Published on http://www.counterpunch.org
I. The Dangers of Autocracy
Back in the Watergate hearings, I was rivetted by them and welcomed the distraction from writing my dissertation. These 2019 House impeachment hearings are just as riveting, and because I got that dissertation done and proceeded to teach courses like radical American thought since the Watergate days, I’m bringing a lot more background to what I’m seeing. Nixon was a kind of self-torturing, vengeful, twisted mess that in the end became something of a tragic figure. But he panged the mass moral sense so deeply that President Ford’s pardoning of Tricky Dick smeared Ford and brought the Sunday school teaching Jimmy Carter to the presidency.
Donald J. Trump eats up the stage clownishly, his cathartic value slight, someone Dante would place in the Malebolge, the evil ditches of the eighth circle in hell. He is not a protagonist in any sort of tragedy but is rather that rough beast determined to make America a tragedy. He’d rather rule in a country he destroys than serve any will but his own. Our Executive in Chief.
Our Constitutional balance of powers democracy has its Achilles heel in the executive branch. There was always the chance that someone not representing “We, the People” but rather “I, Myself” or a nest of oligarchs could make it into the White House. A proper model was always there for the Founding Fathers: it’s far easier to remove a British prime minister than a U.S. president. Attend to Boris Johnson’s fate.
A powerful Congress could be a preventative but only if the lobbying efforts of oligarchs hadn’t taken over that body, or at least enough of it to muddy the waters of any oversight of an executive who wanted to go full tilt autocrat.
“We, the People” could also by watchful voting recognize and deny entrance to candidates whose lives reek of undemocratic values, but only if those values had not already been corrupted within the electorate. If, for instance, much of what an autocrat in the making advocates regarding immigrants, asylum, the intelligence agencies, Congressional oversight powers, the importance of the press, and his own claim to absolute power is supported by a significant percentage of the electorate then elections cannot prevent or stop autocratic power.
The takeaway here is either that the dangers of autocracy to this democracy are not understood or they are understood and not seen as dangers at all, autocracy being preferred.
I suggest two reasons why it has taken so long – 243 years – for an autocrat to become president of the U.S. First, has to do with the movement of the culture from an Enlightenment sense that truth can best be found by empirical and rational methods. Once established, there would be a common rationality eradicating the irrational. A certain authority is thereby extended to both the methodologies and the conclusions of all this. The scientific method stands at the apex of such investigations. A post-truth climate offers opinion and personal paths to both reality and truth as superior to any other manner of processing or concluding. The result of this: the vacating of common understanding of anything.
In our post-truth world where everything indeed melts into a vaporous dew and no center can be found to anything, those who initiated the Mueller investigation and those who initiated the impeachment hearings have a 50/50 chance of being criminalized.
The second reason has to do with the messaging apparatus or platforms in digital parlance. Never kill the messenger, except in situations where the messenger is making a straight run into the post-truth mind with a bomb blast of opinions from that very same post-truth mind. The congruence of minds seeking truth and reality from within their own thread spinning abdomens and posting those in a communicative universe of others doing the same is a brand-new event in human history. The confusion of every voice speaking a different tongue broadcasting from the Tower of Babel was not a good thing, but rather a curse.
The almost sudden appearance of both these factors – commonly recognized road to truth and reality, and uncontrollable cyberspace confusion — has brought an autocrat into the White House.
The only reason there is an impeachment inquiry going on in the House of Representatives right now is because shards of both rationality and the holding on by their fingertips presence of news sources still printing that rationality persist.
“The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
After two days of these hearings, the repeated call to “We, the people” made by the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee is that these hearings should be stopped at once. In short, any investigation into Trump’s presidency by the House should end because there is no way Trump would be found guilty in the Senate of any charges made in the House’s Articles of Impeachment. The Republican owned Senate finds no impeachable offenses, either presented now or by Mueller.
There is a confidence now that all facts mustered as evidence leading to determinate conclusion can be spun the other way, that we are no longer dealing with rational arguments or cases made but with “narratives,” stories that compete for our attention, drawing upon our passions, not our reason. And we need to see ourselves in the storyteller, who, like us, sees and says the truth of things. This personalization of epistemology hasn’t been on the human stage since the British Romantic Revolution, and now it is uniquely American.
As I listened to CSPAN coverage in which phone calls are split on Republican and Democratic lines, it became clear that for Republicans no one’s testimony was credible, that the event was staged by Democrats and the Deep State, that no mind was open to listen, no less consider the possibility of being persuaded. Republicans argue that the case against the president is based on hearsay, on second and third- and fourth-hand testimony. There is no direct evidence. It rests, secondly, on The Whistle Blower, who, in Trump and his minions’ view, is an operative of the Democrats, just another Never Trumpist.
The response to the first is quite simply the transcript of President Trump’s phone conversation with President Zelensky. If you can comprehend what you read and arrive at the meaning of words, the President’s words are Res ipsa loquitur evidence, meaning the text speaks for itself. Testimonies creating a context as to what the President was up to and what lengths he took, through Giuliani and his associates, to get all obstacles out of the way in order to turn all of U.S./Ukrainian relations toward his own personal needs as he seeks a second term in office comply with and confirm the meaning of the phone conversation text.
The response to the idea that some deconstruction of The Whistle Blower’s words or some destruction of his or her credibility should put an end to the impeachment ignores the confirmation of his words by the many witnesses testifying before the Intelligence Committee. If, as illustration, the boy who cried wolf has been totally discredited but the wolf appears nonetheless, do we now discredit the existence of the wolf?
In short, The Whistle Blower triggered the impeachment proceedings, but that exposure has exposed what we are now busy examining. He turned over a stone and the snakes were there. But as in the Mueller investigations, attention by Trump’s defenders is not on the crimes exposed but rather on why and how they were initiated. Consider if every criminal who is indicted could form a defense questioning who, why, how and when they were indicted and thus prosecute the prosecutors and not themselves. Ludicrous but not to Fox & Friends.
This all amounts to a scary state of affairs, especially since Donald J. Trump would be a tough individual to argue passed the Pearly Gates. This is an image I’m putting out there because this is a country that brags about its Christian worthiness to all those faithful to an unworthy Islam or an atheistic Communism. But Trump is a capitalist Winner, and whether he’s a racist or disrespects God, Man and Country, worshipping his own orange image like a Golden Calf, doesn’t matter because he’s that guy with the most toys who wins in the end. This materialist god draws every materialist in the country to his feet.
III. 2020 Electoral Odds
Trump may lose the 2020 election and either go peacefully or after the Secret Service drag him out of the White House. And there may be riots in the streets if he loses. I suspect that surfing the web and Facebook addictions may cut any of that disturbance short and attentions will go elsewhere. Keeping American tending their apps has a way of drawing them away from the “off-line” world. The boredom level now of “We, the People” is at Trump’s level, he finding interest only in scattergun tweeting.
We can be certain that what brought Trump to the stage won’t dissipate. The Democrats would have to win it all in 2020 — the presidency, the House and the Senate – in order to move legislatively toward salvaging the country and the planet.
If a moderate Democrat wins, he or she would have to borrow a great deal from Warren and Bernie to move the country a bit beyond the plutarchy it was in when Trump was elected. Buttigieg’s background with McKinsey management consulting firm as well as his favorite son status with the financial sector would indicate that the plutarchy is in no danger from a President Pete. Whether the Dividend Class will feel safer with Biden than with Trump is a 5 to 8 odds bet.
If Warren or Bernie were to be elected, their politics would do more to exacerbate than heal the factionalism already existing. Besides rousing a Trump Forever army against them, they would have the beneficiaries of Market Rule as it exists now – bullishly in their favor – standing against them. Algorithm and investment lobbies would lay down a hard rain on those candidacies.
Victories by middle of the road candidates like Biden, Mayor Pete or Klobuchar might calm both the Never Trumpers and the Market Rule crowd but would do nothing to bring the Trump Forever 40% happy.
Trump didn’t create the conditions on the ground that brought him there, though he certainly has made them worse. He took advantage of them, the way any confidence man would. And for those conditions to be amended requires a strong attack on the economic system creating the obscene wealth divide. But at this point, the Trumpians are way beyond economic healing. They have joined Trump in a desire to mindlessly bring down all the institutions that have served everyone but themselves.
If your passions set you against everyone who pushes for gun control, thinks abortion, same sex marry, trans gendering, granting asylum to illegal immigrants, pushing for welfare and not work, and not allowing Trump to make America great again then economic and political talk do not calm you down.
The Democrats have a 50/50 chance of a presidential victory, but the odds are not as good when it comes to their success after the election, especially if that candidate is savaged during the campaign or policies, like Warren’s, keep the battle hot. Thus, it’s important to launch a candidate who is shielded by his very nature against savagery and who once again offers the country some common sense that puts out fires. I’ve written previously that Senator Sherrod Brown meets the needs here, but the DNC has made no effort to enlist him, nor has the wealth donors come forward to support this “dignity of work” candidate.
IV. A Triumphant Trump
What if the Senate doesn’t convict Trump and he celebrates the victory of his own ego above all obstacles, adopts a winner take all, realizes that there are no longer any obstacles to his will to power?
What if Trump wins the 2020 election and now knows for sure that he can shoot any son of a bitch on any street and be celebrated for it?
This is not a difficult exercise of the imagination. Trump is not assembled to change, to modulate his behavior, to make amends, to correct what he has savaged. It’s a surer bet that a re-elected President Trump would seek vengeance on everyone who spoke against him in an impeachment trial. The Whistle Blower has cause to conceal his or her identity. Trump will go after him or her. With the help of his Attorney General Barr, Trump can make a case against Biden, Hillary, Mueller, Schiff, Pelosi for collusion, obstruction of justice, intimidation, bribery, treason, abuse of Congressional power, contempt of the Presidency, and violation of the emolument clause. Trump and the lackeys and top presidential footstools he has put in office will turn all charges against him against the Never Trumpers and “the human scum” that get in his way.
A triumphant Trump will thus make the next several impeachment hearings and trials very clear presentations of what even his most avid supporters would no longer be able to support because in a culture of the hyperreal, his tweets and actions and failures to act would have the magnetic force of Game of Thrones or The Wire.
No one is better able to get the attention of “We, the People” than Trump himself. Place him on a second term stage and sit back and watch. It would be like watching Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Leonard Pitts in The Baltimore Sun in September compared Trump’s performance before the UN to this scene: In a pivotal scene, Bogart vividly etches the captain’s mental disintegration, rambling on the witness stand about strawberries and tow lines and the supposed lies of his subordinates. All the while he toys, ceaselessly, unconsciously obsessively, with a handful of ball bearings.
Nothing will bring Trump’s own egomania and mental disintegration more dramatically into public view than victories in the impeachment trial and in the 2020 election. To all the Never Trumpians, this sounds like diabolical counsel but unfortunately this man is the sort of beast that must be allowed full rein to the driving obsessions of his will to power, to self-destruct in public view. The divisiveness of the nation has long ago overstepped the traces of reason while Trump dwells at the very center of it like a fueling fire.
It is a dark remedy filled with so much risk in all those areas Trump has already fatally endangered. Nevertheless, this man is himself our way out as only his public disintegration, brought to a trial in which the case against him can be universally understood and the verdict unopposed, can heal a deep fracture in what is now a least perfect union that rivals that of our War Between the States.
If, however, the country’s exit from Trump and his disruptive legacy is in fact Trump himself, his public mental disintegration, his megalomaniacal nature gone wild for all to see in acts we can only now dread, then such can occur at any moment.
Being exonerated by the Senate in its impeachment trial may be enough to swell the sense of personal triumph in the president and lead him to outrageous violations of presidential power. Impeached yet again and, if needed, yet again, until either on one occasion Articles of Impeachment clearly determine a guilty verdict, or, the combination of repeated impeachments and a growing list of Articles of Impeachment clearly determine a guilty verdict.
If this becomes the case, there will be no Trump victory in 2020 to fuel a swaggering, elated ego and thus ignite any number of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which his nature, like that of the scorpion who must sting, cannot bar. Our president has no self-restraint, which is not unusual in either capitalist or cyberspace culture where we are all encouraged to dominate and self-advertise. Donald J. Trump is most certainly an outrageously inflated version of both.
President Trump has been unravelling before our eyes, but half the country believes what they are seeing is a heroic man under attack by the other half of the country. However, an exoneration by the Senate of charges brought against him by the House will certainly push his self-inflation and strong man “will to power” to dramatic levels, on national, international and personal matters that, like Captain Queeg before a jury, will preempt any serious defense.
Will the Republican Party, which serves as a foot stool to Trump, attempt to hold on to Trump’s supporters, and, if so, how? Will it attempt to return to its former globalized neo-liberal politics? How will the appointed and elected Trump attack faction transform themselves? They may disappear into corporate and academic posts, no need to escape to Brazil.
Without the almost instantaneous support of so many “Yes” men and women, Trump could not have materialized in the autocratic way that he has. It’s a mystery as to what motivates a subservience to a man so transparently low on any scale upon which we judge the twisted timber of our humanity. What we can see clearly, however, is that those who devote themselves to making Trump’s arbitrary and capricious whim and will defensible, to making his impulsiveness and irrationalism presentable, enwrap themselves in a worse karma than the president’s own.
Trump the real estate player found himself president, a mystery to all, but clearly the kowtowing of so many plus a growing sense that with each victory he could take all he wanted with impunity brought him to this first impeachment moment and will surely bring him to one eventually that a Senate will need to uphold.