Lord of chaos
Donald Trump’s reign is turning into a fiasco, writes Paul Demarty, who is concerned about his plans to regain the initiative
Towards the end of Barack Obama’s time in the White House, there was an increasing sense of complete deadlock. Congress was ever more dominated by Republicans, and the Republicans ever more dominated by Tea Party types, for whom Obama’s presidency was prima facie illegitimate and the result of some vast conspiracy. It seemed that things could not possibly get more gridlocked.
What little we knew. Among the many assumptions about the state of the American body politic upended by the country’s 45th president, a good few had to do with how paralysed things can get in Washington. We were used to wars between the Capitol and the Oval Office, but it has been a while since the executive branch itself was locked in fratricidal factional manoeuvres.
We need look no further than the peculiar case of Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramucci, who was plucked from his life in the company of exotic financial instruments to become Trump’s director of communications - from the world of alternative investments, as it were, to that of alternative facts. His appointment had been resisted stubbornly by the White House chief of staff and die-hard ‘Grand Old Party’ loyalist, Reince Priebus, who no doubt was somewhat perturbed by Scaramucci’s rather protean political sympathies (he supported Obama in 2008) and habit of running his mouth off at the wrong times.
The Mooch’s arrival heralded the departure of Priebus’s creature, Sean Spicer, the modern American master of the barefaced lie; thus began what sometimes seemed like a 10-day-long Saturday night live sketch. Scaramucci, having begun (as they all do) with a promise to do things differently, in a more conciliatory way, promptly made himself busy hunting for leaks from White House staff - so bored by his day and a half in PR that he decided to switch to counterespionage. In this, we may surmise that he got very little support from Priebus, as the latter’s fears about Scaramucci were confirmed, one by one. The whole farce came to head when the New Yorker writer, Ryan Lizza, blew the gaff on a dinner with various Fox News bigwigs; Scaramucci responded by telephoning Lizza demanding to know his source and denouncing his enemies in forthright, four-letter terms, neglecting at any point to state that any of this was off the record.
By this point, Trump’s patience with Priebus was exhausted, and he was replaced with retired general John Kelly, whose seat was barely warm under him before Scaramucci was dispensed with, not a week and a half after his hiring. No doubt he is back in New York, crying into his vast piles of money.
The leaks continue to dog the administration, of course, and Scaramucci is not the only one to be concerned. In this respect, he was only following the priorities of his employer, who views people strictly in terms of whether or not they are unswervingly loyal to him. The leaks are unforgivable betrayals. In all this, of course, he is not entirely wrong; we can surmise from the ease with which American journalists are able to break embarrassing inside stories that the Trump administration is riddled with people who will not be putting it at the top of their CV in years to come, and are horrified at the direction their pursuit of a career in public service has taken them.
A big part of all this, of course, is the Russia allegations, which continue to gather steam. It is quite undeniable at this point that key participants in Trump’s campaign met with this or that Russian functionary; the question is merely whether any ‘dirty tricks’ originating in Moscow took place with the knowledge or collusion of Trump’s lieutenants. We now know (thanks, of course, to leaks) that a grand jury is beginning its work on the Russian interference business, and we all look forward to finding out who gets a grilling. Robert Mueller, the former FBI chief appointed to investigate all this, looks pretty untouchable at the moment (and, were Trump to put heavy manners on him, the precedents are not good - Richard Nixon’s moves against special counsel Archibald Cox at the height of the Watergate scandal precipitated his final slide into disgrace). At the department of justice, Jeff Sessions’s loyalties are doubtful, although he has reluctantly agreed to look into the leaks.
How to characterise this deeply dysfunctional administration? Its key component parts seem to be close family members and die-hard followers of the tanned consigliere himself: grizzled military men who might have stepped right out of some Hollywood movie in which Tough Decisions Must Be Made; shameless Wall Street plutocrats fresh from the champagne jacuzzi; and the sort of conspiratorial rightist cranks one is liable to meet on the internet’s underbelly at three in the morning. These are hardly mutually exclusive categories - the Mooch’s spectacular flame-out demonstrated, among other things, that financiers, even those who had previously denounced Trump, can become zealous superfans, and Michael Flynn combined the military fatigues with the tinfoil hat.
What is clear is that the whole thing is extremely fragile. Those figures in the administration closest to the Republican mainstream are considered little better than race traitors by Steve Bannon’s head-banging white nationalists; they are also increasingly tarnished with the various Russian innuendos and general chaos that surrounds them. The generals are looking after the military; the Goldman Sachs alumni are looking for a big pay day. At the centre of it all is the president - a paranoid, narcissistic man-child.
Thus general Kelly has his work cut out. Sure, he can fire Scaramucci. When the time comes, he can fire Bannon (who he wouldn’t piss on to put out a fire). He can fire advisor Kellyanne Conway. But he can’t fire the most impulsive, ranting loudmouth on staff - the president himself. He may even - who knows? - go after the leakers, but what would be the point? The fish rots from the head down - we are witnessing the reign of the most indiscreet president in American history. Who needs leakers when you have @realDonaldTrump, publicly denouncing his subordinates and digging himself a new hole every day?
So it goes. Paradoxically, of course, legislative failures like the Obamacare debacle further incentivise Trump to fall back on his core political tactic of outrageous public statements, threats and generalised defamation. In such light must we view recent rabble-rousing curveballs on the status of transgendered soldiers and further immigration clampdowns: they are, after all, matters for the White House rather than congress. Hence also the escalating hostility to the media and other traitors in America’s midst.
Is it working? Apparently not. Trump’s approval ratings continue to slide. Worryingly for him, parts of his core demographic are flaking away - for the first time, he has a net negative approval rating among whites without a college education, 65% of whom cast a ballot in his favour last November. Sound and fury will get you so far - but only so far, when you have promised effectively to abolish unemployment, restore the dignity of the white working man and in general make America great again. He may froth about the treachery surrounding him in the Beltway, but then he assured the world that he would be successful in sweeping such elements away.
Faced with irrationality, it is proper for Marxists to dig away for the ‘rational kernel’ hidden within it; what is incoherent in its inner logic may yet be coherent within a wider system encompassing it. We do not follow certain mullahs of Iran’s Islamic republic in search of the well hiding Muhammad al-Mahdi: we seek instead the secret of their power in the legacy of the cold war’s closing sequence, the balance of class power under the shah and after his fall, and so on. In the murk of history as it is actually lived, unfortunately, we rarely find the capitalists lined up neatly on one side, and the class-conscious proletariat arrayed as one against them. Otherwise, one suspects that we would be done with the revolution already.
Trump’s regime is an extreme example of the inherent difficulty of the task. His base is familiar enough, as the most atomised elements of the (especially rural) working class and petty bourgeoisie unite in supplication to the Master, who will bring rain and sunshine from above - here we have the picture of Bonapartism. Except it is a very funny sort of Bonapartism we encounter, when Bonaparte himself is so obviously constrained and hemmed in at every turn. His cabinet superficially resembles the establishment, lacking only the technocratic wonks, against whom he ran on principle; yet he does not successfully discipline them under his own will. Judges rebel; billionaires declare themselves for ‘the resistance’; faced with the trans business, military chiefs pointedly ask if it is an order. It appears that we are witnessing a botched suicide attempt on the part of the American republic.
Trump is unlikely to face impeachment in the short term; if there is any stone-cold guarantee that his hard-core following - the trucker-capped whites of the rustbelt and elsewhere - should cleave closer to him, a serious attempt on the part of the intelligence apparatus, the haute bourgeoisie and the Democrats to unseat him on the basis of what remains - alas! - the sort of insinuations Fox News would make about Hillary Clinton would do it. The Democrats know it, and actually so does the GOP. The present gridlock in congress and chaos in the White House is likely to come and go in the year-and-change until the midterms, after which a more serious political reckoning may be on the agenda.
If Donald wants to get people back on side in time, his options are limited. We should all be very, very worried that a historically successful one for men and women in his position is the theatrical spectacle of war. On that point, the list of possible targets is already worryingly long, and getting longer.