Category Archives: Politics
This past Wednesday, December 6th, the House voted 364 to 58 to table a resolution, authored by Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, that would have initiated impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Of Washington’s 10 U.S. House members, only Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle voted for the measure; none of Oregon’s representatives did. Green said Trump had associated his presidency with efforts rooted in bigotry and racism, citing the president’s blaming both sides for violence at white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in August, and his recent retweets of videos that purported to show violence being committed by Muslims. “Whether we like it or not, we have a bigot in the White House who incites hatred and hostility,” Green wrote in a letter to colleagues Tuesday. “What are we going to do about it?”
In an emailed statement after Wednesday’s vote, Jayapal said Trump has committed violations of the Constitution, including the Foreign Emoluments clause that prohibits presidents from receiving payments from foreign governments. “His administration is reckless and dangerous, and we owe it to the American people to at least begin a discussion about how to hold him accountable for the many ways in which he is undermining our democracy and engaging in violations of our Constitution. Our focus in Congress should be on fulfilling our duty to conduct strong oversight over this administration, and it’s past time for Republicans to join this effort and put country over party.”
I’ve ignored the various movements calling for impeachment so far, thinking they had little chance of success. Then I listened to an interview on “Democracy Now” in which, on December 1st, Amy Goodman spoke with constitutional attorney John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People. Bonifaz convinced me that, whatever its chances of success, we need, as citizens, to push for impeachment. And, despite the vote in Congress 12-7, the movement is growing at the grassroots level, with 17 communities on record across the country calling for impeachment proceedings to begin, and millions of Americans signing petitions at ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org and action.needtoimpeach.com. We don’t have to wait for the Mueller investigation into whether the president and/or his allies have committed criminal offenses, since, as Bonifaz notes, impeachment can be non-criminal – a matter of “whether the president has abused his power and the public trust.”
Bonifaz’s group, RootsAction, launched its impeachment campaign on the day of the inauguration “because the president had refused to divest from his business holdings all across the world in defiance of the anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution.” These are the Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Domestic Emoluments Clause. “The Foreign Emoluments Clause makes clear that no federally elected official, including the president, shall receive any payments or financial benefits of any kind from any foreign governments. The Domestic Emoluments Clause applies only to the president and says he shall not receive any financial benefits or payments of any kind from the federal government or the state government other than his federal salary. This is a president who has 111-plus business interests all over the world, many of which involve illegal foreign government benefits to him personally, through his company, the Trump Organization, as well as having properties all over the United States that involve state government benefits and the federal government, through the leasing of the Post Office Square in Washington, D.C., the place where the Trump International Hotel resides. So, what we’re dealing with here is a president who was warned by constitutional scholars, prior to taking the Oval Office, that he needed to divest from his business interests in order to comply with those anti-corruption provisions. He refused to, and is now engaged in treating the Oval Office as a profit-making enterprise at the public expense.”
Bonifaz added that since January the list of impeachable offenses “that require an impeachment investigation in the U.S. Congress parallel to the Mueller investigation” has grown. “This isn’t a question of having to wait and see whether or not the federal criminal investigation that’s proceeding turns up violations of federal criminal law by the president or any of his associates. That’s a separate question. The question here involves crimes against the state. That’s what impeachment is about – abuse of power, abuse of the public trust, and not only through the violations of the anti-corruption provisions. There is now, of course, evidence of obstruction of justice. There’s evidence of potential conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 elections and violate federal campaign finance laws, among others. There is now evidence of abuse of the pardon power in the pardoning of former Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. There’s recklessly threatening nuclear war against a foreign nation. There’s misuse of the Justice Department to try to prosecute political adversaries. And there’s the giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. All of this deserves an impeachment investigation in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Goodman said that “in response to some Democratic leaders warning against calls for impeachment before Robert Mueller’s investigation has been completed, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer defended his $20 million ad campaign to impeach President Trump, saying in a TV ad that ‘he’s brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice at the FBI, in direct violation of the Constitution taken money from foreign governments, and threatened to shut down news organizations reporting the truth. If that isn’t a case for impeaching and removing a dangerous president, then what has our government become?’ Can you talk about what Steyer is attempting to do in the Need to Impeach campaign and whether you’re working with him, John Bonifaz?”
Bonifaz: “We’re in communication with Tom Steyer and his team about collaborating, since he’s helping to elevate the national conversation and we agree with what he’s saying about the need for an impeachment process to move forward in the House of Representatives. The more voices that come forward from the American people all over the country to help push that forward in Congress, the better. Six members of Congress introduced five articles of impeachment on November 15th. Prior to that, two members of Congress, Al Green from Houston, and Brad Sherman from Los Angeles, had introduced articles of impeachment around obstruction of justice. The newer articles include that, as well as the violations of the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses and the president’s continued attacks on freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. What’s significant here is that these articles have been introduced by members of Congress despite continued opposition by their own party’s leadership. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has made clear that she doesn’t think impeachment should move forward at this time, and yet they’re going ahead and asking other members of Congress to join them. Americans, all across the country, should also push for an impeachment investigation and urge their members of Congress to take the same kind of action.”
Goodman: “What Democrats like Pelosi are saying is that this isn’t the way to retake the House in 2018, that if you disagree with the president, the way to deal with that is through elections. Explain why you see impeachment as key.”
Bonifaz: “We’re a nonpartisan organization – not involved in the political strategy of any party. We’re focused on defending the Constitution and our democracy, and don’t think it’s acceptable to kick the can down the road and wait until after an election cycle to lay the groundwork for impeachment proceedings. They may not happen tomorrow or next month. But we need to be laying the groundwork and making this call now. Members of Congress, whether they’re Democratic, Republican, independent, or what have you, need to be stepping up to protect and defend the Constitution. That’s the oath they and the president took – to protect, defend and preserve the Constitution. And the other point on this, Amy, is that Nancy Pelosi has been saying that we don’t have the facts out, we don’t have the Mueller investigation completed. But we already have the facts about what this president has done with respect to the emoluments clauses, with respect to obstruction of justice and many other impeachable offenses.”
At this point in the discussion, Goodman mentioned the warning issued by Roger Stone, one of President Trump’s oldest advisers, in August that any politician who voted to impeach President Trump would face a violent response. She played a clip in which Stone said, ‘Just try and impeach him. You’ll have a spasm of violence in this country like you’ve never seen. This isn’t 1974. The people won’t stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their life. I’m not advocating violence, but I am predicting it.” Bonifaz called Stone’s words “outrageous,” and added that “we can’t allow fear to dictate our response to this lawless president. We can’t say that we’re going to stay on the sidelines while the Constitution is being shredded, because of claims that Roger Stone or anyone else might make.”
Asked how the impeachment process would work, Bonifaz said, “the House of Representatives would need to pass a resolution that would advance to the House Judiciary Committee the question of an impeachment investigation or articles of impeachment. The Committee would then have subpoena power and hear witnesses. People say, ‘Well, the Republicans control the House Judiciary Committee. They control the House of Representatives. They control the Senate. Where do we think this process could actually go?’ But there were plenty of people who argued on the day that we launched this campaign, on Inauguration Day, that there was no way people would be standing up to demand this, and now we see millions of Americans doing just that, along with 17 communities, and seven [now 58] members of Congress. And the facts continue to build that this president is defying the rule of law.”
Asked how he would “lay out the articles of impeachment,” Bonifaz said, “We’d start with the violations of the two anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution: the Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Domestic Emoluments Clause. Then you have obstruction of justice in the firing of FBI Director James Comey for not letting go of the Flynn investigation and seeking to stop similar investigations in the Senate. The potential conspiracy with the Russian government, potential collusion, to violate federal campaign finance laws and other federal laws and to interfere with our elections, is an impeachment as well as a criminal question, and the House Judiciary Committee should take it up. Then we have the abuse of the pardon power, a presidential power that isn’t unlimited. What the president has done with the pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has undermined the due process rights of the thousands of people in Arizona impacted by Arpaio’s illegal actions. This is the sheriff who was found in criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop his illegal practices of detaining people based on the color of their skin, and the president used the pardon power in a wrongful way to pardon him. Then we have the giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and white supremacists – not just what the president said after the Charlottesville tragedy, but also his most recent retweets of inflammatory anti-Muslim videos. Then there’s recklessly threatening nuclear war. He may be commander-in-chief, but the president doesn’t have the power to initiate a war. That’s established under the War Powers Clause, despite the fact that we’ve seen violations of it in the past. But Trump is taking it to a whole new scale by recklessly threatening nuclear war against a foreign nation. That reckless and wanton disregard for the established norms, putting millions of lives at stake, is an impeachable offense. Finally, most recently, the president has talked about how he’d like to see the Justice Department prosecute Hillary Clinton and other political adversaries. This attempted misuse of the Justice Department to prosecute political adversaries would be another impeachable offense worthy of investigation.”
When Goodman asked Bonifaz how much support he has around the country, he said that “over 1.3 million have signed our petition, and over 3 million so far have signed Steyer’s. And some members of Congress have said that they’ve been responsive to what they’re hearing from their constituents. So I think people are ready to stand up, and they need to, because this is an urgent matter. This isn’t something we can wait till 2019 or 2020 to deal with. We need to lay the groundwork now for the call for impeachment proceedings against this president.”
I’m going to sign all the petitions urging impeachment and contact my senators and representatives. There’s too much at stake to wait.
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
The global economy is unsustainable in the long run, both because of the inherent contradictions within capitalism and the finite nature of the world’s resources. It almost went down during the 2008 economic crisis, and the American and other bailouts were just temporary fixes. Additional austerity measures have been politically resisted by the left in Greece, Spain, and other European countries, and reacted to by right-wing parties targeting immigrants. In “World economy: the return of crisis” (International Socialist Review, Fall 2016), Joel Geier and Less Sustar say, that in the United States, “the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus program focused on propping up the financial system while cash-strapped state and local governments slashed spending. The Federal Reserve drastically lowered its main interest rate and bought up the banks’ holdings of US treasury bonds. When that wasn’t enough to spur the banks into lending, it went on to buy enormous amounts of the banks’ dodgy mortgage-backed securities.
In Europe, the transfer of bank and private sector debt to public debt increased it to such a level that some states, like Greece and Portugal, were unable to borrow more money by selling new government bonds. To limit borrowing, those governments introduced austerity measures, or were forced to do so by the ‘troika’ of the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank (ECB). (In the pre-eurozone era, those countries would have had the option of devaluing their currencies to try to export their way out of the slump by making their products cheaper on the world market. Members of the 19-country eurozone have no such option – they’re locked into whatever policy that the German-dominated ECB permits.) The aim was to ‘restore confidence’ and ensure that European banks got their money back no matter what the social cost. This was the context for the ‘Leave’ campaign for Brexit, an alliance of the anti-immigrant right with British capitalists convinced that a future outside the crisis-bound EU was a better prospect. In the US, the economy and rising inequality fueled both the rise of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in reintroducing socialism into mainstream US political discussion for the first time in decades.
Eight years of easy money have created enormous amounts of what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’: speculation and the valuation of real and paper assets at higher levels without a corresponding growth of underlying productive capital. It had been hoped that easy money policies would inflate assets sufficiently so that wealthy people would make larger investments. This was then supposed to trickle down to workers and the middle class by creating jobs and generating consumer demand. Instead, there were mammoth asset bubbles throughout the world in stocks, bonds and housing. The $2.4 trillion parked offshore by US corporations to avoid taxes highlighted this reluctance to make investments.
When the crisis of 2007-09 began, Chinese banks didn’t feel the same financial shock as their Western and Japanese counterparts, because they had more than $2 trillion in foreign reserves, enabling the Chinese leadership to provide both credit and stimulus. In fact, it was the Chinese government’s $590 billion stimulus program in 2009 – proportionately much bigger than that of the United States – that did the most to blunt the world crisis. Prices of commodities and energy soared, giving a big lift to emerging markets and boosting the economies of commodity-producing countries like Russia, India, China, and South Africa,” known collectively as the BRICs [Brazil-Russia-India-China]. On the other hand, “China has $16 trillion in corporate debt, 160% of GDP – twice the ratio in the United States, a growing risk for the world system.
A worldwide crash in commodity prices began in 2013 and stabilized only in mid-2016 as the Chinese stimulus worked its way through the world system. Oil dropped 75% between 2014 and early 2016 from $120 to $30 per barrel before it recovered, and the pattern was similar for copper, aluminum, and other raw materials, an indicator of the slowing demand for industrial production on a world scale. Commodity producers’ high profits turned to catastrophic losses almost overnight. The world’s leading oil exporters also found themselves in a devastating price war, as Saudi Arabia ramped up production to maintain market share at the expense of OPEC members like Venezuela and Nigeria and the oil and gas boom in the United States. With the plunge in commodity prices has come a sharp slowdown in world trade, which has never fully recovered from the Great Recession.
The US economy, despite steady job growth, has struggled to attain a 2% rate of growth since the end of the Great Recession, compared to 3.5% annual growth in the period since the World War II. Investment remained low by historical standards. The Wall Street Journal noted: ‘Companies appear reluctant to step up spending on the basic building blocks of the economy, such as machines, computers and new buildings.’ Low investment begat miniscule gains in productivity, the foundation of profitability.
The latest stimulus spending in China may keep the global economy from a further slowdown, but only at the cost of adding to growing debts, worsening overcapacity, and tensions over trade, thus preparing the way for a potentially worse crisis. Low interest rates have also constrained bank profits, particularly in Europe. If the banks are having difficulty in a zero-interest world, other financial institutions are staggering towards crisis. The business model for pension funds and insurance companies requires them to generate income of 7–8% per year, so continued low interest rates threaten their solvency in coming years. To try and eke out larger reserves, many pension funds and insurance companies have been compelled to take on more risk, such as collateralized mortgage obligations and bonds from emerging market economies, countries that now in crisis as the result of the crash in commodities prices.
It’s highly probable that the economic slowdown in emerging markets will trigger a financial crisis. The only question is when this will occur and how severe it will be. It’s impossible to predict, as the unregulated shadow banking system – the non-bank financial institutions that played a central role in the crash of 2008 – is now bigger than ever.
How will governments and capitalists respond to a new slump, since their traditional methods have failed? Whatever capital comes up with to restructure the system will be complicated by the rise of economic nationalism exemplified by Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen. In the 2008–09 crisis, the Group of 20 industrialized nations coordinated stimulus spending and bank bailouts, narrowly averting a 1930s-scale slump. Today, however, governments pressured by nationalists and burdened by huge debts may be unable or unwilling to cooperate on similar measures.
There have been three previous periods of protracted economic crises that were resolved by the restructuring of capitalism. The first was the crisis of the 1870s to the 1890s, which was overcome by the rise of monopoly corporations, finance capital, and imperialism, setting the stage for the World War I. The war failed to fully resolve inherent contradictions, either economically or politically, setting the stage for the Great Depression of the 1930s and a second inter-imperialist war. At the end of the World War II and the absolute destruction of capital in Europe and Japan, the United States emerged as the dominant power and used institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to lock in its hegemony. The third crisis, lasting from 1974 to 1982, was overcome by the neoliberal restructuring of industry, deregulation, and the collapse of Stalinism.”
A more recent International Socialist Review article on this subject, by Ashley Smith in the Summer 2017 issue, updates all this from the point of view of imperialism. Smith notes that Obama tried to counter the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan by conducting “a ‘pivot to Asia’ to contain China’s ongoing rise, bolster Washington’s political and military alliance with Japan and South Korea, and prevent their economic incorporation into China’s growing sphere of influence. The now dead Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to ensure American economic hegemony in the region, which would then be backed up militarily with the deployment of 60% of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific region. Obama also began to push back against Russian opposition to the EU and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe – hence the standoff over Ukraine. Obama was unable to fully implement any of this, however, because US forces remained bogged down in the spiraling crisis in the Middle East. Retreating from the Bush administration’s policy of regime change, while continuing to support historic allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, he struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. This strategy was undermined by the Arab Spring, the regimes’ counterrevolutions, attempts by regional powers to manipulate the rebellion for their own ends, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Russia, after having suffered a long-term decline of its power in the region, has also managed to reassert itself through its intervention in Syria in support of Assad’s counterrevolution.
While the United States continued to suffer relative political decline internationally, China and Russia became more assertive. Russia took Crimea, and China intensified its economic dealmaking throughout the world, increasing its foreign direct investment from a paltry $17.2 billion in 2005 to $187 billion in 2015. At the same time, it engaged in a massive buildup of its navy and air force (though its military is still dwarfed by the US) and constructed new military bases on various islands to control the shipping lanes, fisheries, and potential oil fields in the South China Sea.
Trump’s strategy to restore American dominance in the world is economic nationalism. He wants to combine neoliberalism at home with protectionism against foreign competition, a position that breaks with the American establishment’s grand strategy of superintending ‘free-trade’ globalization. He’s threatening to impose tariffs on American corporations that move their production to other countries, has nixed the TPP, and intends to do the same to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. He promises to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada to secure better terms, and, in response to Chinese and EU protectionism, he threatens to impose a border tax of 45% on Chinese and others countries’ exports to the United States, measures that could trigger a trade war.
Demagogic appeals to labor aside, Trump is doing none of this for the benefit of American workers. His program is intended to restore the competitive position of American capital, particularly manufacturing, against its rivals, especially in China and Germany. This economic nationalism is paired with a promise to rearm the American military, which he views as having been weakened by Obama. He wants a 9% increase in the military budget to build up the Navy and to modernize and expand the nuclear arsenal, even if that provokes other powers to do the same. Trump also plans to intensify what he sees as a civilizational war with Islam. This will likely involve ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran and widening the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Viewing China rather than Russia as the main threat to this country, he also intends to create a more transactional relationship with the Kremlin. Hoping that he can split Russia away from China and neutralize it as a lesser power, Trump then wants to confront China with tariffs and military challenges to its assertion of control of the South China Sea.
Corollaries of Trump’s ‘America First’ imperialism abroad are economic austerity and authoritarianism at home. Can his plans succeed? Almost all capital is overjoyed at his domestic neoliberalism, but sees his proposals of tariffs, renegotiation of NAFTA, and scrapping of the TPP and the TTIP as threats to their global production and investment strategies. The Democratic Party, rather than attacking Trump on his manifold reactionary policies, has portrayed him as Putin’s ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ insufficiently nationalistic, militaristic, and aggressive.
Even if Trump weathers resistance from above and below, his foreign policy could flounder on its own internal conflicts and inconsistencies. To take one example: his policy of collaboration with Russia in Syria could flounder on his simultaneous commitment to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, since Iran is a Russian ally in the region.
The United States faces continued decline in the neoliberal world order, while China, even taking into account the many contradictions it faces, is benefiting from the current setup. That’s why, in an ironic twist of historic proportions, Chinese premier Xi Jing Ping defended the Washington Consensus in his country’s first address at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. He even went so far as to promise to come to the rescue of free-trade globalization if the Trump administration abandons it, declaring, ‘No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.’ At the same time, China is trying to push out multinationals that have used it as an export-processing platform and replace them with its own state-owned and private corporations, which, like Germany, will export its surplus manufactured goods to the rest of the world market. Determined to challenge American imperial rule of the Asian Pacific, China appealed to states in the Asia Pacific region to sign on to its alternative trade treaty, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) right after Trump nixed the TPP. Though its navy is far smaller than Washington’s, it’s also building up its regional naval power against Trump’s threats to block Chinese access to strategic islands in the South China Sea.
All of this was underway before Trump. That’s why Obama initiated the pivot to Asia, deployed the US Navy to the region, and imposed tariffs on Chinese steel and tires. He also complained about NATO countries and others freeloading on American military largesse and encouraged Japan’s rearmament and deployments of its forces abroad. He even began the move to on-shoring manufacturing based on a low-wage America with cheap energy and revitalized infrastructure. There are countervailing forces that mitigate the tendency toward military conflict between the US and China: the high degree of economic integration makes the ruling classes hesitant to risk war, and because all the major states are nuclear powers, each is reluctant to risk armed conflicts turning into mutual annihilation. In this context, the Marxist theory of imperialism, which begins with the inherent contradiction between market globalization and the division of the world into competing national states, is essential to understanding the world today.” Smith notes here that Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy positions were/are “pro-imperialist. The emerging new Left must engage in principled opposition to all imperialisms and stand in solidarity with national liberation struggles like that of the Palestinians and revolutionary struggles like that in Syria, regardless of which imperial camp such struggles are in opposition to. This approach will be essential in the coming period that promises to be characterized by explosive struggle from below and intensifying struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China, amid other interstate conflicts.
This approach will also be necessary for our domestic political struggles. The crises and conflicts in the system will drive increasing numbers of migrants and refugees to the United States and countries throughout the world. It will be essential for the left to stand up against Trump’s attempt to deflect blame for the system’s failure onto migrants, especially Muslims. Only by challenging such bigotry will we be able to unite workers both within and across borders in a common struggle for our collective liberation from a crisis-ridden and failing system.”
As Geier and Sustar wrote in their article, “the crisis in mainstream political parties amid the rise of Trump and the European far right on one side and the [Greek] Syriza, [Spanish] Podemos, and Sanders developments on the other is putting pressure on national ruling classes to find competent personnel who can develop a political program to manage the economic crisis, cope with intensifying class conflict, and navigate international rivalries and wars. To the extent that capital lets the far right off the leash to further scapegoat immigrants and minorities in order to drive a wedge into the working-class movement, we’ll be entering an extremely volatile period economically, politically, and ideologically.
At the same time, the crisis has opened a way for a renewal of the socialist left. A generation of young people that’s come of age amid recession, weak growth, and endless imperialist wars has become politically conscious and active. Already, millions of young people in the United States count themselves as socialists, however vaguely defined. However, the left isn’t as well organized or politically coherent as the right. The job of revolutionaries is to help overcome these weaknesses by clarifying the politics and organization the left needs to meet these challenges.”
In an article titled “The Deep State Is the State” posted on counterpunch.org 5-26-17, Ron Jacobs says, “The deep state isn’t some enigmatic entity operating outside the US government. It’s the US state itself. Like all elements of that state, the so-called deep state exists to enforce the economic supremacy of US capitalism. It does so primarily via the secret domestic and international police forces like the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies. The operations of these agencies run the gamut from surveillance to propaganda to covert and overt military actions…Some of its better known manifestations include the failed attempt in 1961 to invade revolutionary Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), the use of psychoactive drugs on unsuspecting individuals as part of a mind control study during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and 70s, and numerous attempts to subvert governments considered anti-American. Among the latter actions one can include covert operations against Vietnamese independence forces and the murder of the Congolese president Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The ‘60s also saw the intensification of spying on and disrupting various groups involved in civil rights and antiwar organizing,” including the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, sleeping in his own home, on December 4, 1969.
“The entire government has been owned by big business and the banking industry for more than a century, if not since its inception. That ownership has been dominated by the military-industrial complex” since World War II. The deep state’s role in the current uproar over Russia and Michael Flynn isn’t an attempt to take over the government. It’s an attempt to regain control, since its current leadership represents the factions of the US establishment that were removed from power in November 2016.
Donald Trump isn’t against the deep state. He’s against it being used against himself and his cohorts. In the world of capitalist power, the factions Trump represents are not the same factions represented by the presidents former FBI director Comey served – Bush and Obama…Whoever controls the deep state controls the US. The struggle we’re witnessing between the FBI and the Trump White House is part of a power struggle between US power elites.
When the ruling class is in crisis, as it is now, the job of the left isn’t to choose one side or the other or to accept their narratives. It’s to go to the root of the crisis and organize resistance to the ruling class itself.”
In the May 1, 2017 issue of The New Yorker magazine, its editor David Remnick gives us an excellent summary of Trump’s first hundred days. “For most people,” Remnick says, “the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.
Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth. In 1980, when he was about to announce plans to build Trump Tower, a 58-story edifice on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he coached his architect before meeting with a group of reporters. ‘Give them the old Trump bullshit. Tell them it’s going to be a million square feet, 68 stories.’ This is the brand Trump has created for himself – that of an unprincipled, cocky, value-free con who’ll insult, stiff, or betray anyone to achieve his purposes. But what was once a parochial amusement is now a national and global peril. Trump flouts truth and liberal values so brazenly that he undermines the country he’s been elected to serve and the stability he’s pledged to ensure. His bluster creates a generalized anxiety such that the president of the United States appears scarcely more reliable than any of the world’s autocrats. Trump thinks out loud, and is incapable of reflection. He’s unserious, unfocussed, and, at times, it seems, unhinged. When journalists are invited to the Oval Office to ask about infrastructure, he talks about how Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News, is a ‘good person,’ blameless, like him, in matters of sexual harassment. A reporter asks about the missile attack on Syria, and he feeds her a self-satisfied description of how he informed his Chinese guests at Mar-a-Lago of the strike over ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.’ Little about this presidency remains a secret for long. The reporters who cover the White House say that, despite their persistent concerns about Trump’s attempts to marginalize the media, they’re flooded with information. Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news. A team of rivals? No – a new form of reality entertainment: ‘The Circular Firing Squad.’
During his first hundred days in office, Trump hasn’t done away with populist rhetoric, but he’s acted almost entirely as a plutocrat. His cabinet and cast of advisers are stocked with multimillionaires and billionaires. His positions on health care, tax reform, and financial regulation are of greatest appeal to the super-wealthy. The early days of his administration are marked most indelibly by Trump’s attempted ban of travelers from six Muslim countries, which failed in the courts, and the effort to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which imploded in the House of Representatives. Proposals for domestic initiatives are largely confined to reversals of achievements of the Obama era: an expansion of the prison at Guantánamo, easing of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, reversal of plans to save wetlands and protect waterways from coal waste and executive orders banning gun sales to the mentally ill and protecting L.G.B.T. federal employees from discrimination. Because of the lavish travel habits of his family, Trump is shaping up to be the most expensive executive in history to guard. At the same time, his budget proposals would, if passed in Congress, cut the funding of after-school programs, rental-assistance programs, the Community Development Block Grant program, legal assistance for the poor, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Trump emerged from neither a log cabin nor the contemporary meritocracy. He inherited his father’s outer-borough real-estate empire – a considerable enterprise distinguished by racist federal-housing violations – and brought it to Manhattan, entering a world of contractors, casino operators, Roy Cohn, professional-wrestling stars, Rupert Murdoch, multiple bankruptcies, tabloid divorces, Mar-a-Lago golf tournaments, and reality television. He had no real civic presence in New York, and though wealthy, gave almost nothing to charity. He had no close friends. He worked, played golf, and spent long hours watching TV, his misogyny and low character always manifest. Insofar as he had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter. His contributions to political campaigns were unrelated to conviction; he gave solely to curry favor with those who could do his business some good. He believed in nothing.
By the mid-‘90s, Trump’s investment prospects had foundered. Banks cut him off. He turned to increasingly dubious sources of credit and branding opportunities at home and abroad. A typical deal, involving a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, included as partners an Azerbaijani family distinguished for its corruption and its connections to Iranians who worked as a profit front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There’s little mystery as to why Trump’s broken with custom, refusing to release his tax returns. They record his colossal tax breaks, associations, deals, and net worth. As Trump struggled in business, he made a deal with NBC to star in ‘The Apprentice,’ which featured him for fourteen seasons in a role of corporate dominance. It was there that he honed his peculiar showmanship and connected to a mass audience well beyond New York City, perfecting the persona that became the core of his presidential campaign: the billionaire populist. Now he’s discovered that it’s far more difficult to manage the realities of national politics than a TV set. In the transitional period between Election Day and the inauguration, Obama’s aides were told that Trump, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, wouldn’t read reports of any depth; he prefers one- or two-page summaries, pictures, and graphics. Obama met with Trump once and talked with him on the telephone ten times. The discussions did little to change Obama’s mind that Trump was ‘uniquely unqualified’ to be president, his grasp of issues rudimentary at best.
In his inaugural speech, Trump furiously rebuked the elected officials seated behind him and the international order they serve. Using the language of populist demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Silvio Berlusconi, the new president implied that he, the Leader, was in perfect communion with the People, and that together they’d repair the landscape of ‘American carnage.’ As George W. Bush was leaving the grandstand, according to New York magazine, he said, ‘That was some weird shit.’
By all accounts, the West Wing has become a battlefield of opposing factions. The most influential of them is also the only one with a guarantee of permanence – the Family, particularly Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (His sons Eric and Donald, Jr., have remained in New York to run the family business. Despite his responsibility to put country before personal profit, the president refuses to divest from it.) Kushner has no relevant experience in foreign or domestic policy, but has been tasked with forging a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, steering U.S. relations with China and Mexico, reorganizing the federal government, and helping to lead the fight against the epidemic of opioid use. It’s hard to know if, as an executive, he’s in charge of everything or of nothing. But, as a counselor, he’s clearly powerful enough to whisper in his father-in-law’s ear and diminish the prospects of rival counselors, including those of the administration’s most lurid white nationalist, Steve Bannon. Ivanka Trump’s duties are gauzier than her husband’s, but they seem to relate to getting her father to go easier on L.G.B.T. and women’s-rights issues and calming his temper. The way that Trump’s established his family members in positions of power and profit is redolent of tin-pot dictatorships. He may waver on matters of ideology, but his commitment to the family firm is unshakable and resists ethical norms. The conflicts and the privileges are shameless, the potential revenues immense. On the day the Trump family hosted Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, the Chinese government extended trademarks to Ivanka’s businesses so she could sell her shoes and handbags to the vast market from Harbin to Guangzhou.
Trump is wary of expertise. During the campaign, he expressed his distrust of scientists, military strategists, university professors, diplomats, and intelligence officers. He filled the executive branch accordingly, appointing a climate-change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; a Secretary of Education who, during her confirmation hearing, displayed stunning ignorance of public education; an Energy Secretary who previously called for closing the Department of Energy; a United Nations Ambassador whose international experience is limited to trade missions for the state of South Carolina; and a national-security adviser who trafficked in Islamophobic conspiracy theories until, three weeks into the job, he was forced to resign because he lied to Vice-President Pence about his ties to the Russian government. Trump has left open hundreds of important positions in government, largely because he sees no value in them. ‘A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,’ he’s said. Among the many federal bureaucracies now languishing with empty offices are the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Defense. It’s the generals who are the authoritative voices in Trump’s administration. To a president whose idea of a strategic move is to ‘bomb the shit out of’ ISIS, they’re the ones who have to make the case for international law, the efficacy of NATO, the immorality of torture, and the inadvisability of using the rhetoric of ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ At the same time, the pace of bombing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen appears to have increased, and tensions with Iran, Russia, and North Korea have intensified. Trump, an erratic and impulsive spokesman for his own policy, needs competent civilian advisers, if only as a counterweight to the military point of view and his own self-admiring caprices.
The Trump presidency represents an angry assault on the advances of groups of people who’ve experienced profound, if fitful, empowerment over the past half century. The Trumpian rebellion against liberal democracy isn’t a local event; it’s part of a disturbing global trend. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later, the democratic movement grew and liberalism advanced, and not only in eastern and central Europe. During the course of thirty years, the number of democracies in the world expanded from thirty to roughly a hundred. But since 2000, nation-states of major consequence – Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines among them – have gone in the opposite, authoritarian direction. India, Indonesia, and Great Britain have become more nationalistic. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is polling credibly in a presidential campaign guided by two longtime fascist associates. The prestige and the efficacy of democracy itself is in question. The stakes of this anti-democratic wave can’t be overestimated. Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches global trends in political liberty, has identified an eleven-year decline in democracies around the globe and now issues a list of ‘countries to watch’ – nations that ‘may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory.’ The ones that most concern Freedom House include South Africa, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, and the United States.
Pushing back against Trumpism won’t be easy. The president isn’t finished with his efforts to repeal Obamacare in a way that would deprive millions of people of their health insurance; he isn’t going to relax his effort to enact hard-line immigration restrictions; and he isn’t through trying to dismantle legislative and international efforts to rescue an environment that’s already suffering the grievous effects of climate change. But there are signs that doomsayers of democratic values will be proved wrong. Hope can be found in the extraordinary crowds at the many women’s marches across the country on the day after the inauguration; in the recent marches in support of science and a more compassionate, reasonable immigration policy; in the earnest work of the courts that have blocked the ‘Muslim ban’ and of various senators and House members in both parties who, unlike Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have refused to put cynicism and expedience before integrity; in the exemplary investigative journalism being done by traditional and new media outlets; in the performance of anti-Trump candidates in recent congressional races in Kansas and Georgia.
The clownish veneer of Trumpism conceals its true danger. Trump’s way of lying isn’t a joke; it’s a strategy, a way of clouding our capacity to think. Our task isn’t just to recognize this presidency for the emergency it is and resist its assault on the principles of reality and the values of liberal democracy, but to devise a future, to debate, to hear one another, to organize, and to preserve and revive precious things.”
My only quibble with Remnick, and it’s a pretty big one, is that the failures of “liberalism” are what allowed Trump – or someone like him – to be elected. To succeed in the future, we’ll have to go way beyond elite liberal concessions to the masses – we’ll have to completely re-envision our democracy (actually create one) and guarantee a minimal living, a good education, health care, freedom, and security to everyone. That last item – “security” – is a big one, including freedom from harassment, discrimination, and maiming and murder by the police; a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than the use of force and including negotiating the end of nuclear weapons; and safeguarding the environment, including addressing climate change (eliminating the use of fossil fuels, except to create “green” alternatives). A tall order? Yes. But necessary to avoid Trump-like demagogues – and the destruction of the human race – in the future.