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Saturday, May 11, 2019


Paul has written a long and very serious three-part criticism of my recent despairing post, criticism that I think has a good deal of merit.  I want to try to address it here.  His comment takes the form of first stating three claims that I often make, and then responding to each in turn.  I want to incorporate his words into this response, so this will take a while, but I think it is important.  Bear with me.

He begins:

Professor Wolff: there are three claims in this post, claims that make frequent appearance in your posts these days, that I want to call into question.

“(1) You claim that Trump poses a grave threat to “democracy as we know it” in America. Specifically, you claim that if he’s elected in 2020, American democracy stands a reasonable chance of being left in tatters. And should he lose, he will attempt to engineer a coup to invalidate the election.

(2) You claim that the American left will survive a Biden presidency. More to the point: we shouldn’t be too terribly worried about a Biden presidency compared to a Trump one, because in the former case, we stand a much better chance of regrouping to take power eventually. Therefore, if Biden appears to have the best shot at beating Trump—I assume you mean if pre-nomination polls bear out that he does best head-to-head with Trump—then we should support him.

(3) You contrast Biden with “Warren or Sanders or Harris.” I take it that you mean this latter group to be the group of real lefties, or real progressives, in the race. Therefore, you take Kamala Harris to be a progressive or lefty on par with Sanders and Warren.”

Let me deal with the third point first, because it is easiest.  I think Paul is correct about Harris, and I confess he knows a great deal more about her record than I do.  Let me grant the point and remove her from the list of electable progressives.  I actually think Warren is better on the issues than Sanders, but that is unimportant in this context.  Now to the real meat of Paul’s comment.  Against point 1, he responds:

“The argument here is not that you’re being “too pessimistic” or otherwise “too cautious” or something else of the like—that is, I’m not saying that you’ve basically gotten Trump right (in kind) but have overstated things (in degree). Rather, I think you’ve just got Trump flat wrong in kind. Moreover, the mistaken conception has bad consequences. It leads us to think of the sort of political action we should be doing in misguided terms. Here’s how you’ve gotten Trump wrong: he does not fit the model of an authoritarian would-be dictator bent on seizing total control of the state. He lacks both the specific ideological vision and the tenacity required for that. Instead, Trump is better thought of as a more-or-less standard Reaganesque Republican president prone to self-aggrandizement and petty arguments, but reticent to engage in deep-cutting, long-term struggles for power. How do we know this? Well, note that the Republican congress and leadership has pretty much stymied all of his signature (that is: non-standard) promises. They’ve refused to fund his wall, failed to repeal Obamacare, refused to fund a major infrastructure program, and refused many of his budget requests. On each of these occasions, Trump has (occasionally) lashed out with insults on Twitter or at a press conference, only to ultimately drop the issue. Furthermore, with an ongoing investigation that threatened to potentially impeach him carried out by his own justice department(!), he couldn’t even pull a Richard Nixon and fire everyone. In short, the actual record simply doesn’t support your framing of Trump. I think your framing of Trump is a significant mistake because it fails to understand the actual political moment we’re in, and what our best options are.”

I agree that Trump does not fit the standard model of a would-be dictator, but I disagree that he is a more-or-less standard Reagenasque Republican [although God knows, Reagan was bad enough.]  I think, or rather I fear, that Trump is a good deal more dangerous than that.  I think he is desperate to survive and avoid all manner of legal dangers to his wealth [such as it is] and his freedom, and he is showing some skill at using the enormous inherent power of the modern presidency to protect himself and attack those he sees as enemies.  I think he will probably fail, pretty much for the reasons you advance [that was the point of my seemingly off-the-wall remarks about the Secret Service and the army.]  But I think he will try, and I am frightened of what that will bring.  For several years now, all of us have been counting on what Bannon and company call the Deep State to protect us, or what used to be called the Establishment, and I hope our confidence is well-placed.  Once again, I am frightened.

Finally, Paul writes this lengthy analysis of Biden’s real significance and of our current situation.  I agree with much of it, so let me reproduce it verbatim:

“A Biden presidency would be disastrous—and not simply because of the opportunity cost of a lost Sanders or Warren presidency. No, a Biden presidency would be disastrous because if we properly understand our current political moment, we can see it would lead to potentially devastating consequences. Therefore, Biden should be seen as our political enemy too. Why? Well, if you have an understanding of the Trump presidency that doesn’t view him as an out-of-nowhere aberration but instead conceives of his appeal in the history of American political economy, we can see that Biden just represents a further step down the disastrous neoliberal trajectory we’ve been on. Trump’s appeal in large part derives from the bankruptcy the public feels—the sense of a bitter, repressed outrage—toward standard US politics post-Reagan. That standard politics (let’s call it “neoliberalism”) is embodied best by politicians like the Bushes and Clintons whose agenda was oriented around foreign imperialism, the curtailment (or even retrenchment) of gains by the civil rights and labor movements, a belief in the market and skepticism/demonization of government “welfare” programs, and big, big money all around. It’s the bankruptcy of *that* politics that leads to our situation, where people above all just want something different, want to flip the bird to standard politicians. This means that there are political openings for both more leftist and more revanchist styles of politics. Trump represents the first step of the latter—though as I discussed above in (1), he represents *merely the first step*. But if we elect a stupid standard politician like Biden *again*, and the public becomes even *more* disenchanted than they were under Obama, the natural next step is for a more genuinely revanchist, more scarily competent and tenacious politician, than Trump to take power. Then we really will be in the sort of situation you seem to think Trump’s put us in. But a Biden (or Beto, or anyone-but-Sanders-or-Warren) presidency will take us further down that path. So even if polls bear out that vs. Sanders they have a better shot at beating Trump, we should not devote our energies toward nominating these people—*if* they’re nominated, then we have a different conversation. But we should strive to avoid that catastrophe at all costs.”

I agree with virtually all of this.  I think we are, or may be, in one of those rare moments when genuinely progressive politics have a chance to win big, and perhaps make some really major changes in this country.  [I say perhaps because such changes would require a solid left majority in the House and Senate as well as a progressive in the White House, and that is much dicier.]

Leaving aside the matter of Harris, where Paul is right and I was wrong, I think the difference between us is that I am a good deal more frightened of Trump than he is.  I hope he is right.  If I may echo Alfred Doolittle from My Fair Lady, I’m willing for him to be right, I’m wanting him to be right, I’m waiting for him to be right.  I may just be old and too often disappointed, or maybe I don’t get out enough.  The dismay I have felt at the arrival and early success of Biden has really taken it out of me.  Look, maybe he will wilt under the lights during a debate, wander a little, show his age [God knows I know about that!], and the faithful will drift away.

Meanwhile, I will donate my little bits of money to Biden and Warren and keep hope alive.

Thank you, Paul, for a valuable contribution to the debate.

17 comments: said...

Biden is an unpredictable sort, and will likely set his hair on fire once or twice during the campaign. Trump's wig, on the other hand, seems robustly resillient. These are curious times. MLK would have been surprised by the election and re-election of Obama. But what he wouldn't have been surprised by, I suspect, is that an ignorant racist would succeed the man.

s. wallerstein said...

I agree with Paul about Trump.

I think that you (RPW) and many others tend to exaggerate the dangers of Trump. As I've said before, he's a clown, a crook, a narcissist, a misogynist, a liar, vulgar, and even physically repulsive, but he's not a fascist dictator, and even if he wanted to be one, he's not going to pull it off.

We all exaggerate in politics, that gets the passion burning and the indignation firing us up to go out and march, but it's an error to believe one's own exaggerations. From the first day the U.S. left framed Trump as a fascist and their own opposition to him as the "resistance" as if they were in occupied France facing the SS. We all love grand opera (I do too) and maybe framing opposition as resistance helped fired up people to protest, but Trump is not the gestapo and has never shown any signs of wanting to end "democracy" (note between quotation marks) in the U.S. Trump loves money and being the center of attention, and if he's defeated in the 2020 election and avoids being jailed, he'll probably produce and star in a successful TV reality show called "White House" or something like that and make millions of dollars from it.

David Palmeter said...

“...such changes would require a solid left majority in the House and Senate as well as a progressive in the White House, and that is much dicier.”

I agree, but I think the chances of that occurring are virtually none. We do not have a solid left majority in the House now. About 30 of the Democrats come from districts that Trump carried. Their votes will not mirror those of AO-C. Senate control is at best a toss-up, and if the Democrats do get control it will not be enough to block the filibuster let alone convict on impeachment.

Any Democrat elected to the White House in 2020 will be lucky to be able to accomplish as much as Obama was able to accomplish in terms of domestic legislation.

Jerry Brown said...

I am glad you responded to Paul. But I thought he was right and still think he was right.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

What if the eras of the New Deal, and the Great Society, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and lasting, say, until the mid-70s, when real wages began to stagnate, was the high point of US democracy and the closest the US will ever get to the ideal free and equal and equitable democratic society?

I can't decide what would be more disastrous for US democracy, seen through that lense, Trump winning a second term, or Biden winning, and the inevitable (I think), perhaps disciplined, certainly hard right, backlash?

talha said...

"I actually think Warren is better on the issues than Sanders, but that is unimportant in this context."

It's difficult to know which half of this sentence is more worrisome: that Warren is better "the issues" than Sanders (which issues? why is liberal technocracy better than grass-roots social democracy?) or that "this"--i.e., the right way to challenge neoliberalism--is somehow unimportant "in this context."

Beside that all I can do is second Paul and Jerry Brown.

LFC said...

Correction to penultimate sentence in the post.

Should read:
"...I will Sanders and Warren...."

s. wallerstein said...

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict what will occur in 5 years time.
No one in 1963 could imagine 1968 and in fact, no one in 2015 could imagine that Trump would be elected president the next year.

The electorate is extremely volatile and de-politicized, so it can change rapidly. A huge economic crisis or a war could occur, etc., etc.

So it seems more sensible to focus our attention on the 2020 election than on how the results of the 2020 election may effect the 2024 election.

Matt said...

He [Trump] lacks both the specific ideological vision and the tenacity required for that.

There are a number of things I disagree, to varying degrees, with this account, but I want to focus on this supposed reason to not think Trump poses a special threat to US political systems. I think this is not at all right, for a number of related reasons.

1. Trump has an ideological vision - white supremacy. It's been a part of his makeup for most of his life. Sometimes it's been more prevalent than other times, but it's pretty clearly been there his whole life, and it's important, both to him and to his supporters now.

2. Lots of people who have destroyed any hope for democracy in their country have had no more, and often less, ideological coherence and vision. Take Putin, for example. What is his ideological vision? If we look to, say, 2000 (I watched him come to power live on TV in Russia on Dec. 31, 1999, and watched the 2000 elections first-hand), he had no vision at all except, perhaps, "Make Russia Great Again". He still has no coherent ideological vision. His grasping at stupid pseduo-philosophy like Aleksandr Dugin's "Eurasianism" is just a facade, no more real or of substance than his plagiarized PhD dissertation in economics is. And yet, this doesn't change the fact that Putin has destroyed the possibility for democracy in Russia, and made it, at least arguably, less politically free than it was in the last days of the Soviet Union.

3. The fact that Trump is a fool and an idiot here doesn't obviously distinguish him from, say Mussolini, who was no big brain, and opens him up to manipulation by people like Stephen Miller, who is even more of an open fascist than Trump is. So, even if Trump isn't a thinker here on his own, this is no reason to not be worried. It only means he can be easily manipulated by people who are smarter than he is, while he serves as the public face. This is, of course, a pretty normal turn of events.

So, there are a number of reasons to doubt the analysis here. But, this point in particular seems to me to be week, and pretty clearly not right.

Howie said...

Dear Matt:

Do you suspect in some fashion the role of ideology has mutated in today's world?
The main functions of ideology are to provide a road map collectively and to give a sense of belonging.
Perhaps people have a sense of belonging by being connected by social media and sharing virtual experiences as signaling and perhaps because in an Orwellian sense since people can be easily fooled by Fox and company or by Trump, by being given slogans like MAGA and being cozily promised by Trump that he's adding jobs, while having the truth smoothed over and covered up, there is no real need for an ideology- it's like when you're downloading something- you witness the progress, you see on the news on your computer the "progress" Trump is making and you feel a part of it- there is no need for ideology to intervene, just deeply held and felt, collective political needs, and the lies that progress is being made

Just thrashing out an idea, however I'm sure somebody way smarter than me had the same idea, more or less

Paul said...

Thanks for replying at length to my comments! The only thing I want to add on this is the following: I think that the evidence (of the kind I pointed out about Trump's inability to mount a genuine takeover while facing serious challenges both within and outside of his party) points to Trump being a quite a different political figure than your framing indicates. There's no doubt he's despicable and dangerous, and represents a step in the direction of a more openly authoritarian style in American politics. But I think the framing of him as Mussolini, or Putin, or even Putin-lite (or whatever--choose your analogy) is not only mistaken, but leads us to adopt a misguided sort or resistance. What sort of resistance? One characterized above all by a defensive stance, by an absolute cautiousness of him as a singular fascistic force. I think that would be lethal to the burgeoning left. As you mentioned, we have a real opening. That opening depends on our ability to make a clear moral and political argument--an argument that names neoliberalism (Reaganesque; Bush-and-Clinton–style politics) as the villain and clearly stakes out what's required to defeat that villain: massive organizing and mobilizing of the working class, and solidarity with the working class amongst those wealthy progressives serious enough to actually become class traitors. To do that, however, we can't be defensive and ally ourselves with whoever can beat Trump. We'll have to instead frame Trump as a symptom of the deeper rot, a rot manifest not only in Trump but in John Kasich, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. I think we've got to relentlessly push that argument. And we therefore can't be in a state of paralysis, singularly focused on defeating Trump. I hope that all makes sense. At any rate, that's the conclusion the sort of profound leftist political economy I've learned from you ought to lead us.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I believe that to think of Trump as a part of the neo-liberal tradition, that he’s a Reagan Republican and hence not as dangerous as Dr. Wolff thinks, is seriously mistaken. The Republican Party has become, and Trump is, a fascist. I’ll make that case in this post, and I hope in another post (soon), to argue Trump is in fact a danger to democratic political structures and norms.

Fascists are what fascist do: 1) convince us there is an inferior race that is responsible for the problems we have and the crises we face, 2) cultivate fear and gin up hatred any way you can, and 3) exploit that fear and hate for the benefit of right-wing business interests.

Trump did the first two the day he announced his run for office and delivered the business payoff (tax cuts) not long after his election. As his administration progressed, we have seen the scope of his fascist beliefs filled out . He hates Blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, and women. He doesn’t preach the gospel of racial inferiority, but he credits the view when possible (there are good people on both sides). He doesn’t shout his fascism from the rooftops like Hitler, rather he uses dog-whistles, winks and nods. If you think he is not a fascist, be reminded that the fascists/white supremacists think he is a fascist/white supremacist.

The very language Trump uses echoes his Nazi precursor. Lugenpressen - lying press is the most prominent re-use of a Hitlerian phrase of which I am aware. Trump held press conferences with good Americans who had been victims of crimes perpetrated by drug-dealing, rapist Mexicans.. Hitler did the same thing, holding events with good Germans who had been victimized by a Jew.

Trump is more likely to use more vile language in his rallies and at a recent rally a supporter called for immigrants to just be shot, a view Trump implicitly endorsed. One rhetorical difference between Hitler and Trump: Hitler gave speeches that used a standard pattern of starting slow and building to a frenzy while Trump’s “speeches” at his rallies are more freelance riffing on the usual set of themes.

It is true that Trump doesn’t have an overtly fascist party platform, nor does he have a personal militia. I suspect that he doesn’t have them lies in the different historical circumstances. Parties in the 1920’s and 30’s were very different. The National Socialists and the Socialist Party had very similar party organizations that included social and education organization for members and their children. We saw a contemporary reflection of that type of party organization several years ago when a fascist attacked a Social Democratic youth camp on an island in Sweden.

Today’s parties are mere shells of the earlier European model and their American precursors. But Trump’s party is the party of racism, and has been since the Nixon era. Trump is in no way, shape, or form a Reagan Republican and the party is no longer a bearer of Reaganesque conservatism. If it were, Paul Ryan would still be Speaker of the House. The Tea Party and Freedom Caucus factions now are the center of gravity in the party.

They are the paranoid right that became frustrated at Bush (shrub) for not being conservative enough, came out of the closet in full force at the urging of Sarah Palin, and were motivated by the paranoid fear of a Black, Muslim, non-citizen running for office. And we all know Trump’s role in creating that controversy.

There is a statistical measure, DW-Nominate, that is used to rank legislator’s votes on a liberal -conservative scale. It shows quite clearly that the Republicans have moved drastically to the right compared to the Reagan years. They are no longer the party of Lincoln, or of Reagan. They are the Party of Trump and it is a neo-fascist party now. I tried to include the graph but it didn't work. The link is:

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Part 2)

One of the most salient feature of Trump is is his personality. He is a malignant narcissist, a term first developed by Erich Fromm to describe a constellation of psychological tendencies that characterized Hitler and were conducive to the creation of evil. In a nutshell it is an amalgam of a pathological form of narcissism, anti-social, aggressive and paranoid tendencies, lack of empathy or conscience, a need for power, and an out of control sense of self importance. It is as aptly descriptive of Trump as it is of Hitler.

Trump represents a current of American political ideology that has deep roots in our history. It is illustrated nicely in Richard Hofstadter’s monograph, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” This current is outside the intellectual tradition that informed the writers of the Constitution. It has a unbroken history of anti-immigration, anti-enlightenment, anti-semitic, anti-catholic, anti- African American hatred and extra-legal violence. Described in affirmative terms, it is W.A.S.P.: white, anglo-saxon and protestant. Trump represents the tradition of the paranoid right: the Know-Nothings, the KKK, white supremacists, and anti-enlightenment religious fundamentalists. In other words, American Fascism.

s. wallerstein said...

You might be able to make the case that Trump is some kind of fascism-ultra-lite, but why bother?

I could even see how calling Trump a fascist might offend some Holocaust survivors, people who lived through fascism with all its horrors.

I myself lived through 11 years of the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. There was a lot of debate on the Chilean left if Pinochet was actually a fascist (or just a traditional Latin American strongman), but he has a lot more in common with Hitler than Trump does.

The day Pinochet took power, September 11, 1973, Congress was closed, press censorship was instituted, all political parties were dissolved, books were burned, thousands of members of the Allende government (the government over-thrown in the coup) were rounded up and jailed in a football stadium under horrid conditions, judged without a lawyer and in many cases, shot. All over the country police and army shot leftists without a trial. Within a few months the junta established the DINA, a secret police force that arrested, tortured and disappeared opposition figures without trial or records (not even the bureaucratic procedures used by the army and the police).

I could go on. Sure, Trump has some things in common with real-life fascists, but there seems to be a difference in degree between Pinochet and Trump, just as there is one between Pinochet and Hitler.

Trump is a horrid person and I genuinely hope that he gets voted out in the next election, but I don't see what is gained by calling him a fascist.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Wallerstein,
Three quick points in response.

1) Neither how quickly someone takes dictatorial control of the state apparatus nor how brutal they were in maintaining power define Fascism. Fascism is a political ideology, not a measure of political violence employed to gain and stay in power.

2) My priority as an analyst is to get to the root of what Trump is. You may not consider him a fascist, but he is not a Republican in any historical sense of that term, he is not a conservative, but he is part of a long American tradition of racist, anti-immigration, white supremacist political and extra-legal violence.

3) Historical context matters. The U.S. in 2019 is not Germany in 1932, or Chile in 1973, or Serbia in the 1990's.

s. wallerstein said...

Christopher Mulvaney,

It's a pleasure to be in agreement with you about something, especially your point 3. Fascism can only arrive in certain historical contexts and whatever Trump's power fantasies and racial and gender prejudices may be, the historical context in the U.S. in 2019 makes anything similar to fascism, as it commonly manifests itself, almost impossible.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Note to self: Beware of Wallerstein bearing compliments.