The Republicans Will Ride Out This Latest ‘He Can’t Survive This’ Moment

As usual, anxious liberals and American citizens all over the nation are waiting, with bated breath and a dollop of some old-fashioned American optimism, for the Great Abandonment: that crystalline moment when the Republican Party will decide that enough is enough, issue a condemnation–with teeth–of Donald Trump, begin scurrying away from his sinking ship, and for good measure, initiate impeachment proceedings. There’s been many moments like this: grab-their-pussy and the various bits of La Affaire Russia have served to provide the best examples of these in the recent past. Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and their usual brand of toxic racism and violence have now provided the latest instance of a possible ‘he can’t survive this’ moment–‘this is when the Republicans grow a vertebra, denounce Nazism–oh, how difficult!–and its sympathizers and enablers, and bring this particular Trump Tower crashing down.

Unfortunately this Godot-ish vigil will have to persist a little longer. Perhaps till the end of the Trump presidency. Condemnation of the President has been issued by some: Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio for instance. But there is no party-level move to censure; there is no sign that there is widespread movement among the Republicans to either distance themselves from Trump or do anything more than issue the easiest political statement of all regarding disapproval for Nazis.

The electoral calculus, the bottom-line politically, is that Republican voters care little about Trump’s being in bed with white supremacists, the KKK, and sundry other deplorables; they elected him to assuage their racial anxieties, and he continues to do that by standing up even for cross-burning, swastika tattooed, hooded folk. A Republican Congressman or Senator who denounces Trump risks electoral suicide; the Trump ‘base’ will turn on him or her with indecent haste. Under the circumstances, far better to issue generic denouncements and move on, hoping and knowing this storm will blow over. When private business corporations dump offensive employees–perhaps for racist, abusive speech or other kinds of socially offensive behavior–they do so on the basis of a calculus that determines the nature and extent of the economic loss they will have to bear if they persist in supporting their offending employee; when it is apparent that customers will not tolerate that behavior, the decision is made for the employer. That same calculus in the case of Republican voters suggests there is no loss forthcoming–the strategy suggested is precisely the one on display: a little bluster, a little obfuscation, some hemming and hawing, a few offensive suggestions that the offensive behavior was in response to other behavior ‘asking for it’ and so on. Still riding on S. S. Donald Trump, sailing right on over the edge to the depths below–even as the merry band of carpetbaggers on board keep their hands in the national till.

I’ve made this point before on this blog (here; here; here; here); I repeat myself. Repetition is neurotic; I should cease and desist. But it is not easy when neurotic repetition is visible elsewhere–in this case, in the American polity.

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.

Tales of Three Morning Afters

The 2004 Presidential election was my first. I had not voted in the 2000 election because my naturalization came a few weeks too late for me to participate; I had observed the election itself from afar, in Brazil, and watched, amazed by the Supreme Court’s intervention, as the final, lame denouement came about. In 2004, I was cautiously optimistic, hoping that somehow, John Kerry would pull it off. He didn’t; Kerry was never a particularly effective candidate and US voters too, remained bizarrely trusting of the spectacularly mendacious and incompetent erstwhile inhabitant of the White House. I went to a election-result-watching get-together at a friend’s place, ordered Chinese food, and sat down, chopsticks and food cartons at hand, to watch the news. Not too long before midnight, it had become clear Bush was headed for a second term. I left, walking a long, cold walk back home, passing a traffic light that could have looked like a surfer’s greeting but, amazingly enough, that night, looked like it was giving me the bird. The next morning, when I awoke to read of four more years for George Bush, I felt a little sick. I felt guilty too, that my ignoring the Kerry’s campaign’s calls for donations, for help with getting out the vote by phone-banking or door-to-door knocking had somehow contributed to the loss. I couldn’t console myself my inactivity had nothing to do with it.

Four years later, my reactions were very different. I felt I had to contribute somehow–financially or with my time–to blocking any possibility of an extension of the idiocy that had ruled the White House for eight years. The memory of that November 2004 morning was still too strong. I worried I might wake up the day after, convinced I had enabled a John McCain-Sarah Palin White House. I did my bit–sent in money, knocked on doors etc–and after election night, awoke feeling much better than I had four years before.

This election season, I didn’t contribute money to the Obama campaign and I didn’t participate in voter turnout. I did though, fear the same outcomes as I had worried about in the previous two elections. The dissonance in my beliefs about the political monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, my hopes for a third-party alternative, and my disappointment with Obama’s first four years, had by the end of the evening crystallized into a fairly simple desire: that Obama win, that though no matter how Tweedledum and Tweedledee I considered the two parties, I knew one of the two possible outcomes would upset me much, much more. So by the end of the night, I cheered for an Obama victory and when I went to bed, I did so knowing I would not wake up with a repeat of the 2004 hangover.

Obama’s victory is cause for relief, not exultation. Substantive progressive legislation still looks doubtful because, well, there is a Republican Party and a Democratic Party to deal with. And besides, there’s Obama himself, and the question of how he wants to run his second term. In the end, I’m sobered by the fact that fifty million Americans found an incoherent platform good enough to vote for, the election was as close as it was, and that so much political change still remains necessary.

Election Fiascos: Unlikely, and Unlikely to Provoke Serious Protest

John Heilemann at New York Magazine suggests four ways in which the election on Tuesday, November 6, could be headed for a nightmare of narrow ‘illegitimate’ wins or deadlocks. I don’t think any of these apocalypses are likely. They are based on the assumption that the election outcomes talked about will result in widespread protests. In doing so, they reveal a common misunderstanding of American political life: that it features so much partisan wrangling, so much political disputation that a narrow or ‘illegitimate’ election will plunge the nation into crisis. Au contraire, political life in the US is more quiet quiescence, more calm acceptance of political shenanigans than anything else. As you read below, remember that the 2000 election handover to George W. Bush, engineered by the US Supreme Court, could have sparked similar protests but any chance of that was shouted down by both parties, eager to get back to business as usual.

Here are Heilemann’s scenarios.

1. The Romney Squeaker Scenario

[I]t’s perfectly possible for Romney to end up with a bit north of 50 percent of the popular vote. Then proceed to the electoral vote, where the GOP nominee has always faced a difficult path to 270. But imagine that Romney achieves the first step of carrying the three southern swing states—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia—which he may well do. And then either (a) takes Ohio plus Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin; or (b) falls short in Ohio but wins both Colorado and Wisconsin as well as Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada; or (c) conquers Colorado or Wisconsin plus all three of the smaller swing states. In any of these eventualities, Romney would win the White House with 271 to 276 electoral votes. This would amount to the narrowest possible victory—and one that would all but certainly provoke the left into a howling fit.

My call: unlikely to happen. Not the squeaker itself but the ‘howling fit’ part. A little huffing and puffing, and then, back to the usual programming.

2. The Reverse Gore Scenario

[I]t’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which Romney wins the popular vote narrowly, as Gore did then—but Obama winds up playing the role of Bush….Obama’s national popular-vote weakness is to no small extent a result of his staggering weakness in the South and Appalachia, where he trails Romney in many states by 20 or 30 points—far more than his advantage in the deep-blue West and Northeast…despite the tightness of the race nationally, the margins of advantage he holds with Latinos, African-Americans, young voters, and college-educated white women, and their concentrations in the battleground states, are what gives him many more routes to 270 than Romney has. How would the right react to seeing Obama reclaim the presidency after he lost the popular vote? In much the same way the left would respond to scenario No. 1: with wailing, gnashing, and a dudgeon so high that if you reached the top of it, you’d be able to touch Pluto.

Again: unlikely. Would the opposition that Obama would face be any worse than he already has in the past four years?

3. The Recount (or Recounts) Scenario

This campaign has already featured extended legal wrangling in several states over those voter-I.D. laws—which means both sides have litigation-ready boots on the ground and are raring to engage already. Given just how corset-tight the polls are in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida itself, a Florida Redux scenario might be more likely than anyone imagines—and could even, perish the thought, play out in more than one state simultaneously. Remember how bad 2000 was? This would be much worse. And not simply because the level of partisan vitriol heading into the fracas is so much higher, but also because the disruption in terms of governing would be so much greater….in the aftermath of the election, the federal government will be staring into the abyss of the so-called fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the sequester, and another fight over the debt ceiling. Now consider the prospect of two or more months of 2000-style paralysis in the face of that challenge.

What 2000-style paralysis is Heilemann talking about? That business got settled pretty quick. Remember all the calls for putting the election behind us?

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

 Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes….all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire….The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

 To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder.

Indeed, of all the scenarios listed by Heilemann, this strikes me as one that has the makings of a genuine disaster. It would not ‘rend the nation asunder,’ but it would force a closer look at the Constitution, which might be interesting for a while, before everyone decides that it’s better leave it alone. If it were to happen, which according to most polls, seems unlikely.

Respecting the President and ‘The Ideology of Kingship’

In reporting on the second presidential debate, Charles Blow writes:

There is a fine line between feistiness and testiness. Romney has never negotiated that line well in debates and last night he fell over it again. At one point he scolded the president — the president of the United States! — “you’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

Regardless of how it may have felt in the hall and how his base may have received his abrasive behavior, to most others watching it was déclassé and indecorous. When you’re challenging a sitting president for his job, you have to respect the office, even if you don’t respect the man.

So 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.

This semester the readings for my Political Philosophy class–centered on the French, American and Haitian revolutions–include Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Walzer’s introductory essay includes a section on ‘The Ideology of Kingship.’ More than one student has noticed the parallels between the components of that view of kings and the powers claimed by our modern executive branch of government. They have then gone on to draw uncomfortable parallels between the ‘inviolability’ of the king that arises from such an ideology and the legal immunity claimed by modern-day presidents. (They have noticed too, that a central revolutionary claim was equality before the law, one that seems to have been forgotten in the rush to forgive and forget the war criminals of the previous administration.) The inviolability of the king spoken of in Walzer’s essay might narrowly be interpreted as a a legal one but it easily becomes one of deference too: do not disagree with the king; do not talk back; speak only when spoken to; do not interrupt the king.

Among the other revolutionary documents we have read is Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, which includes the following line:

The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king.

‘Nuff said.

Flippin’ Channels to the Debate and Stayin’ Right There

A few days ago, I posted a note here saying I would not deign to pay attention to the debates. Last night, after a dinner date with my Brooklyn College colleague, Corey Robin, during the course of which I remarked, ‘Debates are to you what sports are to me’, I returned home, intending to watch the New York Yankees take on the Detroit Tigers in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. My intentions were honorable; some school work required my attention, so the plan was to sit on the couch with my laptop on, well, my lap’s top, and watch the boys of summer play in the fall while I did some distracted work.

Things didn’t quite go as planned. Like most afflicted by ‘Net distraction, I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and on an instinctive, nervous, automatic reflex, I checked the twin feeds issuing from those pathways to perdition. Soon enough, there was a stream of chatter and commentary, witty, caustic, and sometimes unhinged–issuing forth. I checked it out but stuck to the baseball. Unfortunately, there are innings breaks in baseball, taken up by commercials, and I’d sooner poke my eyes out with a tuning fork than sit through those. So I switched channels to the debate, intending to switch back when the game resumes.

It didn’t quite go that way. For the rest of the night, I stayed stuck on the debate. In part, this was because the Yankees were sucking royally. They seem destined to be swept by the Tigers in this series, and with their bats as silent as ever, there seemed little chance that I would see anything other than whiff and whimper. But I’d also succumbed to the temptation to throw in a whole bunch of silly two-penny contributions to the Twitter and Facebook ticker-tapes. My first missive from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious was to note the evasiveness of Obama’s reply to a question about the glass ceiling in the workplace. Thereafter, it went steadily downhill, as one snarky remark followed another.

The morning after, it still feels pretty depressing. (Yes, I feel dirty!) I might have ‘paid attention’ to the debate, but it seems all I did was use it as material for low comedy. And this use was prompted by pretty much the same considerations that had caused me to disdain them earlier; there really wasn’t any substantive ‘debate’ in them. Not that there could have been, given the format and the staging, and the incorrigible proclivity of candidates to indulge in folksy yarn-spinning and irrelevant digressions in their time-limited responses to questions. If there is any comfort in all of this, it might be that I wasn’t the only one using the debate as fodder for spinning off goofiness.

There shouldn’t be anything inherently disquieting about the spectacle of a supposed cornerstone of democracy–the discussion and debate of political difference–used for such visible ridicule. Satire and parody are important components of politics. But still, the suspicion lurks: perhaps such levity would not be on display if the debate offered more than mere vapidity.

PS: The Yankees lost.

‘But Already It Was Impossible To Say Which Was Which’

It is almost accepted wisdom among political punditry that in recent times, American political and cultural life is characterized by two revolutions: the Fiscal Rectitude one and the Cultural License one. The former was won by the Republican party: it is committed to austere deficit reduction and budget balancing by attenuating social programs and tax cuts to ‘wealth makers’ as an essential component of trickle-down economics. (These serve as vital prongs of polemical and rhetorical attacks on big government and serve to provide the Tea Party much of its bombastic ballast.) The latter was won by the Democrats: it is committed to gay marriage, feminism, gay rights, and multiculturalism (among other things; please insert your own favored Godless activity here).

This is an exceedingly crude picture–and certain to appear to be a caricature to supposed ideologues on both sides of the political and cultural spectrum–but it works as a rough heuristic. It is especially crude when one considers that most Americans benefit from Big Bad Scary Government and would like some form of it to continue to loom large in their lives, and conversely when, for example, women and African-Americans still do not find themselves adequately represented in either economic or political leadership, and when gays, outside of urban concentrations, still need to keep their heads low. But, like I said, it’s a rough picture.

It is an apparent consequence of these two ‘revolutions’ that in the Battle of Who Can Display More Fiscal Rectitude Democrats have steadily moved rightwards in an effort to minimize their electoral losses, thus slowly coming to occupy much of the so-called center, which, much like the magnetic pole, appears to be a shifting locale; thus, the current American political center is certainly rightward of many of its earlier positionings. This current location of the ‘center’ and the Democrats’ move towards it perhaps explains why in the first presidential debate Barack Obama found himself in so much agreement with his opponent.

For instance, on Social Security:

You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Barack Obama also found himself in so much agreement with his opponent, because besides being a matter of substantive policy, like the free-market-and insurance company-friendly healthcare plan called Obamacare, he is a compromiser first and foremost, even when in possession of a strong political hand. Psychological analysis of this need to be approved of by his opponents is already a favored pastime among many who gnashing their teeth over his invertebrate tendencies. It is unsurprising then too, that Obama found himself unable to summon up much passion when it comes to debating policy details. Wow could anyone generate heat and light in the midst of broad agreement? By quibbling over details? Hardly the stuff of fire and brimstone debates.

I do not doubt audiences for the second and third debates will see a different Obama, one prepared to be more contentious. His handlers will have apprised him of the disastrous feedback from ‘focus groups’, I’m sure. But those prepared to look beyond the huffing and puffing, will, I’m afraid, resemble nothing so much as the creatures clustered around Mr. Jones’ Manor farmhouse, looking in, desperately trying to find a distinction with a difference.

Note: Many will find my characterization of Obama and the Democrats unfair: surely, they are better on the environment, on their commitment to healthcare, and so on? But the devil lurks in the details, and it is in the bare particulars of actual legislation that we find broad agreement among those who inhabit Capitol Hill.