Trump presidency nears one month of self-inflicted wounds
Or is the chaos no accident?
By James Hitchcock
Donald Trump has not even hit the one month in the presidency. I think most people would agree it’s been a rough ride.
The streets filled not once, but twice with protesters. Millions poured into the streets the day after the inauguration for the historic Women’s March protest. A week later, thousands more poured into the streets and airports across the country to protest Trump’s executive order halting processing of refugees and banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries. These two acts of resistance served as bookmarks to 14 days of chaos caused by what appeared to be a frightening level of political ineptitude. As if to drive that point home, President Trump ended the second week using Black History Month to demonstrate his ignorance of Black history, and vice president Pence deciding the best way to commemorate the month was to talk about a white guy.
But things were just getting started.
As the administration rolled into its third week, a federal judge in Washington state halted implementation of Trump’s executive order on immigration. It ended the week with a federal appeals court upholding the judge’s stay, prompting the President to post an angry threat (to a court) “I’ll see you in court.”
But as important as the court’s decision was to thousands of Americans, there was a bigger story: the smoldering allegations that the Trump campaign had discussed foreign policy with the Russian government before taking office began to bellow smoke. Beginning before the inauguration Vice President Mike Pence had denied the campaign had contact with the Russians. When it became clear that National Security Adviser designee Michael Flynn had contacted the Russian ambassador before the inauguration, the administration denied the conversation had anything to do with sanctions. Then, on February 9, the Washington Post reported that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. On February 10, President Trump was still denying there was any discussion of sanctions. It was then revealed that acting Attorney General Sally Yates had in January informed the White House that Flynn had misled the administration as to the content of his discussions with the Russian ambassador. Just days later, Yates was fired, supposedly for advising Justice Department attorneys not to enforce Trump’s immigration order until it could be determined if it was lawful.
On February 13, no longer able to fight the facts, the administration was finally forced to announce the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who has now been fired by two presidents. The chaos enveloping the Trump administration had claimed its first high-profile victim. But certainly not its last. The New York Times on February 14 dropped the bombshell that a number of Trump campaign aides had “repeated contacts with Russian intelligence.”
Chaos has almost begun to seem an understatement for what’s happening in the Trump White House. But is it the unexpected result of ineptitude and unpreparedness, or has it been a feature of the program, rather than a bug? Political commentators have been quick to blame it the inexperience of Trump and his administration, saying that much of this could have been avoided if he had just been willing to listen to those who know better. From the beginning, I suspected differently. As we wrap up the first month of the Trump administration, it seems some others are beginning to question this, too.
Starting on day one, pundits began punditing about the cause of all this chaos. Their opinions could be categorized into four basic theories:
They’re just incompetent
Everyone’s original theory was that this litany of shocking actions was obvious incompetence and intemperance on display.
But the chaos also took the wind out of the sails of the story that the president was exercising a presidential power (for which Republicans and Trump himself had attacked Obama for using) in “an unprecedented blizzard of executive action, signing more presidential directives than any president in modern history.”
Also less noticed during the first couple days: Trump reinstated a gag order that prevents international organizations from mentioning abortion as a medical option;and ordered the EPA to stop communicating with the public, freeze all grants and contracts, and clear any data with the Trump administration before publication. The USDA as well was ordered to stop communicating with the public and stop publishing papers or research, and vet any press communication through the White House.
In other fun under-reported news: Director of the Department of Health and Human Service nominee Tom Price said federal guidelines on transgender equality were “absurd”; the House of Representatives introduced a bill prohibiting federal funding to abortion service providers, and any insurance coverage, including Medicaid, that provides abortion coverage; and the North Dakota state legislature considered a bill that would legalize running down protesters with cars.
Oh, and the State Department’s entire senior level of management – not political operatives, but foreign policy professionals, many whom had served through several presidential administrations – “resigned.”
As the importance of these less reported stories began to sink in, many pundits moved on to other theories. But there are still a few adherents to this theory blaming sheer ignorance and incompetence. For instance Robert Reich, as late as February 13, described Trump as “about the most inept, disorganized, sloppy, incompetent president in recent memory, whose White House is nearly dysfunctional.” And Paul Krugman, who writes “What we’ve seen … over the past three weeks is an awesome display of raw ignorance on every front.”
It’s a den of thieves and liars
The second theory that began to gain adherents is that the chaos, especially the deliberate telling of falsehoods easily proven as such, serves a specific purpose.
An interesting piece from Vox, notes that “Donald Trump’s administration already stands out for the frequency of misleading statements, their baldfacedness, and the at times absurd content.” The author argues the best explanation for this is a theory by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. In short, Cowen argues that Trump forces his staff to promote obvious lies to test their loyalty, and tie them more closely to him by destroying their credibility with outsiders. In the same way, Cowen writes, Trump’s own easily disprovable lies demonstrate his loyalty to his followers, as they damage his own credibility with the establishment and distance him from it.
“The Trump administration trusts neither its own appointees nor its own supporters, and is creating a situation where that lack of trust is reciprocal,” Cowen writes.
So, in this theory, the lies are not so important for the false information they convey, but as a sort of secret handshake among the members of this den of thieves. The lies signal that the entirety of the Trump administration, like their followers, delight in being a thorn in the side of the establishment.
The reaction of establishment conservative political commentators throughout the Trump campaign and the beginning of his presidency lends some credence to this theory. Writers such as Elliot A. Cohen, David Brooks,
Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol have been voicing their disapproval of Trump, adding to his anti-establishment street cred. Their rhetoric became increasingly strident after the election and inauguration. In Cohen’s most recent piece in The Atlantic, “ A Clarifying Moment in American History” he writes this will be “a testing time” for conservatives, and that “Your reputation will never recover” from being branded a coward or opportunist by collaborating with Trump. George Will, one of the most esteemed political writers of the 20th century, went so far as to renounce his membership in the Republican Party in response to Trump’s nomination as the party’s candidate.
This theory explains the near-constant falsehoods the administration issues, but little else.
It’s a Kleptocracy
Other commentators argue that the lying and inept policy implementation is a secondary effect. It is due either to the fact Trump and his team care little about governing because they are preoccupied with using the presidency to funnel money into the president’s bank account, or it is designed to camouflage those actions. In either case, his presidency is a Kleptocracy.
“Like a two-bit dictator in some banana republic, Trump shoveled in money this week from his dual roles as president and as owner of Trump businesses,” Robert Reich wrote on January 28 when he posted a link to a piece by Josh Vorhees titled The First Week in Donald Trump’s Kleptocracy was Very, Very Kleptocratic.
In his piece, Vorhees notes a litany of conflicts of interest ranging from:
- Replacing the head of the General Services Administration, the landlord for the new Trump hotel in Washington. The previous director had been asked to investigate whether Trump was in violation of that lease, which carries a stipulation that no elected official benefit from the agreement.
- Restarting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipeline construction. As recently as last summer, Vorhees notes, the president owned stock in the company constructing the Dakota project. The chief executive of that company also donated $100,000 to a group supporting Trump’s campaign. (Trump claims he sold off his stock portfolio before the election, but, as is par for the course, has provided no documentation to prove this.)
- Suspending visas from predominantly Muslim countries, except where Trump has existing businesses, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Qatar, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan.
- Cashing in on the new power the presidency gives the “Trump” brand by announcing a plan to triple the number of Trump hotels in the U.S and doubling initiation fee at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida,
- Placing an attorney with long ties to the Republican party in the Trump organization’s new ethics adviser job, and making a Trump executive its chief compliance counsel. Vorhees questions whether either of these ethics advisers would put their jobs at risk if an impending deal seemed to present a conflict of interest.
- Repeating in Canada the incident in Washington D.C. this past December where the Kuwait embassy moved an event from its regular location to Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel – reportedly under pressure from the Trump organization. This time, the American Chamber of Commerce in Canada, “made a sudden, last-second decision to move a scheduled event from the Vancouver home of a U.S. diplomat to the newest addition to the Trump Hotel family in the same city,” Vorhees wrote.
This is a pretty strong argument that, if not the primary goal, self-enrichment is certainly at the top of Trump’s personal goals for his presidency. It certainly is at he top of the priorities for the First Lady, whose lawyers argued in a libel suit that the defendant’s actions would damage her “once in a lifetime opportunity” to make millions of dollars during a time when she “is one of the most-photographed women in the world.”
Add to this theory this strange coincidence: the now partially-verified Steele Dossier claimed that in July 2016 the CEO of Russia’s state-owned oil company offered to a Trump campaign aide the brokerage fee from selling a 19 percent stake in the company, in return for lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. When news broke in September of the campaign aide’s July Moscow trip – when the Steele Dossier claims the offer was made – the Trump aide left the campaign. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump suggested he might lift those sanctions. On December 7, the Russian oil company announced a 19.5 percent sale of the company through a web of shell corporations. While there is no evidence the Trump aide was involved in the sale, according to the Business Insider story linked above, that aide was back in Moscow December 8 to meet with top managers of the Russian firm.
Trump’s not in charge
It seems to me that the first theory is far too simplistic, and both of the other theories give Trump far to much credit for thinking through what appear to be knee-jerk reactions.
I think it’s possible Trump is exactly what he appears to be: an uncontrollable spoiled child whose ego is so fragile he can’t bear not to be the best of everything. His staff is forcibly cast in the role of the mother who must pick up the broken shards of the china he threw on the floor. That scenario only strengthens the theory he is not actually the one running this presidency. Trump is merely the sock puppet that provided the coattails to ride into office. And Trump now provides useful noise to distract press from the agenda those coattail riders are implementing. Worse yet, I don’t think Trump is even smart enough to know that he’s being manipulated.
The first thing that leads me to believe this is that very flurry of policy activity starting on Day 1, for two reasons:
1. I don’t believe Trump has the intellectual wherewithal to understand the policy changes that have been enacted, let alone think them up; and
2. Since he didn’t think he was going to win, even if he had the intellectual wherewithal, he would not have spent the months before the election (there was simply not enough time between the election and inauguration) that it would have been required to flesh out the policy proposals into a form that could be implemented beginning on Day 1.
In the days since the inauguration the flood of executive orders and policy proposals among Republicans reads like a Christmas wish list the hard-right has been developing for a generation, with some “Alt-Right” wet dreams thrown in for good measure. Some of what’s being proposed directly contradicts Trump’s campaign rhetoric, as well.
Now Trump would not be the first president to govern differently than he campaigned, but this dramatic dichotomy between his campaign rhetoric and the social safety net changes being discussed by Republicans would require a candidate of evil-genius-level intellect to pull off. Again I just don’t see that in Trump.
That line of reasoning suggests Trump is basically what he appears to be: a self-deluded buffoon who sits in the White House watching Fox News and then angrily tweeting about it. And while he tweets, a cabal of hard-right conservatives are busy working on a plan to mold the country into their version of a utopia.
This theory also provides a reasonable rationale for staffers to lie in support of Trump: the ensuing chaos provides useful cover for the work in which they are engaged, which is not in the best interests of the country.
An interesting twist to this is that Trump’s own aides have begun leaking information making him look “incompetent and intemperate.”
“It’s not entirely clear what those aides hope to gain by painting their boss as a conspiracy-minded, easily distracted, TV-obsessed bully prone to paranoia, feelings of inadequacy, and flashes of blind, irrational anger,” writes Steve Bennen on the Rachel Maddow blog.
And the leaks just keep coming.
It’s not uncommon for staff of a losing campaign to begin leaking campaign dirt to the media in an effort to absolve themselves of guilt in the impending collapse. But at the beginning of a presidential administration? That’s practically unheard of. The easiest answer is it’s already C.Y.A. time. Perhaps when they signed on staffers bought the story that Trump was just acting a role during the campaign, and he would settle down and become “presidential” once he took office. They now realize that he is exactly what he seemed to be. And that his blind, slavish devotion to his fragile ego will only lead to an escalating series of embarrassments that will eventually, at best, lead the Republican party to impeach him, or, at worst, do serious damage to this country. The argument is the same as that in a losing campaign: that when Trump inevitably flames out, the leaking staffers want to leverage their leaks to salvage what they can of their careers.
A slightly more cynical view is that it might be just part of the “political theatre.” And the administration demonstrated its penchant for political theatre during the first half of the second week: In commenting on the executive order on immigration, Trump and Spicer first called it a “ban”; then Spicer said it wasn’t a ban; and then when reporters pointed out that Trump himself had called it a ban, Spicer blamed the media for framing it as such. All of this back-and-forth hurts the media more than the administration. The media seems to scramble to hold the administration’s feet to the fire on fairly insignificant issues. The same holds true of the media’s breathless reporting of White House leaks. The fact there are so many leaks makes it newsworthy, even if the leaks themselves are, on a case-by-case basis, fairly insignificant personal details. The overall effect is to delegitimize the media by highlighting its own inability to concentrate on the “big picture.”
The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is that Trump not running the show. But, those aforementioned coattail riders know that his intemperance makes Trump a commodity that has a limited shelf-life. They are simply laying the foundation for impeachment when he has outlived his usefulness, and the negatives he brings to the table outweigh the positives.
The Cabal Conspiracy
But, if there is a behind-the-scenes group running things, who are they, and what is their plan?
I first began to puzzle over this question as I watched the news reports of protesters filling the nation’s airports in response to the immigration ban executive order. Nestled in among all the moving video of the angry crowds was another story: Trump had just signed an executive order reshuffling the membership of the National Security Council, perhaps the most important group advising the president on matters of foreign affairs. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence had been removed from the NSC Principal’s Committee, the inner-most circle of this inner circle of advisers, and would only be invited to attend when their expertise was required. At the same time, Trump added to the NSC Principal’s Committee the political strategist who seems to have become the closest to him, Steve Bannon. The former editor of an “alt-right” white supremacist website, Bannon has no experience in national security or foreign affairs. As a political adviser, he seems an odd addition to a group of national security professionals tasked with providing the president with pragmatic advice about the geopolitical realities of keeping safe the most powerful nation on Earth.
Add to this that even before Flynn’s departure, reports named both he and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus as staffers whose heads might be on the chopping block in a White House staff shakeup. With Flynn’s resignation, the conservative circular firing squad has formed, and Steve Bannnon’s former employer, the White Supremacist website, has Priebus as the “target in its crosshairs.”
This makes pretty clear the individual who appears to wield the most behind-the-scenes power in the Executive Branch of our government, even if it doesn’t shed much light on the remaining members of the cabal or what are their goals.
Given Bannon’s past endeavors, the easiest conclusion to which to jump – and to which some of the most Godwin-prone pundits are already mid-leap – is that this is the beginning of the white supremacist’s fabled “Fourth Reich.” The administration’s odd Holocaust Remembrance behavior and blatantly anti-Islamic immigration ban provide plenty of dog whistles to that argument. But while perhaps a facet of the overall picture, I think there’s a possibility the white supremacists may be just one actor in this conspiracy, perhaps as unwitting an accomplice as the president himself.
To explore this further, let’s backtrack a bit, using as a springboard some of the recent rhetoric of the aforementioned establishment conservatives:
David Brooks argues in his January 27 New York Times op-ed “The Politics of Cowardice” “Trump has changed the way the Republican Party sees the world.”
This is revisionist nonsense. The Republican party realized long ago that hate and fear are stronger political motivators than hope and optimism. This philosophy of fear perhaps did not begin with, but was epitomized by, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Since then, the increasingly desperate economic plight of the middle and working classes – directly caused by the economic policies of the Republican party itself – has forced the party to continually coarsen its rhetoric. It has lowered the aural frequency of its Southern Strategy dog whistles to the point they are now within the hearing range of normal humans.
Trump didn’t invent this strategy, he was simply the right candidate at the right time. A brash “outsider,” Trump was willing to take up the Republican Party’s rallying cry of hatred, fear, and cowardice. And he was willing to put it in blatantly racist terms that real Republicans, to that point, could only hint at. I would hazard a guess, based on reactions to him during the Republican primary, that Trump surprised the party establishment. But, he provided an opportunity that it may have taken them another generation to build up to using only their more subtle rhetoric. Have no doubt, the Republican Party has been working toward this point for more than 50 years. Trump may have caused them to move up their timeline, but an authoritarian strongman in the presidency was what they wanted all along.
And while Bannon, who has said before he wants to “blow up” our current system, seems the leader of what is starting to look more and more like a quiet coup d’etat, he may be a chess piece on the board of this political game, the object of which is to gain permanent political power using the tools of the current system to destroy it.
This opinion is based not just on recent actions proving the Republican party cares naught for the Constitution in which it wraps itself. Yes, the naked power-grab of denying a sitting president the right defined in that document to name justices to the Supreme Court makes it clear. And efforts to maintain political dominance by disenfranchising major parts of an increasingly diverse, increasing hostile-to-their-view electorate in a high-tech Jim Crow voter suppression campaign make it clear. But Republicans have been shouting their disdain for the Constitution since they declared their intent to create a “permanent Republican majority.” If openly declaring that your political party’s overarching strategy is to become the sole wielder of power in a country as diverse as the U.S. isn’t the patriotic equivalent of unzipping, whipping it out, and pissing on the Constitution, I don’t know what is.
It’s Morning in America (for White Folk)
While the strategy obviously predated the Reagan administration, that is the period when I began to practice journalism, and first began to suspect that one political party was planning to destroy the very system in which it participated, so that is where I begin. Those suspicions have jelled into theory only as this campaign, and now presidency, have unfolded, which is why I write about it now.
In the 1980s, everyone seemed to buy into Reagan’s cheerful vision of “Morning in America.” Reagan had toned down and perfected Nixon’s Southern Strategy to the point it was, for all intents and purposes, invisible enough that national media could pretend it didn’t exist. White supremacism, when it was (seldom) spoken of, was simply called “racism.” To the average suburban middle class white people, it seemed to be nothing more than the appendix of the Republican party, a vestigial organ. It still existed, but was in the process of evolving away to nothing more than an unpleasant memory of white hoods and burning crosses read about in history class.
Man,our country was so unracist that a Black family moving into a white suburb no longer meant it was a white-flight race to see if you could sell your home before the property values sank too low to pay off your mortgage. White parents could proudly point to Black faces in their children’s suburban classrooms. White people could feel good about having Black friends because there was a guy at work they said “Hi” to every day when they passed each other on the shop floor. A “Hey, man,” with a ‘soul handshake’ as you passed meant you could tell your drinking buddies in your ‘regular place’ – a saloon where a black face walking through the door would stop all conversation – that you were real tight with your Black friend. Some white folk were so unracist they might even take the missus to a Black bar to hear some jazz once in a while. Although they would always leave after the first set, so they weren’t out on the street in “that” neighborhood too late. Man, white folk were so unracist that they even adopted cool black slang, and started sentences with “Man,” to show how down they were with unracism.
None of the white folk really seemed to notice there were no black faces in Moe’s Tavern, or that on Sunday morning all the white folk went to one church, the black folk to another. They also were blissfully unaware that the Republican party, whenever it was in the majority at the state level, was busy gerrymandering blacks – a dependable Democratic voting bloc – into electoral ghettos where their vote would carry much less weight than their white neighbors.
It’s a White World After All
While this election stands out in a lot of ways from previous elections, perhaps most shocking was how it ripped off the veil from Reagan and the Republican Party’s muted racist dog whistles.
One could argue that the election of Barack Obama itself did this. To that point, working class whites always could – to paraphrase the words of president Lyndon Johnson – no matter how bad their socioeconomic level, still look down on a black man. Suddenly they saw that a black man could become the leader of the free world, a position that had always been held by a white man.
Both the 2008 and 2012 Republican election campaigns flirted more openly with racism than past elections. And the opposition during the Obama administration skipped flirting with racism and went straight to tongue-kissing it. It should come as no surprise that the campaign to delegitimize the first black president was led by none other than our current president, who rode to fame waving the banner of his completely factless, openly-racist birther crusade.
But none of that compared to the Republican party candidates’ race to the bottom to openly embrace racism in this election cycle. In fact, the first candidates eliminated during the primary process were establishment conservatives who refused to loosen their embrace of the Reagan strategy: claiming to support inclusiveness while whistling ever so quietly to the racists.
The candidates that lasted to the end were those willing to stop whistling and start singing the siren song of racism. Even candidates from states with large Hispanic populations, who were from Hispanic backgrounds, who had been moderate on immigration issues, sprinted away from those positions.
But when the fat lady sang, none of those candidates, each long a champion of conservative, white, Christian capitalist values, was able to best Donald Trump’s open embrace of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement brought together and given a voice by the internet.
Now it cannot go without mention here that although Trump won the Republican nomination fair-and-square, his juvenile name-calling and nut-punching notwithstanding, that is a far cry from claiming he won the general election because a majority of Americans are mouth-breathing, cousin-fucking, hate-filled, racist hillbillies. He lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes (yes, I know this doesn’t matter), and there is significant evidence the process was affected to some extent by outside parties both domestic and international.
And, of course, one cannot dismiss the utter incompetence of the Democratic party. From early on it was obviously going to be an election based on personality rather than policy. The party had a choice between a candidate that had brought throngs of highly-energized voters onto the streets, or a highly-experienced policy wonk. In typical snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory style, the Democratic Party chose the latter.
In normal times, nominating the candidate who was, without question, one of the top political policy minds in the country, was a political surety. And, in normal times, given that the opponent chosen by the Republican party was a buffoon who knew nothing about the intricacies of politics and statesmanship, it was a recipe for an easy win.
But these were not normal times. And the brilliant policy-minded candidate they nominated was, at the same time, the least able to energize the base. Not only that, she was the candidate against which the Republicans had waged a 25-year non-stop campaign of character assassination, just in case she did one day decide to run for president. Hillary Clinton is arguably the most hated figure in the right-wing mythos, perhaps even more so than Barack Obama. Even the most rudimentary understanding of political science should tell one that a candidate who fails to energize her own base, while energizing her opponent’s base, cannot win.
That said, Donald Trump was still able to capture 46 percent of the 55 percent of voting age Americans who participated in the 2016 presidential election. I don’t think it could be credibly argued that one-quarter (46 percent of 55 percent is 25.3 percent of the original number for those of you not inclined to do the math) of voting age Americans are hate-filled, racist hillbillies. And yet one-quarter of voting-age Americans cast their vote for the most openly racist candidate in recent memory. This is just a hunch on my part, but as vocal as they are, I don’t even think white supremacists are a sizable minority of the Republican voting bloc. So how were the vast majority of unracist Republicans able to overlook Trump’s pandering to white supremacists and still pull the lever for him?
This brings us back to the Reagan coalition of voters. It has always been said that politics makes strange bedfellows, and Reagan’s ability to bring together conservative Christians, Capitalists, and working class whites was pretty shocking to Democrats at the time. Capitalists, of course, were always the mainstay of the Republican party with its pro-business platform. While the working class had been a Democratic mainstay for many election cycles, the GOP began peeling off Democratic supporters in the south around the time of the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt, and as I pointed out before, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which was essentially made possible by strong Democratic Party support of the Civil Rights Movement, had hastened the conversion since the late 1960s. But until Reagan, Christians were not seen so much as a separate voting bloc that politicians must court independent of those voters’ economic interests. To the 1970s, Christians didn’t even seem to see themselves as a voting bloc. Many wealthy Christians understandably gravitated to the Republican Party. But those who were intellectually invested in the social justice of which Jesus preached, voted Democrat. And working class Christians, many of them members of a trade union, skewed politically left, and supported the Democratic party.
The increasing political activity of Evangelical Christians (**see my sidebar essay**) was just what Reagan needed, and he was smart enough to grab it early. The Republican Party, which had long wrapped itself in the American flag, was more than willing to add a cross to its political wardrobe. Especially when those politically-active Christians were still naïve enough to believe campaign rhetoric translated to governing policy. Republicans were able for several election cycles to talk the talk, but avoid backlash when, after being elected, they were not willing to expend large amounts of political capital to walk the social conservatism walk.
The Coalition Fractures
But even though they did little policy-wise to advance social conservatism, the Republican party was forced to move to the right rhetorically on social issues at a time when much of the electorate was moving left. Then Bill Clinton came along, and fractured the Reagan coalition by appropriating the central portion of the Republican Party’s economic rhetoric, while still preaching the Left’s social justice platform. This left voters with a choice between candidates where the only discernible difference was social policy. With the vast majority of Americans embracing modern social dynamics, the writing was on the wall for Republicans.
The loss to Clinton is the point, in my mind, that Republicans decided that winning was much more important than governing, leading them to identify themselves as the opposition party, a part they have since attempted to act even when in the majority.
But, in the end, neither party was what it claimed to stand for. After a disastrous attempt at health care reform – torpedoed by the new Republican obstructionism – Clinton moved to the right, and spent much of his time satisfying the Capitalists. Perhaps, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he believed the old adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But after eight years of Clinton shoveling coal for the Wall Street boiler, it began to become apparent that a rising tide lifted yachts much higher than dinghies. This paved the way for George W. Bush to go right-populist, and take the White House, where he – surprise, surprise – worked mainly to satisfy the Capitalists, while playing lip service once in a while to the working class and waning Religious Right.
By the end of George W. Bush’s disastrous administration, which bankrupted the nation while making even richer the Capitalists, people had become pretty sick of both parties. But the oratory power of Barack Obama and historic nature of his candidacy, – combined with the Republicans being at the wheel of the economic Titanic when it struck the iceberg – led voters to overwhelming support the first major-party black presidential candidate in history.
If it had not before, this electoral loss – to of all things, a black man – cemented Republican opinion that winning was far more important than governing. They vowed from Day 1 of the Obama presidency to oppose whatever he supported, even if what Obama supported was in the best interest of the country.
The mid-term election loss of 2010 can be directly traced to this obstruction. Drastic efforts were required to bail out the sinking economic ship of which Obama had been named captain. But, rather than work with him, the GOP, standing knee-deep in water in the same sinking ship, plunged headlong into the effort to obstruct Obama. In October 2008, when the GOP voted in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program under then President George W. Bush, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the effort “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” However in January 2009, just three months after that vote, McConnell launched a program to obstruct implementation of the TARP bailout plan. This obstruction led to implementation of the bailout that kept dry the ship’s first class compartments while forcing the steerage passengers to swim in the overflowing bilge water.
Not learning his lesson, Obama again tried to work with Republicans on his signature health care program. In the Senate, an ad-hoc group of three Republicans and three Democrats (the Gang of Six) set about creating a bipartisan plan. They began with a framework based on previous Republican ideas including an individual mandate and exchanges with private insurers. But McConnell again stepped in, demanding total opposition. So, even after making a number of other concessions to Republicans, when it came time to vote, not a single Republican supported the bill.
Republicans then capitalized on their obstruction through right wing media that offered a conduit to communicate with voters without any uncomfortable questions from unfriendly reporters. Republicans set about the effort of blaming on President Obama the problems they caused with the TARP bailout. And to characterize the Affordable Care Act as something the Democrats rammed down their throats, even though they were involved in its creation from the beginning.
And voters, who always have had long-term memory problems, decided that Republicans should be given control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections of Obama’s first term. Obama was able to win reelection, however, and the Republicans were stuck with their only tool of obstruction, and optics of endless futile attempts to repeal Obama’s signature health initiative. Even after winning control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, Republicans did nothing constructive, spending the next two years following the same game plan of obstruct and complain.
Which brings us to what all the pundits described as The Most Stunning Electoral Upset Ever.
How the Hell did this Happen?
How the hell was Donald Trump able to resurrect the Reagan coalition? Ignoring the possibly field-tipping actions noted above, and the incompetence of the Democrats:
- How was a thrice-married serial philanderer and admitted sexual predator able to convince a movement of anti-critical-thought religious social conservatives wanting better government representation of its views that he was their candidate?
- How was a man who is the epitome of the vulgar excess of Capitalism who spouts a constant stream of either lies or racist diatribe able to convince honest, hard-working, non-racist, blue-collar voters that he is their candidate?
- How was a businessman with multiple bankruptcies, a habit of not paying his bills, and a long history of lawsuits, convince Capitalists, whose single highest priority is being repaid what they lent, that he is their candidate?
And how did any of the aforementioned voting blocs stomach the fact they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists when they cast their vote for this candidate?
Create a Venn diagram of all of these groups, each in a circle, with the circles themselves arranged in a circle, this group of circles only overlapping where the interests of the groups contained within converge. Each circle may have a small overlap with each of its neighboring circles, but there are also broad areas where the circles do not touch.
For instance, it’s not hard to understand why the greatest danger of public schools to fundamental Christians is its curricular emphasis on individuality and critical thinking. But Capitalists must have workers with critical thinking skills if they are to maintain global competitiveness. So, these circles are mostly separate. However,they have a small overlap in that the Evangelicals, understanding that to exert their influence must infiltrate the government and society at large, must provide their best, brightest, and most loyal with a higher education that provides them with some critical thinking skills useful to the Capitalists.
At the same time the circle containing the Evangelical Christians, a religion based on teachings of Jesus that were centered on peace and love, stands far apart from the circle of the White Supremacist movement. And yet Steve Bannon, one of President Trump’s most trusted advisers, stands hip-deep in the putrid slime of racial hatred that fills that circle. But, there are certainly some in the Evangelical community for whom the fight by marginalized groups to be given equal rights seems in some way to diminish the rights of the group to which they belong, that had before been unquestionably at the top of the social hierarchy: white Protestants.
In the same way, the circle of Capitalists, with a reliance on a workforce that is increasingly diverse in color, culture, and beliefs, stands apart from the circle containing the White Supremacists, whose beliefs are antithetical to the inclusion of minorities in their workplace. Here again, though, the upper echelons of the Capitalist circle are overwhelmingly white, and show determined resistance to integrating the diversity it welcomes in its factories into its boardrooms.
But there is one area in the middle where each circle overlaps with all the others.
And that is in their belief in authoritarianism.
I described in my sidebar essay how the Evangelical education movement is centered around reinforcing a paternalistic authoritarian social structure. Despite its vociferous claims of seeking religious freedom, just as did the Puritans, the Evangelical Christians have proven time and time again that religious freedom means “freedom for our religions beliefs,” not those of others whose beliefs disagree with their own.
In business, capital equals authority. Corporations are run as an authoritarian dictatorship; sometimes a benevolent dictatorship at least towards workers that provide the most return on investment, but to customers, a corporation is only as benevolent as market competition requires. And they are in a never-ending battle to reduce that competition to a minimum so they can maximize the capital they extract from the market.
Of course, one need only do a cursory review of history to see that white supremacists like an authoritarian strongman.
The final circle in this Venn diagram is the members of the working class that don’t fall into any of the other categories,and have almost no overlap with them. Their control of capital is limited to their decisions about how to allocate their 401K contributions, which they delegate to their employer’s financial product provider. They may have negative views of minorities, based on what the media presents them, but they aren’t actively racist. They might go to church, but they don’t cloister themselves and their families away from society, as it offers much they enjoy. These are Americans who are just trying to do the right thing: work hard, take home their pay, and live their lives. They tend to vote the way they always voted, and the way their parents voted, without really paying attention to politics. But they are feeling insecure, feeling that they aren’t getting ahead anymore. And they are tired of hearing about the gridlock in Washington D.C. Perhaps at this point, “maybe what this country needs,” they think, “is somebody like my old man,” who broke family gridlock by raising his voice louder than anybody else dared.
The End Game
So, it happened. The most classless, tasteless, pandering coward/bully to ever run for president won the election. No sense beating a dead horse, like I just did for the past 6,000 words.
At this point, what’s happening now?
It seems clear that Bannon and his fascist White Supremacist faction of this unholy union is running the show. And he’s following the book on how to take over a political system.
The seemingly inept flurry of executive orders look different from this perspective. Rather than mistakes of the politically inexperienced, they are,in the opinion of Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, a series of ever more serious “shock events” designed to destabilize society. The unexpected nature of the shock causes people to divide along existing fault lines, preventing them from coalescing in opposition against the party instigating the shock event.
“As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event,” Richardson writes.
Richardson makes no guess as to what Bannon’s true goals are, but, she writes, “… unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like.”
I couldn’t make anywhere near the educated guess Richardson could as what is the end game. But the shock event instigated by the executive order banning refugees and citizens of seven primarily-Muslim countries seems, if nothing else, to have worked well to divide federal agencies against one another. The “dissent channel” at the State Department, the method career diplomats use to express their disagreement with the administration, is reportedly alight with criticism of the order.
On the other hand, the Department of Homeland Security seems to have demonstrated where their loyalty lies by enthusiastically enforcing the order, even ignoring federal court orders halting deportations. No surprise to me, as TSA/CBP agents that I met while working in the airline industry expressed frustration at not being able to racially profile travelers. He also has the loyalty of the FBI, as evidenced by their action/inaction during the election.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been ticking off items on the tyranny handbook: attacking the press as the “opposition party”; setting up their own unquestioning channels of communication; blaming immigrants for crimes that never occurred,
The critical issue is, when the shock events have sufficiently destabilized society for the creators of them to enact their real plan, who will be in a position to seize the levers of power? Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) thinks the Flynn resignation may be the first thread that starts the unraveling of the Trump administration’s many ties to Russia. If that’s the case, what group stands to profit most from the collapse of a presidential administration?
Of all the parties who worked together to win the election, the Evangelicals may still be the most politically naïve and may not realize what’s at stake. They seem to be waiting for Trump to be impeached, thinking that when their man Pence takes over the job, he can get started on the task of turning the U.S. into a theocracy. I don’t think they realize how different the goals of the Fascists are to their own. Even if they do come to the realization that the Fascists are only allies of convenience, I think that despite their long, successful effort to place loyalists in positions of governmental power, they are still too new to the scene to have real control over the situation.
The only participants who might be aware of what is actually happening (or have the ability to do anything about it if they are aware) are the Capitalists, and the Republican Party. Don’t count on them saving us.
Capitalists work great with Fascists, just ask the mega corporations of Germany for which World War II was a great profit-making venture. Sure, in the end, their assets were turned to rubble by Allied bombing, but we were kind enough to rebuild their factories for them, as we wanted to avoid the mistakes of the Post World War I period that led to World War II. They came out OK. So chances are, they’re just along for the ride.
That leaves the Republican Party. It certainly must see what’s happening, but seems to be playing for time. They are happy to use the Trump administration to achieve their political goals, without having to get their hands dirty. And even as the news comes out that the Trump campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence agents throughout the campaign, the party is still trying to sweep the issue under the rug. This is a political game of chicken, however, and there comes a point where they will need to swerve to avoid a collision. If they wait too long, the Fascists, who are working on their own goals of destroying the checks and balances of our federal system to consolidate power in the Executive branch, will be unstoppable through political means.
Now, I don’t expect anyone to take my opinion at face value; perhaps you shouldn’t even take the opinion of a Boston College professor of history at face value. But when even voices as experienced in politics as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum says, “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States in decades,” I think it’s time to sit up and pay attention.