Obama: a Hollow Man Filled With Ruling Class Ideas


A “Hollow” Man Who Was “Unwilling to Fight the Good Fight”

What on Earth motivated the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and law professor David J. Garrow to write an incredibly detailed 1078-page (1460 pages with endnotes and index included) biography of Barack Obama from conception through election to the White House? Not any great personal affinity for Obama on Garrow’s part, that’s for sure. Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama is no hagiography. On the last page of this remarkable tome, Garrow describes Obama at the end of his distinctly non-transformative and “failed presidency” as a man who had long ago had become a “vessel [that] was hollow at its core.”

Near the conclusion, Garrow notes how disappointed and betrayed many of Obama’s former friends felt by a president who “doesn’t feel indebted to people” (in the words of a former close assistant) and who spent inordinate time on the golf course and “celebrity hobnobbing” (1067). Garrow quotes one of Obama’s “long-time Hyde Park [Chicago] friend[s],” who offered a stark judgement: “Barack is a tragic figure: so much potential, such critical times, but such a failure to perform…like he is an empty shell…Maybe the flaw is hubris, deep and abiding hubris….” (1065). Garrow quotes the onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.”

The subject of Garrow’s meticulous history is a single-minded climber ready to toss others (including family members, lovers, and close friends) aside in service to an all-consuming quest for political power fueled by a belief in his own special “destiny.” (It is clear from Rising Star that Obama was set on a run for the presidency by age twenty-five.) Dozens of former Obama associates interviewed by Garrow report having been impressed, even blown away by the future president as a young man. But many others were put off by Obama’s sense of superiority and arrogance (“full of himself” by the recollection of one Harvard Law classmate [p. 337]) and by his often lecturing, professorial “know it all” presentation – and by his transparent hyper-ambition.

During his time at Harvard Law, fellow students invented “the Obamanometer” – a numerical measure of how long Obama would spend taking up class time with long-winded dialogue with the professor, often while claiming to speak on behalf of his fellow students.

Obama struck many on his way up as far too impressed with his own awesomeness. As one of his fellow black Illinois state senators commented to another veteran legislator as Obama began his eight-year career in the Illinois Senate in 1996, “Can you believe this guy’s some thirty years old [and] he’s already written a book about himself?” (p.600)

Progressives lobbyists found Obama “a disappointing legislator” during his time in the Illinois Senate.  According to Al Sharp, executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, state senator Obama was “so very pragmatic” that “he,” in Garrow’s words, “was unwilling to fight to the good fight.” By Garrow’s account. “Legal aid veteran Linda Mills recalled that [state senator] Barack ‘sponsored a number of bills I wrote,’ but ‘I stopped seeking him out as a chief sponsor early on’ because Barack was ‘disengaged’ rather than actively pushing the bills. ‘He was never involved in the legislation,’ and on many days Barack was simply ‘unavailable. Golfing, playing basketball.  He was just out to lunch so often’” (p.731)

An Ugly Offer: Money for Silence

I find a different story related in Rising Star just as disturbing. It comes from April of 2008, when then presidential candidate Obama was being compelled by the Hillary Clinton campaign to throw his onetime South Side Chicago “spiritual mentor” Reverend Jeremiah Wright under the bus because Obama’s association with the fiery Black and left-leaning pulpit master was costing him too many white votes. On April 12, 2008, Obama visited Wright, asking him not to do “any more public speaking until after the November election.” Wright refused. “Barack left empty-handed but before long Wright received an e-mail from Barack’s close friend Eric Whitaker, also a Trinity [church] member, offering Wright $150,000 ‘not to preach at all’ in the months ahead.” (p.1044). Wright refused.

How was that for progressive hope and change?

“A Work of Historical Fiction”

Young Obama tried to beat historians to the punch by writing a deceptive, self-serving account of his own first three and half decades gracing the planet with his “special qualities.” Garrow, to his credit, doesn’t fall for it. Rising Star takes the future president’s 1995 book Dreams From My FatherDreams and some of Obama’s later autobiographical reflections to task for: inventing a deep racial identity drama that never occurred during Obama’s early years in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Occidental College; incorrectly portraying Obama as a “difference-maker” on his high school basketball team; deceptively claiming that Obama had been an angry “thug” during high school; deleting the Community Party background of the Black “old poet” (“Frank,” as in longtime Communist Party activist Frank Davis) who gave Obama advice as a teenager in Honolulu; inaccurately claiming that Obama have received a “full scholarship” to Occidental; misrepresenting himself as a leader in the movement against South African apartheid at Occidental; exaggerating Obama’s involvement in anti-apartheid activism at Columbia University; covering up  evidence of Obama’s enrollment in a Columbia course taught by a Marxist academic; absurdly mispresenting the nature of Obama’s work for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) at the City University of New York; concocting a mythical and supposedly life-changing dialogue with a  “black security guard” on Obama’s first trip from New York City to begin community organizing work on the far South Side of Chicago;  falsely claiming that Obama  converted to Christianity during his early years in Chicago; largely writing Obama’s white mother out of his autobiography, which spilled far more ink on a father (Barack Obama. Sr.) who played little role in his life; painting a “decidedly uncharitable portrait” of Obama’s loving white maternal grandfather (Stanley Dunham) who did so much to raise him; suggesting that Obama’s maternal white grandmother was a racist; unduly downplaying Obama’s supreme enjoyment of his years at Harvard Law School; and coldly condensing his three top pre-marital girlfriends (more on them below) “into a single woman whose appearance in the book was fleeting indeed.” Garrow judges Dreams “a work of historical fiction,” not a serious autobiography or memoir.

The Revenge of Sheila Jager: “His Deep-Seated Need to be Loved and Admired”

Rising Star might almost deserve the sub-title “The Revenge of Sheila Jager.” Like Garrow’s giant and classic 1986 biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rising Star gets very, very personal. Garrow reports the complaints of Obama’s three former girlfriends – Alex McNair, Genevieve Cook, and Sheila Jager. Each one recalls an Obama that was ultimately inaccessible and hopelessly self-involved.  Ms. Jager, a partly white Asian-American University of Chicago anthropology graduate student when she met Obama, garners singular attention. She fell into a prolonged and ardent affair with then community organizer Obama during the late 1980s. But her long and tumultuous relationship with him was doomed by the color of her skin. Obama shared the passion but decided he could not marry her because his political ambitions in Chicago required a Black spouse.

Garrow recounts an ugly scene in the summer of 1987. A loud and long dispute developed one day at the Wisconsin summer home of a friend. From the morning onwards, a witness recalled, “they were back and forth, having sex, screaming yelling, having sex, screaming yelling.… That whole afternoon, they went back and forth between having sex and fighting,” with Jager yelling: “That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason.”

Near the end of his colossal volume, Garrow says that “no one alive brought deeper insight into the tragedy of Barack Obama than Sheila Jager.” He reproduces numerous quotations from Jager, now an Oberlin College anthropology professor.  As a young woman, she was frustrated by young Obama’s lack of “courage.” Writing to Garrow in August of 2013, Jager saw that cowardice in his excessively “pragmatic,” disengaged, and “compromising” presidency:

“the seeds of his future failings were always present in Chicago.  He made a series of calculated decisions when he began to map out his political life at the time and they involved some deep compromises.  There is a familiar echo in the language he uses now to talk about the compromises he’s always forced to make and the way he explained his future to me back then, saying in effect I ‘wish’ I could do this, but ‘pragmatism and the reality of the world has forced me to do that.’  From the bailout out to NSA to Egypt, it is always the same. The problem is that ‘pragmatism’ can very much look like what works best for the moment.  Hence, the constant criticism that there is no strategic vision behind his decisions. Perhaps this pragmatism and need to just ‘get along in the world’ (by accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it) stems from his deep-seated need to be loved and admired which has ultimately led him on the path to conformism and not down the path of greatness which I had hoped for him.” (1065)

The italics are Garrow’s.  He added emphasis to the entire passage.

Or Maybe He Really Believed All that “Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal” and “Pragmatism” Stuff

Garrow’s mammoth biography is a tour de force when it comes to personal critique, professional appraisal, and epic research and documentation. His mastery of the smallest details in Obama’s life and career and his ability to place those facts within a narrative that keeps the reader’s attention (no small feat at 1078 pages!) is remarkable.  Rising Star falls short, however, on ideological appraisal. In early 1996, the brilliant left Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. captured the stark moral and political limits of what would become the state and then national Obama phenomenon and indeed the Obama presidency.  Writing of an unnamed Obama, Reed observed that:

“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”

Garrow very incompletely quotes Reed’s reflection only to dismiss it as “an academic’s way of calling Barack an Uncle Tom.”  That is an unfortunate judgement. Reed’s assessment was richly born-out by Obama’s subsequent political career.  Like his politcio-ideological soul-brothers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (and perhaps now Emmanuel Macron), Obama’s public life has been a wretched monument to the dark power of the neoliberal corporate-financial and imperial agendas behind the progressive pretense of façade of telegenic and silver-tongued professional class politicos.

Reed’s prescient verdict more than 12 years before Obama became president brings more insight to the Obama tragedy than Jager’s reflection five years into Obama’s presidency. Obama’s nauseating taste for supposedly (and deceptively) non-ideological “get things done” “pragmatism,” “compromise,” and “playing it safe” – for “accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it” (Jager) – was not simply or merely a personality quirk or psychological flaw. It was also and far more significantly a longstanding way for “liberal” Democratic presidents and other politicos to appear “tough-minded” and stoutly determined to “getting things done” while they subordinate the fake-populist and progressive-sounding values they mouth to get elected to the harsh “deep state” facts of U.S. ruling class, imperial, and “national security” power. A “pragmatic,” supposedly non-ideological concern for policy effectiveness – “what can be accomplished in the real world” – has long given “liberal” presidents a manly way to justify governing in accord with the wishes of the nation’s ruling class and power elite.

Garrow and Jager might want to look at a forgotten political science classic, Bruce Miroff’s  Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy [1976].) After detailing the supposedly progressive Kennedy’s cool-headed, Harvard-minted, and “best and brightest” service to the nation’s reigning corporate, imperial, and racial hierarchies, Miroff explained that:

“Most modern presidents have claimed the title of ‘pragmatist’ for themselves.  Richard Nixon was just as concerned as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to announce that he was not wedded to dogma, and that his administration would follow a realistic and flexible course. It has chiefly been the liberal presidents, however, who have captured the pragmatic label…For liberal presidents – and for those who have advised them – the essential mark of pragmatism is its ‘tough-mindedness.’ Pragmatism is equated with strength and intellectual and moral strength that can accept a world stripped of illusions and can take the facts unadorned.  Committed to liberal objectives, yet free from liberal sentimentality, the pragmatic liberal sees himself as grappling with brute and unpleasant facts of political reality in order to humanize and soften those facts…The great enemy for pragmatic liberals is ideology…An illusory objectivity is one of the pillars of pragmatic ‘tough-mindedness.’ The second pillar is readiness for power.  Pragmatists are interested in what works; their prime criterion of value is success…[and] as a believer in concrete results, the pragmatist is ineluctably drawn to power.  For it is power that gets things done most easily, that makes things work most successfully.” (Pragmatic Illusions, 283-84, emphasis added).

The classic neoliberal Bill Clinton embraced the pragmatic and non-ideological “get things done” façade for state capitalist and imperialist policy. So did the pioneering neoliberal Jimmy Carter and the great corporate liberals Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kenney and Franklin Roosevelt. Was this really or mainly because they were psychologically wounded?  The deeper and more relevant reality is that they functioned atop a Superpower nation-state rule by unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, and white supremacism. They were educated, socialized, seduced and indoctrinated – to understand in their bones that those de facto dictatorships must remain intact (Roosevelt boasted of having saved the profits system) and that liberal “reform” must always bend to the will of reigning institutions and doctrines of concentrated wealth, class, race, and power. Some or all of them may well have to believe and internalize the purportedly non-ideological ideology of wealth- and power-serving pragmatism. And Obama was either a true believer or one who cynically chose to impersonate one as the ticket to power quite early on.

A Fully Minted Neoliberal Early On

The irony here is that one can consult Rising Star to determine the basic underlying accuracy of Reed’s acerbic description. My foremost revelation from Rising Star is that Obama was fully formed as a fake-progressive neoliberal-capitalist actor well before he ever received his first big money campaign contribution.  He’s headed down the same ideological path as the Clintons even before Bill Clinton walks into the Oval Office.  Obama’s years in the corporate-funded foundation world, the great ruling and professional class finishing schools Columbia University Harvard Law, and the great neoliberal University of Chicago’s elite Law School were more than sufficient to mint him as a brilliant if “vacuous to repressive neoliberal.”

During his years at Harvard Law, Garrow notes, Obama took said the following at a Turner Broadcasting African American Summit for the 1990s:

“Whenever we blame society for everything, or blame white racism for everything, then inevitably we’re giving away our own power…if we can get start getting beyond some of these old divisions [of race, place, and class] and look at the possibilities of crafting pragmatic, practical strategies that are going to focus on what’s  going to make it work and less about whether it fits into one ideological mold or another.”

These were classic neoliberal and ruling class themes.

Along with a healthy dose of market economics, this was the heavily ideological if nominally anti-ideological essence of much of Obama’s intellectual work at Harvard Law, where he and his good friend the former economist Rob Fisher were drawn to the courses of a libertarian professor and wrote oxymoronically about the progressive and democratic potential of “market forces.”  Like other ruling class and professional class educational and ideological institutions of “higher education,” Harvard Law was and remains a great schoolhouse of precisely the kind of “pragmatism” which knows that no policies and visions can work that don’t bow to the holy power of the finance-led corporate and imperial state, ruling in the name of the market among other things.

Again, and again across Garrow’s many hundreds of pages on Obama’s community organizing and legislative career one hears about the future president’s classically neoliberal efforts to address poverty and joblessness by increasing the market value of poor and jobless folks’ “human capital” and “skill sets.”  Never does one learn of any serious call on his part for the radical and democratic redistribution of wealth and power and the advance of a people’s political economy based on solidarity and the common good, not the profits of the investor class.

The main things Obama needed to add on to fulfill his “destiny” after Harvard Law were a political career in elected office, a great moment of national celebrity (his spectacular Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention in August of 2004), elite financial sponsorship (including record-setting Wall Street backing in 2007 and 2008), and proper appreciation and articulation of U.S.-imperial Council on Foreign Relations ideology.  All of this and more, including no small good fortune (including the awfulness of the George W. Bush administration and the 2007-08 Hillary Clinton campaign), followed and brought us to the great neoliberal “disappointment” that was the Obama presidency.

Curious Deletions: MacFaquhar, Marxists, and the Ruling Class Sponsors

There are some interesting deletions in Rising Star. It is odd that the meticulous Garrow never quotes a remarkable essay published by The New Yorker in the spring of 2007. In early May of that year, six months after Obama had declared his candidacy for the White House, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

Was this personal weakness and cowardice? The deeper reality is that Obama’s “deeply conservative” beliefs reflected an either calculated or heartfelt allegiance to neoliberal “free market” ideals and related pragmatic and “realistic” ruling- and elite professional-class values inculcated and absorbed at Harvard Law, in the corporate-captive foundation world, and through his many contacts in the elite business sector and the foreign policy establishment as he rose in the American System. Along with a bottomless commitment to the long American imperial project, those power-serving beliefs were written all over Obama’s conservative late 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (Obama’s second book and his second book mainly about himself – see my critical review of it on Black Agenda Report in early 2007  here), whose right-wing and imperial content Garrow ignores.  They also raised their head in the famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address (see my critical reflection on that oration at the time here) that did so much to make Obama an overnight national and even global celebrity – another document whose right-leaning ideological nature escapes Garrow’s attention.

Like Obama’s neoliberal and imperial ideology, the many left activists and writers (this reviewer included) who saw through Obama’s progressive pretense and warned others about it early on are basically missing in Rising Star.  The list of Left commentators left out is long.  It includes Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky. Alexander Cockburn, Margaret Kimberly, Jeffrey St. Clair, Roger Hodge, Pam Martens, Ajamu Baraka, Doug Henwood, Juan Santos, Marc Lamont Hill, John R. MacArthur, and a host of others (Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter, titled “We Were Warned,” of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power [Paradigm, 2014], my second carefully researched Obama book not to make it into Garrow’s endnotes or bibliography).

Also largely missing – the other side of the coin of omission, so to speak – in Garrow’s sprawling acount is the elite corporate and financial class that made record-setting contributions to Obama’s rise with an understanding that Obama was very much on their side. How write a 1000-page plus account of Obama’s rise to power without at least once mentioning that august and unparalleled ruling class figure Robert Rubin, whose nod of approval was critical to Obama’s ascendancy? As Greg Palast noted, Rubin “opened the doors to finance industry vaults for Obama. Extraordinarily for a Democrat, Obama in 2008 raised three times as much from bankers as his Republican opponent.”

Rubin would also serve as a top informal Obama adviser and placed a number of his protégés in high-ranking positions in the Obama administration. Rubin’s Obama appointees included Timothy Geithner (Obama’s first treasury secretary), Peter Orszag (Obama’s first Office of Management and Budget director), and Larry Summers (first chief economic adviser).

Just as odd as his ignoring of MacFarquhar’s May 2007 essay is Garrow’s inattention to a remarkable report from Ken Silverstein’s six months before. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in November of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006.

His “dollar value” to Wall Street would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Garrow’s fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Sukind wrote, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

On Love and Admiration

As noted above, professor Jager told Garrow that the limits of Obama’s presidency stemmed from his longstanding “need to be loved and admired.” But surely that need would have been met to no small degree had Obama (like Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936) governed in at least partial accord with the progressive-sounding rhetoric he campaigned on in 2007 and 2008. Beyond the social, democratic, security and environmental benefits that would have been experienced by millions of Americans and world citizens under an actually progressive Obama presidency, such policy would have been good politics for both Obama and the Democratic Party. It might well have pre-empted the Tea Party rebellion and kept the orange-haired beast Donald Trump – a dodgy neo-fascistic legacy of Obama and the Clintons’ ruling- and professional-class Ivy League elitism – out of the White House.  The bigger problem here was Obama’s love and admiration for the nation’s reigning wealth and power elite – or, perhaps, his reasonable calculation that the powers that be held a monopoly on the means of bestowing public love and admiration. Non-conformism to the ruling class carries no small cost in a media and politics culture owned by that class.

The Biggest Omission: Empire

The most glaring thing missing in Rising Star is any understanding of U.S, Senator and presidential candidate Obama’s imperial world view. His brazenly “American exceptionalist” and imperial mindset, straight out of the Council on Foreign Relations, was written all over Obama’s foreign policy speeches and writings (including large sections of The Audacity of Hope) in 2006, 2007, and 2008. I wrote about this at length in the fourth chapter (titled “How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.

This significant omission but it is unsurprising given Garrow’s own apparent enmeshment in the American imperial mindset.  Rising Star’s long epilogue includes John McCain-like criticisms of Obama for failing to launch military strikes on Syria and for being too allergic to “the use, or even the threat of force” in global affairs. Garrow even offers a lengthy critical quote on the need for “the next president” to be more “resolute” from the former leading imperialist defense secretary Robert Gates, who Garrow strangely describes as “the weightiest and most widely respected voice of all.”

“Problems Out There with the Situation of African-Americans in Society”

Obama first became something of a celebrity when he became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review in February of 1990.  “I wouldn’t want people to see my election,” Obama told the Associated Press, “as a symbol that there aren’t problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” (Garrow, Rising Star, p. 392). Note the carefully calibrated nature of Obama’s public commentary already at the age of 28: “problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” could just as easily refer to alleged Black personal and cultural failure (a persistent white-pleasing theme in the rising star’s political rhetoric) as it could to cultural and/or institutional and societal racism.  Note also that while Obama’s election and re-election to the U.S. presidency brought few if any tangible material and policy gains to Black America (whose already terrible economic situation deteriorated significantly during his time in office), it functioned as something like the last nail in the coffin of many whites’ stark reluctance to acknowledge that the nation’s still deeply embedded racism any longer poses real barriers to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. “Are you kidding me?” I’ve heard countless whites say, “we elected a Black president! Stop talking about racism!” Never mind the persistence of deeply embedded racial inequality and oppression at the heart of the nation’s labor and housing markets, credit and investment systems, legal and criminal justice systems, its military and police state, and its educational and media systems – and the dogged tenacity of personal and cultural race prejudice among a considerable part of the white populace.  In that and other ways, the tragedy of the Obama years has been greatest of all for those at the bottom of the nation’s steep social and economic wells.

King v. Obama

If I could ask Garrow one question beyond the personal matter of why my own heavily researched and annotated study of (and Left warning on) “rising star” Obama (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics [Paradigm-Routledge, 2008]) is so egregiously missing in his bibliography and endnotes, it is this: what does Garrow think his previous epic biography subject Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. (who politely refused progressives’ effort to enlist him as a presidential candidate and whose bust sat behind Obama in the Oval Office), would have thought of the career of Garrow’s new epic biography subject, Barack Obama?

As Garrow knows, King in his final years inveighed eloquently against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” essentially capitalism, racism, and militarism-imperialism. King came to the end of his martyred life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in “men” as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them.  He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters. He had no interest, of course, in running for the White House of all things.

Obama took a very different path, one that enlisted him in service both to narcissistic self and to each of the very triple evils (and other ones as well) that King dedicated his life to resisting.

The Obama-King contrast continues into Obama’s post-presidential years.  As Garrow showed in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King. Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, 1986), the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. King sternly refused to cash in on his fame.  Now that he out of the White House, Obama, by contrast, is cashing in. He’s raking in millions from the publishing industry and Wall Street and he’s back to his old “hobnobbing” ways with the rich and famous.

The reverend would be 88 years old if he had been blessed with longevity.  My guess is that he would be less than pleased at the life and career of the nation’s first technically Black president.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/06/02/obama-a-hollow-man-filled-with-ruling-class-ideas/

What Would Happen If Donald Trump Were Impeached?

NEWS & POLITICS
The latest whirlwind of news about Trump, Comey and Russia has again stoked the chorus for impeachment. Here’s how it might happen.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Around midday on Monday, Congressman Al Green, a Democrat from Texas, held a press conference to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. The firing of FBI director James Comey, Green said, was an obstruction of justice falling clearly into that basket of “high crimes and misdemeanors” prescribed in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment.

Green should have waited a day. Because by the time the sun went down on Tuesday, advocates for Trump’s impeachment had a lot more to work with.

On Tuesday evening, the New York Times reported that Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said to Comey, according to Comey’s notes on the meeting. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

The White House denied the report, which was subsequently confirmed by numerous media outlets.

The Comey news broke before Washington had a chance to catch its breath from Monday’s shocking revelation. Late on Monday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that Trump had divulged highly classified material to Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting last week – material so sensitive that homeland security officials scrambled to place calls to US intelligence agencies afterwards to warn them that the information had leaked, via the president’s mouth, to Moscow.

Trump told Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak about spying by an unnamed US partner that had revealed an alleged Islamic State plot involving laptop computers and airplanes, the Post reported.

The White House trotted out national security adviser HR McMaster on Monday evening to call the Post report “false” – but then the president, on Tuesday morning, as much as confirmed it on Twitter, although he did not specify the information was classified.

“As president I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining … to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against Isis and terrorism.”

The episodes have once again stoked the chorus calling for the impeachment of Trump, a chorus that has steadily built over the four months of the Trump presidency.

Some Democratic lawmakers immediately questioned the legality of Trump’s alleged statements to Comey, with Senator Dick Durbin saying it “again appears to cross the line into the obstruction of justice”. Elijah Cummings, a top congressional Democrat, said, “clearly we’ve got a smoking gun and a lot of dark smoke.”

As for Monday’s bombshell, legal analysts say that Trump is correct in noting his “absolute right”, as president, to share information as he pleases. The president’s discretion overrides any categorical classification, and there has been no assertion that Trump broke a law by allegedly sharing the information.

The president may, however, have broken his oath of office, according to analysis at Lawfareblog, whose top six analysts joined in a byline to write: “It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of president.”

The blog notes that allegations of oath violations have been central to every previous case of impeachment or near impeachment.

“Let’s not minimize it,” legal scholar Alan Dershowitz said on CNN late Monday. “Comey is in the wastebasket of history. Everything else is off the table. This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States. Let’s not underestimate it.”

The case against Trump was, to some minds, already strong. A campaign is under way to impeach Trump for allegedly violating constitutional bans on receiving certain gifts. Others have argued for an arcane application of constitutional law under which the vice-president and cabinet together might declare the president unfit to serve.

Green was not alone in seeing the firing of Comey as the last straw. As FBI director, Comey was leading an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian operatives. Trump told interviewer Lester Holt last week that the Russian investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey.

“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’,” Trump said.

To many ears, the lines were a blank admission of obstruction of justice à la Nixon. In a Saturday Night Live parody of the scene, Holt, played by Michael Che, stops the interview to ask his production team: “So … did I get him? Is this all over?” Holt listens to his earpiece. “No, I didn’t? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters any more?”

Who has been impeached before?

Two presidents, Bill Clinton (1998) and Andrew Johnson (1868). (Congress may also impeach judges.) Articles of impeachment were passed against Richard Nixon by a congressional committee, but Nixon resigned before the House of Representatives could vote on the matter, meaning that technically he was not impeached.

Impeachment does not mean expulsion from office. Under the constitution, impeachment happens in the House of Representatives if a majority approves articles of impeachment previously approved in committee. Then impeachment goes to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority vote is required to convict the president, upon which he would be removed from office.

Both Johnson and Clinton were impeached in the House but then acquitted in the Senate and remained in office.

What can a president be impeached for?

“Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”, the constitution says. Needless to say, there’s debate over what all those terms mean.

Johnson was charged with breaking the law by removing the US secretary of war, which, in the aftermath of the civil war, was not his decision as president to make. Clinton was charged with obstruction of justice and with perjury, for allegedly lying under oath to a federal grand jury about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Had Nixon not resigned, he might have been convicted in the Senate on one of three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of power or defiance of subpoenas. In any case, Gerald Ford, who was Nixon’s vice-president and who succeeded him, pardoned Nixon of any crimes a month after Nixon resigned.

Can a president be removed apart from through impeachment?

Theoretically, yes, under the aforementioned 25th amendment, which was ratified relatively recently, in 1967, to clear up succession issues made painfully urgent by the assassination of John F Kennedy.

The 25th amendment describes a process by which a president may give away power owing to his or her own disability, and a separate process by which power may be taken from a president owing to disability or inability.

The key players in the second case are the vice-president and the top 15 members of the cabinet. If the former and a majority of the latter decide the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, they submit that information in writing to the House speaker (currently Paul Ryan) and Senate president pro tempore (currently the Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch) and just like that, the vice-president would be acting president.

The president may challenge such a decision, at which point a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress would be required to stop the president from regaining power.

It’s conceivable that Trump would not go quietly if his cabinet and vice-president Mike Pence were to gang up on him.

How long do impeachment proceedings take?

There isn’t much precedent to say, but the Clinton case proceeded through Congress relatively quickly, in about three months. That example may be misleading, however, owing to the years-long investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, including the Lewinsky affair, by the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, which preceded it. Starr handed his report and research to the House judiciary committee, which therefore had no need to conduct a time-consuming investigation of its own.

Who’s saying Trump should be impeached?

About 46% of Americans who responded to a Public Policy Polling survey in February, for starters. Public opinion matters because for impeachment to happen, Congress must act, and elected officials sometimes hang their principles on opinion polls.

It’s notable that Nixon, a Republican, faced impeachment in a Congress controlled by Democrats, and Clinton was impeached by a Republican-controlled Congress. For Trump to be impeached, members of his own party would have to turn on him.

That’s why Republican base approval of Trump is so important. If Republican voters do not abandon the president, Republican members of Congress are not likely to.

On the other hand, the Republican Congress might conceivably be enticed into action by the prospect of dumping Trump in exchange for someone they are far more comfortable with: Pence, himself a former congressman and a much more predictable traditional conservative.

Several congressional Democrats have called for impeachment proceedings of some kind. Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin said on the House floor in February that if Trump did not divest business holdings and take other actions, then “we’ll have to take other actions, including legislative directives, resolutions of disapproval and even explore the power of impeachment”.

What might Trump be charged with?

Bonifaz, of the Impeach Trump Now group, argues that Trump’s failure to divest from his businesses has already produced frequent violations of constitutional rules for emoluments, or gifts. Investigations into associations with Russia by Trump or his proxies could conceivably produce some kind of disloyalty charge. If Trump has to testify at some point about any of this, he could face a Clinton-style perjury charge. Abuse of power? Obstruction of justice? It seems as if, should Congress get to the point of charging Trump, they may have a buffet of potential charges to choose from.

What would it take in practice to trigger enough Republicans into action?

Republicans had promised to impeach Hillary Clinton as soon as she took office. But what they might not have remembered is that two-thirds of the Senate is required to convict a president of impeachable offenses. The Democrats are in the minority, but they do have 48 Senate seats out of 100.

The most important factor for Republicans in deciding whether to go after Trump would seem to be the disposition of Republican voters. If the people turn on the president, Congress may follow.

Might Trump resign before he’s impeached if there’s a smoking gun, as Nixon did?

What kind of mood does Pence seem to be in? Is he implicated? In the scenario of a Pence succession, it would be up to the current vice-president to pardon Trump or not. Maybe Trump would be more likely to get out of the way and avoid all or some impeachment proceedings – in this truly hypothetical scenario – if Trump felt reassured that Pence, upon acceding to power, would pardon him.

Could he refuse to comply with proceedings?

Only two months into the Trump presidency, we’ve already heard warnings, issued by members of Congress, about this or that constitutional crisis being afoot: Trump impugns judges; Trump overrides legislated regulations; courts block executive actions. There are many opportunities for further constitutional crises during the Trump years, and a Trump refusal to go along with prospective impeachment proceedings is certainly easy to imagine. In which case: who controls the military?

Could he refuse to step down if he’s found guilty?

See above.

Would Pence go down with him?

Not likely. There’s a school of thought that says a key reason the Republican congressional majority would assent to a Trump impeachment is because then they would get the president they really want, Pence. The closest historical precedent to a double whammy of this kind is the resignation in a bribery scandal of Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, in 1973, a year before Nixon went down. But the alleged crimes were unrelated.

Elections have consequences. Is this all actually just a fantasy for liberals and conservative purists who cannot accept that Trump won?

Reasons this might not be true include the fact of Trump’s historically low popularity rating at the two-month mark. Trump sits at 38% approval, according to Gallup, 20-some points behind the historical average for first-term presidents. Additionally, Trump seems to be flying unusually close to the sun, in terms of his conduct as an elected official. During his campaign he refused to release his tax returns on the grounds that the usual rules did not apply to him. His refusal to divest from his businesses as president, on similar grounds, could lead him into legal hazards that other presidents have avoided. And the investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia continue. Finally, Trump is truly a Washington outsider, which could increase his vulnerability to acts of bureaucratic infighting or hidden treachery, as evidenced by the incredible number of leaks from the intelligence community so far.

On the other hand, the election of Trump has been a particularly painful blow to the progressive psyche, more so even perhaps than the re-election of Bush as the atrocities of the Iraq war mounted in 2004. Republicans suffered for eight years from what some of their critics called Obama derangement syndrome, becoming so wrapped up in their opposition to the president that any sense of greater purpose seemed sometimes to be lost. Are progressives and conservative purists suffering from Trump derangement syndrome? It’s possible. We’ll find out.

Julia Carrie Wong contributed reporting to this story

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/what-would-happen-if-donald-trump-were-impeached?akid=15583.265072.65H-Cd&rd=1&src=newsletter1077076&t=20

Oligarchy in America

Naming the System

In democracies, the demos, the people, rule; not social or economic elites.  This was the understanding of philosophers in Athens twenty-five centuries ago, and it remained the consensus view well into the modern era.

The received wisdom was that, like anarchy, democracy is a theoretical possibility that can be instructive to reflect upon, but not an ideal that anyone of sound mind would actually endorse.

With the emergence of capitalist economic relations, however, and, along with it, the rise of the nation state, the traditionally marginalized demos became a factor in the politics of societies on the way to modernity.

In that context, democracy took on more positive connotations.  The transformation was well underway by the time of the French and American Revolutions.

Enlightenment thought played a role in fashioning those world historical events and in promoting understandings of their significance.  It was thanks to Enlightened thinkers that the idea took hold that nation states are comprised of citizens.  The idea is that, in principle, basic rights and liberties should be distributed equally; that, within the political sphere, equality reigns.

Because it demanded the rule of only a part of the citizenry, the demotic part, the old understanding of democracy eventually gave way.  In effect, the concept was scrubbed of its class content.

Needless to say, equal citizenship does not make social and economic inequalities go away.  It does, however, establish a kind of political equality – at least in theory.   In practice, self-described democracies have sometimes accommodated egregious political inequalities.   This was what the civil rights movement in the United States was mainly about; and it has been, and still is, a major concern of feminists in the United States and around the world.

The standard understanding of political equality is formal, not substantive.  Eligible citizens get one and only one vote, and are therefore formally or procedurally equal with respect to collective decision-making.  That some citizens may have more influence in determining outcomes than others – not because they are more persuasive in deliberations, but thanks to their economic and social power – is not thought to offend the idea of citizenship as such.

Thus the rule of the demos became the rule of an undifferentiated citizenry; and we nowadays deem states democratic if they institutionalize free, fair, and competitive elections.  Sometimes other practices associated with more traditional understandings of democratic theory are required as well — especially those that assure that the public is informed and that political choices are debated without fear or intimidation.  However, these protections have more to do with liberal restrictions on what states can rightfully do than with democracy as such.

Because, in the real world, facts on the ground make the idea of rule by an undifferentiated citizenry seem ludicrously hollow, and because contemporary and traditional understandings of democracy diverge so profoundly, it can be, and often is, misleading to use the word “democracy,” as we customarily do, to denote both classical and contemporary understandings.

But because the tables have turned, because the word “democracy” nowadays has positive connotations, defenders of the status quo are reluctant to give it up.

There have been theorists, however, who, being more concerned with getting concepts straight than with using them to justify the status quo, prefer not to contest the concept, but would rather reserve it for instances in which it plainly applies.

In practice, this means using “democracy” almost exclusively in normative contexts, and in discussing the work of the great democratic theorists of the past.   It means acknowledging the fact that, for descriptive political science, the concept is as useless as the ancients believed.

Thus the late Robert Dahl suggested that instead of calling regimes like the one in the United States “democracies,” we ought to use the term polyarchy instead.

Etymologically, that word connotes the rule of the many.  The “many” Dahl had in mind were overlapping elites.  They need not all be based on wealth.  In actually existing polyarchies – or “Western democracies,” as they are more familiarly known – organized labor and civil society groups of all sorts can and do figure in the political power structure too.

From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution to this day (in sectarian circles), hard Left political parties and unaffiliated leftwing intellectuals would distinguish themselves from one another by advancing competing views of the political economy and class nature of the former Soviet Union.

Maoists and some Trotskyists called the Soviet system “state capitalist.”  There were many, not always compatible, views of what that notion implies.  For Communists, the Soviet Union was a workers’ state.  Orthodox Trotskyists agreed – but with the caveat that it was “bureaucratically deformed” to such a degree that Soviet Communism betrayed the ideals of the Revolution that gave it birth.

Building on the foundations Dahl laid, it is tempting to describe the political regime in the United States in a similar fashion.    In that spirit, and at the risk of seeming facetious, I would venture that the United States is a polyarchy with plutocratic deformations.

In plutocracies, the rich rule.  America’s plutocratic deformations are “exceptional,” compared to those of most other polyarchies, but they are not qualitatively different.  In capitalist societies, capitalists are rich, and states in capitalist societies serve their interests.  If only in this sense, the rich rule.  In nearly all cases, however, they rule in more direct ways as well.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) insisted that a condition for the possibility of democratic governance is “that none should be so rich as to be able to buy another or so poor as to be forced to sell himself.”  Nearly everyone agrees; the incompatibility of democracy with grossly unequal distributions of income and wealth is a tenet of both classical and modern democratic theory.

Polyarchies are democratic enough to be undone by gross inequalities too.  All Western democracies are more polyarchic than democratic, and they all suffer, to some extent, from deformations brought on by income and wealth inequality.  Neoliberal economic policies have made the problem worse everywhere.

However, the American polyarchy has suffered more than most; in the United States, plutocracy is out of control.

Of the many reasons why, perhaps the most important is the inability of the American state to limit political spending.  The Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens’ United ruling nowadays gets all the attention, and it deserves all the blame it gets.   It should be remembered, however, that this is only the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions, going back at least to Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, that effectively identify political spending – and therefore political corruption – with Constitutionally protected speech.

Democracy Tamed

Until well into the nineteenth century, the political class in the United States, and its counterparts in Great Britain and elsewhere, restricted the franchise to white male property owners.

For determining how many representatives in Congress states would be allotted, slaves counted for three-fifths of a citizen.  But they were not able to vote, of course; they were the property of their owners.  Freed blacks fared no better.

Native Americans couldn’t vote either; neither could many of the (mixed race) inhabitants of the lands the United States took from Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century.

And although dissenting voices were raised from the earliest days of the republic, white women were denied the franchise too.   The consensus view among men, and among many women as well, was that the rightness of that arrangement was too obvious to require justification.

The exclusion of propertyless white males was more problematic.  There were plenty of extant justifications to draw upon, however.  Property holders in Great Britain and their Western European counterparts had been dealing with the issue for some time, and the arguments were well worked out.

The general strategy was to take on board and then adapt the old arguments against the rule of the demos – especially the idea that for collective deliberation and decision-making to work properly, decision-makers must be educated and informed, and must have ample time to devote to deliberative processes.  Propertyless white males, having neither the time nor the resources to develop the requisite capacities, fall short on this account.

This ostensibly high-minded rationale aside, the underlying reason why the franchise was restricted to persons of property was that the last thing property holders wanted was an electorate full of poor and desperate persons.  They feared that the propertyless would use the power of the state to seize and redistribute their wealth.

Their fears were reasonable.  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, wealth and income egalitarians did call for extending the franchise in order to advance their cause.  The Chartists in Britain were the most important example, but they were not alone.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on, it became increasingly clear that the well off had little to fear.  The rise of political parties that mediated between individuals and the state was an important part of the reason why.  The party system that emerged enabled elites to channel popular aspirations in ways that left private property secure.

With its potentially counter-systemic implications neutered, democracy could finally serve as an ideal that everyone could, at least in theory, endorse.

Thus property qualifications proved less robust than racial, nativist and patriarchal restrictions of voting rights.

Under military protection, blacks could and did vote and hold office in defeated Southern states during Reconstruction.  In short order, though, they were effectively disenfranchised for the next hundred years; and, to this day, in practice, if not in theory, their right to vote remains precarious.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, women did win the right to vote in a few Western territories and states, but it was not until 1920, after decades of struggle, that the women’s suffrage movement finally succeeded in forcing Congress and the states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

These victories notwithstanding, white supremacy and patriarchy survived extensions of the franchise in much the way that private property had decades earlier.  It takes more than voting to dislodge entrenched power.

There is no doubt, however, that while progress has been uneven, the virulence of white supremacy and patriarchal domination has diminished over the past several decades.  The gains seem irreversible too; not even the malign forces behind Donald Trump can turn back the clock on this.  No doubt, voting is part of the reason why, though it is unclear how large a role it has played.

Ironically, though, over the same period, income and wealth inequality and other problems associated with plutocracy have gotten worse; voting hasn’t helped with that at all.   Indeed, many less well off voters nowadays vote for candidates and policies that make the problems associated with plutocratic rule worse.  So much for expropriating the expropriators through the ballot box!

There are many reasons why this has happened: false consciousness comes immediately to mind; it is surely part of the explanation.  For evangelicals and others with retrograde social views in the United States, so is “values voting.”

But the most important part of the explanation, in the American case, is the lack of a real opposition party that the system in place does not thoroughly marginalize.  The Democratic Party is useless for that.  To be sure, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been known to mouth off about the evils of inequality.  But you don’t need a bullshit detector to see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The Trump phenomenon is both a symptom and a cause of this sorry state of affairs.  It seems anomalous, because Trump’s persona is so outrageous, and because it is plain that no one with his temperament should be anywhere near the seat of power, much less anyone as clueless as he.   It doesn’t help either that his cabinet is full of nincompoops and that his advisors are even worse; or that, for the time being, he is pursuing reactionary social and economic policies at home, and a reckless and basically incoherent agenda in foreign affairs.

But the fact is that were he now to disappear from the scene – say, by getting himself impeached or by quitting, as he has done before in his capacity as a casino tycoon and real estate mogul — it will seem, in retrospect, that while, during his tenure in office, he raised the profile of the polyarchy’s plutocratic deformations to new heights, he did not fundamentally alter the nature of the regime.

If, however, Trump somehow stays on – because his vanity demands it and because Democrats permit it – it may look instead, in retrospect, that, at this moment, we are indeed on the brink of a radical transformation; that our flawed polyarchy is about to become something America has never quite seen before, even in the robber baron days — a full-fledged oligarchy.

Oligarchy Trump Style

Oligarchy, the rule of the few, is the problem we are facing – not fascism.  Trump is no fascist, not even a “friendly fascist,” as Ronald Reagan was sometimes said to be.

For one thing, he has no coherent political vision, fascist or otherwise; for another, he lacks the stature of a true fascist leader.  Calling the Donald a fascist actually demeans fascism.  This might seem like a good thing to do.  But the description is anachronistic, and things are what they are.  It would be foolish to trade off clarity for a dubious rhetorical advantage.

It is true, though, that Trump is a magnet for the kinds of people who, in the right circumstances, become fascists; social psychologists call them “authoritarian personalities.”

The description applies, however, only to a subset of Trump voters.  Most of them were not so much voting for Trump as against Clinton and, insofar as they understood what she represented, against Clintonism – against the neoliberal turn, against liberal (“humanitarian”) imperialism, and against America’s perpetual war regime.

The great German Social Democrat August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”  In that spirit, we might say that “Trumpism is the anti-Clintonism of fools”; or rather that it would be, if saying that didn’t require dignifying Trump’s politics by putting an “ism” after his name.

Trump has unleashed the furies, the forces of darkness.  Plenty of people – Muslims, Hispanics, persons of color, women, and white workers too – are suffering on this account, and if he isn’t stopped, it will get much worse.  Even so, he will not leave America a fascist state.  The danger he poses to the political realm is of a different nature.

If he is able to ditch the largely beneficial rules and regulations he and his minions inveigh against, and if he can get Congress to enact the spending programs and tax cuts he says he favors, some very rich malefactors will do very well under his reign.  Plutocracy will flourish.

But even allowing that, as “dialecticians” would say, quality arises out of quantity, this will not change the fundamental nature of the regime.  America will still be a polyarchy — with large and growing plutocratic deformations.

It would be a regime changer, though, if Trump were to turn the rule of the many into the rule of the few.  This is what he seems to be doing, right before our eyes.

He is not just forming a “kitchen cabinet” and relying upon it inordinately.  He is relying upon people he thinks won’t betray him, and turning the reins of government over to them.

However, his is no ordinary oligarchy.  His oligarchs didn’t find him; he found them.  And, with one major exception, they aren’t even plutocrats who have grown too big – or too rich – for their britches.

“Oligarchy” has had unusually bad press in the United States of late– thanks mainly to the resurgent Russophobia that Americans of a certain age imbibed with their mother’s milk, and thanks to the fact that Democrats and their media flunkies are doing all they can to stir it up – not just to delegitimize Trump but also to deflect blame for the thrashing they took in the last election away from themselves and onto an enemy Republicans hate as much as they do.

Delegitimizing the Trump presidency is a worthwhile project, but there are less reckless ways of going about it than antagonizing a nuclear power.  Inasmuch as Trump is his own best delegitimizer, there are countless ways.

Were left-leaning pundits to go after Trump for moving the country in an oligarchic direction, they would actually be doing some good.  However, they prefer to go after him by linking him not to the homegrown oligarchs he is actually empowering, but to the oligarchs of Russia and the former Soviet republics, the evil “other.”  That way they can get Trump and get Russia too.

Russian oligarchs and their counterparts in other former Soviet republics are, for the most part, well-connected cronies of leading politicians – especially Vladimir Putin, the man Democrats and Republicans of the John McCain variety love to demonize.  The official line is that they reek of corruption; that our plutocrats are angels in comparison.

It is true that the Russian system is corrupt.  The corruption started when, with Western – especially American – help, Russia’s regression to capitalism got underway.  At first, the beneficiaries of that debacle were kleptocrats, connected to the old nomenklatura and, in some cases, to organized crime.

They made off like the bandits they are, setting the tone for what would follow as the system matured.  The corruption has never gone away.

We in the United States have our share of corruption too.  Trump fooled a lot of people campaigning against it; on the principle that it takes one to know one, he got them to think that, being on their side, he had the will and ability to “drain the swamp.” Where is Sarah Palin now that we need her to ask how that “swampy drainy thing” is going?

The way that it’s going is that he is bringing the swamp into the White House itself.  He is doing it by putting together a kind of ma and pa oligarchy that does nothing to diminish the level of corruption and that is manifestly less competent than anything Russophobic liberal pundits can find to complain about in Russia today.

Reduced to its core, the Trump oligarchy is comprised of a Trump, a Kushner, Steven Bannon and, scariest of all, Robert Mercer.

The Trump is, of course, daughter Ivanka, purveyor of baubles and fashion.  The line on her is that she is an intelligent and savvy businesswoman.  In fact, she owes her success in business to the Trump name, and she knows as much about politics as the average thirty something who was born into the gilded world of the nouveau riche.

The Donald trusts her because she is family and because, as he would be the first to say, she is hot.  Also, he needs her to be his acting First Lady.

I have high hopes, by the way, for the actual First Lady.  Circumstantial evidence and common sense – supported by serious gossip – all suggest that she increasingly regrets the Faustian bargain she made with the Donald.

If she would do the right thing, Melania Trump could do more good for her (adopted) country than any woman with access to presidential genitals since Eleanor Roosevelt — more even than Monica Lewinsky or Nancy Reagan.

But for his dalliance with the former, Bill Clinton would have had a shot at ending Social Security “as we know it,” just as surely as he and Hillary ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children; and but for the latter’s faith in astrology and her and therefore her astrologer’s influence over the villainous old Gipper, all kinds of mischief would surely have resulted.

The Kushner is Jared, Ivanka’s husband.  It was a match made in capitalist heaven.  They both have sleaze ball dads who know how to work the system.  They both grew up with more money than God.

A difference is that the Kushners couldn’t capitalize on their name, even if they wanted to, whereas the Trumps are past masters at it.   Also Jared’s father, unlike Ivanka’s, has done time.

Another difference is that Ivanka’s dad could care less about religion, except when his marks are evangelical Christians, while Jared’s is an Orthodox Jew.  So is Jared, and therefore now Ivanka as well.  The Kushners are also rabid Zionists, ethnic cleansers whose “philanthropy” aids the settler movement in Occupied Palestine.

Two mediocrities; two chips off the old block.  With oligarchs like these, how could Trump not “make America great again?”

Having identified a vacuum there to fill, Bannon, an apostle of the formerly fringe, now mainstream, far Right has managed to make himself Trump’s guru.

He is the one largely responsible for bringing serviceable cartoon characters like Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller into the Trump fold.  Without them and others of their ilk, Trump would now be little more than a barely remembered figure from a nightmare, and he would be even less able to govern than he currently is.  Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer are just not enough.

Bannon can also be credited with bringing a semblance of ideological coherence to the Trump campaign by drawing on the thinking of pre-World War II clerical fascists and their intellectual descendants in Europe today.  Their ideas give a nationalistic and Islamophobic coloration to the retrograde social and economic policies that Republicans traditionally champion.

How odd for a guru coaching a billionaire pretending to be an American “populist” to draw on sources rooted on the wrong side of the Dreyfus Affair, and for God-fearing, down home American Protestants not to mind the foreign and Catholic inflections.  But there it is!

It was pointed out during the campaign that the adjective “loathsome” attached to Ted Cruz’s name in much the way that “fleet footed” attached to Achilles’.  Bannon picks up on the Cruz vibe too – especially when he echoes the old Reagan nonsense about how government is not the solution, but the problem.

To make his point, Bannon appropriated, and forever sullied, the word “deconstruction,” depriving obscurantist literary theorists of one of their most cherished concepts.  Bannon and therefore Trump say that they want to deconstruct the government by which they mean reduce it down to a vanishing point – all, that is, except those parts of it that advance the class interests of the Trump and Kushner families and their class brothers and sisters.

This would include its means of domestic repression and world domination.  They want to expand all that – indeed, to throw money at it — even at the cost of offending the deficit hawks in the House and Senate, and in the larger Republican fold.

To soften the blow, Bannon and the others saw to it that those government agencies which actually serve the public would be led and staffed as much as possible by nincompoops opposed viscerally to the agencies they lead.

Even if Trump goes, this will be an enduring part of his “legacy.”  With the Donald out of the picture, we would have Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary, in charge.  How pathetic that this is something to look forward to!

Then there is Mercer.  If Jane Mayer’s scrupulously careful investigative reporting (“fake news” in the Trump lexicon) is even remotely on track, Mercer money has effectively bought the White House – not because the Donald is on the take, he doesn’t need to be, but because he is in way over his head and Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are, under Bannon’s direction, helping him muddle through.

In his pre-Dick Cheney days, when he too would get in over his head, the man who is now only the second worst President in modern times would rely on Bush family fixers to get him through.  Mercer is currently doing much the same for the man who knocked George W. out of first place.

Mercer, it seems, is weird as they come; daughter Rebekah, not so much.  She reportedly relishes her power and influence as the First Lady of the alt-Right.

Her father, however, hardly ever speaks.  In recent years, limitless riches seem to have brought out the inner Gatsby in the man.  He has taken to indulging a taste for Long Island estates, luxurious yachts, and lavish parties.  But even now, in comparison, Clarence Thomas, in his capacity as a Supreme Court Justice, is positively loquacious.

Mercer is an extreme libertarian and also a devote not just of the usual conspiracy theories, but also of the idea that, for example, global warming is good for the planet and that nuclear accidents and even nuclear wars really aren’t that bad.

How could such a man become so rich and therefore powerful?  The answer seems to be that, for writing computer codes useful to the financial firms he runs, he is something of an idiot savant.

Idiots savants who, for example, multiply and divide very large numbers in their heads end up in freak shows.   What Mercer is uncannily good at is as socially useless.  But it also happens to be ridiculously lucrative in our twenty-first century capitalist world.

And so Mercer and his daughter find themselves in a position to turn their fantasies into state policies that, thanks to their zeal and Trump’s fecklessness, could do irreparable harm to the human race and the planet itself.

All oligarchies are bad.  The one that Trump is laying on us could make the others, even the Russian one that Democrats and their pundits rail constantly against, look good in comparison.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/31/oligarchy-in-america/

Our Two Party System is Dead

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) famously proclaimed the death of God.  Following this far more momentous precedent, it would now be fair to proclaim the death of the debilitating, semi-established duopoly party system that disables progressive politics in the United States.

The analogies are many.

Nietzsche claimed that it would take centuries for the Divine body to decompose.

By this, he did not just mean that it was no longer possible, without self-deception, to believe that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being who created all that is and with whom human beings can have personal relationships.  Materialist philosophers a century earlier could have said that, albeit not in as colorful a way. Nietzsche took it for granted.

His deeper claim was that ways of thinking and being – and forms of civilization — that rested on belief in God were finished as well.

This included quite a lot – not literally everything, but nearly everything of fundamental importance.  In his view, prevailing notions of truth and morality were among the first casualties.

He insisted, however, that it would take a long time for all the consequences to take effect. Therefore, the churches would likely remain full for generations.  The synagogues too, though Nietzsche’s view of synagogues was, to put it mildly, ambivalent; and, though he knew little and cared less about them, the mosques as well.

They might even seem to thrive.  But they would not be what they were because, with the divine corpse decomposing, their foundations were gone.

That, from time to time, there would be periods in which parts of God’s decomposing body would flourish therefore does not embarrass Nietzsche’s claim.  Church, synagogue, and mosque attendance might rise from time to time; and, for any number of reasons, some people some of the time might rally around the old, essentially defunct, religions.  But, at its core, it would all be a sham because, whether “believers” know it or not, superseded ways of thinking and being cannot be replicated except in ironic ways.

The implication was that the sooner people realize this, the sooner they see the world as it is and not as they would like it to be, the better the world will be.

It will be better not because people will be happier or because they will have an easier time navigating their way through life’s tribulations, but because it will be more honest.  Like Aristotle, Nietzsche was what we would today call a “virtue ethicist.” Honesty – and authenticity more generally – was high on his list of virtues.

He was also a critic of democracy and egalitarianism and other emanations of Enlightened thought.

And he was a master ironist.   It was in that capacity that — to use a word that Stephen Bannon and other Trumpists have besmirched — he called for the “deconstruction” of the God idea and all that rests upon it.  This was how he would have humanity realize the goal of Enlightened thinking, as described by Immanuel Kant and philosophers in the classical German tradition: it would free humanity from its “self-imposed nonage.”

***

It is impossible, of course, to say exactly when God died.  That death – so consequential for humanity and so irrelevant to everything beyond human control — was a process, not an event.

The death of the two party system in the United States is a process too.  But the consequences are so much more limited, and the time frame so much shorter, that it could look to future historians very much like an event — if there are future historians, that is; in other words, if, despite Democrats and Republicans and Donald Trump, we somehow survive environmental devastation and avoid nuclear war.

If our luck holds to that extent, the 2016 election season could well come to be seen as the moment when the duopoly died or, rather, when the process that did it in reached a culminating point.

For anyone with an even vaguely Nietzschean sense of the order and value of things, it can only seem grotesque to liken the demise of something as inherently base as America’s party system to the death of an idea as foundational and sublime as the Christian  — and Jewish and Muslim — God.

Nevertheless, the similarities are plain and the comparison is instructive.

Enlightenment thinking began to undo the God idea more than a century before Nietzsche came on the scene; and decades before he declared God dead, there were philosophers in Germany – for example, the Young Hegelians (as a very young man, Karl Marx was one of them) – who thought that the question of God’s existence had been settled and that the pertinent philosophical and political questions had to do with why the belief persisted nevertheless.  To probe those questions, the Young Hegelians sought to uncover the human meaning of ideas of God.

The duopoly system in American politics was also mortally ill before the duopoly died – not for nearly as many years, of course, but nevertheless, for a long time, as political settlements go.

The beginning of the end came in the late seventies, when Jimmy Carter was President, and when the political economic order that had been in place since the end of the Second World War seemed suddenly to have become stuck in a permanent crisis – with economic growth impeded and inflation on the rise.

Creditors found the situation intolerable; they also found themselves more empowered than they had been when the ambient economic scene was more robust.

Under these conditions, they were not shy about throwing their weight around in Washington.   Leading capitalists favored the Republican Party, of course; that was in their DNA.  But they channeled money to Democrats too.  Where there is influence to be purchased, they have always been bipartisan.

Within leading academic and policy circles, neoliberal political economists had been marginalized since the time of the New Deal.  Suddenly, their standing changed one hundred eighty degrees as the ruling class, and therefore the political class, took up the neoliberal cause.

The idea was to disencumber markets, capital markets especially, from regulations enacted to save capitalism from the capitalists, and also to give manufacturers relief from regulations that protect the environment.  Another major objective was to diminish the countervailing power of organized labor and other civil society groups, giving capitalists freer rein.

Under the cover of “supply side” economic theories, they also wanted to reform the tax code – effectively robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

And so, a political regime took shape that aimed to undo the progress of preceding decades.  The neoliberals set out not just to stop progress in its tracks, but also to turn back the clock as best they could.

On the Republican side, this led to purging the party of its liberal wing, attacking unions, resurrecting laissez-faire economic policies, and revving up Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and related efforts to bring “the silent majority” on board.  It led, in a word, to the “Reagan Revolution.”

The Reaganites did all they could to set Wall Street free to make money with other peoples’ money, and they encouraged the exportation of jobs to parts of the world where labor was cheap.  They reset the political agenda.  But, at first, they were not able to implement much of the agenda they established – in large part because Democratic majorities in the House and Senate wouldn’t allow it.

It therefore fell to opportunists in the Democratic Party to consolidate and expand the Reagan Revolution by bringing the opposition along.  This is the principal “legacy” of the Clinton presidency.

Bill Clinton was the best Reaganite President ever, better than Obama, better than both Bushes put together, better than the villainous old Gipper himself.   He did it because he could; not because he believed in “trickle down” economics or other Reaganite nostrums.  He did it to help himself and his paymasters, by working both sides of the street.

It was a slow process but, in time, on the Republican side, the inmates took over the asylum; while, over the course of the eighties and nineties, the Democrats became Republicans in all but name.

However, to this day, the old duopoly structures, like the churches and synagogues and mosques, have remained more or less unchanged.  In recent years, they even seem to have thrived.

Throughout the long nineteenth century – from, roughly, the War of Independence to World War I – the American party system was comparatively fluid; the Republican Party itself was a product of its transformations.

Since World War I, third party activity has played a far less significant role in American politics.  Third party organizing, on both the left and the right, has come to very little; indeed, most efforts have failed outright.   Even parties that have survived for several election cycles – the Greens, for example, or the Libertarians – have never had more than a marginal impact on the larger political scene.

It could have been different last year.  Disappointed Sanders supporters could have either brought the Greens out of the margins or forged a new electoral presence on their own.    It never happened, however; thanks, at least in part, to Sanders’ defection to the Clinton camp.

And so for the time being, same as it ever was, Democrats and Republicans are all we have.  Nevertheless, the two party system is defunct.  The party machines remain, the apparatchiks are still there, and “politics,” for most Americans, is still about electoral contests between Democrats and Republicans.   But like Christianity, on Nietzsche’s telling, it is all built on a foundation of bad faith.

Those who think otherwise are deceiving themselves; trying, in vain, to defy historical currents that are bound to prevail.  This is happening even now, before our eyes. It can sometimes be hard, as it were, to see the forest for the trees, but the evidence is there: each year, the ranks of “independents” grow, and levels of satisfaction with the major parties declines.

Where, not long ago, people identified as Democrats or Republicans, hardly anyone does nowadays; not even people who can be counted on to vote reliably for candidates from one or the other side.

***

As the electoral results from 2016 came in, it looked, for a moment, as if at least the Republicans were riding high.  No one thinks that any longer – not as their decomposition proceeds apace, just as palpably as the Democrats’.

Even on a worst-case scenario, a few more electoral cycles should suffice for both Republicans and Democrats either to dissipate entirely into the ether or else to survive as historical remnants only, hanging on by the skins of their teeth.

Entrenched institutional structures are keeping them both alive for now, but as the parties themselves become increasingly irrelevant, those institutions will be unable to go on playing that role.

Therefore, in not too many more years, the duopoly system will exist in historical memory only – in much the way that, in Nietzsche’s view, the God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam will, in due course, join the gods of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Had events played out in 2016 as most informed people thought they would, we would be at that point already.  Trump had, in effect, run against the Republican Party and defeated it; and Hillary Clinton was set to finish both him and the Republicans off.

Many voters hated her (mostly for the wrong reasons), and hardly anyone genuinely liked her, but at least she wasn’t a raving embarrassment.  More important by far, the political, social, economic and media “power elite” was behind her a thousand percent.

But she was such an awful candidate that she managed to lose to a billionaire buffoon.

Having decided that blaming elderly white working class voters in rural areas was unwise, influential Democrats and their media flacks now blame the Russians – with every breath they take.  Could they be that intent on starting World War III?  Or is it just that were they to face up to their own ineptitude, they fear they would lose their grip on the institutional power they still enjoy thanks to the duopoly’s continuing existence?

Whatever the reason, there is comfort in the realization that they, like the Republicans, are doomed.

Republicans need Trump to get their agendas through; Trump needs them because neither he nor his people are capable of governing.   It is a marriage made in hell.

But, sooner or later, as scandals surrounding Trump mount and as more and more Trump voters realize that they have been conned, Republicans will come to the realization that they are better off without the Donald, after all.

And Trump, desperate to hold onto his credibility by keeping, or appearing to keep, the promises he made while campaigning, will find it expedient that he would be better off without Republican deficit hawks tearing those promises to pieces.

Many, probably most, Trump voters could care less about the Republicans’ several agendas.  They didn’t vote for Trump because they were pro-Republican or even because they liked him.   They voted for Trump because they were fed up with the Democratic Party, and because they were inclined to think that a rich businessman who says whatever is on his mind would be a better “change agent” than a money-grubbing Washington insider who talks in weasel words.

Being in thrall to unjustifiable and patently false, but quintessentially American, beliefs about the essential goodness of rich businessmen, they thought that Trump was beyond feathering his own nest, and that he would know how to shake things up and make change – for the better — happen.

Boy, were they wrong!

As a rule, people resist admitting their mistakes.  But with Trump and his band of dunces calling the shots, it should not take much to convince the voters Trump duped that the man is more like the Wizard of Oz than the Ayn Rand hero they imagined him to be.

The problem, though, is that those voters were right last November about Clinton and the Democrats; and, except for some hand wringing about the need to be less dismissive of the sad sacks Trump duped, nothing much in that department has changed.

What has changed, however, is that, outside the Democratic Party and at its fringes, an anti-Trump resistance movement is taking shape.

As long as Trump and his minions remain preposterous, that movement will not subside the way that, for example, Occupy Wall Street did.  That condition is sure to be fulfilled; Trump and the people around him were born preposterous.  They cannot help themselves.

If the Democratic Party holds fast to its ways, the anti-Trump resistance will sweep them aside – either directly, by leading voters out of the morass that the Democratic Party has become, or, on the Tea Party model, by taking the Party over and transforming it beyond recognition.

Either way, the Democratic Party’s days are numbered.

The Republicans’ days are too.   Indeed, it is a miracle that the GOP has survived for as long as it has under the weight of its cultural contradictions.  And yet, that jumble of yahoo theocrats, rightwing libertarians, conformist suburbanites, High Finance buccaneers and well-heeled members of the Country Club set has so far managed to hang together.  Could that hideous mélange long survive Trump and the Trumpists too?  The chances are slim.

Nietzsche asked: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

We could ask, with similar justification, what are the duopoly’s institutional structures and engrained habits of thought and practice now if not the final resting place of a party system that would long ago have passed away, but for the efforts of Democrats and Republicans to maintain their stranglehold over the body politic?

The duopoly is dead; and the sooner this fact registers, the better off everyone who stands to gain from (small-d) democracy will be.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/17/our-two-party-system-is-dead/

The assault on immigrants and the specter of a US police state

 policestate

27 February 2017

In his ultra-right diatribe delivered Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Donald Trump reveled in the crackdown his administration has initiated against undocumented immigrant workers, while identifying the repressive forces carrying out this campaign as a key base of his political support.

He declared, “[W]ith the help of our great border police, with the help of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], with the help of General Kelly and all of the people that are so passionate about this…ICE came and endorsed me. They never endorsed a presidential candidate before, they might not even be allowed to.”

Trump continued, “As we speak today, immigration officers are finding the gang members, the drug dealers and the criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country.”

Earlier in the week, White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that the administration had taken “the shackles off” of ICE and Border Patrol agents with the issuing of new rules of engagement that essentially target every undocumented immigrant living in the US for apprehension and deportation.

The brutal human cost of this “unshackling” has become manifest from coast to coast since the Department of Homeland Security released two memos spelling out this dramatic escalation. ICE agents have carried out a series of raids supposedly targeting “criminal aliens”—in most cases workers charged with immigration violations, driving offenses and other minor scrapes with the law. In addition to those targeted, others have been swept up in “collateral arrests,” the term used by ICE to describe anyone it encounters in the course of these raids whom it suspects may be undocumented.

The intended effect of these sweeps is to institute a reign of terror against millions of working-class families living under the threat of mothers and fathers being suddenly and violently torn from their children.

Incidents taking place within days of the new enforcement memos have graphically exposed the police state methods that are being unleashed first upon immigrant workers and being readied for attacks on the working class as whole.

Late last Wednesday in Fort Worth, Texas, ICE agents burst into a hospital and dragged away a critically ill 26-year-old woman from El Salvador who had been brought in for emergency surgery for a brain tumor. Sara Beltran Hernandez, a mother with two young children, was seized by the agents and shackled hands and feet, even though she was unable to walk and had to be removed in a wheelchair.

She was taken back to a privately run, for-profit detention center where her treatment has consisted of doses of Tylenol. The sole “crime” committed by this young woman was to cross the border in search of asylum from the violence in her home country and in the hope of reuniting with her mother, a legal resident in Queens, New York.

A week before in Virginia, ICE agents laid siege to a Methodist church, ambushing six immigrants who had taken shelter there as they stepped out the door in the morning. They were surrounded by ICE agents, shackled and thrown into a white van. Witnesses described the scene as akin to a kidnapping.

In a chilling abuse of police powers, passengers aboard a February 22 Delta flight from San Francisco to New York’s JFK Airport were informed that they would not be let off the plane unless they presented identification papers to Border Patrol agents, who blocked the aircraft’s door to the jetway.

The Customs and Border Protection agency claimed the action had been taken to seize an immigrant believed to be on the flight who was facing a deportation order. The agency subsequently acknowledged that he was not on the plane.

When asked on what legal grounds Border Agents were detaining an entire planeload of passengers for questioning, the agency cited a statute giving it “the authority to collect passenger name record information on all travelers entering or leaving the United States,” Rolling Stone magazine reported. The only problem was that the flight was between two US cities, neither of them anywhere near an international border.

A spokesman for the agency added, “It’s always best to cooperate with law enforcement so as to expedite your exiting the airport in a timely manner.” In other words, anyone exercising his or her constitutional rights can expect illegal detention and abuse.

Such methods, echoing the Gestapo demand of “papers please,” are designed to intimidate the population as a whole and ultimately be used to deny basic democratic rights, including the right to vote.

The Trump administration has demagogically portrayed the crackdown on the undocumented as a blow on behalf of native-born workers. His aim, Trump has said, is to expel a layer of immigrants “who compete directly against vulnerable American workers.”

The reality is that the police state measures now being unleashed on immigrant workers will, sooner rather than later, be turned against the working class as a whole. In fomenting xenophobia, economic nationalism and anti-immigrant hysteria, the aim of the Trump administration, a collection of billionaire financial oligarchs, generals and outright fascists, is to scapegoat immigrants for the economic and social crisis created by capitalism and divide the working class.

The attack on immigrants is part of a social counterrevolution including the slashing of taxes for the corporations and the rich, the removal of regulations on capitalist industries and financial markets, and the destruction of all basic social services, from public education to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Such measures cannot be carried out either democratically or peacefully. The scale of repression being contemplated was laid bare earlier this month with the release of a Department of Homeland Security memo proposing the mobilization of 100,000 National Guard troops across 11 states to join in the anti-immigrant dragnet.

While such measures are unprecedented, they have been prepared over a long period by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, from the 1996 anti-immigrant law enacted under President Bill Clinton, streamlining deportations and mandating immigrant detention, to the vast apparatus of state repression created in the name of a “war on terror” under George W. Bush and expanded under Barack Obama, who initiated drone assassinations of American citizens and deported more immigrants than all the presidents who preceded him combined.

In the face of the qualitative escalation of these measures toward open forms of dictatorial rule, the Democratic Party has centered its opposition to Trump on the reactionary campaign to brand him as an agent of the Kremlin, reflecting the opposition of large sections of the military and intelligence apparatus to any shift from the military buildup against Russia.

Underlying all of these measures is the breakdown of democratic forms of rule under the impact of the crisis of American and world capitalism and the uninterrupted growth of social inequality.

The defense of immigrants can be carried out only by the working class itself, fighting for the unbreakable unity of native-born and immigrant workers, along with the working class on both sides of the Rio Grande, in a common struggle against the capitalist system.

This struggle can be waged only on the basis of a socialist and internationalist program that intransigently defends the right of workers from every corner of the globe to live and work in the country of their choice with full citizenship rights and without fear of detention, deportation or repression.

Bill Van Auken

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/27/pers-f27.html

Identity politics vs. populist economics?

It’s a false choice – liberals need to look in the mirror

Economic justice and civil rights are not separate; the issue isn’t “identity politics” but liberalism’s failures

Identity politics vs. populist economics? It's a false choice – liberals need to look in the mirror
(Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Andrew Harnik/Reuters/Scott Audette)

For many Democrats, the fact that the Obama years have ended with one of the biggest party implosions in American history — and not the implosion of the Republican Party, as most had anticipated — remains a difficult reality to accept. Thanks to the Democratic Party’s historic collapse, Republicans will soon have complete control of all levels of government in the United States: All three branches of federal government, a large majority of state legislatures and an even larger majority of state governorships.

Facing this bleak reality, one would expect Democrats to quickly take a step back for some reflection, if only to figure out how to start winning elections again. As the country braces for a Trump presidency, it is absolutely critical that Democrats accurately assess what happened last month and learn the right lessons.

Unfortunately, many Democratic partisans have taken another approach; one that is all too familiar. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald reported last week:

Democrats have spent the last 10 days flailing around blaming everyone except for themselves, constructing a carousel of villains and scapegoats — from Julian AssangeVladimir PutinJames Comeythe electoral college“fake news,” and Facebook, to Susan SarandonJill SteinmillennialsBernie SandersClinton-critical journalists, and, most of all, insubordinate voters themselves — to blame them for failing to fulfill the responsibility that the Democratic Party, and it alone, bears: to elect Democratic candidates.

There is plenty of blame to go around, of course, and some of the scapegoats that Greenwald lists probably did have some impact, albeit minimal, on electing Trump. But when one looks at this year’s election objectively — not just at the Democratic Party’s failure to stop Trump, but at its failure to retake the Senate or make any gains at the state and local levels (Republicans now control 33 governorships and 32 state legislatures) — one has to be delusional not to recognize that the party itself is primarily responsible for this implosion.

Donald Trump — whom the majority of Americans view unfavorably and consider unqualified to be president — was a gift to the Democrats, and his nomination should have led to an easy electoral triumph. Instead, they nominated one of the most flawed candidates in history, and ran as an establishment party during a time when most Americans were practically begging for anti-establishment politics. As Trump’s loathsome chief strategist Steve Bannon recently put it: “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message. From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”

Trump’s victory was all the more depressing for progressives who had warned about the risk of nominating an establishment candidate with almost endless political baggage (in a season of angry populist politics, no less). During the Democratic primaries, these criticisms were either dismissed by establishment Democrats or critics were bitterly attacked for pointing them out. Recall back in February, for example, when Hillary Clinton implied that her progressive opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, was sexist for claiming that she represented the establishment: “Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.”

Though Clinton did not explicitly call Sanders sexist, her campaign was eager to paint the senator and his supporters as misogynists who opposed Clinton solely because she was a woman. The “Bernie Bro” narrative — which portrayed Sanders supporters as a bunch of white sexist frat-boy types, harassing women and people of color online — was propagated by the Clinton campaign and sympathetic journalists. It was also discredited time and again, particularly by the fact that the Sanders-Clinton split was more of a generational divide than anything else — as evinced by Sanders’ 37-point advantage among millennial women (ages 18 to 29) across 27 states and his popularity among younger black and Hispanic voters.

The kind of self-serving identity politics that we saw from the Clinton camp during the Democratic primaries leads into what has been the most contentious debate among Democrats and progressives since the election: Whether the party has become too preoccupied with the politics of identity and political correctness, while straying too far from a class-based politics that addresses the structural inequities of capitalism. Not surprisingly, the debate has been full of deliberate misinterpretations.

Consider how various news outlets reported on comments made by Sanders on his book tour last week while discussing diversity in political leadership. “We need diversity, that goes without saying,” noted Sanders, who was responding to a question from a woman asking for tips on how to become the second Latina senator, after this year’s election of Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. “But it is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ That’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries.”

From this comment, the New York Times reported that Sanders had said “Democrats need to focus more on economic struggles and less on the grievances of minorities and women,” while the popular liberal website Talking Points Memo posted the misleading headline: “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics And Embrace The Working Class.” These reports are both founded on a false dichotomy pitting economic justice and civil rights against each other. This was also illustrated by a tweet from the Times shortly after the election:

Thomas Piketty: We must rethink globalization, or Trumpism will prevail

Rising inequality is largely to blame for this electoral upset. Continuing with business as usual is not an option

Abandoned manufacturing plant
‘The abandoned and decaying manufacturing plant of Packard Motor Car in Detroit, Michigan’ Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Let it be said at once: Trump’s victory is primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this.

Both the Clinton and the Obama administrations frequently went along with the market liberalization launched under Reagan and both Bush presidencies. At times they even outdid them: the financial and commercial deregulation carried out under Clinton is an example. What sealed the deal, though, was the suspicion that the Democrats were too close to Wall Street – and the inability of the Democratic media elite to learn the lessons from the Sanders vote.

Hillary won the popular vote by a whisker (60.1 million votes as against 59.8 million for Trump, out of a total adult population of 240 million), but the participation of the youngest and the lowest income groups was much too low to enable key states to be won.

The tragedy is that Trump’s program will only strengthen the trend towards inequality. He intends to abolish the health insurance laboriously granted to low-paid workers under Obama and to set the country on a headlong course into fiscal dumping, with a reduction from 35% to 15% in the rate of federal tax on corporation profits, whereas to date the United States had resisted this trend, already witnessed in Europe.

In addition, the increasing role of ethnicity in American politics does not bode well for the future if new compromises are not found. In the United States, 60% of the white majority votes for one party while over 70% of the minorities vote for the other. In addition to this, the majority is on the verge of losing its numerical advantage (70% of the votes cast in 2016, as compared with 80% in 2000 and 50% forecast in 2040).

The main lesson for Europe and the world is clear: as a matter of urgency, globalization must be fundamentally re-oriented. The main challenges of our times are the rise in inequality and global warming. We must therefore implement international treaties enabling us to respond to these challenges and to promote a model for fair and sustainable development.

Agreements of a new type can, if necessary, include measures aimed at facilitating these exchanges. But the question of liberalizing trade should no longer be the main focus. Trade must once again become a means in the service of higher ends. It never should have become anything other than that.

There should be no more signing of international agreements that reduce customs duties and other commercial barriers without including quantified and binding measures to combat fiscal and climate dumping in those same treaties. For example, there could be common minimum rates of corporation tax and targets for carbon emissions which can be verified and sanctioned. It is no longer possible to negotiate trade treaties for free trade with nothing in exchange.

From this point of view, Ceta, the EU-Canada free trade deal, should be rejected. It is a treaty which belongs to another age. This strictly commercial treaty contains absolutely no restrictive measures concerning fiscal or climate issues. It does, however, contain a considerable reference to the “protection of investors”. This enables multinationals to sue states under private arbitration courts, bypassing the public tribunals available to one and all.

The Paris Accords had a purely theoretical aim of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. This would, for example, require the oil found in the tar sands in Alberta to be left in the ground. But Canada has just started mining there again. So what sense is there in signing this agreement and then, only a few months later, signing a highly restrictive commercial treaty without a single mention of this question?

A balanced treaty between Canada and Europe, aimed at promoting a partnership for fair and sustainable development, should begin by specifying the emission targets of each signatory and the practical commitments to achieve these.

In matters of fiscal dumping and minimum rates of taxation on corporation profits, this would obviously mean a complete paradigm change for Europe, which was constructed as a free trade area with no common fiscal policy. This change is essential. What sense is there in agreeing on a common fiscal policy (which is the one area in which Europe has achieved some progress for the moment) if each country can then fix a near-zero rate and attract all the major company headquarters?

It is time to change the political discourse on globalization: trade is a good thing, but fair and sustainable development also demands public services, infrastructure, health and education systems. In turn, these themselves demand fair taxation systems. If we fail to deliver these, Trumpism will prevail.

This piece was first published in Le Monde on 12 November 2016

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/16/globalization-trump-inequality-thomas-piketty?CMP=share_btn_fb