Neck and neck

Sow the wind, reap the windbag

Donald Trump is a symptom of the sickness of American politics - but the likes of Hillary Clinton are the cause, argues Paul Demarty

How many times has Donald Trump been out for the count now?

That, after all, was the running joke of the primary season - ‘the Donald’ had made some utterance that was so awful, so plainly racist or sexist or bizarre, that it had, surely this time around, put paid to any idea of a run at the presidency. By the time the fifth or so of these assurances by Beltway pundits had been confounded by yet another poll bounce for Trump, I for one was convinced of the inevitability of his victory in the contest for the Republican nomination.

The presidency itself is another matter, however, and we should state at the outset that by far the most likely outcome, according to the statistical evidence, remains a victory for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. This is exactly what you would expect: it is possible to win the Republican nomination, in this day and age, on the strength of support among angry white males of various social classes, and the various Venn-diagram sections surrounding that demographic. Yet it is quite another to win a national presidential poll in a country that is getting less white and more brown, where half the population remains stubbornly female, and so on. In modern America, Barack Obama looks infinitely more presidential than Trump - something that would be a priori unthinkable 30 years ago, or even less. Yet, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website which aggregates and analyses US polling data, Trump has (as I write) a 28% chance of victory. Two weeks ago, that number was 12%.

So why is he still in touch, with less than a week to go? The blame must land squarely with his opponent. If the serried ranks of the American conservative establishment have proven unequal to the task of seeing off Trump, then Hillary Clinton seems unable to see off anyone at all with any efficiency. Thus the latest little flap, inevitably related to her decision to conduct state department business on a private email server, with the blasted things showing up again in relation to the FBI’s investigation of Anthony Weiner on sexual felony charges. Weiner’s estranged wife, Huma Abedin, is a close associate of Clinton’s, and material of Abedin’s seized as a consequence of Weiner’s bizarre habits may provide further evidence on the matter of Clinton’s private server. The reopening of investigations was announced by FBI director James Comey, to general excitement in the Beltway.

It is a whole other question as to whether there is actually anything in the new batch of Clinton emails that will damn her any more than the scandal already has; what is certain is that the polls are tightening in the run-in, with a six- or seven-point lead for Clinton now down to one or two points - within the kind of margin that can be upended by little details like voter turnout. Between Comey’s bombshell and the inevitable phenomenon of hardcore Republicans - until now hesitant to vote for the toupeed upstart - reluctantly returning to the fold to keep her out of the White House, something resembling an actual race is on; and unless Hillary’s people have a counterattack lined up, it is she who will be leading the news agenda in the run-in. In a race fought almost entirely on a lesser-evil basis (‘Racist!’ howl the Democrats; ‘Lock her up!’ chant Trump’s adoring crowds), neither candidate wants to be in the news doing anything other than attacking their opponent.

For Clinton there is, of course, the additional danger that - even if she wins - this does not just blow over. Instead the volume of accusations becomes deafening, more and more evidence of impropriety emerges and then - well, who knows? Can you be impeached before you have even been sworn in?

The Clinton campaign’s response to the Comey announcement is typically slippery. He has been accused of breaching some fundamental convention of American elections that has the three-letter agencies keeping at arm’s length, in public at least (otherwise what would J Edgar Hoover have done with his days?); yet apparently that was not a problem when he announced publicly that Clinton had no case to answer so far as her emails were concerned earlier in the campaign, to the derision of the Republicans.

The Clintonites have hit back with allegations that Comey refused to come out in favour of the idea that the Russian state was behind various cyberattacks against the Democratic Party recently, out of deference to Trump’s Putinite reputation. The possibility that Comey wanted to stay out of things on the Russia issue, but has been pulled into them over Clinton’s emails, cannot be discounted; but really? Comey is a Republican, a Bush-era appointee, but one taken on by Obama - a safe pair of hands, then. Why would such a fellow be a Trumpite - and how on earth did Bush junior and Obama let a friend of a friend of Putin take over the FBI? It doesn’t wash. We invite readers, additionally, to consider the counterfactual scenario in which the whole thing was reversed, and Comey had sat on the Abedin emails but blared on about Russia’s hacking. Would Clinton’s campaign have been so vigorous in its defence of electoral convention? Not bloody likely.

Original sin

Scandal sticks to the surname ‘Clinton’ for many reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that the Republican coalition created in the 1980s and visibly collapsing today - the broad church of neo-conservatives, millenarian religious lunatics and Randroid libertarians - simply does not accept the legitimacy of any Democratic administration, and never has. Bill Clinton, thus, is their Nixon - a crook, a cynic, a stain on the republic’s honour (the difference being that, unlike Clinton, Nixon was never impeached). The ascent of Obama, that notorious communist-Muslim radical, is merely the consequence of the spiritual injury of Clintonism; Hillary’s candidacy is then a return to the original sin, the American conservative’s equivalent of Spiro Agnew returning from the grave to speak, like Tricky Dickie before him, for the silent majority.

The second reason, of course, is that the Clintons really are that bad.

After 12 years of Reagan and Bush senior, American liberals were about ready to take anything; and they found the Democratic Leadership Council, which was notably unembarrassed and proto-Blairite in its pursuit of power at any political cost whatsoever. Their gleaming-toothed figurehead was Arkansas governor Bill, whose achievements include the Iraqi sanctions regime, which cost the lives of millions, the removal of universal healthcare from the political agenda for a decade and a half, the regime of mass incarceration for which the United States is rightly notorious, the Defence of Marriage Act, among countless other things. Hillary was with him every step of the way, despite his philandering; and it was wise of her, since it delivered her to the Senate for New York and then to the Obama administration as secretary of state, and - god willing - back to the Oval office, this time with her own pick of the interns.

It is fair to say that she does not have her husband’s easy southern charisma, but apart from that the two are identical as public figures: the power couple at the rotten core of American machine politics. The scandals - Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, the exorbitantly expensive speeches to Goldman Sachs, the emails - may or may not have anything to them; but they stick because those who are plainly not in politics for principled reasons may be assumed, not without justice, to be morally vacuous and on the make. As for the emails specifically, it is worth remembering - beyond all the rightwing bluster about the sanctity of state secrets and such nonsense - that Clinton’s actions amount to an attempt to conduct state business in such a manner that she might avoid public scrutiny. Thus they are plainly contemptuous of democracy - and so are all utterances minimising the criminal aspect of the affair.

Machine politics, like all anti-democratic phenomena, is a devil’s bargain: elements of the masses are expected to tolerate the corrupt depredations and nepotistic insularity of the elite in return for somewhat competent governance - the less attractive alternatives being naked tyranny and ‘mob rule’. Yet this is truly the hour of its decrepitude: the house that Ronnie Reagan built has so disintegrated into rival squads of squabbling fanatics that its leadership has been effortlessly seized by a sociopathic, guileless mountebank; and eight years of Obama have yielded only a lacklustre healthcare bill, a handful more failed states to add to Bush’s (and Clinton’s) tally, and a subsequent presidential candidate carried along only by her limitless sense of entitlement. In this near-decade of government shutdowns, endless backstabbing and general exhaustion, machine politics has not been keeping up its end of the bargain.

What way out? At the moment, the popular option is the ‘man on horseback’: for ambivalent Republicans and most especially blue collar whites who have been ‘left behind’ (non-Hispanic whites are the only American ethnic group with a falling life expectancy), that man is Trump; but the characterisation is no less appropriate to Obama, who enjoyed quite the same absurd adulation from his supporters and hysterical execration from his enemies. We think of the two of them as opposed particles whose movement is nevertheless governed in common by a sort of quantum entanglement; or perhaps we may recall the caustic opening pages of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and cast Obama as the uncle and Trump as the nephew.

The demagogue is an ever-present danger in American politics. The story is told of the logician, Kurt Gödel, who was gripped with panic before his naturalisation exam because he believed he had identified a loophole in the constitution that would allow a dictatorship to arise in the US, and thus that his adoptive patriotism would fail him at the crucial moment. In truth, whatever exactly Gödel had in mind, there is no bigger such loophole than the executive presidency, and the smaller copies thereof that populate the fractal structure of US politics - the state governors, the mayors ... That executive tilt - combined with an activist judiciary and non-proportional legislature - has prevented European-style mass membership political parties from emerging, instead creating ‘parties’ that are in reality electoral machines operated by insiders with essentially plebiscitary forms of legitimacy, such as primaries. This regime is incipiently Bonapartist - a fact that has never been more obvious than it is now.

There is, of course, another alternative: fighting against the atomisation, building genuinely democratic institutions of popular political association - parties in the true sense. Such parties cannot exist without programmes, but the only programme that really needs such parties - as opposed to perhaps tolerating them as a necessary evil - is that of revolutionary democracy and of proletarian socialism. In American politics, it is difficult to imagine - without some catastrophe intervening - a mass workers’ party emerging except from the uneasy popular front that the Democratic Party is today, although a genuine split along class lines would probably have an effect similar to the ‘strange death of Liberal England’, and finish off the Democrats as a plausible contestant for government.

Yet without a willingness to allow Democratic candidates who openly and enthusiastically serve capital to lose elections, even to vile demagogues, nothing will ever be done. For, in the end, what breeds the likes of Trump? Only the cynicism of official politicians and the deformities of the political system they defend. Clinton is not an alternative to Trump - Clinton is the cause of Trump. Whoever moves into the White House in January will be an enemy of the American masses.