The Great Bob Mueller Seduction

Blood is in the water: the president of the United States appears to have committed ‘obstruction of justice.’ We know this because a ‘legal dream team’ headed by a special prosecutor, a former head of the FBI, is conducting a long, expensive, and detailed investigation of all the president’s men. The nefarious activities suspected to have been undertaken are varied and detailed; like most Americans, I’m entirely unsure of the precise particulars of the tangled web that is being unwoven for us. But those details seem unimportant; for at the end of it all lies deliverance, the impeachment of Donald Trump, the eviction of the carpetbaggers currently occupying the White House.

For some time now, via television and talk show and social media, we have been treated to the spectacle of–I do not think I exaggerate–millions of Americans salivating over the legal particulars of Bob Mueller’s investigation: how detailed and thorough its collection of evidence and marshaling of witnesses is; its skillful deployment of carrot and–a very big and threatening–stick in making legal plea deals; and so on. An entire cottage industry of tweeting experts has sprung up to inform us, in hushed and breathless tones, of how legally significant the latest development is and just how much shit is currently splattering various fans; these tweets go viral, urged hither and thither, as if merely by talking about how bad things are going to get for Trump and his men, their end can be hastened. There is much gleeful talk of how those  working in the Trump administration will be bankrupted by their legal fees as they are subpoenaed till the cows come home; you cannot escape the clutches of the ‘ace prosecutors’ that this paragon of virtue–a former FBI head–has lined up.

The worst features of our  legal system are on display: the staggering legal fees; the unfettered power of prosecutors. Give ’em hell, we say, because we know the legal system can destroy your life in all these ways; we’re just happy these big guns are turned against our political enemies. (Even if they have never been turned against the corporations that rule the republic’s roost.) It is a strange business for a nation which plays host to the moral and legal atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’ to be so cheering on a bunch of prosecutors–a demographic unfettered in its legal power, and persistently accused of misconduct. It is a peculiar business too that the FBI–whose investigations into political activists have, historically and currently, marked it out as anything but apolitical–is being hailed as the savior of the American Republic and our political knight in armor.

What Mueller’s investigation has done, of course, is turn political resistance to Trump into a spectator sport: we sit back–indeed, many have said just that–grab the popcorn and watch the shit show go down, and the superheroes, er, special prosecutors, will come to our rescue, ridding us of this blight. The legal system and its investigations appear to be working as a sponge, soaking up the political will and energy of Americans who otherwise might have been engaged in serious thinking about their political options. Instead, they have handed over their political agency to a bunch of lawyers appointed guardians of the state and our polity.

But it isn’t the lack of law that got us here; it is that plenty of institutional deformations are written into our laws and therefore respected; they demand for themselves a prima facie legal obligation, because they are burnished by the aura of the law, which is being enhanced by the ‘legal investigation’ under way. But the undemocratic Senate is legal; gerrymandering is legal; Supreme Court rulings that lock particular interpretations of the US Constitution into place are legal; the Electoral College is legal. Governments can be shut down legally; the US Senate can legally–under one interpretation–refuse to even consider a President’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Federal Courts by the Republican Party and the corresponding stuffing of the Federal Courts by Federalist Society nominees was all legal. No dictator need abuse any legal American institutions in order to become a totalitarian despot. (This point has been made, quite eloquently, several times over, by Corey Robin; here is one variant of that claim.) That despotic power is built, legally, into American political institutions, all ready and ripe for hijacking by bad actors. Those bad actors are here, and they’ve hijacked the polity.

We are witnessing an old maneuver, one oft-repeated: take an existing political or social problem, subject it to the law, and pretend it has been solved. The authority of the law, its ideological entrenchment is reinforced, but the social or political problem remains unsolved. What will Bob Mueller’s team rid this republic of? A president, and very optimistically, his vice president too. Mueller cannot impeach the Republican Party (which will, in any case, not impeach Trump.) How then, will this nation’s political crisis be resolved? Mueller’s actions will not bring the Republican Party’s nihilism to heel. Indeed, an even worse hangover awaits us, if as is likely, this entire expensive legal investigation will end only with Trump riding out his term unscathed and going on to greater riches ‘outside.’ When the smoke clears and this prosecution is over, we will be left with the same severely compromised republic we had before. No team of special prosecutors can bring that to heel. We have outsourced the hard work to someone else, expecting to be rescued from a mess we made ourselves. This is ours; we have to clean this up.

Hypocrisy And The Unequal Weighing Of Political Preferences

‘We’ are shocked time and again by the hypocrisy and political incoherence on display: Trump voters help elect a man who seems to act against their economic interests; they prop up a serial sexual harasser and abuser even as they claim to be fine, upstanding, family types dedicated to stamping out immoral behavior of all stripes; Republicans speak up for Roy Moore, a man accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, even as they claim to be the defender of religious family values; every new evidence of political scandal and misbehavior on the part of this administration is met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Republican faithful; and so on. (I have listed merely a selection of those examples that occur to me as an occupant of ‘this’ side of the political spectrum; the ‘other side’ will be able to supply some of its own.)

Such seeming incoherence is anything but; accusations that those who hold such views are hypocrites or inconsistent rest on a widely mistaken view about how political subjects rank their political preferences and value their political goods: it is assumed that citizens assign a ‘flat’ ranking to their political preferences, that they assign the same value to all perceived political goods, so that  a failure to provide one political good is as damaging as a failure to deliver another political good. A moment’s reflection will show that this is not the case. None of us rank our desired political goods as equally valuable–this is precisely why our political parties of choice send us survey questionnaires in election season, asking  us to rank our political priorities so that they may better focus their limited resources on pursuing those agendas of most interest to their constituents.

Viewed in this light, the seeming ‘incoherence’ or ‘hypocrisy’ of our political opponents becomes more understandable; they are not any more unprincipled or inconsistent than we are; failure to sever a political alliance is not evidence of political dishonesty; rather, the seeming offender has not committed any truly ‘deadly sin’ just yet by failing to deliver a truly valuable political good, one ranked much higher than the less-worthy ones that have not been delivered. If Donald Trump ‘grabs pussies’ and stuffs his family’s coffers while ensconced in the White House, this is of little import to a constituency that simply does not rank respect for women or financial propriety as important as the rhetorical or material protection of an established social order of say, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Judeo-Christian nationalism’ or anything else. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party can be perceived as continuing to supply those political goods, ones granted a weight orders of magnitude greater than that granted to say, the protection of women’s rights to live their lives free of harassment, then all is good. Politicians are not perfect; they cannot ‘do it all’; but if they do what we most want, we are willing to overlook their ‘minor’ failings. Especially if paying attention to those ‘minor’ failings will compromise the delivery of the truly important political goods.

There is a method to the madness.

‘Jokes’ About Country Music Fans’ Taste In Music Is All I Got For Now

Because–in the wake of Sandy Hook and Las Vegas–talking about gun control, gun regulation, background checks, mental health, institutional capture by the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party’s gun lobby, gun culture, toxic masculinity, American cultures of violence, racist understandings of ‘terrorism,’ white privilege, political hypocrisy, the rural-urban divide, and all of the rest seems to have run its course. It says something about the nature of mass shootings in America–of real, live, people who then proceed to fall down dead, their vital organs perforated by bullets–that reactions to their occurrence descends so quickly into the hunt for the perfect one-liner that will capture the stupidity and futility of ‘debate’ on ways and means to prevent them. Ideologies forestall debate; they present a state of affairs as necessary and not contingent; they deny the agency of man and the historicity of our present seemingly fixed realities. By these standards ‘gun ideology’ is wildly successful; it has constructed a vision of reality that appears immutable, impervious to intervention by political and moral actors. And thus prompted the title of this post.

But we know that ‘anti-gun’ groups do real, substantive work; they are able to bring about legislative change and regulation of firearms; there is nothing magical prima facie about firearms as an object worthy of regulation and control–sure, they are big business, and a powerful lobby works hard to keep this country awash in guns, but these are not insuperable barriers; so why the pessimism? One problem, of course, is that gun-related violence is an intersectional issue of sorts; the regulation of firearms in a country like the US, while it might bring reductions in gun-violence-related deaths at roughly the same levels that strict gun-control legislation in Australia produced following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, is also likely to suffer from all-too-American problems of its own.

For one, gun-control will almost certainly be implemented selectively with many rough edges; crackdowns on already heavily policed populations will be a distinctive feature of the new regulatory regime. White suburban owners, the demographic that produced Stephen Paddock–the Las Vegas shooter–and his ilk, will get off lightly; they will ‘surrender’ their guns last in line. This supplementation of an already brutal system of mass incarceration seems ill-advised. Given that the country’s prisons also function as a replacement mental health system, this move appears even more like a very bad idea. Moreover, in this US, an increasingly militaristic nation whose police forces resemble armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organizations, whose political institutions have been captured by a nihilistic political party, and whose economic inequality indicators continue to decline, there is a reasonable case to be made by the political radical that speaking up for the ‘disarmament’ of historically oppressed civilian populations is an act with troublesome ramifications; such moves are likely to be acts of unilateral surrendering of future political options.

These objections make it sound like gun-control is a hard task in a racist, militaristic society with rampant economic inequality running a racist mass incarceration system; which would be an accurate assessment of affairs.

The Trump-Republican Legacy: Institutional Capture And Degradation

There might be some disputation over whether the Donald Trump-Republican Party unholy alliance is politically effective in terms of the consolidation of executive power or actual legislative activity–seasoned political observers consider the Trump administration to have been an utter failure on both fronts–but there can be little doubt about the extent of the damage the combination of the Trump administration and the Republican Party have done to American political institutions. They have done so in two ways: first, they have systematically captured components of the electoral and  legislative process, exploiting their structural weaknesses and their dependence on good-willed political actors (which the Republicans most certainly aren’t); second, they have engaged in a wholesale rhetorical condemnation and ridicule of central and peripheral political institutions like the judiciary and the press.

In the former domain, we find a bag of dirty tricks that includes gerrymandering of state electoral districts, wholly fraudulent investigations into voter fraud, repression of voter registration, filibusters, supermajority requirements to call bills to vote on the floor, the stunning refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia, and so on. In the latter domain, we find the ceaseless vilification of judges who do not align their votes in the ideological dimensions preferred by Trump, an utter disregard for all manner of ethical proprieties (c.f. the absence of any sensitivity to the non-stop conflicts of interest that are this administration’s trademark political maneuver), and a wholesale rejection of any standards of truth or evidence in the making of substantive factual political claims.

The American polity will be rid of the Trump administration via resignation or electoral rejection soon enough; perhaps it will even remove the Republican Party from power  from all three branches of government. It will not, however, be rid of the damage caused to its political institutions any time soon; it will take a long time to for this damnable stain to be removed, if at all. Cynicism about political institutions and practices is as American as various species of fruit pies; it is the natural result of a systematic effort by the political class to bring about widespread disengagement with national and state-level political processes, thus clearing the field for those seeking greater control over them. That effort has been spectacularly successful over the years; low voter turnout is its most visible indicator. The efforts of this administration and the Republican Party, aided and abetted, it must be said, by the Democratic Party, have pushed that cynicism still further, into realms where the abdication of political responsibility and the loud proclamation of moral bankruptcy has come to seem a political and intellectual virtue.  So overt has the abuse of the political system been that a collective weariness with politics has prompted an ongoing and continuing abandonment of the field; better to walk away from this cesspool than to risk further contamination. That abandonment clears the way for further capture and degradation, of course; precisely the effect intended (see above.)

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.

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.

Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale And The Gilead Nationwide

I’ve read Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale late; in fact, I’ve only just finished reading it–by way of preparing to watch the new television series currently being aired on Hulu–some twenty-five or so years it was first recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend (who was then an office bearer with the National Organization for Women in New Jersey.) I might have read it too late; the issues broached in Atwood’s dystopian classic of speculative fiction–the rise of a totalitarian theocracy in the US, the forcing of women into sexual and reproductive subjugation, the curtailing of women’s bodily freedoms under the guise of protecting ‘conventional’ morality, a harsh penal regime, and environmental degradation notable among them–have been at the forefront of a great deal of political and moral discourse in the intervening years. The issues Atwood philosophized about–using the literary vehicle of a novel–have had their many complexities articulated and analyzed and theorized threadbare; they are now exceedingly familiar to us. For all of that, they are not any less threatening, and it is small wonder that as the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by that cabal of nihilists, the Republican Party, continues its wrecking ball treatment of the American Republic, the novel (and its associated television series) continues to seem increasingly prescient and prophetic. Perhaps even a little too much so; at least two of my friends have informed me that they will not be reading the novel or watching the show any time soon, ‘at least as long as this administration is in office–it’s a little too real right now.’ Dystopian speculative fiction should not be too realistic, I suppose.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump is not the problem; the Republican Party is. The impeachment of Donald Trump would merely bring to the Oval Office Mike Pence, a drone-like creature best placed to emulate those folks who run the land of Gilead in Atwood’s novel. Moreover, Republican run state legislatures the nation over specialize in drafting and passing legislation that flirts with the codes operative in Gilead: their primary obsession has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the control of women’s bodies, but attempts to control where and how they work and what they can read or write never seem too far behind. (To be fair, state level Republican Party leadership is always interested in controlling what everyone reads and writes.) Take a look at some of the pieces of work linked to here–a piece dating back to last year–and you’ll have a fair idea of the medievalist mindset, which would not be out of place in Gilead, that is par for the course among the Republicans of today. Matters have only worsened since the election of Donald Trump; while his antics provide a never-ending series of distractions that cause liberals to foam at the mouth and fantasize about impeachment, Republicans quietly proceed with shadow legislation–like the new version of the American Health Care Act, which is due to be voted on, apparently without being read by anyone in a position to stop it from being passed.

Gilead will not come with a bang, but with a whimper.