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.

A Teachable Moment For The Republican Party

That famous Republican Party discipline (or, ideological commitment), the one that made sure that many of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities were derailed through relentless parliamentary grandstanding, that ensured the federal government’s operations were shut down, producing misery and inconvenience for many, that produced budgetary brinksmanship of the highest order and negatively affected the national debt rating, it also ensured a stinging defeat for the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Freedom Caucus–that benign moniker which identifies a group of apparently sworn nihilists determined to gut government from the inside out–did not find the modified Republican replacement for ‘Obamacare’ sufficiently heartless; it healed too many, served too many; not even the prospect of doing damage to Paul Ryan’s risible and entirely concocted image as a policy wonk was enough to deter them from their opposition to the bill. (The Trump Administration’s attempts to placate this crew led in turn to so-called Republican ‘moderates’ to threaten to abandon ship; causal responsibility rests solely with the Freedom Caucus.)

Captain Trump and the USS Republican Party were headed for the shoals, and that’s where they ended up. Capitol Hill is not a campaign rally venue. There are old lessons here to be learned, apparently.  In writing of the various Athenian power struggles that preceded the Battle of Marathon against Persian forces (The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon, And Its Impact on Western Civilization, Bantam, New York, 2013, p. 80), Jim Lacey makes note of the struggles between the aristocrats Isagoras and Cleisthenes:

With Isagoras deposed, Cleisthenes and his supporters returned. Whatever his own predisposition, he now had to deliver on the promises he had made during his political struggles with Isagoras and the other noble families. He probably was also beginning to understand that it is easier for an adroit politician to manipulate the masses than it is to manage powerful competing factions.

It is small comfort for the American polity to realize that this bill failed because a Republican faction did not find it dastardly enough, because its primary architects were simply too incompetent to shepherd it through the legislative gauntlet. This same factionalization and incompetence could very well help produce a more radical version of another bill, which would gut comfort and safety elsewhere.

But there is another side to this story of Republican failure, which is that Republican representatives and senators chickened out of a ‘No’ vote because their constituents threatened them with electoral reprisals. They did so by calling in, by attending town halls, by sending postcards; in so doing, they proved, yet again, that old-fashioned citizen pressure on elected representatives works. Give the bastards hell, indeed. Elected Republicans are finding out–the hard way–that the President’s unpopularity is both deep and wide; it brings all the formerly somnolent members of the electorate to the yard; that loud presence has made the threat of disaster in 2018 more likely; and if there is anything that will help induce flight from His Orangeness’ apparently contagious success, it is the fear of contracting a fatal electoral disease.

Much damage could still be done to the Republic and its denizens; there are more bullets to be dodged; but also some lessons to be learned by those infected with hubris.

Paul Ryan Wants A Fig Leaf From Donald Trump

Over at The Nation John Nichols makes note of Paul Ryan’s undignified ‘dance’ with Donald Trump:

Ryan says he is “not ready” to formally endorse Trump’s unpopular presidential candidacy. Trump says he is “not ready” to embrace Ryan’s unpopular austerity agenda. But after speaking with Ryan, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus says the speaker is prepared to “work through” these differences in order to “get there” on an endorsement of the billionaire. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Ryan is being portrayed in much of the media as an honorable Republican who is courageously refusing to board the Trump train….Ryan’s maneuvering has very little to do with honor and courage, and very much to do with ego and political positioning.

As I noted here a little while ago, the Republican Party will not find it too difficult to absorb and assimilate Donald Trump. But to do so, it needs some cover, even if purely nominal. It would like Donald Trump to put down his megaphone and use a dog whistle instead, for instance. It would like Donald Trump to stop making it so hard for them to speak up on his behalf, a difficulty made especially galling by the knowledge these Republican folk have that in Hillary Clinton they have their dream electoral opposition: a figure universally reviled on the American Right who can be effortlessly linked with Bill Clinton, another bogeyman for the party faithful. The Republican Party knows the Clinton candidacy, that seeming inevitability, can be beaten by their tried and trusted combinations of obfuscation, sabre rattling, seemingly outward directed xenophobia, and loud, persistent, dog-whistling. Surely there is no need to pick new fights with new enemies here?

Little is required for party unity in the present situation. Trump would only need to sound ‘presidential’ on a couple of occasions, and those pronouncements would easily become the foci of attention for Republicans. They would allow Republicans to point to a ‘maturing,’ ‘evolving,’ Trump, and allow them to virtuously insist on conversations about ‘the issues.’ Such conversations are not possible when every news cycle brings further reports about acerbic Trump responses to official Republican condemnation.

So this picture that Ryan seeks to paint for us of a courageous Speaker holding the fort for technocratic conservatives against the advancing forces of an unsophisticated, nativist populism needs emendation; his desperate wails–‘A fig leaf, a fig leaf, my kingdom for a fig leaf!” indicate a wholly disparate set of desires and motivations. As Nichols notes, “Ryan says he “wants to” back Trump and has indicated that he hopes ‘to be a part of this unifying process.'” Ryan’s ‘wants’ and ‘hopes’ are self-serving; he does not want to be deposed by Trump, to lose his political career to this unregenerate parvenu. Ryan seeks not to become politically irrelevant, to not be shoved aside by the Trump Express that has scorched a new path through the Republican marshaling yard. Because Ryan is the one who seeks to be survivor, he will grasp at any lifeline thrown to him. Perhaps this coming week’s meeting with Donald Trump will provide him with one such.

Paul Ryan’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Speech: Anatomy of Political Bad Faith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a significant subset of the demographic consisting of American liberals and progressives and centrists are among the most gullible political subjects of all: throw them a bone or two–i.e., a substantive or purely rhetorical political concession–and they’ll immediately drop previously held convictions. The visible reaction to Paul Ryan‘s recent supposedly bold and courageous speech, where he offered a critique of the degraded level of current political discourse and apologized for using the term ‘takers’ to describe anyone that wasn’t a ‘maker’–the former are welfare mooches, the poor, benefits recipients, the latter are presumably CEOs and business executives–demonstrates the truth of this claim quite impressively. For no sooner were the words out of Ryan’s mouth that he was immediately anointed as the leader the Republican Party has been waiting for–many lonely eyes were turned his way apparently–, his political courage and principles were praised, and he immediately began to look presidential.

Excuse me while I don’t kiss this guy.

Ryan did not name names. He blamed all and sundry for the degraded level of political discourse–a kind of ‘everyone seems to have lost their mind’ line that is vacuous and dishonest. For the ones engaging in the kind of speech that Ryan seems to be referring to are members of his own party, and moreover, the level of discourse on display in Republican debates is not significantly lower than the kind of language his party has been using for a very long time. (The loudness and shrillness has been amped up just a bit but the sentiments on display have been public ones for a very long time) The guilty–the ones lowering the quality so beloved of Ryan–have just not been using it against other Republicans. Their targets have been the same demographics that Ryan targeted in his ‘takers’ comment: the politically and economically disenfranchised.

As for Ryan’s apology for using the ‘takers’ line: the most expedient political strategy for Republicans, following their noticing that many of those who have begun to carry the Trump banner would have been considered ‘takers’ in Ryan’s old formulation (even as they continue to reassure themselves that their whiteness ensures they will never be considered ‘takers’) would be to stop describing them as such and to enroll their support for a ‘mainstream’ candidate. This apology is Ryan’s triangulation, it is his lame attempt to sound a more populist note in a symphony consisting of endless variations on the economic self-sufficiency theme.

I had noted a little while ago that the Republican Party would absorb this year’s political turbulence and move on. Ryan’s speech is part of that attempt; it aims to acknowledge the crassness on display, thus reassuring the Republican faithful that their own more carefully phrased ugliness remains kosher; it tries to lamely assert ownership of a populist platform. So desperate is Republican Party’s political opposition for signs of political reasonableness that it will accept this transparent dishonesty.

Fool me once etc.

Debates: Good for Drinking Games

In 2008, during that year’s interminable election season, bars in my neighborhood posted signs they were showing the Democratic primary debates, the presidential debates, the vice-presidential debates; we all seemed to be comfortable and enthusiastic about the notion of election debates as spectator sport. I made plans to watch the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in company; I got together with a friend, we drank wine and bourbon, and laughed uproariously at that bizarre pair; I keenly watched too, the presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Eight years of a Bush administration were coming to a close, and I allowed myself to believe that, yes, change was in the air, that deliverance from that grinning fool and all he represented was possible. On election night, I hosted a results party. Friends came over, we checked laptops and television screens, whooped and hollered, groaned and moaned, drank champagne, nibbled nervously, and finally, when the Obama-election was announced, I opened my window and yelled out into the darkness: ‘Fuck you Sarah Palin!’

Nothing like that will happen this year.  Last night, as the first presidential debate kicked off, I finished dinner, sliced up an apple or two and sat down to watch the penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights. Later, I checked the news–the Yankees had clinched the American League East–and my Twitter timeline and noticed much chatter about the lameness of it all: the lying Etch-a-Sketch Mitt Romney, the dull Barack Obama, the ineffective Jim Lehrer. I posted a couple of facetious Tweets, read the opening chapters of Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution, and went to bed. I doubt the basic pattern of dinner, Netflix watching and bedtime reading will change on the nights of any of the debates to follow. In the case of vice-presidential debates, to quote an old friend, I would sooner slit my wrists with a butter knife than voluntarily watch Paul Ryan on television for even a second.

Part of the adverse reaction to the debates, as my remarks above indicate, is based on some weariness. But mostly, it seems unclear to me they offer voters anything useful in a political dimension. As my friend and ex-student Tara Mulqueen succinctly noted:

[I]ts very premise and construction of politics effects a massive closure on anything that might be deemed properly political.

To wit, it seems implausible that the format and staging of the modern debate offers anything remotely close to what might be termed a political dispute; the moment this political ‘encounter’ is placed on television, we lose any semblance of political struggle and descend into posturing built up out of the bare-faced presentation of talking points, the avoidance of analysis and argument, the evasion of difficulty. It’s almost as if some public spectacle were required to serve as the summum bonum expression of the vapidity of the election season i.e., the skirting and skimming of the most difficult problems that face the nation, and the debate does so, no pun intended, spectacularly. And puzzlingly enough, it isn’t even clear whom the spectacle is intended for: if undecided voters are undecided because they aren’t paying attention, then what is the point of watching?

The debates remain a spectator sport; fuel for Twitter-and-Facebook-chatter and drinking games; I paid up in 2008, but now I’m done.