With the grain of the times
Yet more scandals - but Trump stands firm. Paul Demarty urges a more radical reckoning with American politics
For such a colourful president - literally and figuratively - this was supposed to be a relatively colourless appointment. Given some of the fire-breathing lunatics that have popped up in the last year and a half, looking for White House career favours, he looks positively square. Think of Roy Moore, the fundamentalist Alabama attorney general, whose run at the governor’s office was foiled by historic sexual assault allegations; or Steve Bannon, the sub-fascist pseudo-intellectual with the decline of the west written into his puffy, sweating face.
By contrast Kavanaugh’s bona-fides seemed impeccable. He is an old-fashioned religious conservative, with decades of public service (and private practice) behind him. His first glimmerings in the rightwing firmament came in his years as Ken Starr’s factotum, as that crusading prosecutor pursued a number of avenues to discredit Bill Clinton. He later served in the Bush administration. He could never be mistaken for a Democrat; but, between elaborate legal opinions and occasional lectures at Harvard, he acts the part of a high-minded servant of the law in a way that Moore, foaming at the mouth and waving stone tablets around, never could.
Ironic, then, that so many problems should have arisen from such similar quarters, when it emerged that Christine Blasey Ford, a contemporary of Kavanaugh’s in the pampered DC suburb where they grew up, alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by him and another boy at a party when she was 15 and he 17. There followed a flurry of further allegations concerning Kavanaugh’s later exploits at Yale, and, while Ford’s accusations are by far the better corroborated at this remove - frankly, the story of a private school jock getting loaded at a party and trying to force himself on a girl is hardly the least plausible one ever told, and subsequent testimony from Ford and others to the Senate Judiciary Committee rather tips the balance of probabilities clean out of Lady Justice’s hands - the picture is built up of a young man living it large within an impervious barrier of entitlement.
His denials are, frankly, preposterous. He spent a great deal of effort claiming that his busy athletic schedule would have left him no time for getting drunk at parties and going on sexual rampages. To put it politely, this will convince those who want to be convinced; any fair-minded observer of professional athletes, private school sports heroes or American jock culture will have rather the opposite reaction. He has doubled down on an increasingly shaky claim to college-age temperance, despite claim after claim that he was just as partial to the Porky’s lifestyle as most people of his age, class and gender.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation by the Senate, in spite of all this, is a testament to the endless reserves of self-deceit available to the American right. The jumble of fatuous objections to Ford’s story are, to be sure, part of the same tangled skein of oppression that undermines all allegations of rape and sexual assault in male-dominated societies. Yet there is an unmistakable additional element here. The fundamental reason why Republicans refuse to accept the probable accuracy of all these allegations is that they arrived in Congress thanks to California Democrats - the worst kind of Democrats! - and thus are false, even if they are true.
We must concede that there is just a grain of truth here. The timing of these revelations is probably not accidental. The strategic upside for the Democrats in raising them was the chance of delaying the confirmation hearing; any significant delay would place it the other side of the November 6 midterm elections, and therefore potentially a change in the voting arithmetic. It is worth noting that this tactical appropriation of Ford’s case does, in fact, increase the likelihood that her allegations will not be taken seriously; the gamble was that it was the best way to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
The very reason the Democrats were prepared to risk it, however, made the Republicans more likely to grasp the nettle and take the reputational hit of obvious hypocrisy. That is the small matter that ‑ is a swing vote. The Supreme Court now has a conservative majority. This is not good news for liberals, as they challenge rampant gerrymandering in red states, defend landmark decisions like Roe v Wade and so on. It is a cheerful invitation, however, to the right, to come forward and set some lasting precedents of their own. With hot-button ‘culture war’ issues multiplying in state legislatures, ranging from the anti-transgender ‘bathroom bills’ to the grotesque spectacle of mandating a full funeral for aborted foetuses (at the mother’s expense, of course), Kavanaugh and chums will be busy, and no doubt are licking their lips in anticipation.
A conservative supreme court takes some of the lustre off of winning control of Congress - after all, even for laws that can be steered past Trump’s veto, there remains the backstop of the judiciary. Some - but by no means all. Washington’s focus is now undivided - Trump’s domestic lawmaking power hangs in the balance, of course, according to the Byzantine arrangements bequeathed to modern America by her mischievous founding fathers; but perhaps there is something even greater at stake, which is the small matter of whether Trump’s presidency shall go down as a bizarre, brief aberration - or a bellwether for a new, darker era in the American world order.
Should the Democrats win control of one or both houses of Congress, particularly if they win this round of voting very convincingly, and most particularly if Republicans who thought themselves ‘safe’ find Democratic insurgents breathing down their necks, things do not look good for Trump at all. Robert Mueller’s investigations into him may already have dredged up enough to impeach him, if not successfully prosecute him. If he looks like a loser, then Republicans in Congress have no reason to protect him. Conversely, a good showing for the GOP will make him close to untouchable.
At present, things could be a lot worse, from the president’s point of view. Polling suggests that the Republicans are likely to hold onto the Senate, with a few races flipping this way and that; the House looks rosier for the Democrats, who may well regain control - but not by the sort of demonstrative margin they would need to make Trump’s position untenable.
There are short-term reasons why this might be the case. As Bill Clinton famously said, it’s “the economy, stupid!” The unmentionable truth is that Trump has so far kept his promises. The economy booms. He has humiliated his partners in extant and forthcoming trade deals and, while it is by no means clear that all such crude tactics will bear fruit, the trouble for anti-Trumpites of an ‘official’ sort is that the widely predicted disasters have not happened. The state of play now - as opposed to the state of play after the next crash - is that business is good.
The longer-term reasons are more complex. There is, first of all, the small matter that the United States is a declining hegemon. Its decline is relative, rather than absolute; and the mere fact that it is a hegemon at all has a mitigating effect on the overall process. The result is that, while the US is - for all intents and purposes - immune to existentially-threatening military defeat (as opposed to the local humiliations heaped on it by the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 70s, and the structurally unwinnable war in Afghanistan), and also to economic eclipse, thanks to its control of the world reserve currency and financial system, it is nonetheless decreasingly able to impose a congenial world order. This declining power is manifested in the tendency for military ‘police actions’ to produce not a new order, but merely chaos and destruction, and in the decline of America’s industrial base, which has as its corollary the growth of competing ones.
Both of these symptoms have in fact been visible since the 1980s. Victory in the cold war ended up a mixed blessing. It removed America’s only serious strategic rival, and it opened up a substantial new market for capital. But it also exacerbated the signs of decline. The notionally-multilateral institutions that govern Pax Americana multiplied, and increased in cost, but it was not necessarily clear what they were for - bright ideas like the war on drugs began to look a lot like make-work for a bloated diplomatic-military apparatus spanning the globe. The concomitant defeat of the workers’ movement in the west removed a powerful domestic obstacle to accumulation, but resulted ultimately in a deepening spiral of resentment in the forgotten, rotting towns of ‘flyover country’.
So Trump’s presidency is, simply as a matter of fact, not a purely irrational lightning-strike of reaction. A single spark can light a prairie fire, as Mao famously said - but not unless the prairie is dry to begin with. America’s busy multilateralism under Clinton and Obama - even under Bush junior, in spite of the messianic neo-conservatism of his courtiers - was bereft of obvious purpose. (Trump’s constant hectoring of Nato allies to up their contributions is a song also sung by the impeccably realist Robert Gates, defence secretary under Bush and Obama, in his valedictory speech to the organisation.) The boom years saw stagnant wages, if not living standards; the bust years meant ‘socialism for the rich’, and disaster for everyone else, if nothing like on the scale suffered in parts of Europe and elsewhere. Then along comes The Donald, denouncing ‘bad deals’ left and right, promising to sweep away the scum, and looking crazy enough to actually try!
The thing about Trumpism, then, is not that it is believable, but that it has not been disproven by events, unlike the alternative of ‘progressive’ neoliberal imperialism. The insistence on seeing Trump as an aberration is rooted in an inability to see ‘normality’ in any terms not derived from neoliberalism’s basic outlook. Yet the latter is an ideology, no more and no less; its life depends on its utility, and its utility consists in building a coalition of the petty bourgeoisie (the self-made ‘strivers’, in British political babble) and sections of the working class (black, female, gay or what have you), appealed to on a sectional basis. As soon as this ceased to deliver stable majorities in the interests of US capital, the way was clear for a challenger to the title of ‘official ideology’: Trumpism goes with the grain of the times.
If all that is true, then the present American predicament is not going to be sorted out by a midterm election. Fortunately for those of us with rather more radical options in mind for the US, the abiding reaction of liberal opinion has not been simply to ‘keep a hold of nurse for fear of something worse’: something like a realisation that neoliberal Democratic politics are at the very root of this disaster has come about. It has done so in a hopelessly eclectic way, of course, but it is undeniable that the Democratic machine is forced to fight for dominance against a quasi-socialist, liberal left that is tired of being treated like impetuous children.
Much more needs to be escaped than the tutelage of the Democratic National Committee. For a start, the idea that a party, by appealing to the common decency of liberal opinion, can overcome the harsh antinomies of class interest - if there is no conscious solidarity between the Koch brothers and George Soros, there certainly is between their respective fortunes. It is precisely this class interest that prefers to keep Bernie Sanders off a presidential ballot rather than Donald Trump; and it is a class party of the workers, explicitly organised as such, that might escape from the political blackmail of Wall Street.
Yet there is a more direct lesson to be drawn from recent weeks. We are all so concerned about Kavanaugh because he will tip the balance on the supreme court. Why, then, is there not more outcry about the very importance of such an event itself? To put it more sharply, America is not a democracy in the strict sense, but a country with a ‘mixed constitution’. The supreme court is the very most aristocratic part of that constitution. American progressives are about to learn a great deal about how lopsided its privileges are.
Stepping away from that precipice means confronting the US constitution as it is - as a machine designed to frustrate mass democratic initiative, at the same time as posing as its bridgehead into the modern world. Listening to a podcast about the gerrymandering issue recently, I was struck by the fact that it occurred to apparently none of the right-on liberal contributors that a quick-and-easy fix to the problem would be to abolish first-past-the-post elections. No districts - no gerrymandering. Yet a world without this problem seemed beyond all conception, despite the fact that it exists in half of Europe and many other places besides.
With the Supreme Court of the United States, things are worse yet, since it was SCOTUS that delivered recent advances like the right of gay couples to marry, leading to a reluctance on the part of the American left to revive the vibrant anti-judicial strand in its own political tradition.
The times demand much more. What is needed is a third American revolution - and this time the working class should play for keeps.