Friday, March 24, 2017

Part 4 (revised) of 4 of Political Intimidation & Violence, and the Democratic Party Response: A Brief History (1960-2017)


Part Four: Practices of Identity and Political Violence
Revised

Roddey Reid

Author’s note: This is the 4th and final part of a 4-part series that attempts to take seriously the success of Donald Trump’s violent authoritarian politics that has mainstreamed white nationalism and far-right political agendas. The series builds on an earlier think piece on the rise of Donald Trump as capitalist folk hero and white political bully posted here last July and updated and published in Black Renaissance Noire 16.2. (Fall 2016). Part 4 explores the identity and social composition of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as their cultures of loyalty and governing and concludes with a consideration of what we can learn from contemporary dynamics of political intimidation and bullying. My general argument is that Trump’s acts of intimidation and threats of violence are not occasional excesses but an integral part of his politics and policies and those of the Republican Party that are remaking U.S. political culture as we know it. It is therefore essential that we understand their power and nature as we mobilize to oppose the new regime. Part 1, “Today and Yesterday,” focuses on the current crisis and the long history of political intimidation and bullying from the 1960s to the present and revolutions in the public media sphere. Part 2, “Democratic Responses,” reviews Democratic Party responses up through the Obama Administration. Part 3, “The 2016 Elections,” focuses on the Presidential campaigns of Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Party Loyalty, Social Identity, and the Culture of Governing

The discussion of the culture of loyalty begun in Part Three brings us back to the nature of Democratic responses to political intimidation and violence committed by Republicans. For among Democratic establishment leaders the culture of loyalty appears to be tightly bound to a political identity based on a self-image defined by a record of generous or liberal good intentions and an adherence to ethical principles that require little in the way of new translation and fresh political messaging by candidates to the larger voting public beyond what a charismatic voice can do. In this view, Democrats have been and are simply “good people” whose good works should command voters’ loyalty and gratitude. Just look at their record since the New Deal, or more recently, the legacy of the Clinton and Obama administrations! How else to explain in Federal elections (if not the primaries) Democrats’ historical distaste for hard-ball politics and reluctance to descend into the ring and respond in kind to Republican attacks many of which target precisely the Democrats’ lofty self image and identity by impugning their motives and intentions through innuendo that foregoes the necessity of adducing proof but is equally difficult to refute? This has been a fundamental political vulnerability over the last thirty years. Paradoxically, this self-image on the national stage clashes with that of local Democrats who throughout the twentieth century excelled in the rough-and-tumble politics of urban and state politics perhaps because, unlike at the national level, the benefits of political victory are so immediate and tangible (better schools, transportation, refuse collection, access to municipal and state government jobs, etc.).[1]

            Shaping these practices of loyalty and identity is the respective social composition of each party. And here we observe that political loyalty actually entails not one but two components: first, an internal one to the party and then, a second one to the institutions of government. The Republican establishment, today still very white, moneyed, and majority Protestant, operates as an exclusive country club whose members practice a ruling class’ discipline and form of loyalty that put Democrats to shame. They seem to flow naturally from Republicans' more homogenous social composition, though the rise of the Tea Party and Trump’s triumph in the primaries have stimulated talk of establishing “super-delegates” along the lines of the Democratic Party. And loyalty has generally served them well: after internal squabbles, they almost always fall back in line. They even practice a form of omertà that keeps their sex scandals in-house and largely out of the public eye; rare is the woman who goes public with kiss-and-tell stories. Moreover, Republicans have a proprietary relationship to government: they think they own it, or if they don’t, think they should. They act as if they were raised not only to govern but, as full-throated capitalists, to rule over others. Born in the anterooms of power they do not have to demonstrate their citizenship or patriotism nor does the public demand it of them. Accountable to no one other than their own kind, as owners and senior executives they view rules and regulations as written for and sometimes by others (as in the New Deal); they really don’t apply to themselves, especially when they feel their interests threatened. Consequently, Republicans don’t always see their interests served by active government, and their loyalty remains primarily to their own kind. In national politics, unlike Democrats, they don’t always seek popular validation—their sense of self is independent of politics and precedes it. Like Machiavelli’s prince, for them winning is everything, and they accept to be feared rather than loved. Rewriting the rules meant for others and shifting the goalposts to keep opponents off balance are all in a day’s work. If given the chance, they have no qualms in breaking the rules starting in the earliest days of the Cold War when they turned President Truman’s anti-communist crusade and loyalty program into a wave of rabid red-baiting (McCarthyism) against Democrats, the New Deal, and Federal agencies[2] up through the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1999 and the stolen elections in 2000, and now today with voter suppression initiatives and the interference in the presidential campaign by FBI Director James Comey and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Often this has involved delegating the most unsavory tasks to political operatives (Lee Atwater and Karl Rove’s lieutenants), rogue politicians (Joseph McCarthy), political action committees (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), and other third parties. Of late, however, publicly dropping the velvet glove comes more and more easily to them. The mailed fist is visible for those who have eyes to see.

            Democrats, on the other hand, are by contrast an economically, ethnically, and racially composite group that is publicly fractious and poorly disciplined. To be sure, many are very entitled—they want and expect many things—but most can’t be said to have been raised since birth confident that government and management of the fate of others and of the entire nation were their destiny. Mastery of their own fate, defiantly, yes; mastery of the fate of others, less so. At the same time they seem to express the hope and belief that national political institutions and their rules (including laws) will protect them and guarantee political enfranchisement.[3] Their loyalty to the Federal government more than matches their loyalty to the party but it is a nervous one. Democrats seem to embody an almost middle-class sense of propriety of the upwardly mobile anxiously seeking recognition of their new-found status that their Republican opponents rarely grant them: they are often viewed as so many barbarians within the gates and treated as such. Moreover, as liberal or reform-minded capitalists, party leaders, even as they practice greater loyalty to Federal institutions, operate more from the ideological margins of the free-market economic system, and thus from a position that is experienced as less legitimate;[4] certainly Republicans have always thought so and since the 1950s have made it clear through political smears and red-baiting of Democrats especially during the Cold War. (Which goes to show that political intimidation of this kind has always had more to do with delegitimizing domestic opponents than with combating a foreign menace.) Less secure in their social and ideological status, they act as if they still seek acceptance by their abusive social and ideological betters, an acceptance that will never come. It’s like looking for love in the wrong places. Reticent before the necessity of dirtying themselves publicly and compromising their status as accredited players, they have come to prefer managing politics at a safe hygienic distance through hopeful bipartisanship, the strength of their detailed policy initiatives based on large data aggregates, and voter turnout drives. Jeopardizing their fragile legitimacy by engaging in hardball politics—or so it would appear--is now considered by most Democrats as too risky. Content with their self-image and identity, they forget that elections are not popularity contests but rather bids for power and that to the victor go both the spoils and control of the public narrative. Winning bestows its own rewards: more often than not, victory makes right, so to speak, not the reverse. Trump, entrepreneur turned politician, never forgets this.

            Arguably all these factors contributed to undermine Democrats’ resolve in responding to Republican acts of intimidation and skullduggery over the last 30 years. In the case of Hillary Clinton what stands out in her run for president was her stunning inability to anticipate her own vulnerability to potential attacks even when, in the cases of the hacked campaign and DNC emails, possession of a private email server while Secretary of State, and the dysfunctional actions and relationships of the DNC and campaign staff, she had been in possession of the facts for many months. Victim of a strange passivity (What was she waiting for?), she did nothing to preempt the aggressive assaults and damaging revelations to come and seize the initiative by airing early on the troubling emails and firing staff before she was forced to, which would have worked to her advantage. What she mainly did was to invoke principles and precedents of one kind or another in defense of her actions and those of her colleagues. Her campaign seemed to deem her credentials sufficient to carry her to victory and to bank on the expectation that Trump’s bullying personality would seal the election in her favor.

Donald Trump’s Identity and Aggression: He Meant What He Said

Donald Trump broke with the practices and self-images of both parties. Nominally and expediently Republican, he has none of GOP leaders' loyalty to the party and even less of their sense of discipline and discretion. He is the attack dog become master. Trump made this more than clear at the outset in the first televised Republican debate hosted by Fox News in Cleveland on August 2015. In response to the panel’s first question posed by Brett Baier that asked the ten assembled candidates who would not support the winner of the Republican nomination, Trump stood alone with his hand raised and even refused to pledge that he wouldn’t run as an independent candidate. Given his apparent wealth and wide-spread name recognition (his “brand”), it was a credible threat of a nature rarely seen in national political life. The public bullying of an entire political party before a national cable TV audience by one of its own candidates was unprecedented and broke with the Republican leaders’ ethos of loyalty and discipline to which even earlier insurgent white nationalist candidate Pat Buchanan submitted in 1994.[5] It was the political equivalent of an opening shot of a successful hostile takeover bid of a company--memorably dramatized by Michael Douglas as corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street--that appealed to the shareholders (the Republican Party base) to revolt against a smug and inept management (the party establishment) by promising a price that could not be beat: unalloyed expression of their voter outrage at the status quo in a bid “to make [white] America great again.”

            What Trump does share is the Republicans’ instrumentalization of government for private gain and their cynical disregard for rules and regulations but, again, unlike the GOP old guard and like the vulgar, tabloid politician that he is, he makes no secret of it. It is his version of transparency and brutally so, to the thrill of his rebellious supporters. Trump may be a private-school educated WASP born to wealth but he is also a second-generation American with little patience for the niceties of good manners and establishment hypocrisy. Capitalist folk hero, he is the mesmerizing embodiment of the defiant, mythical free-born white man openly hostile to government and people who depend on it. His aggressive liberty in word and deed, unconstrained by party, the dignity of office, or social and ethical principles is what many voters admire and identify with. In other words Trump’s violence–including his brazen self-interest--is the very measure of his freedom and authenticity. It is not incidental to his politics but central to its very content. The violence is the message. He marks the culmination of the steady return of the expression of violent individual and collective sovereignty of over oneself and others in U.S. daily life and politics in the figure of the sadistic strongman.[6] Since becoming the Republican nominee he has worked to replace the GOP’s culture of loyalty to the party and its establishment with a personal one to himself. In this regard, Trump did mean what he said and many voters responded. This is the dark information that Democrats failed integrate into their electoral thinking. Thus on November 9, 2016 the majority of those who voted woke up once again to find themselves disenfranchised voters and treated as so many expendable employees. And since his election Trump has graduated to the next step and appears to want to replace citizens’ and even public servants’ loyalty to the institutions of national government  and the rule of law with deference to his defiant Presidential will.

The Dynamics of Contemporary Political intimidation (I-V)

The unexpected victory of a far-right white nationalist candidate last November has convulsed the body politic and demoralized the Democratic Party. And it has revealed the many snares and traps that envelop any target of political intimidation and violence. So below I highlight important features of the dynamics of political intimidation and the dangers they present.

I. Preemptive Strike: Creating Public Facts on the Ground

In today’s media-saturated politics, the element of surprise is primordial. It bespeaks power. Creating a sensation or buzz is everything. It may involve aggressive timing (at 3 AM, as President-elect before assuming office, during the State of the Union Address,, etc.) or unexpected locations (nationally televised presidential debates, meetings with foreign dignitaries, the halls of Congress) but also extreme content, saying or doing the unthinkable: racist attack ads, mocking a triple amputee’s military honor, precipitating government shutdowns, questioning the president’s nationality, bringing weapons to rallies, threatening a candidate with incarceration and assassination, accusing the outgoing president of wiretapping one’s campaign, publicly exploiting the grief of a Navy Seal widow after a botched raid, etc. It also entails speed and reach of delivery: mobilization of print, cable, broadcast, and social media, endless repetition, organized talking points, etc. Here Trump’s Twitter account plays a crucial role. It is not some quirky personality feature of an eccentric CEO; in his hands he has transformed it into a fundamental instrument of power. Today Trump and his Republican allies don’t mete out measured doses of political intimidation and bullying only occasionally; it is extreme, 24/7, and all the time.

            Intimidation of this kind seizes the initiative, occupies the news cycle, and by virtue of its speed and power overwhelms our capacity for reflective thought, and causes the hormonal response to well up, "Fight or flight?" It also seizes the nervous system[7] and creates emotional facts on the ground (the victim’s responses but also ours and the media’s) that puts the target on the defensive and the rest of us on notice. So if there wasn’t a relationship between the assailant, the aggrieved party, and witnesses before, there is one—unbidden and unequal—now.

            Political bullying behind closed doors presents certain advantages such as the absence of witnesses and accountability but in the current harsh public arena of U.S. national politics with its violent gladiatorial theater of dominance the opposite is true. In public bullying the presence of an audience or witnesses rather than putting a check on the aggressor party actually enables it to malign and smear the opponent’s reputation and character in terms of non-conformity to social norms of gendered and class-defined behavior, strength of character, personality type, physical appearance, mental soundness, social, ideological, and political affiliations, etc. In Trump’s case his public bullying relies on deploying norms against others even as he freely breaks or rewrites them in his own actions as circumstance and opportunity warrant. Such is his apparent power and freedom. In a sense he is the ultimate practitioner of what political theorist Wendy Brown has termed the declarative mode of neoconservative discourse in which inner conviction preempts questions of veracity or facticity.[8]

            In public extremely legible appearances are the rule, and any ambiguity or complexity leaves one open to invidious interpretation and attack in the form of mocking, stigmatization, ostracization, guilt by association, being ignored, etc. Sometimes the violence takes the form of recruitment, otherwise known as hazing, of a submissive target into a group of sovereign subjects (e.g., fraternity of the power-brokers) but in political campaigns exclusion and defeat of the adversary are the goal. The manipulation of appearances by the assailant is his or her most powerful tool. The target suffers not only an isolating and humiliating attack but—second humiliation—boxed in by the overwhelmingly public (witnessed and recorded) nature of the act has no choice but to respond as in to the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” In this scenario the victim’s reputation, body, and speech are all purposely violated. And this multiple violation is already read as the forced public revelation of a weakness in the victim previously unknown to the public (and perhaps even to the target); or more accurately, as a sign of potential, if not actual, weakness, one that may not manifest itself now but could at any time. Moreover, if you respond or protest, it simply confirms the adversary’s power and dominance, and you risk remaining prisoner of his or her smear or misrepresentation. But that is not all: if you so much as name the smear, the perpetrator turns the tables on you and accuses you of being the aggressor and claims victimhood for him or herself. On the other hand in keeping publicly silent you risk either appearing complicit with the charge or confirming your own vulnerability and making yourself dependent on the sympathy and good will of bystanders and voters to protect you. But of course the public is fickle, and the violence of the assault deepens the discrediting impression of one’s own vulnerability. There is no supreme witness or arbiter to which you can appeal for justice. That god is dead. So you are on your own--or least made to feel that way. Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and even the more combative Hillary Clinton learned this to their sorrow. Political animal that he is, the bipartisan Bill Clinton was a better fighter but only when Newt Gingrich put him on the ropes; only then did he develop a rapid response team that countered outlandish Republican allegations within the same news cycle with some success.

II. The Politics of Destruction

Preemptive attacks are a game of pure power that are all the more terrifying in that they appear unmotivated by virtue of being so unexpected. In the current Republican onslaught it is crucial to remember that such attacks are without any apparent meaning other than conserving their power and advantage, destabilizing and defeating opponents, and destroying the legacy of the New Deal. At their most extreme in the hands of the Republicans in Washington these assaults are profoundly nihilistic—heedless of any social, ethical, or psychological boundaries. Arbitrary and chaotic, our new masters attack the weak and the strong, the fearful and the indifferent alike throwing opponents off guard while projecting an aura of impunity and displaying no conscience. They stand beyond any appeal and unreachable other than perhaps through fear and their sense of self-preservation. Before the 2016 elections this may have looked like empty macho bluster (however, see Part 1) but since January 20 their appointments, executive orders, and budget proposal actions have spoken. At times they seem to do what they do merely because they can. Here, power is its own justification. In the rush to destroy the Federal government as we know it, it now appears that the Republicans are following no positive electoral rationale, at least in the short term. The proposed budget cuts don’t even spare their base who are in for a rough course of political re-education about what they can expect from government. It looks like political suicide, or more frighteningly, an act of murder-suicide.[9] Their long game is counterrevolution bent on recasting citizens’ relationship to government and state services but in the near term they are bringing the Dawn of Destruction and Last Things. Violent political Rapture that terrifies but may also fascinate like Trump himself. This is where the swaggering street punk and the violent patrician/aristocrat who is indifferent to death and to the fate of others meet up and shape-shift together with free-market fundamentalists and fanatics. With an abusive CEO like Trump the endless dynamics of bullying that seem to invade all aspects of politics have come to match the limitlessly intrusive nature of unregulated capitalism itself that will monetize anything, exchange anything, buy anything, exploit anything.[10] In Trump’s new political world, as in unfettered markets, everything is fair game. This is what both the resistance and Democratic Party must understand and anticipate.

            Many of Trump’s assaults have been expected reactions to challenges by journalists and political adversaries but they can still shock and surprise by what they denigrate or target: Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly’s physiology. Heidi Cruz’ physical appearance. New York Times journalist Serge Kovaleski’s disability. Khizr and Gazala Kahn’s religion. Or Hillary Clinton’s physical safety. Trump practices a negative identity politics of degraded subjecthood that relentlessly seeks to dishonor and defame all-comers, and is especially effective against political rivals like the Democrats who seem to invest as much in their identity as in political action. An attacker like Trump seeks to besmirch that identity and knows full-well that for the victim to respond would not only dignify both the attack and the attacker but also undermine the victim’s public image. Finally, it is not simply a singular act of aggression but rather one that is repeatable and unpredictable. When successful, the act of intimidation instills a new timeline of perpetual threat through injecting fear of a dreaded fate and ungraspable future into the present. This is political virtuality at its most potent.

            Now that Republicans control both the White House and Congress, they have moved from verbal and physical threats to actual fear-inducing decisions: imposing travel bans, deporting undocumented immigrants, lifting corporate oversight, embargoes of Federal agencies and their data, authorizing dumping of mining industry chemicals into rivers and streams, stripping people of Medicaid coverage, crippling the EPA, cutting Health and Human Services 13%, cutting Pell Grants, reducing NIH and NOAA budgets 18%, eliminating the NEA and NEH, etc. The future is here, and it is a waking nightmare.

III. Snares and Traps: Denial

If recent actions since November 2016 have anything to suggest, it is that Democratic leaders conduct themselves as if they are not interested in taking the full measure of the aggressive methods of their opponents, or worse, as if they are looking for reasons not to take political violence seriously, perhaps in the hope that it will cease or go away, much in the way of an abused partner or spouse who pleads, “Oh, honey, you really didn’t mean it, did you?” But of course “honey” did mean it, or rather, sees to reason to stop and can’t help him or herself (philandering, drinking, physical violence, verbal abuse, psychological harassment, etc.) and will do it again. And again. One of the goals of the massive January 21st Women’s March was to disabuse (literally) party leaders of that illusion. Still, many liberal and progressive Democrats and sympathetic media pundits have embraced a consoling fiction in the way that victims of bullies often do, namely, that Trump is an insecure narcissist (thanks to his father), a phony (failed businessman, in debt, etc.), ignorant (of the art of government and foreign policy), a liar (delusional), and self-destructive (reckless and unethical dealmaker) and thus bound to meet his political end soon. All of which could turn out to be true but it overlooks how it is that Trump even got this far (e.g., not every violent narcissist can become a capitalist folk hero and Republican nominee) and, more important, why Trump’s supposed weaknesses or character flaws may end up being irrelevant in light of the preemptive speed with which Trump and the Republican leadership, now behind him, succeed in implementing their extremist agenda of defunding public services and destroying Federal agencies and departments. But among the Democratic establishment old tribal loyalties and discredited strategies remain strong. In the midst of this political emergency, what has the Democratic Party establishment devoted its energies to? Electing Tom Perez as chair of the Democratic National Committee. A liberal democrat with no experience in campaigning or elected office his candidacy was promoted by Obama to counter the candidacy of Keith Ellison, a politically savvy and energetic Minnesotan Congressman and former Bernie Sanders supporter, who received the support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and nearly half of the members of the DNC but was denigrated by other party officials for his Muslim religious affiliation. His first public pronouncement was to express worry about an imminent stock market “correction,” surely the top preoccupation of the Democratic base.  Perez has since proceeded to assemble an advisory committee of twenty-nine members of which only two supported Ellison in the close race and one supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries. They are repeating the costly decision in 2009 to dismantle Obama's extraordinary campaign machine cum movement that demobilized the Democratic base.[11]


IV. Snares and Traps: Blind Revenge

Political resistance to Trump should make use of all available means at its disposal but the recent obsessive focus on allegations of possible Russian interference in the elections is not encouraging either. It may seem like the vigorous response of a defeated party to an unprecedented act of political skullduggery but it is arguably the opposite: the manner, reminiscent of the excesses of Cold War russophobia, in which the Democratic establishment and media outlets have drawn conclusions based on circumstantial evidence and anonymous sources, on the contrary bespeak a weakened, desperate party flailing about in search for an easy exculpating explanation for its debacle and strangely desiring to trust the NSA, the CIA and the FBI, no friends of democratic rule, to protect it from Trump and his machinations. In terms of our analysis of political intimidation and bullying, this amounts to switching from one source of abuse to another and is reminiscent of 19th-century Sicilian local elites calling in the Mafia to protect them from roving bandits and landless peasants. As Russian specialist Masha Gessen wrote in the New York Review of Books, “a possible conspiracy is a poor excuse for conspiracy thinking.”[12]

            Just as startling is the willingness on the part of some Democratic leaders, operatives, and media allies to extend allegations of colluding with the Russian government to Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, journalists who question the evidence for the allegations, and Edward Snowden as if abusing others to their political left will restore the Democratic establishment’s and mainstream media’s sense of self and purpose lost last November.[13] However, it would not be the first time.[14] Liberal Democrats have a long history going back to the Cold War of red-baiting progressives in order to secure political advantage both within the party and without that peaked at the height of protests against the vast escalation of the Vietnam War by Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat.[15] So even if the allegations are borne out by the on-going FBI investigation it will come at the cost of rehabilitating not only the national security and law enforcement agencies who engage in unprecedented massive electronic surveillance of the U.S. population and meddled themselves in the last election but also the Democratic Party establishment who will see no reason to rethink its failed electoral strategies and internal party culture. Like the Clinton campaign itself, it continues to focus their energies on Trump the man to the detriment of the issues and of shifting national priorities.

V. Snares and Traps: Nostalgia for the Theater of Moral Shaming

Now any meaningful discussion of the dynamics of contemporary political intimidation and bullying and effective responses has to take into account the context of the public media sphere where so much of this is played out. Long gone is old broadcast television whose relatively unified single national audience, aging readers may nostalgically recall, witnessed the high moral theater of political accountability that put an end to Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist smear campaigns in 1954 during the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings. The televised proceedings climaxed when Army attorney Joe Welch countered McCarthy’s invidious questioning of a member of the armed services about his youthful political affiliations with the simple, shaming question, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The exchange initiated McCarthy’s political decline.[16] The public discrediting of a violent politician is hard to imagine today in the very fractured media landscape broken up by cable TV, AM radio, internet streaming, and social media where decency is a scarce commodity. There are many independent publics, some quite segregated from one another. And presumably many polities, equally segregated: newly elected Trump made that more than clear when he pointedly did not issue the traditional reassurance to those who did not vote for him that he was the president of all Americans. The deliberative, rational exchanges of the mythical old public sphere no longer exist (if they ever did fully) and have been replaced by the counterfactual and felt politics of affect and fear in which moral shaming of violent perpetrators no longer works but public dishonoring and disrespecting of victims still does.

*
*     *

On Our Own

Unprecedented acts of political intimidation and fear-mongering demand an equally unprecedented response. This is not a fearful reaction but rather—as I hope the preceding comments have made clear—a necessary and level-headed conclusion. There is nothing we should expect in the way of an understanding, hearing, collaboration, or exchange of views from the Trump Administration or the Republican leadership that will slow down or stop the far-right juggernaut. [17] We are on our own. This has its advantages in terms of strategy and tactics. Now Trump’s populist genius is at once to personify all that unfettered capitalism promises and to lead a revolt against all its disappointments in the name of those very same promises. But to be clear: Bernie Sander’s public offer to work with the Republicans on various issues is no fool’s bid for inexistent bipartisanship: instead he is hastening the day when the Trump Administration’s sham populism fails as it may do with his cabinet appointments of business executives and billionaires and his proposals to cut healthcare insurance, and that is the purpose of town halls Sanders is hosting with Trump voters.

            The Trump-led 24/7 counterrevolution is upon us and is re-writing the political script as we speak taking full advantage of social media to bypass party establishments and mainstream news media and deploying all the means the Federal government has now placed at its disposal to intimidate opponents and pursue its far-right agenda. Throughout this 4-part series, I’ve made no allusion to historical precedents of authoritarian regimes coming to power, especially in Europe, nor have I mentioned the “F” word. Fascism is a word I rarely use. But we live in politically fluid times and the political field is wide open. Trump has adopted a truly pre-fascist political style that is aggrieved, xenophobic, nostalgic, paranoid, and physically violent. It trafficks in counterfactual felt politics and outlandish accusations. It enjoys a mass following and indicts the basic institutions of liberal democratic societies: political parties, free press, the judiciary, the electoral process, the law and its routine protections. As Robert O. Paxton, a leading historian of fascism, remarked, to maintain mobilization of their followers political leaders like Trump must expand relentlessly their following and seek new opportunities to affirm and secure their power (new enemies, threats, crises).[18] Should Trump and his allies find themselves stymied by our fierce resistance or simply by the daily grind of Beltway politics and the complexities of governing, they may take yet more extreme measures meant to keep their momentum that circumvent laws and the Constitution: manufacturing international crises, starting a new war, the unleashing of domestic political provocateurs, or declaring a state of emergency.

            However, Trump, the radicalized GOP leadership, and Tea Party Republicans aren’t the only ones recasting how we do politics. Four years ago Occupy Wall St. with its encampments and novel organizing methods refocused political debate on unprecedented class and wealth disparities and the politics of redistribution.[19] “The 1%” became a powerful slogan, and Bernie Sanders made it his own upending the Democratic Party in the primaries. If any lessons are to be drawn from the recent history of right-wing political intimidation and lackluster Democratic response, they surely entail, to echo Sanders, a political revolution within the Democratic Party itself in terms of identity, self-image, self-governance, programs, political messaging, fundraising, forms of mobilization of the liberal and progressive base, and appeals to distressed voters. Its goal is to break out of the institutional capture the Democratic Party underwent with the financialization of the U.S. economy. But there will be no successful party politics without the direct pressure of street politics and no successful street politics without some form of political representation and devotion to the nuts and bolts of governing. The two go together, but never easily. Sanders’ original insight is that involvement in politics at the local level and repopulating minor offices with progressives is a crucial way to build a new political infrastructure independent of national politics and its nationalist obessions so closely tied to Wall St. and the U.S. imperium and to maintain street mobilization over the long haul.  This plus a new mobilizing program and narrative that unites progressives and liberals to counter the far-right’s agenda. However, it remains that the impetus must come from a mobilized citizenry without which the Democratic Party will remain the private, quasi-monopoly of access to political power and public office and ineffective force that it is today. Unlike the Democratic Party establishment, we can’t forget that the Republicans are cruel, relentless adversaries and play for keeps. There is no pleasing or appeasing them. At this juncture anything is possible in the way of political bullying and intimidation: more cruel legislation, impugning opponents’ motives, smearing resisters with fake allegations, physical threats to entire communities, dirty tricks, and defunding cherished civil society institutions. It is important to call these acts for what they are.

            The real revolution will be among citizens themselves. And may be beginning: the Women’s March in January brought out three million people, and the outpouring of angry citizens at Congressional town halls has given a few Republican Congressmen pause. Not to mention the organization of 7,500 local chapters of Indivisible to pressure politicians into resisting Trump’s political intimidation and acts of government. For once our side took the initiative and enjoyed the intimidating element of surprise. And so we created our own affective or emotional “facts on the ground.“ We may be on our own but we are not alone. In resisting together we are forced to step outside of ourselves. It is about getting things done as much as affirming an identity. As Sanders concluded in his public interview with Democracy Now host Amy Goodman shortly after the election with disappointed voters, “Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the future of this planet. It’s about your kids and your grandchildren, it is about American democracy, it is about some very fundamental issues.”[20]



[1] It is interesting to note that Democratic presidential candidates most adept at hardball politics have had the closest ties to local political machines. One thinks of John F. Kennedy (Irish-American organizations in Boston and Chicago) and Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bill Clinton (state politics in the Deep South). Unlike fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emmanuel, Obama does not seem to have absorbed those lessons but in neither case did Obama or Emmanuel apply them in their dealings with Republicans in Washington. They saved them largely for intra-party squabbles.
[2] In 1952, as today in 2017, once they won control of both the White House and Congress they redoubled their efforts of intimidation with little apparent concern for possible political consequences for themselves.
[3] During his re-election campaign in 1996 in an appeal to the aspirational ethos of his base Bill Clinton made a central theme of “playing by the rules” as the promise of an equal opportunity society; it was something which he preached but in the event obviously did not practice. Realizing the American Dream has been the fundamental political promise of Democratic Party for the last 30 years.
[4] Carl Freedman (private communication).
[5] See the 1996 article by right-wing political adviser Samuel Francis on Pat Buchanan’s populism that predicted the rise of a Donald Trump: “From Household to Nation: The Middle-American Populism of Pat Buchanan,” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (March 1996). http://theweek.com/articles/599577/how-obscure-adviser-pat-buchanan-predicted-wild-trump-campaign-1996 Accessed 14 May 2016.
[6] Roddey Reid, “Bullying in U.S. Public Culture: or, Gothic Terror in the Full Light of Day,” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 20 (Fall 2008): 132.
[7] In this fashion it goes beyond George Lakoff’s focus on the power of political messaging as primarily one of repetition and reinforcement.
[8] Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 43.6 (2006): 707-08.
[9] As of March 22, 2017 the Quinnipiac University poll reports that subsequent to the Trump/Republican health care proposal to cut Medicaid benefits, Trump's support among Republicans dropped 14 points form 95% to 81% in a mere two weeks. https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2442 Accessed 22 March 2017
[10] Arguably, it is not clear that Trump the tyrannical CEO is even interested in accumulating wealth per se but rather—ever the macho entrepreneur who is always on to the next business opportunity—he seems more focused on expanding his brand, cutting deals, and exercising power—and terror—over others. On Trump as a violent icon of capitalist culture legitimated by current workplace practices see Roddey Reid, “Trump as Capitalist Folk Hero, or the Rise of the White Entrepreneur as Political Bully, “ Black Renaissance Noire 16.2 (Fall 2016): 92-95 https://www.academia.edu/29863898/_Trump_as_Capitalist_Folk_Hero_or_the_Rise_of_the_White_Entrepreneur_as_Political_Bully_Black_Renaissance_Noire_16.2_Fall_2016_92-95; for a brief history of the CEO “savior” and possible corporate transformations of the Federal government under the Trump Administration see Christopher Brown, “You’re Fired: Democracy, Dystopia, and the Cult of the CEO,” Shift Newco 15 March 2015 https://shift.newco.co/youre-fired-democracy-dystopia-and-the-cult-of-the-ceo-83a3a9b24531#.r3pyqhmz4
Accessed 19 March 2017. 
[11] Daniel Marans, “Progressives Slam Tom Perez’s New DNC Transition Team,” Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/progressives-tom-perez-dnc-transition-committee_us_58cab459e4b0ec9d29d9695f 16 March 2017 Accessed 17 March 2017. On the dismantlement of Obama's political campaign machine see Jeffrey WInter's early column, "Obama the President Defeats Obama the Movement, Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-winters/obama-the-president-defea_b_785190.html. Accessed 24 March 2017. Micah L. Sivry summarizes Obama's unprecedented electoral mobilization as follows: "By Election Day, Obama’s campaign would have 13 million email addresses, three million donors, and two million active members of MyBO, including 70,000 people with their own fund-raising pages." Micah L. Sivry, "Obama's Lost Army," The New Republic, 9 Feb. 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/140245/obamas-lost-army-inside-fall-grassroots-machine. Accessed 24 March 2017.
[12] Masha Gessen “The Conspiracy Trap,” New York Review of Books, 6 March 2017 http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/03/06/trump-russia-conspiracy-trap/ Accessed 9 March 2017.
[13] In terms of the mainstream media the most egregious example was the publication by the Washington Post of a “black list” of 200 journalists, websites, and news organizations serving as Russian agents; see James Carden, “‘The Washington Post’ Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist,” The Nation 28 Nov. 2016 https://www.thenation.com/article/the-washington-post-promotes-a-mccarthyite-blacklist/ Accessed 21 March 2017.
[14] Glenn Greenwald, “Democratic Tactics of Accusing Critics of Kremlin Allegiance Has a Long Ugly History in U.S.,” The Intercept, 8 Aug. 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/08/08/dems-tactic-of-accusing-adversaries-of-kremlin-ties-and-russia-sympathies-has-long-history-in-us/ Accessed 22 March 2017.
[15] Even Howard Dean, victim of political smears by Democratic leaders and tendentious reporting by the New York Times correspondents Jodi Wilgoren and Adam Nagourney during the 2004 primaries, as a fervent 2016 Clinton supporter engaged in a smear of his own in a Dec. 21, 2016 Tweet speculating that The Intercept may be on the Russian payroll https://twitter.com/govhowarddean/status/811607126024065028?lang=en. The hysteria reached new heights when RawStory.com did not hesitate to title a March 30, 2017 story, "Russians Used 'Bernie Bros' as 'Unwitting Agents' in Disinofrmation Campaign: Senate Intel Witness": http://www.rawstory.com/2017/03/russians-used-bernie-bros-as-unwitting-agents-in-disinformation-campaign-senate-intel-witness/. Accessed 31 March 2017.
[16] But not that of his chief counsel Roy Cohn who retired to New York City where he led a life of celebrity serving as attorney to unscrupulous politicians and businessmen, trafficked in political influence and intrigue, and later tutored his client Donald Trump in the dark arts of the smear. Nicholas von Hoffman, Citizen Cohn: The Life and Times of Roy Cohn (New York: Doubleday: 1988), 237. The televised Army-McCarthy proceedings were the subject of a famous documentary
film titled, Point of Order (1964), by Emile de Antonio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJHsur3HqcI. The famous exchange between Joe Welch and McCarthy is captured here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Po5GlFba5Yg. Accessed 2 April 2017.
[17] This lesson was lost on the University of California, Berkeley administration in its handling of a scheduled campus appearance by Breibart News editor Milo Yiannopolis in February 2017. Doubtless administrators thought they would avoid the ire of Washington by authorizing a campus speech to College Republicans by a speaker well-known for abusing members of his public audiences by hewing to a broad interpretation of what constitutes “protected speech.” They dismissed the substantive issue of Yiannaoplis’ record of conduct (not his political point of view) of using a trigger cam to harass and incite others to harass trans students present in the audience that concerned faculty brought to its attention. The rest is history: anarchists rioted and damaged university property, the talk was cancelled, and Trump accused Berkeley of violating free speech and threatened it with the loss of Federal funding. Predictably, Berkeley got no credit for its misguided efforts to accommodate a known violent speaker and Steve Bannon protégé. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/827112633224544256?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw Accessed 14 March 2017.
[18] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Knopf, 2004), 148.
[19] For an insightful retrospective analysis of Occupy’s strategic focus on forms and centers of capitalist redistribution (e.g., Wall Street) instead of production (e.g., workplaces) as a reply to and an attempt to accelerate the “democratic” promise (if not actuality) underlying shareholder ownership under financialized capitalism see Stephen Squibb, “What Was Occupy?” Monthly Review 66.9 (Feb. 2015). ßhttps://monthlyreview.org/2015/02/01/what-was-occupy/ Accessed 19 March 2017.
[20] Philadelphia Free Library, 29 Nov. 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rEGCDR6wKQ Accessed 21 March 2017.

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