Thursday, 11 August 2016

Trump’s McCarthy Moment of Political Theatre Signals the Establishment’s Fight-Back

Red lines had been crossed, insults against numerous groups hurled, anti-elite charges of being out of touch advanced, accusations of treachery and selling the country out to subversives and foreigners made, repeatedly and with seemingly little political consequence, but the end came when there was a concerted attack on one of America’s most revered institutions – the US Army. This was part of the downfall of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953-4; he had gone too far, was out of control, and bringing elite anti-communism, a mainstay of cold war America’s justification for global expansion, into disrepute. Could it also be the beginning of the end of Republican contender, Donald Trump’s, presidential campaign? Has he gone too far even for hard-core right-wing Republicans who have fostered the very political culture from which Trumpism sprang? And, with the turning and defanging of Bernie Sanders’s leftist assault on Wall St, has American politics returned to normalcy, with the establishment firmly back in the cockpit?

Anti-communist US Senator Joseph McCarthy had decided, in discussions with that other Machiavellian Richard M. Nixon, that his road to fame and possibly the White House lay in exposing the communist takeover of America. From the boy scouts and girl guides, to the Protestant church to the White House, America was riddled with corruption and weakened by communist fifth-columns, and he was going to “take our country back”, as it were. Adding to a broad anti-communist and anti-liberal movement, which included the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), McCarthy went after practically every organisation in America, except the KKK, FBI and the GOP, and wreaked havoc among federal employees, thousands of whom lost their jobs, were blacklisted, or worse. He spoke, the media amplified his message by largely uncritical reporting, and heads rolled. He seemed invincible, his witch-finder-general role popular, and road to the White House assured. President Eisenhower frowned upon but refused to condemn or repudiate McCarthy; he happily tolerated, and supported, the construction of an existential Soviet threat as the basis of a foreign policy of anti-communist containment.

Yet, the Wisconsin senator’s aura of Teflon-like invincibility was finally torpedoed when he went so far as to attack America’s cherished military, the near-universal support for its warriors especially those who had fought the “good war” a mere decade earlier. During the US Army hearings of 1953, McCarthy called General Ralph Zwicker, a much decorated soldier, as having the intelligence of a five year old child and declared him “not fit” to wear an Army uniform. He later tried to destroy the career of a young US army lawyer, Fred Fisher, denouncing him as a fellow traveller of communism and membership of the bastion of communism in the USA, the National Lawyers’ Guild. This attack led the US army’s lead counsel, Joseph Welch, a Boston blue-blood Republican, to declare: “You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” From that point, the American public turned away from McCarthy and viewed him as cruel, manipulative, and dangerous, as did the US ‘moderate’ right-wing political elite. His fall from grace was rapid thereafter – he was censured by the Senate and he faded away, dying of alcohol poisoning in 1956.

Yet, McCarthy’s censure was on the grounds of conduct unbecoming a US senator – ungentlemanly behaviour, not on the pain and suffering he caused untold numbers of people. The GOP had had enough of McCarthy once his fiery anti-communism, once a powerful tool against the Democrats, had brought anti-communism itself into disrepute. He was out of control and took the rap. The man was disowned, but the anti-Red campaign continued. McCarthyism without McCarthy.
Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan in response the DNC speech of the father of a soldier son killed in action in Iraq, and subsequently on the son’s mother as silenced by the father’s Islamic beliefs, has led to outrage in general and among some Republicans as well. But although many Republican leaders have criticised Trump they have largely refused to repudiate him as their party’s candidate.

Trump’s defence against Khan’s accusation that he the GOP’s nominee had sacrificed nothing for his country – he’s created thousands of jobs – rang hollow. Khan called for him to step down from the election race, as unfit to lead America, followed by President Obama’s own invitation to the GOP to jettison Trump as their candidate.

Trump’s retaliatory attack on the Khans follows disrespect for the Vietnam war record of Senator John McCain, who’d spent several years as a prisoner of war. And his subsequent trivialisation of a purple heart from an admiring veteran of the Iraq war. But, McCain has yet to reject Trump in an election year and a tight race to retain his own Arizona senate seat.

As polls show Trump’s slump behind a 10-11% lead for Hillary Clinton, and a concerted attack from the Right from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, anti-Trump forces are renewed; Clinton and Republican senators and representatives are now more openly challenging Trump’s stance on Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine, assertiveness in Syria; there are murmurs about the GOP’s rules on replacing their duly elected nominee. Adding fuel to fire, Trump alienated even more Republicans by initially failing to endorse the candidacies of Republican senators and GOP leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell although his VP running mate, Mike Pence, publicly voiced his support for the leaders. It’s all looking like a shambles of their own making.

Reinforcing their usual political allies, Republican donors from corporate America are pulling the plug on the Trump campaign – the billionaire Koch brothers remain unconvinced that Trump can be tamed by the GOP or Pence, and are refusing to donate their fortunes to Trump’s faltering bid for the presidency. Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and many others have been recruited by the Clinton campaign to both denounce Trump and back Hillary, adding another GOP donor’s scalp to their tally, having already reeled in Michael Bloomberg. Republicans like former Reagan-Bush appointee, Frank Lavin, are reassured by the conservatism of the Democratic National Convention and Clinton’s selection of Senator Tim Kaine as running mate. Commented Lavin: “I have an increasing comfort level with Hillary Clinton…. She’s not going to be bossed around by the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.” A Republicans for Hillary Group appears imminent, pulling together existing smaller initiatives.

Yet, figures for June and July indicate a major surge in small donations to Trump’s campaign. His grass-roots’ support among America’s economically-disenfranchised, looked-down-upon  nationalist and ethno-centric element of the white working class seems to be holding; but even they might not like Trump’s disrespect for military service. Rural southern whites join the US military in droves. But, as so powerfully explained in J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Trump is the only candidate to speak their language and of their desperate plight.
The GOP donors’ and Democrats’ pincer movement appears to be gaining momentum with dire implications for the Trump campaign but also for the proclaimed radicalism of the Democrats (“the most radical platform in the history of the party”), trying to hold on to millions of Bernie Sanders’s voters. Trump’s anti-establishment credentials remain intact, while his political credibility is increasingly tattered among sceptical Republicans. Clinton’s base in the establishment, despite numerous anti-corporate passages in the party’s manifesto – now more apparently a sop to the powerful but defanged Sanders movement – seems stronger than ever.

The centre-ground, ever the preserve of the self-declared ‘moderate’ establishment, appears to be holding, but skewed heavily to the Right, defying both the Sanders revolution and Trump’s attack on elite power and its global over-reach. 

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London

He tweets from @USEmpire

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Democrats’ Leaked Emails Pseudo-drama: elite hollowness and return to politics as usual

The Democratic National Committee’s leaked emails preudo-drama reveals far more than the real story at the heart of the matter – that apparently neutral DNC discussed means to sabotage the Bernie Sanders primary election campaign. It thereby violated its claims to political neutrality between rival candidates and favoured Hillary Clinton, a party establishment darling. Diverting attention from the substance of the charge of political bias, the DNC first gently and politely nudged out its chair, Debbie Wasserman Shultz  (to a very comfortable honorary position), and then blamed the Russians for hacking party email servers in a bid to benefit Putin’s (apparently) preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Trump, rising to the elite politics game, added his own flavours to the mix and attributed a racial slur to Putin against President Obama, and egged the Russians to continue leaking more emails. In the age of post-truth politics, no evidence was required for these claims but their job was done – eyes were on Russia, Trump, etc and not on the DNC’s wrong-doing. 

While deflecting attention from the original issue, the episode also demonstrates why the United States is in political crisis today and will remain so for some time to come. While large swathes of the electorate scream from the pain of trying to make ends meet as real incomes fall and inequality rises, health care costs increase, police violence against black men reaches epidemic proportions, America’s infrastructure crumbles, and people look to leaders who apparently offer ways out of the crisis, the American political class has gone back to business as usual. They take or admit no responsibility for the Iraq War or the financial meltdown of 2008, fail to mention the debacle in Afghanistan, the massive increase of the power of Wall St corporations in economic and political life. America’s problems today, it appears, have nothing to do with the Republicans or Democrats.

This political amnesia is far more likely to damage the Democrats than the GOP’s Donald Trump – the only candidate reflecting popular anger against elite power; indeed it plays into his hands and boosts his chances of winning the White House – unless, of course, he self-ignites following one of his red-line crossing gaffes. This election was billed as Hillary Clinton’s to lose – and she and her celebratory coterie, backed by big money, appear to be heading into a very rough election season up to November. It may be that Trump fails to win rather than Hillary defeats a candidate President Obama has declared unfit for office.

Both parties’ conventions provide an insight into the crisis of elite party politics today and the more significant conclusion that neither party offers very much to their target voters. The GOP spent their convention papering over the cracks in their party’s fabric and raison d’etre, attacking the record of the Obama administration, and promising to make America great again and give it back to its own people, code for the anti-minorities xenophobia that galvanises an alliance between loyal Republicans and Trump’s white working class core support. The latter have been regaled with tales of jobs for all by abolishing free trade, and bashing the Chinese. But no support for increasing the federal minimum wage or investment in crumbling roads and bridges or schools has been offered. All the while, Trump built bridges to party elites with his selection of Governor Mike Pence as vice presidential running mate – a dyed-in-the-wool tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-corporations-conservative from the tea party wing of the GOP. Trump’s mission to restore America has no place for any redistribution of income and wealth which is what a majority of Americans and large proportions of Republican voters actually want. The only threat to GOP elites backing Trump is from the billionaire candidates own penchant for outrageous bigotry.    

And the Democrats, convened in Philadelphia, and let off the hook by Bernie Sanders’s full throated backing of Hillary Clinton, and pretended the Sanders insurgency never happened even as Michelle Obama, President Obama and nominee Clinton praised Bernie and started a major celebration of America’s continuing greatness and of its status quo. This left them with one place to go in focusing attention: Donald Trump. 

Trump is not only at the centre of his own campaign, he is also the Democrats’ sole target. No vision backed by specific policies and programmes to curb the power of Wall St and big money in politics, no job creation or infrastructure-building. To be sure, the Democratic platform bears witness to the compromise with Sanders – on college tuition fees, health care, federal minimum wage. But on the major question of the neoliberal order’s attachment to globalisation and outsourcing of factory jobs, and the power of big money in economy and politics, including bankrolling Hillary Clinton for decades, and the gross levels of inequality that process has generated, there is silence. Just more talk about how bad Trump is. Meanwhile Blackwater, one of the world’s largest private equity funds, whose CEO sits on the board of the Clinton-Obama think tank, the Center for American Progress, has held fundraisers for Obama and Clinton, and who some tip as a future treasury secretary, held a major reception in Philadelphia. And Hillary has received up to $123 million from such Wall St denizens in contrast to a paltry $19000 (yes, that’s $19K) donated to the Trump campaign. (Sanders received $0 from corporations). Hillary has personally earned over $20 million from closed-door speeches at Wall St firms. That’s why Clinton cannot even understand where critics of corporate-cash-dominated politics are coming from – to her, this is how normal politics works. Any plank of the Democrats’ platform needs to be read in this context.

It is unsurprising that last week’s great celebration of the glorious Obama years – also funded by major Wall St donors - failed to address any deep-seated problems of American society; yet it plays directly into Trump’s hands and threatens a smooth transfer of power from Obama to Clinton. It permits two things: Trump appears as the change candidate, and he can turn his guns onto Hillary Clinton in a race to the bottom on who’s part of the establishment, closer to the people or Wall St, the more dishonest and corrupt. And Trump is a lot better at playing that game than Clinton.
To Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, what’s most disturbing about the Brexit and Trump debates “is that there is zero elite reckoning with their own responsibility in creating the situation that led to both Brexit and Trump and then the broader collapse of elite authority.” Trump resonates, Greenwald commented, not due to popular stupidity but because people feel cheated and let down by “the prevailing order…. that they can’t imagine that anything is worse than preservation of the status quo.” People are so angry with the way things are that they simply want out of the current position, to throw out the existing elite, regardless of the consequences. This anti-politics is precisely the core appeal of Trumpism, a phenomenon set to outlive its eponymous hero.

The Trump and Sanders campaigns rode the deep discontents of a nation all the way to Cleveland and Philadelphia, despite sabotage attempts from party elites. The Sanders campaign has thrown in the towel and focuses on Clinton versus Trump, forgetting the structural inequality that propelled voters into its camp. Trump is in the process of betraying his core constituency, enjoying the fun and games of elite party politics.

Business as usual, normalcy, has been restored – or, has it merely been stored up for a future explosion?

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Trump and Sanders Absorbed by Establishment Agendas

Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran insurgent primary campaigns directed against their respective party elites and gained a following of millions, shaking the Democratic and Republican establishments and threatening the dominant neo-liberal order at home and challenging America’s global role. But, despite Trump’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate and Sanders’s victories in 22 states, it is increasingly clear that party elites are slowly winning back the initiative, using their enormous resources to manage and incorporate the challengers into politics as usual. The results are not identical in each party because the Right has greater salience in the GOP than does the Left in the Democratic party. Trump, therefore, has far more room for manoeuvre and can maintain more of his racialized style within the Right, boosted by the fundamental fact that he won the nomination without serious opposition. Sanders, on the other hand, lost, despite frightening Democratic leaders and is now actively backing Hillary Clinton as the progressive candidate America needs.

Yet, this process of selective incorporation and marginalisation is fraught with problems for party elites and the American electorate that has shown its deep disdain for the main political parties’ programmes, records and styles in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War and especially the relentless rise of income, wealth and power inequalities since the financial meltdown in Wall Street in 2008. A large part of Trump’s appeal echoes that of Bernie Sanders’s – of voiceless millions for whom the American dream is pure chimera.

Trump’s choice of conservative Mike Pence and Hillary Clinton’s of conservative Democrat Tim Kaine is a signal that the insurgencies are being defanged. Party elites may believe that they’ve successfully absorbed discontent through means both fair and foul; but the greater danger to the body politic and for America’s global role is for party elites to close their eyes to the massive undercurrents of political and economic discontent that the primaries and conventions have exposed. As Thomas Jefferson noted, a little rebellion from below is significant precisely because it provides a health-check of the political system, opening the way to reform. Ignoring the politics of mass discontent and returning to normalcy may merely store up an even greater explosion – of either Right, Left or both – in 2020 and beyond, crippling American politics and hamstringing its global power.

For Donald Trump to prove his seriousness as a presidential candidate and have any chance of governing the nation should he prove victorious has already forced him to compromise. His selection of Governor Mike Pence – a hard core Tea Party conservative close to the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, who have rejected Trump’s divisive anti-conservatism– is a major sop to party elites, contradicting the anti-conservative political base that Trump’s campaign championed. Mike Pence has alienated the LGBT community, organised labour, and backs lower taxes on the rich and corporations. Since his selection as running mate, he’s also backed Trump’s call to ban entry to Muslims from countries facing terror attacks. Trump’s recent declaration that his administration would reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act is not just an anti-Bill Clinton tactic but also an attempt to shore up his white working class political base and the pent up anger at Wall Street financiers. And party elites have moved reluctantly to accept Trump’s rhetoric and style with a view to be perceived as beyond reproach when or if the billionaire loses the election in November 2016.

Sanders’s incorporation is in fact the greater story of 2016. His role appears to be to bring into the Democratic fold an enthusiastic young electorate and other liberals, disappointed with President Obama’s refusal to challenge the powers that be, despite promises, and eager to change the politics of neoliberal order and challenge the militaristic role of the US in world politics. Yet, Sanders’s defeat was nowhere near total – hence his ability to win elements of his programme onto Clinton’s platform – on college tuition fees, a public option in healthcare reform, the future role of super delegates, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, a new unity commission on party democracy, and so on. Yet, he made only a minor, and probably temporary impression, on Clinton’s robust support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key element of Sanders’s campaign. But (Wiki) leaked emails showing the Machiavellian manoeuvring of the DNC’s leader, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, including trying to tap into Southern Baptists’ perceived anti-Semitism, against Sanders have led to her resignation, opening the way to further intra-party change. Claiming, with Clinton, that the party has the most progressive platform in its history, Sanders appears to be rowing back from calling for a new independent progressive party of the left. Even more than that, Sanders has acted as a cheer-leader for Hillary Clinton and made strenuous efforts to dampen the protests of the very people he mobilised in his campaign.

Bernie Sanders’s anti-Trump stance has helped Clinton promote herself as the last best hope for America, or the least worst. Yet, despite the strength of anti-party elite feeling during Sanders’s primary victories in 22 states, and millions of votes for an overtly ‘socialist’ programme, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate is a major blow to the insurgents. Kaine is a conservative Democrat, hawkish on the issues of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Islamic State, for full blown free trade that’s devastated working class communities and contributed to increasing inequality, and demands a soft line with Wall Street banks and money power, elements of which got him elected as Virginia’s senator in 2012, against a hard core tea party Republican.

In what has been a celebration of the last 8 years of Democratic control of the White House, Hillary Clinton has chosen to defy the millions who voted for Sanders and taken the strategy of winning the centre ground, gambling on anti-Trump feeling to draw Sanders’s supporters into her camp – they have nowhere else to go - by November. Rather than offering a vision to America or a new grand bargain to reduce the power of finance and of America’s global military deployments, Clinton has cautiously moved to court ‘moderate’ Republicans uncomfortable with the overtly racist and alienating character of Trump’s rhetoric and political base. She has chosen to ride two horses – declaring the party platform as the most progressive in its history while also suggesting she’s a safe pair of hands. Trump is now the more radical-sounding candidate in the 2016 general election even as he moves closer to GOP elites and Wall Street in search of desperately-needed election campaign funding.

By November 2016, America may face a choice between a programme of caution and the domestic and global status quo, and an anti-politics right winger claiming to speak for ordinary people while dividing them. Americans will choose from the lesser of two evils rather than a positive vision of economic renewal, popular empowerment, reduction of the power of big money, and a realistic approach to a changing global order.

The crisis of America’s elites is set to continue because they appear to have failed to account for the political earthquakes of 2016.