Voting for the right lizard
Who’s afraid of president Trump? Not Paul Demarty
In these turbulent times, it is fortunate that American politics should provide such a rich seam of light comic relief.
The world hegemon’s presidential primary seasons have become notorious, especially on the Republican side, for their bountiful harvests of side-splitting lunacy. In 2012, things were already starting to veer out of control, as a succession of Tea Party wingnuts led the polls until they were found to be out of their depth, and discarded: they lined themselves up, and the media shot them down. In the end, the victor was the malignant, bloodless vulture capitalist, Mitt Romney, whose chief virtue was being exactly as despised at the end of the campaign as at the beginning, and no more.
That was supposed to be the result this time, with Jeb Bush as the beneficiary. The media took aim and fired - and hit Donald Trump, reckoning on neither his bulletproof ego nor the average red state primary voter’s exasperation with all major forces of the Grand Old Party - establishment and Tea Party alike.
Watching this little picaresque - a stranger-than-fiction yarn worthy of HL Mencken, Joseph Heller and JG Ballard - would have been enjoyable enough on its own, but there was additionally the more serious drama on the other side: the attempt of the social democratic senator, Bernie Sanders - ultimately unsuccessful, but hugely significant - to deny Hillary Clinton the presidential nomination she seems almost to view as her birthright.
The nomination saga has formally come to an end, with the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and in the end it was the Democrats who put on more of a show, despite attempts to derail Trump’s coronation by the likes of Texas senator Ted Cruz (Trump’s vanquished foe, so despised by his caucus colleagues that Lindsey Graham quipped: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you”).
Remarkably, given Trump’s presentation by mainstream American liberals and many on the left alike as basically Goebbels in a toupée (more of which anon), the Democratic national convention (DNC) was the subject of far greater protests, in the main by Sanders supporters as yet unreconciled to voting for Clinton. Many pro-Clinton speeches were heckled, including Sanders’ unity pitch. There is certainly a contingent among the Clintonites who bitterly resent Sanders and the success of his anti-establishment, anti-corporate left populism, and blame him for Clinton’s immediate unpopularity (she went into the convention on the back of a polling slide that put her behind Trump for the first time in the campaign).
In truth, the numbers are small enough not to really matter in electoral terms - 90% of Sanders supporters are apparently planning to vote for Clinton, and what can you expect, since that is what he is telling them to do, along with most of his more prominent supporters? Still, 10% is enough to make some noise at a convention. Clinton - and Sanders, whose eventual support for Clinton was entirely predictable, but still disappointing - deserve it.
The real drama, however, came from elsewhere. On the eve of the convention, Wikileaks released a cache of emails between senior members of the Democratic national committee, which revealed above all - quelle surprise! - their obvious and violent bias towards Clinton, and active attempts to disrupt the Sanders campaign. The leak is widely blamed on the Putin regime, with numerous security professionals concurring that the likely source of the emails is Russian intelligence. Trump quipped that the Russians would do us a great service by getting hold of another cache of emails - those Hillary Clinton is alleged to have stored on a private server and then deleted, which have become a great cause célèbre on the US right; alas, no further leaks have been forthcoming.
In response, the Clintonites have taken the amusing step of trying to out-chauvinist The Donald, first of all by accusing him of being Putin’s stool pigeon, and secondly getting up a synthetic scandal about his response to Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC denouncing him. Khan’s son died in Iraq; so Trump’s typically intemperate response to criticism must therefore be marshalled into a piece of enforced ‘support our troops’ chest-beating. (In a remark little reported, given what followed, Trump pointed out to Khan, not unfairly, that he had not voted for the war - unlike a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
The idea is reported, typically as stone cold fact, that Americans have before them one of the most unappetising choices for the office of president in living memory. This is true, perhaps, in the limited sense that it is for once an unappetising choice for activists on both sides: mainstream Republicans are horrified by Trump, and progressive Democrats had probably hoped that Hillary got the hint in 2008.
We are most concerned with the American left, broadly defined; and for them things are a little different. For Clinton is not to the right, qualitatively, of Barack Obama, never mind John Kerry, who was defeated in 2004; still less Al Gore at the time of his own run at the top job four years before that; never mind Bill Clinton ... The truth is that she is merely the Democratic candidate of recent memory that American progressives find it most difficult to delude themselves about. Obama had the Hopey McChange shtick; Kerry, running at the high watermark of the neo-conservative movement, had his history in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The shine is entirely off Hillary, however: she was first lady for eight years, senator for eight more, then secretary of state for four more. She more or less only has the fact that she is not Donald Trump.
Even that is a mixed blessing. The contrast with Trump only favours her in limited respects; after all, Trump won as an insurgent outsider against exactly the sort of desiccated party machine that got Clinton over the line. Now of all times, it is not a good look; thus it was unsurprising that Bernie Sanders, the Democrats’ own insurgent, frequently outpolled Clinton when voters were asked to choose between the two Democrats and The Donald. The leaked DNC emails confirm that the Democratic machine picked the less ‘electable’ Clinton, bringing to bear the very same cynical means that make Trump look attractive compared to her. There is an irony in there, but above all the perfect illustration of how cheap and hollow her victory is. She looks every inch the Democratic Mitt Romney.
Romney had only the fanatical, crypto-racist hatred of Obama - the foreign-born Muslim radical and communist to whom, for the Tea Party faithful, literally anyone was preferable - to get him through; and likewise Clinton is reduced only to dishonest and patently manipulative demagoguery to burnish her cause. One interesting move was the cooption of intersectionalist rhetoric - the solemn banalities about white privilege that suddenly sluiced out of her Twitter feed last year; there was also the brief, hilarious period where a section of the Black Lives Matter movement discovered that Sanders was the main enemy and some sort of white supremacist and took to shouting him down on spurious grounds - plainly under the direction of the Democratic apparatus. Should anyone again doubt that identity politics is merely a vector for the manipulation of grievances by skilled operators, they may look (in fact) at both candidates for president this year: the billionaire spokesman for Joe Sixpack, and the machine politician opining about privilege. (Fatuous ‘feminist’ arguments for voting in the first woman president, regardless of politics, fall into the same category, naturally.)
Hold your nose?
The principal focus of Clinton’s campaign, however, is - as noted - the danger of Trump. Thus we wearily take our positions: the left wing of American liberalism, and the right wing of what exists of American socialism, having dared to dream for the duration of Sanders’s tilt, is corralled into panic stations - yes, Hillary is bad, but we cannot risk a Trump presidency!
This attitude is profoundly wrong-headed for many reasons, the first of which is simple: Hillary Clinton is no better than Trump. We will leave aside the patent dishonesty of her recent socially progressive rebranding, whereby she bravely came around to supporting gay marriage in 2013, at the exact point where it basically became a done deal, having been fought for in the teeth of overwhelming opposition (including hers) for decades; her years on the after-dinner speaking circuit as a guest of the likes of Goldman Sachs; her support for the mass incarceration policies of her husband; and focus on the small matter of war.
Hillary - as expertly pointed out by The Donald - supported the war in Iraq. She supported the war in Afghanistan. She voted for George Bush’s notorious Patriot Act (she briefly opposed its renewal on the highly principled basis that it did not include pork-barrel ‘anti-terrorism’ funds for her state). As secretary of state, she urged an apparently reluctant Obama and the department of defence (DoD) to pursue the military overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 (an escapade that has gone just swimmingly) and was also the architect of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran this decade.
In the early days of the Syrian civil war, she urged immediate action to overthrow Bashar al-Assad - a position from which she rather remarkably has not budged in the intervening half-decade of interminable and increasingly chaotic slaughter. Jeremy Bash, a long-time DoD and CIA bureaucrat and Clinton supporter, explained to The Daily Telegraph that knocking over Assad is a policy that “brings Syria’s communities together to fight Isis” (July 29) - just like in Libya, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and ... Not unconnected is Clinton’s suspicion of the Russians, and this business with the hacked emails is no doubt only the first taste.
On this issue, then - which is hardly of minor significance - Clinton is not only to the right of Obama, and Sanders (obviously), and the Democratic voting base: she is to the right of the Bush administration in its final years, after Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. She is barely distinguishable, one way or another, from Rumsfeld and the other neo-conservatives who so dominated US strategic doctrine in Bush’s first term. She is also to the right of Trump, and her stated policies are, in fact, a more severe immediate danger to life and limb worldwide than The Donald’s, especially given that, while he will not get his Mexican wall, she certainly will get her wars. It would be a provocation, but not a particularly unfair presentation of the facts, to say that - from the point of view of the 96% of the world’s population who are not American - Trump is the lesser evil.
But that would be to fall, after a fashion, into the same trap as those who live in terror of a Trump presidency; the trap of lesser-evilism, from which it is devilishly hard to escape. Douglas Adams, in the fourth Hitchhikers novel, famously describes a planet where the inhabitants obediently choose between two parties of brutal lizard overlords, “because otherwise the wrong lizard might get in”. Arthur Dent is perplexed by the explanation, because, this way, the native voters will never get to vote for themselves.
The diabolical logic of choosing the lesser evil is that it produces greater evils. We vote for Bill Clinton, to get the Republicans out; he achieves much in the way of starving Iraqi children, reducing Somalia to a failed state and locking up half the black men in America, but less in the way of affordable healthcare and the like; people get disillusioned, and by the time two terms are spent, the anointed successor - Al Gore, who spent the 80s trying to impose religious censorship on pop music - loses to Bush. Bush turns out to be far to the right even of Ronald Reagan, which leads to a revival of lesser-evilism, and the appearance of the genuinely charismatic Obama as a saviour. Further disappointments lead to a lesser-evil vote for Obama in 2012 in the face of Tea Party lunacy and the congenitally unpleasant Romney, until an exhausted Obama limps over the line in 2016. If you are keeping up, we have now reached the part of the cycle where Donald Trump becomes president.
The point is this: lesser-evilism does not actually prevent, but merely delays, the election of the greater evil, or something even worse than the greater evil. It does so because it paralyses political actors, preventing them from making clear and decisive political choices that could change the momentum of politics in the long term. Their credibility is exhausted, and then their will to fight. The great parties of the Second International lived through some very reactionary governments and serious electoral reversals, but their determination to build an independent pole of political activity allowed them to grow anyway, and place material limits on what those governments could actually achieve. If we live in endless fear of ‘the wrong lizard’, we are unable to build anything of the sort.
The smart money is on Clinton winning - just as the smart money was on a narrow vote for ‘remain’, and indeed a Jeb Bush GOP ticket this autumn. The smart money is on a losing streak. Yet America has had worse, more reactionary presidents than Trump; the world will survive him. What will the left have to show for it? It is past time those people learned a little more about what socialism really is; and how the self-defeating cycle of lesser-evilism can be broken to the advantage of the working class.