Another election cycle brings the US a new President, another Congress, and a new Federal administration. A cynic might see the changes as cosmetic, a mere opportunity for another collection of political operatives to grift, to peddle influence, and to accumulate power. Lobbyists favored by the Democratic Party will now have access to more elected officials and agency and bureau heads, while their Republican-favored counterparts must now work lower on the food chain until their turn comes up again. Campaign contributions will determine consulting contracts, the flow of government monies, and ceremonial appointments. Where some see corruption, others see opportunity.
Interlocked with the political elites eagerly filling the vast Federal establishment is an equally imposing infotainment industry seeking new dramas, new distractions to offset the loss of their political lightning rod, Donald Trump. Since the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the further concentration and monopolization of the media, the major media networks have succeeded in turning “news” into partisan sensationalism-- cheap, shallow entertainment on the model of the innovative Fox platform. Today’s Walter Cronkite is an unhinged Tucker Carlson or a self-righteous Rachel Maddow, both mockeries of the far-less-blatantly slanted and outlandish journalism of the not-too-distant past.
It is no wonder that most people lack “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the media and even fewer show much confidence in Congress (Pew Research). It is no wonder that Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” resonated with so many people.
At the same time, there is a palpable relief that Donald Trump’s four years of policy improvisation, emotional instability, and outbursts of racial and gender animosity are now coming to a close. The idea that a person of Trump’s impulsiveness and shallowness had a hand in US foreign and military policy would keep any sane person awake at night. Sadly, it escapes most pundits’ and politicians’ short memory that previous Presidents, like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, were equally, if not more, dangerous.
Where Trump’s self-delusion as a master in dealmaking led him to seek rapprochement with some of the establishment’s designated enemies, he was invariably thwarted by the establishment’s fail-safe mechanisms. If the four years of Trump taught us nothing, it was that the rules of the game were carefully protected by the mechanisms long established by the capitalist ruling class to contain politics within a narrow range of action. Trump’s unorthodox policies ran headlong into the firewall created by what Marx described as the “...committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” They were stalled, ignored, or subverted by the system’s defenders.
Four years ago, before the 2016 inauguration, James Comey of the FBI-- representing the capitalist Praetorian guard, the security agencies-- advised Trump that his behavior was and would be carefully scrutinized. He was to understand, as other newly elected Presidents had customarily learned from J. Edgar Hoover, that embarrassing information could be produced to discredit his tenure. The infamous Steele Dossier was meant to demonstrate the power of the Praetorian Guard, should Trump get out of line. Through sheer arrogance or ignorance, Trump defied the message and fired the messenger. Consequently, he battled the security services throughout his Presidency.
Too often the center-left, the decaffeinated left, sided with the snoops, torturers, and killers of the security services in their ruthless campaign to get Trump-- a dangerous game of opportunism that surrenders the few remaining restraints on the police and judicial system. Those who can protect us from Trump will protect us from real social change with even more zeal.
But Trump is done. And the New Year marks a transition. Two early events stand out as possible omens for 2021.
Political comedian Jimmy Dore’s call for House members to leverage their votes for or against Nancy Pelosi’s reelection to Speaker of the House created an intense debate on the left. Dore suggested that, given the tightness of the Speaker’s race, a few leftish House members could extract a promise to bring a long overdue vote on Medicare for All to the House Floor-- a modest proposal.
The weak-tea, Democratic Party-loving left shrieked hysterically: Jimmy Dore carries no weight; he is vulgar; he shows no deference to our sainted representatives; a vote would embarrass us, revealing our weakness; and so on… With Trump on the way out, why would anyone want to spoil our never-ending brunch by advocating political action?
As with the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it is considered impolite to interrupt the celebration with messy questions about the road to genuine social change. Trust in our leaders...
Predictably, Democratic elected officials succeeded in ignoring the challenge presented by Dore. But unlike in 2008, a number of liberals with spine spoke up and insisted that the Dore strategy was defensible, even advisable. Instead of rolling over as they did so often during the Obama administration, some liberals argued the merits of Dore’s proposal, refusing to be distracted by irrelevancies. Maybe there is some small hope that social justice will not be smothered by the Democratic Party in the new year. One can only hope.
A remarkable event occurred on January 6. Some call it an attack, an insurrection, even a coup attempt. In fact, with a little necessary distance from the sensationalist media, it was none of these. The motley, largely unarmed characters who broke through a thin blue line to mill around the Capitol waving flags, taking selfies, and generally disrupting business were hardly the stuff of revolution. They were not storming the Bastille, but taking an unsanctioned, trashy tour of Versailles.
The event began with an underwhelmingly attended rally that, if it had been organized by the left, would barely catch the attention of the media. A desperate, unhinged Trump, rocked by his intercepted plea to Georgia officials, the Democratic victory in Georgia, and the inevitability of his departure from the White House, made an incendiary speech urging the attendees to march on the Capitol.
No one disputes the fact that the Capitol Police force that they met was little more than a token, despite the hyperventilating claims of potential violence and the proximity of City police, and the National Guard in waiting.
Undoubtedly, commentators are also correct in pointing to the collaboration of some of the Capitol Police in the incursion, but they seem less interested in why the other available forces were not deployed. The decisions to neither call for help nor extend it remain a far more significant question in the events of January 6. It is worth noting that the Capitol Police are under the oversight of the Congress and not the executive branch. Therefore, the speculation that Trump left the door open does not seem plausible. Instead, there is plausible evidence from an unlikely source-- The Washington Post-- of Senate and House machinations.
But we do know that this Trumpite incursion was met with nothing like the extreme measures visited upon anti-war and anti-racism demonstrations. Any veteran of DC actions would not recognize the tepid preparation and execution of the defense of the Capitol, since we were seldom allowed within blocks of the building no matter how many of us were present. And there were always more than enough of them!
So who was responsible for the near-invitation to penetrate the Capitol and the bizarre rock concert-like antics of the unorganized mob? Was this a staged Reichstag fire operation to force Trump into his final submission?
Certainly a Cui Bono query would conclude that Trump and his army were the big losers. Though there was not even the remotest possibility that an actual coup could be staged or that the bizarre antics of January 6 would keep Trump in power, the press, the Democrats, and the corporate Republicans have profited from the fiasco. To a large extent, Trump has been tamed and his minions shamed, if not purged or arrested. A hundred or so House Trumpites and most of their Senate colleagues have jumped ship.
We may never know if this is an Erdoğan-styled excuse to purge opposition forces, as he did in Turkey in 2016 or, perhaps, something even more sinister; but the net effect is to strengthen the center at the expense of the odious Trump. Given the vast experience and success that the US security services have in overseas regime change, it would not be too farfetched to suspect their deft hand somewhere in both the illegal recording of Trump’s phone call to officials in Georgia and the strange happenings on January 6.
Rummaging through some old papers, I ran across a column by the late Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn had one of the most sensitive BS detectors, as well as being an exceptional wordsmith. He likely inherited his BS sensitivity from his Communist father. Claud Cockburn was famous, among other things, for his comment: “Believe nothing until it has been officially denied.”
In his July 1, 1996 Beat the Devil column in The Nation, Cockburn decries the left’s-- specifically, labor’s-- slavish support for Bill Clinton and the Democrats for which they got nothing:
Start with the basis for any serious radical movement in this country, labor. In late March the AFL-CIO, stepping to a brighter future under its new president, John Sweeney, endorsed Clinton for re-election. In exchange, Clinton offered nothing, nor was anything extracted from him.
Commenting on a statement by “a supposed labor militant” that Clinton’s re-election is the most important project of labor in the past fifty years (a statement that we’ve heard repeated every election cycle), Cockburn defers to the magazine, Foreign Affairs, to “tell the stark truth”:
This journal of the Eastern elites mustered in the Council on Foreign Relations blazons an article… deriding Clinton’s “Hoover-like” attacks on big government. [The author] writes that “restrictive economic policies-- reduced deficits, reduced taxes, and the most exalted deity, low inflation-- have favored financial interests at the expense of workers and have created an international rentier class.” When Foreign Affairs lines up to the left of labor you know things are in poor shape.
Cockburn’s assessment of the Democratic Party rings as true today as it did twenty-four years ago. But, unfortunately, every generation must rediscover this truth for itself. Carter, Clinton, Obama, and now Biden conjure an abundance of hope, a groundswell of confidence, only to be dashed on the rocks of misplaced loyalty.
History repeats itself because too few bother to digest it.