access to them after the coronation. In this regard, just like in the election polls, Hillary Clinton has Donald Trump beat. As The New York Times reports, fund-raising and schmoozing on the Clinton campaign trail is going swimmingly well, even if it has meant that the usual bread-and-butter events like news conferences, speeches, and rallies have been consigned to the sidelines:

Mr. Trump has pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s noticeably scant schedule of campaign events this summer to suggest she has been hiding from the public. But Mrs. Clinton has been more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see her. In the last two weeks of August, Mrs. Clinton raked in roughly $50 million at 22 fund-raising events, averaging around $150,000 an hour….And while Mrs. Clinton has faced criticism for her failure to hold a news conference for months, she has fielded hundreds of questions from the ultrarich in places like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Beverly Hills and Silicon Valley.

“It’s the old adage, you go to where the money is,” said Jay S. Jacobs, a prominent New York Democrat.

Mrs. Clinton raised about $143 million in August, the campaign’s best month yet. At a single event on Tuesday in Sagaponack, N.Y., 10 people paid at least $250,000 to meet her, raising $2.5 million.

If Mr. Trump appears to be waging his campaign in rallies and network interviews, Mrs. Clinton’s second presidential bid seems to amount to a series of high-dollar fund-raisers with public appearances added to the schedule when they can be fit in. Last week, for example, she diverged just once from her packed fund-raising schedule to deliver a speech.

There ain’t no fear and loathing on this campaign trail, one that winds through the playgrounds of the rich and the powerful, just old friends getting together over caviar, canapes, and champagne, swapping stories about the old days, looking ahead to returning to the White House–AKA ‘the Fat Cat Motel’–and the good ol’ days of sleepovers in the Queens Bedroom and the Lincoln Bedroom. Perhaps, after dinner, Bubba will play the saxophone in the smoking lounge while Chelsea looks through her Rolodex and dreams of 2032. (Charlotte will have to wait a little longer.)

It was never going to be any other way. Once the debris of the hopeless dreamers and idealists had been brushed off the path, there was only one cavalcade that was going to roll down it. The ‘old adage’ works the other way too; the money goes where the power is. Let us not be surprised then, once the smoke has cleared after this election, if the priorities of the new administration show a distinct slant, if its manifestos show the imprint of dollar signs.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.

So:

When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.

But:

As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?

Rebecca Traister On ‘The New, Old, Hillary Clinton’

At The New Republic, Rebecca Traister writes of the ‘New, Old, Hillary’ Clinton, of the woman who started out as the kind of politician-cum-activist the left would love to have as president, but who became an opportunistic ‘contortionist’, one only too willing to compromise to be accepted, to hold on to power and exercise it:

America did not much like this woman when she first came to us: ambitious and tough and liberal and feminist and interested in social progress and civil rights and reforming the world for women and children across classes…And so, in her quest to become a mainstream, powerful politician, she contorted; she bent and stretched to be more like what the people could stomach….Her willingness to shape-shift will always haunt her; she’ll pay for it in low estimations of her trustworthiness and moral timbre. Those costs are on her, and they are ones she may have calculated from the beginning.

Traister adds:

But it’s also on us, and our longstanding lack of appetite for women who threaten or trouble us.

I agree with Traister: many reactions to Hillary Clinton have been distasteful and acutely revealing of the deep-rooted sexism that animates this patriarchal society of ours. Still, there were many who cheered for Hillary too, who wanted her to be the politician who had racked up the impressive activist credentials and history that Traister cites in her piece. (I remember my delight at finding out Bill Clinton’s to-be-doomed healthcare initiative would feature Hilary Clinton in a central role. For a counterview though to the history Traister provides, do read Doug Henwood‘s ‘Stop Hillary!’ essay.) The booing from the gallery was admittedly louder than the cheering, the catcalls more numerous than the bouquets, but a mystery remains: Why did Hilary respond with such alacrity to the former and not the latter?

Hilary’s retreat from her formerly held positions was even more disheartening because she has had so many opportunities to redeem herself, very few of which she has taken on. We might perhaps be pardoned our distrust then; it seems the only time we see the old Hillary is on the campaign trail. This old Hillary that Traister speaks of, how much have we seen of her when the going was good? In the eight years of the Bill Clinton presidency, how did she exert herself and burnish her progressive credentials? She did so by inducing two swings to the center–‘the balanced budget and welfare reform.’ Did she do so when she was Secretary of State? Instead, she oversaw a more ‘hawkish foreign policy.’

We all know the story: idealistic politician storms out of the gate, spouting fire and brimstone oratory, swinging for the fences, every word and gesture suggesting no prisoners will be taken; then, reality sinks in; pragmatism rules the roost; governing, not campaigning, takes over. (Yes, we thought we could!) We’ve all tasted the bitterness of watching an unconventional candidate become conventional. This is what generates Hilary’s greatest credibility crisis: We are more betrayed by the supposed idealist than by the supposed pragmatist. Hilary’s task is not to convince the latter, it is to persuade the former to return the fold. I’m afraid the going will be tough.

Sam Harris Should Read Bernard Williams

In Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks’ conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:

[T]here is another aspect to responsibility, which comes out if we start on the question not from the response that the public or the state or the neighbours or the damaged parties demand of the agent, but from what the agent demands of himself….

Oedipus’s response, when he made his discovery, was self-imposed: “I have done it with my own hand,” he says of his blinding….he says that he afterwards came to think that what he had inflicted on himself was excessive. He also, at Colonus, says that he did not really do the things for which he blinded himself—and in a notably compacted expression: “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them…What these words express is…Oedipus’s attempt to come to terms with what his erga, his deeds, have meant for his life.

For what, if one can ask a very ingenuous question, is one supposed to do if one discovers that not just in fantasy but in life one has murdered one’s father and married one’s mother? Not even Oedipus…thought that blinding and exile had to be the response. But should there be no response? Is it as though it had never happened? Or rather, to put the right question: Is it as though such things had happened, but not by his agency….The whole of the Oedipus Tyrannus , that dreadful machine, moves to the discovery of just one thing, that he did it. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? Certainly not: we understand it because we know that in the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.

In recent days, Sam Harris has, by virtue of an embarrassing–for him–email exchange with Noam Chomsky, made much of how some actions which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents should be subjected to far less moral condemnation (if any) than those which resulted because of expressly ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ intentions. Bill Clinton’s orders to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese innocents thus gets off the hook rather lightly – as say, compared to the ISIS‘ slaughter of innocents (you may, if you like, substitute your favorite act of Islamist mass murder here to get the flavor of Harris’ arguments.)

In the course of the email exchange cited above, Chomsky rather effectively eviscerated the simplistic understanding of politics and human nature this view of Sam Harris’ rests on. Furthermore, as I noted in my initial response to a podcast in which Harris makes this claim in ponderous and pedantic detail, Harris’ view leads to the worst excesses of utopianism:  “I intended to bring about this future desirable state, therefore, all else is excusable, as I certainly didn’t intend to bring about any of these intermediate states. My mind is fixed firmly on the state to be realized, the one I intend to bring about. ” Or more colloquially, “it’s ok to climb over heaps of bodies if you are going to a ‘good’ place.” This sort of argument has the bizarre consequence of considering Dick Cheney to not be a war criminal for the mass murders he is responsible for–after all, Cheney did say he was doing it all for democracy.

As the excerpt above shows, Harris, who considers himself an educated man, should really read some Bernard Williams, and using him as an introduction, read some more about the ancient Greeks. Otherwise, he will find himself, time and again, getting schooled by those who know better.