Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Fascblican Party: an ugly word for an ugly force

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism(2017) and Facing the Planetary(2017)

Note a few recent events:
--Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly excoriate the Mueller investigation as a witch hunt and then Trump installs a Hack as acting Attorney General with the intent to short circuit that very investigation by dubious legal means.

--Trump talked about a rigged election during the 2016 campaign at the same time his campaign conspired secretly with Russia to shape the American election.

--Trump insists there is rampant fraud in Florida, etc. without issuing any evidence, as he supports policies in many states to suppress the minority voting.

--Mitch McConnell first refuses to bring legislation to the floor to protect Mueller on the grounds there is no need to do so and then, after the Hack is appointed, still quietly refuses to bring it to the floor.

--Trump repeatedly tells Big Lies to incite his base—all the way from the birther charge in 2012 to the charge of the threat to American sovereignty posed by the “Caravan”—and hardly any neoliberal Republicans feel called upon to correct him or point to how dangerous such Lies are to democracy.

--Lindsay Graham interrupts an orderly hearing on Judge Kavanaugh by charging Democrats with mob rule. A notable irony: Kavanaugh himself had participated in a mob to forcibly block the recount and intimidate the counters in Florida in 2000 and the Republican leadership refused to release a lot of official data on his record during the Bush years.

--Trump, Grassley and others pick up the charge of mob rule, meaning to them any dissident social movement—however official, legal or nonviolent--that objects or challenges the rule they intend to impose.

--Trump attacks American allies relentlessly while cozying up repeatedly to Putin, the guy with whom he conspired to shape the 2016 election.

--Trump and Sessions initiate a ruthless border policy to separate children from their parents in the interests of stopping the flow of migrants and asylum applicants on the southern border.

--Sessions reverses a series of agreements with American cities to stop the killing of young, unarmed Blacks by members of police departments in those cities.

--Trump tells his followers that he loves the word “nationalism”, because it means America First, knowing full well that to its active proponents its means white nationalism. He also barely criticizes Nazi and other vigilante groups, while issuing numerous winks, nods, strategic silences, and rhetorical flourishes to encourage them.

--Hannity and Limbaugh attend a Trump election rally while serving as a newscasters at Fox and radio, as Jim Acosta, a CNN newscaster trying to get Trump to answer a question at an official news conference, has his White House credentials lifted.
These instances and many others reflect consolidation of the Fascblican Party in the United States. The Fascblican Party is a creative, ruthless formation forged out of the old Republican Party, several agents of neoliberalism and white evangelicalism, extremist donors, the right wing media, and the Alt-Right. Its most renowned leaders include Trump, Bannon, Hannity, McConnell, King, Nunes, Miller, Mercer, Limbaugh, Adelson, Ingraham, Grassley and Kavanaugh. They mix together functions such as governing, judging and reporting, highlighted by the recent presence of Hannity and Limbaugh at Trump election rallies, the bold lies by McConnell about the effects of a tax cut for the rich on the deficit, and the successful effort by the Kavanaugh gang to force a recount to stop in Florida during the Bush/Gore election shortly after an attempt to impeach a Democratic President. They support or cover up Trump’s conspiracy with Russia to turn elections; they perfect the Big Lie Scenario in which you accuse the other of what you are doing and then repeat the charge endlessly; they deploy extreme gerrymandering; they regularly join minority voter suppression to evidence free falsehoods about voter fraud; they support deficit reduction and austerity until a big tax break for the rich is available (and then lie about its effects); they adopt extreme tactics with asylum seekers, including separation of parents and children; they constantly demonize Blacks, gays, transgender people, refugee seekers, Latinos and many others, while accusing others of prejudice whenever they are called on it--the regular repetitions of false equivalence; they repeat endless charges of Fake News against the non-Fox and Breitbart media to undermine the public credibility of a free press; they often support a perverse theocratic variant of Christianity that insists the country is not intact until it becomes a Christian nation; they adopt dangerous tactics to break down the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and the courts until they become reliable arms of the movement; they advance thinly deniable support of vigilante tactics (as revealed recently by Trump’s failure to even contact the numerous Democratic targets of a right wing bomb attempt); they assert endlessly equivalence between their ruthless tactics and anything the Left does to oppose them; and they do much more. The consolidating Party also has numerous allies in other countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, Italy, and elsewhere. It is becoming an international movement, designed to break up and displace the old alliances.
Some American participants in this movement are cowed by the Party, but many are active proponents of it. The latter know that they cannot govern without the Media-Trump repetition of Big Lies and voter suppression of minorities and the poor, so they deploy those tactics with growing belligerence and self-confidence.
We must today be militant, public, willing to engage in repetition, honest in our vigilance, and nonviolent as we identify and expose the tactics of the Fascblican Party. It is also time for us to become better wordsmiths: Introduce more short phrases, repeat them, and explain what we are doing. Hence my introduction of an ugly phrase-- “Fascblican Party”--to delineate an ugly phenomenon. You may even stutter as you repeat it.
    The Fascblican Party has scattered the flutter of feathers in the old Republican Party. In fact, the neoliberal and fascist wing of the party have been drifting together for years, even before Trump accelerated the drive. They have pressed others to dissemble, as Susan Collins has done for them so recently. A few old Republicans are now exposing this new Party, as Steve Schmidt has been doing. They are to be admired, even as we dissent from their positive vision. 
     Enthusiastic Fascblicans are ruthless, dishonest and dangerous. They are already trying to intimidate the Democratic House even before it convenes. Today, I am interested in hearing views about how to proceed in the aftermath of an election in which a significant majority voted for Democrats, even though these numbers are not proportionately represented in the House victory and Senate defeat. 

Here are a few things, perhaps, to fold into the conversation:

First, we must publicize the dilemma of electoral politics while we nonetheless include elections as one of the institutions in which to participate. The dilemma is that when you do participate a host of factors—including gerrymandering, the biases of the Electoral College, the initiating power of corporations outside of government, Citizens United, and so on—limit the effectiveness of electoral politics alone, while refusal to participate in elections threatens to give the Fascblicans long term control of the three branches of government.
Second, while capitalism, in its numerous forms, is a powerful set of forces to contend with, we must overcome temptations to withdraw from the world and action unless and until it faces a revolutionary overthrow. The immediate dangers are too great for that luxury. And yet, the reforms and demands we do advance must show promise of overcoming the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism over the next decade. Open up new lines of flight.
    Third, we must participate in interfolded local, regional, state and cross-regional movements to put pressure on elected officials, corporations, churches, banks, universities and localities at the same time. For democracy both includes and exceeds elections: it also requires social movements to move and shape elected officials. The Fasblican party has indeed recognized and transfigured this duality into a series of ruthless and lying campaigns, as it escalates the initiating powers of banks and corporations outside the state through massive state deregulation and subsidies. The Left is now beginning to move with real integrity on both of these fronts.
     Fourth, we must dramatize the effects of climate change on a whole series of regions and constituencies, including wild fires, droughts, acidification, and extreme storms. As we do so we must show how technologies already exist to move to noncarbon sources of energy and to reshape the established infrastructure of consumption. Recent studies that show how significant carbon emission reduction can succeed in dramatically reducing CO2 emissions through new farm practices and reforestation are very pertinent here. 
Fifth, while the effort to draw more suburban women into an enlarged Democratic Party is both critical and precarious, and while attracting and running minorities for office is absolutely essential, it is also necessary to win back a larger section of the white working class now often dispersed in small towns, small enterprises, and rural areas. They have provided one pivot of the Trump base. Such a constituency recovery can be launched by positive policies that speak to health care, income distribution, cost of living, strong labor unions, authoritarian working conditions, rural soil management policies, enhanced job security, and so forth. A group of activists both within and on the edges of the Democratic Party recognize this, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and William Barber leaders among them. One way to put it is that you might possibly win a Presidential election without cracking this constituency—though that very strategy by Clinton failed—but you cannot govern without cracking into rural and small town areas that have played important roles in shaping the obstructionist strategies of the Fascblican Party for a couple of decades. Another way to say it is that justice requires including the precarity of the white working class as one minority in the positive coalition to be mobilized.
Sixth, while it is essential to intensify micropolitical strategies in localities, universities, corporations, and unions it is also important to draw creative sustenance from a host of young, charismatic leaders who can inspire people in several walks of life to support anti-Fascblican, pro-pluralist, and egalitarian practices. Democratic organization and democratic charisma re-enforce one another.
Seventh, we must expose the tactics and long term strategy of the Fascblican Party at every step, even as we learn from them more about how affective communication proceeds. For there can be no pluralist, egalitarian culture until the oppositional movements combine positive affective contagion, charismatic leadership, refined ideological formulations, and egalitarian policy initiatives into a larger assemblage. It is time to learn the lesson: There is never a vacuum on the visceral register of cultural life.
Eighth, we must often hold the feet of the dominant wing in the Democratic Party to the fire, as they are too ready to seek to win the next election with minimum boldness and readiness to rebuild.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Neoliberalism and Fascism: the stealth connection

William E. Connolly
Author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (2017) and Aspirational Fascism (2017).

Neoliberalism is not fascism. But the fact that many famous neoliberals have been moved to support fascism to protect a regime from social democracy or socialism does give one pause. Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, among others, took such a turn under duress. They also had highly expansive views of what counted as a “socialist” threat. Neoliberalism is a set of practices that favors entrepreneurs and corporations, supports--often below the radar--massive state subsidies for the corporate estate, presses for radical deregulation of private markets, treats labor as an abstract factor of production, celebrates the authority of courts governed by a neoliberal jurisprudence, hates collective social movements on the left, protects imperial drives, strives to render democracy minimal, and moves to dismantle or weaken unions, social security, public schools and universal voting if and when the opportunities arise. Fascism is a form of capitalism that dismantles democracy, pushes intense nationalism, pursues racism, deploys big lies systematically, attacks vulnerable minorities to energize its base, corrupts courts, drives to make the media its mouthpiece, places police and intelligence agencies under its wing, colludes with foreign dictatorships, welcomes vigilante groups beneath a veneer of deniability, and jacks up the intensity of cultural ruthlessness.

So the two are different. Are there, however, enough affinities between them to help explain how the former—both in its leadership and its base of support--can migrate rapidly toward the latter during periods of stress? Stress that it often enough creates by its own hubristic market practices? Bearing in mind those noble neoliberals who today call out and hold out against Trumpism—they are on welcome public display on the Nicole Wallace show on MSNBC--recent experience in the United States suggests that many other neoliberals, in a situation of public stress, too easily slide toward the latter. A whole bunch of neoliberal Republicans in the American Congress, after all, now support or tolerate policies and belligerent practices they did not before the era of Trump. Many do not merely do so because they are cowed by the danger of threats to them in Republican primaries—they could, for instance, quit politics, or join the Democratic Party to stop aspirational fascism, or staunchly support the principles they embrace in those very Republican primaries and elections.
 The recent book, Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, allows us to discern more closely how such slides and gallops can occur. It is focused on the life of a Nobel Prize winning neoliberal--who often called himself a libertarian--loved by the Mt Pelerin Society by the name of James Buchanan. I used to teach critically his book The Calculus of Consent in the 1980s. But MacLean's book, through a close review of an archive not studied before, reveals how the public neoliberal pronouncements by Buchanan between the 1970s and 2000s were soon matched by a set of covert plans and financial funding designed to bring neoliberalism to power by “stealth” strategies. Buchanan had come to see, as had others, that the neoliberal agenda was not apt to be enacted by democratic means. So he adopted a two track model.
 That two track model is revealing. So is the fact that this refugee from Tennessee—a former slave state and one that then imprisoned Blacks systematically to replace lost slave labor--seldom mentioned the specific conditions of Blacks or women as he articulated his abstract defense of liberty. So, too, is MacLean’s review of the ruthlessness and narcissism that marked the private and public persona of Buchanan, a review that invites attention to character affinities between him and Trump. Neither Buchanan, Trump, nor Charles Koch--the latter another key figure in the Buchanan story--thought highly of compromise. They play a hard ball game.
 The story starts, really, in Pinochet’s Chile, where Buchanan helped that repressive regime impose economic reforms backed by constitutional changes that would make it next to impossible to reverse them. They were called them constitutional “locks and bolts”. Buchanan never publicized the extensive role he played with Pinochet in Chile. Nor did he ever express public regret over its fascism, replete with prohibitions of free speech, practices of torture, and decrees making it illegal to organize dissident social movements.
 Another key epiphany occurred in the 1980s in the States. Reagan’s massive tax cuts, which were promised to spur rapid growth to pay for them, instead created deficits three times larger than those Jimmy Carter had bequeathed. A public reaction set in as the regime proposed to make radical cuts in Social Security and Medicare to make up the shortfall. But those plans failed. After that failure Buchanan concluded, consonant with advice by Milton Friedman, that such entrenched programs could only be weakened and dismantled through disinformation campaigns. Democracy had to be squeezed. Why? The majority of “takers” will never accept open plans to curtail their benefits to reduce taxes on a minority of “producers”. The takers, let's call them for starters workers, the poor and the elderly, don’t even believe in “liberty”--meaning above all the freedom of entrepreneurs to roam freely in the market. So, you must pretend you are trying to save the very system you seek to unravel. Talk incessantly about its “crisis”. Divide its supporters into older, retired members, who will retain benefits, and younger ones who will have them cut. Celebrate the virtues of private retirement accounts. Propose to have the wealthy be removed from the system, doing all these thing until general support for the social security system weakens and you are free to enact the next steps—steps not to be publicized in advance. Once you finally eliminate the system, people’s general confidence in the state will wane more. And new initiatives can be taken—again in a stealth manner—with respect to Medicare, pollution regulations, climate change, unemployment insurance, and democratic accountability.
 Buchanan, to make a long story short, first increasingly bought into disinformation campaigns and later joined the main financier of his Center at George Mason University, Charles Koch, to support a series of voter suppression programs, neoliberal court appointees, anti-labor laws, and intensely funded political campaigns to shift the priorities of the state. The guiding idea was not only to change the rulers but to change the rules which govern districting, court jurisprudence, voter access and the like. Liberty is for producers, not takers, as Milt Romney also said later when he thought he was speaking only to a closeted room full of producers.
Buchanan's abstract concern for market liberties, and the slanted liberties of association and speech they carried with them, never brought him to speak of the subjugated conditions of Blacks, women and other minorities in this society. The reason seems clear: their living grievances threaten abstract claims about a market system of impersonal rational coordination. The danger, to him, is mass democracy, which enlarges the power of “the state”. When Buchanan worried about the state he didn't seem to mean Pinochet. He meant democratic processes through which the state is moved to support a collection of minorities who have been closed out of equality, participation, and representation. Buchanan, as did his hero Hayek, loved to think in abstractions, the kind of abstractions that cover up specific modes of suffering, grievance and care under shiny terms. As MacLean also notes, Buchanan came to see that neoliberal (and libertarian) propaganda must aim at men more than women, because, on average, the latter are less predisposed to such messages.
 The Koch/Buchanan alliance, consolidated through an Institute at George Mason University, soon became a Center to fund movements and generic models of reform on the Right as it informed American movers and shakers how to create constitutional “locks and bolts” in states and the federal government to secure desired reforms from dissident majorities once they were pushed through and their real effects became apparent. A stealth campaign, followed by opposition to "mob rule". Wisconsin, for instance, became a key laboratory under the regime of Scott Walker, both enacting draconian policies and pursuing constitutional changes to secure them from future majorities. To discern the severity of the stealth activities, consider how one of Buchanan’s lieutenants, Charles Rowley, eventually turned against them. He became upset when a new Chair of the economics department summarily fired all untenured economists to replace them with a single breed of libertarians. As summarized by MacLean, two things above all dismayed Rowley, who retained his neoliberal outlook but opposed the stealth practices. “First the sheer scale of the riches the wealthy individuals brought to bear turned out to have subtle, even seductive power. And second, under the influence of one wealthy individual in particular the movement was turning to an equally troubling form of coercion: achieving its ends essentially through trickery, through deceiving people about its real intentions to go to a place which, on their own given complete information, they would not go.” (p. 208) It’s like saying "repeal and replace Obamacare", while planning only to make the first move. And then turn the same trick again in several other domains. Eventually Buchanan himself grew wary of Koch, in a setting where two narcissistic, authoritarian men struggled to control the same Center. The money man won out. In Rowley’s own words Koch, the billionaire donor, “had no scruples concerning the manipulation of scholarship.”
Neoliberalism, its critics know so well, periodically spawns the economic crises its hubristic devotees promise will not happen. It also works to foster voter suppression, unlimited dark campaign contributions, extreme gerrymandered districts, take away worker benefits, appoint judges at state and national levels governed by neoliberal jurisprudence, treat voter suppression tactics to be needed to eliminate phantom voter fraud, oppose affirmative action, to weaken labor unions, and attack universal health care.
 How many neoliberal Republicans called out Donald Trump, for instance, when he launched his presidential campaign by pretending insistently for six long years (with absolutely no evidence) that the first African American President held office illegally. Obama was guilty until proven innocent, according to that Donald Trump. How many stepped to the plate to acknowledge galloping climate change in the face of those who have called it a hoax against all the available evidence? What about the appointment of a judge who lied about his previous record, had trouble with his drinking and temper, and probably tried to rape a young girl when they were in high school? What about Trump's constant suggestions that minorities are guilty until found innocent, punctuated by assertions that men applying for high government positions and accused of harassment must be treated as innocent unless a court of law finds them guilty. Quiet whispers from neoliberals of regret and suspicion against Trumpism on these issues, by the way, do not cut the mustard. Neoliberal stealth tactics and neofascist Big Lies have moved too close together for comfort.
 One thing that emerged out of the long term two track campaigns of neoliberalism is a powerful wealth/income concentration machine joined to a series of precarious and suffering minorities, including so many urban Blacks and poor whites. With labor unions, too, caught in a squeeze. Donald Trump, could then play on the prejudices and insecurities created; he thus found himself in a position to incite large segments of the white labor and lower middle classes to return to the old days, while retaining the support of a huge segment of the wealthy, donor class. The disinformation campaigns of the old neoliberal vanguard can too easily slide into the Big Lie campaigns Trump pursues in the service of White Triumphalism, intense nationalism, misogyny, the reduction of critical social movements to mob rule, and militant anti-immigration campaigns. The long time con man and money launderer has not, then, merely cowed a neoliberal elite that had pointed in a different direction. He has pulled its stealth campaigns into channels that most find more palatable than other social visions in circulation.
 The memories of Hayek and Friedman in this respect return to haunt us. It need not surprise us, given MacLean’s archival history, that the latest Trump Supreme Court appointee supports neoliberal policies in the domains of corporate deregulation, medical care, restrictive voter laws, limits on civil rights, gerrymandering and like while also trumpeting notions of a sovereign president so dear to the dark heart of Donald Trump---the aspirational fascist who conspired with Russia to win an electoral college majority in 2016. We must light a candle for those noble neoliberals who resist the slide we are witnessing before our very eyes, as we also keep both eyes open with respect to the wider crossing between neoliberalism and neofascism.
  The old, all so familiar, Hayek story of how socialism and social democracy are always on the “road to serfdom” is a fairy tale that has not in fact occurred. The transition, however, from neoliberalism to virulent fascist movements has occurred before and could do so again. The current fascist electoral campaign rallies by Donald Trump are designed to up the ante of charges against liberals and the Left by several decibel levels so that people will temporarily forget all the horrible things he has done and will do if Republicans keep both houses. They include halting or weakening the Mueller investigation, eliminating transgender rights, consolidating Trump control over intelligence agencies and the courts, reversing the remaining shreds of ObamaCare, upscaling attacks on universal voting, weakening the media, creating horrendous immigration laws, encouraging vigilante drives, and many other things yet. Drive someone to a voting precinct on election day and give them a copy of the MacLean book a week before you do.
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Monday, October 22, 2018

Democratizing the Court—and the Entire Body Politic

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and teaches at Acadia Senior College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell treats the exercise of the democratic right peacefully to assemble as mob rule. This exercise in democratic liberty that McConnell abhors has been necessitated because our democracy is seriously flawed—thanks in part to the anti-democratic coups McConnell’s party and its allies have orchestrated. 

The Supreme Court, though still the most respected of our institutions, is a major force adding to systematic injustice. How the Court has become so influential  and so dangerous is a topic deserving much more attention than it receives.—especially if we hope to mitigate the damage.

One perhaps fortuitous outcome of the Kavanaugh confirmation may be the recognition that the Supreme Court is inherently political. The Court has inordinate power now, but we have chosen to give/allow that power. Potentially the view five justices hold regarding “interstate commerce” or “due process” could determine the fate of vital regulation for a generation to come. No serious democracy can surrender so essential a policy matter to five lifetime appointees to a tiny body largely shrouded in mystery.

Democrats themselves played a high price for so much reliance on the courts to achieve their goals. This was especially the case regarding abortion. Initially enacted in a few states, activists pushed successfully for a Supreme Court ruling to extend reproductive rights to all states. Nonetheless as Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig pointed out: “Disempowered by their that the law had settled the issue without remainder, they failed to engage the concerns of moderate citizens who harbored doubts about the morality of abortion leaving them and their doubts to be mobilized by those who had no doubts about the practice’s immorality…”  Honig goes on to add: "…the always imperfect closure of political space tends to engender remainders and that, if those remainders are not engaged they may return to haunt and destabilize the very closures that deny their existence” (Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p. 15). I would only add that in a political culture that professes its faith in democracy remainders denied their day in the political arena are likely to become more intense and dogmatic and able to attract some support based on their exclusion alone.

Abortion along with other social issues helped politicize a whole generation of formerly apolitical fundamentalists, and reliance on the courts has left pro- choice liberals the necessity of playing catch-up ever since. In any case abortion rights won through the courts still cannot assure provision of the whole infrastructure of services and abortion alternatives needed if women were to have the resources and options to make a truly free choice. Republicans have been masters at chipping away those necessary prerequisites.  Their performance reminds me of Andrew Jackson’s s line in a Native American land case: "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

In pursuit of all their political goals Republicans have generally been more aware of the crucial role played by the states and other power centers in our federal system. They always pursued a multi- front strategy, relying on the courts as backstop for their corporate agenda but also systematically targeting state government, media, university boards, and federal legislative agendas. 

Yale Law professor Sam Moyn argues: “According high stakes decision making to judges is most definitely not inevitable. The contingent situation of the United States where conservative and liberal elites jockey above all for the power of constitutional fiat the better to encode their policy views in fundamental law — saving themselves the trouble of popular approval and entrenching them against it — is not working well for progressives. Our response to Kavanaugh is therefore to abandon all hope that the empowerment of the higher judiciary serves good outcomes, or even provides a bulwark against terrible ones.

The neoliberal courts will be especially useful in sanctifying incursions by Republican ground troops. It is a mob if your ideological, partisan political opponents are protesting, however peacefully. It is “there are some good people on both sides” if your partisans and ideological supporters are roughing up your political opponents. I don’t remember any condemnation of the rough stuff Republican ground troops employed to block the 2000 Florida recount. George W Bush was the beneficiary of a coup staged by five Supreme Court justices and a group of paid thugs.

Pundits today talk of gridlock, and some see this gridlock as providing an opening for or demand of those two independent, largely opaque bodies, the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court, that they enact a constructive, “moderate” agenda. I see both as instruments of a neoliberal consensus shared by most centrist Democrats and business- friendly Republicans. This consensus is the source of desperation and anxiety of many poor and working class citizens. This consensus includes insurance industry sponsored health care, military expansion, corporate controlled labor markets, financial deregulation, further corporate consolidation, Social Security and Medicare privatization, and bank bailouts., fossil fuel subsidies, further tax favoritism of the rich, and deregulation and decriminalization of environmental and workplace abuses. All these are to be backed by a heavily militarized police.

These priorities are not shared by a majority of Americans. The priorities are being advanced by corporate lobbies and with the collaboration of a court system that has been packed with socially conservative neoliberals.  The fight over Kavanaugh is over, but absent progressive narratives and agendas more working class citizens will add fuel to the authoritarian demagogue’s dangerous coalition. It is time to learn from Republicans.  Winning the next election—at all levels – is crucial.  If Democrats win in 2018 and 2020, progressives within the Democratic Party should not hesitate to advocate packing the court. As with FDR in 1937 Left Democrats should argue: they are merely making up for prior Republican manipulation. And they could follow FDR’s assertion that “there is no basis for the claim made by some members of the Court that something in the Constitution has compelled them regretfully to thwart the will of the people.” It was necessary, he argued, to change the Court “to save the Constitution from the Court”–save it as a document of democratic self-rule (I am quoting Jedediah Purdy, who is quoting FDR).

The suggestion will doubtless be rejected by the party’s still dominant neoliberals. Its advocates will be reminded that the Court pack scheme represented a major setback for FDR. In fact the historical record is ambiguous. Following defeat of the Court reform proposal no subsequent New Deal legislation was declared unconstitutional. Merely planting the idea might remind citizens just how political that body is.  

The problem with the court is not that it is political. Its politics are antithetical to democracy. This rigidly reactionary bias, however, does not mean the Democratic left should pay no attention to the Court. Given the central, almost iconic place of the Court in popular consciousness, neglect of the Court would be as much of a mistake as exclusive reliance on it. Duke Law professor Jedediah Purdy argues: "the way to address politicization…is not de-politicization but counter-politicization, which I think is the lesson of history. I’ve argued for a jurisprudence that picks up new politically led awareness of the absolute importance of ballot access, the centrality of economic power to law and social order, and the urgency of addressing structural racialized inequality, the carceral state, and the special vulnerability of non-citizens."

Such a jurisprudence is more likely to assume prominence as part of a broad political movement operating in many venues and employing a range of nonviolent strategies and tactics. The Court can inflict its damage only if the many of us who will be injured by its actions fail to collaborate and organize against its destructive pursuits.
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Monday, October 15, 2018

Without Rules, Boundaries, or Mercy

Thomas L. Dumm
Amherst College 

Every day we see new evidence of the deep corrosion of American politics. The hollowing out of democratic representation from the 1980s to 2016 gave rise to the availability of a Trump. Perhaps for a long time we were misled by the purloined letter aspect of this corruption, and saw Trump as a cause, not a symptom. But we are beginning to know better, if we did not sooner, that the systemic undermining of representative bodies into white corporate minority holding companies was the prelude to Trump. In retrospect, a certain inevitability, as we wearily check in on each new news cycle.

What Trump is, is one thing. What is that thing? We need not hesitate to name it any more. But simply calling it fascism isn’t enough. We need to be constantly aware of the madness underlying it. Here is a description.

He is a person who is impulsive in action, likely to do things without thought of consequences or future discomfort to himself or to others. He does not seem capable of learning from experience, and he shows an unusual pattern of intermittent periods of productive activity followed by patently irresponsible actions. He cannot tolerate feelings of frustration as a more normal person can, and he is poorly able to rid himself of feelings except through antisocial activity. . . His self-esteem is very low, and he secretly feels inferior to others and sexually inadequate. These feeling seem to be overcompensated for by dreams of being rich and powerful, a tendency to brag about his exploits, spending sprees when he has money, and dissatisfaction with only the slow advancement he could expect from his job. . . He is uncomfortable in his relationships to other people, and has a pathological inability to form and hold enduring personal attachments. Although he professes usual moral standards he seems obviously uninfluenced by them in his actions. In summary, he shows fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe personality disorder.
This is an excerpt from a psychiatric report not permitted to be admitted into evidence concerning the state of mind of Richard Hickock as he was tried, along with Perry Smith, in March of 1960, for the murder by shotgun of four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas on November 15, 1959. It is taken from the famous account by Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. (New York, Vintage, 1965, p. 295) The reason it was not allowed because of the M’Naghten Rule, taken from English common law, that does not allow for speculation concerning state of mind of a criminal actor beyond whether he or she knows right from wrong. 

It is almost unnecessary to point out that this is an uncannily spot-on description of Trump. Whether one refers to narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, or even psychopathy, for many Americans it seems clear that there is something really wrong with the man. But for others, it may not be so clear, or perhaps it is that the form of Trump’s illness is something that is so widespread in American culture as to be understood as normal behavior by many. Maybe it is a Cold Blood world we are now living in.

In that sense, the pathological elements of Trump’s personality that have been refracted through the right-wing Fox-Breitbart media/fundamentalist Christian/capitalist resonance machine is no longer only an element of our politics, it may have absorbed so much of what we can affectively know about the whole of politics as it is now practiced as the national level, that we are confused as to how to respond. But one thing is clear -- we no longer need to speculate as to whether someone knows that what they do is wrong. We know that the elated hypocrisy of, say, a Mitch McConnell, is a clear indicator of his deep knowledge of the wrongness of what he does. They know what they do.

To follow upon Bill Connolly’s “How DOES A Democracy Die?”, the norm-breaking associated with a pathological personality disorder now is shaping the common sense of American politics. Everyone knows Trumpism is wrong. Everyone who embraces it does so anyway.

The examples abound, and have recently been highlighted by the sickening displays of grandstanding and hypocrisy that marked the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Those hearings were marked by the outrage of a wounded white male, in which the classic myth -- “A” students who captain the basketball team and do charity work cannot possibly be drunken rapists -- found its latest iteration (I experienced this phenomenon at work at Amherst College a few years ago – football players who write honors theses can’t possibly engage in sexual assault, argued the athletic director of the College in response to a column I wrote urging that we look into athletic culture as a problem…) . The outrage of Kavanaugh was immediately echoed by Lindsay Graham at a key moment – “I am a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up. But I won’t be shut up!” he raged. That Trump was able to pick up on this – “our young men are in danger” – and was able to reverse the accusation of the victim – women are destroying innocent men, the democrats are a riotous mob, etc., -- is no surprise. This is now a key element of the ongoing Republican playbook.

It may well be that it will soon be the same playbook for the mirror of the GOP, the Democratic Party.

Sometimes the smallest asides in an ordinary political column most importantly signal the depth of the degradation of party politics, in part because the writers of those notes assume that the fall has become complete. So it would seem, if one of the oldest and most conventional of political journalists is to be believed. I found it in the last line of an op-ed column in the October 11, 2018 New York Times, penned by Thomas Byrne Edsall. Edsall is perhaps one of the most conventional electoral politics reporters of the last thirty years, someone who has patiently traced the rise of corporate monies and their influence on both the Democratic and Republican parties, someone who has fervently believed in the conventions of party politics, and wrung his hands over the years as he has witnessed their fall from (relative) grace.  

In his column, “Is the Rust Belt Still Trump Country?”, he writes, in what feels like a throw away line, “No matter what happens in November, one thing is certain: For the Democrats to beat Trump in 2020, they will need a tough candidate prepared for battle in what has become politics without rules, boundaries or mercy.” In other words, the 2020 presidential election is to be a version of Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves!” In other other words, in response to the psychopathology of Trumpism, all politicians must become psychopaths.

This is not hyperbole. If Thomas Byrd Edsall is writing this way, it is the new common sense. Against which, we need to develop the resources of a new uncommon sense, one of mass protest, flooding of hallways, both real and virtual, and the sort of care of selves that will enable our traumas to become bearable as we seek the resources within ourselves and among ourselves to fight for democracy itself.

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