Trump’s sorry, but dangerous speech in Poland

At the beginning of the Cold War, C. E. Wilson, the CEO of General Electric, said that the country faced two enemies: the Soviet Union abroad and labor at home. Today in Poland, Trump said that the country again faces two enemies in what he calls “a civilizational crisis.” But this time, the enemies are “radical Islamic terrorism” abroad and “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people” at home.

He asked a bused in crowd from rural Poland and loyalists of the right wing Polish government, with a barely disguised subtext of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

In the late 1940s, Wilson’s aphorism became the outlook and policy guide for the country’s elite and what followed was a long era of war and intervention in far flung regions of the world and retrenchment and reaction here, put over in the language of the Red Scare and the Soviet Menace. But as bad as it was it would have been far worse had it not been for the civil rights movement in the early sixties and the other social movements that came on its heels, challenging official policy and offering a different vision to the country.

Today the majority of the American people aren’t drinking Trump’s Kool Aid like Americans drank Wilson’s and his Cold War counterparts in business, government, the media, and Hollywood during that earlier time. But it goes without saying that there is no reason for any of us to rest comfortable. The opposition to Trump and Congressional Republicans — at least from my small patch — while remarkable and encouraging in many ways, isn’t yet deep or broad or sustained enough to the challenge we face.

July 4

1. I’ve heard it said that it was the act of fighting and dying in the Civil War that earned slaves and freed Black people their citizenship rights.

There is obviously truth in that notion.

But leaving it there misses an important point. Citizenship rights shouldn’t have to be “earned.” They should be inalienable, natural, and universal, that is, derivative from our humanity. Clearly neither whiteness (nor gender nor property rights) should be a condition for obtaining and exercising these rights. Nor should they depend on combat credentials.

But, obviously, we don’t live in a just world in which full citizenship is the unqualified birthright of every person. In the case of the African American people, their unrelenting struggle for full citizenship rights continues to this day. And, as at the time of the Civil War, it carries great moral and political force not only because they spilled blood in the Civil War and wars that followed (despite the fact that Black troops were segregated and discriminated against until after World War II). But, more broadly, because they can righteously claim long seniority in this land, a singular and outsized contribution to the nation’s economic take off and subsequent development (obtained by violently coerced unpaid and then underpaid labor) and, not least, their front row position in every phase and dimension of the country’s democratic and progressive advance.

And that history also is the social and material basis for full restorative justice and remuneration on the stockpile of promissory notes earned by and owed to the African American community.

2. Below is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ address on July 4, 1952 in Rochester, NY. It retains its power today, especially against the background of the rise of right four decades ago and Trump’s election last year.

“Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad: it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!”

3. Here is a song, Independence Day, written and sung by Bruce Springsteen. Actually, it has nothing to do with July 4, except perhaps in a very roundabout way. But I thought I would include it in this post. It resonates deeply with me. It’s about Springsteen’s conflict and eventual break with his father.

I  had a similar Independence Day. Like Springsteen, I had conflicted feelings toward my father in my younger years. He could be kind and gentle. He was never absent in a physical sense, and he provided for our family. I also knew his life hadn’t been easy. He lost his father and moved from Canada to Maine at a young age, dropped out of high school early on, and did sweated labor his whole working life. He also suddenly lost his first wife (my mother) in his early fifties and surely felt ill equipped to raise three young boys, which as it turned out he didn’t have to do, thanks to my elderly grandmother and my step mother whom he married a couple of years after my mother’s death.

But my father also struggled with the terrible illnesses of alcoholism and depression. And when drunk, which was too many weekends, he got mean and verbally abusive. Needless to say, that took its toll on me and the rest of the family. So much so that when my father reached the ugly side of drunk on Christmas Day 1968, as we were sitting down for dinner, I snapped and left the table, and took a bus to Portland where I spent a couple of nights in the YMCA before making my way back to Connecticut, where I was then living and going to school. I forget exactly what I said as I walked out the door on that cold, wintry day other than he would never see my face on a holiday again — a promise that I unfailingly kept to his final day.

At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and even a half century later I still think I did what I had to do. If I have any regrets it is that we never found a way to talk about our troubled relationship, even when he was at death’s door. I told him how much I loved him as I sat by his hospital bed, but we left it at that. Neither one of us said a word about the earlier pain between us.

But since then I have had many imaginary conversations with him. In fact, as strange as it may seem, I sometimes wish that we could sit down for a good drinking session in a neighborhood bar. I figure that some of the walls of loneliness, heartache, and anger that surrounded and divided us might melt away as we drained a glass or two of beer. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but who knows? Sometimes drink can open a person’s heart and give voice to deep heartache, as the juke box plays and someone yells, “drinks all around.”

4. A left that doesn’t contest with the right over the meaning of national traditions, symbols, and historical events isn’t doing itself any favors. If we are looking for an example of someone who did this, we can probably do no better than to turn to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He was in my opinion the outstanding revolutionary democrat of the 20th century insofar as he sunk his program, oratory, and vision of radical democracy into the best of our nation’s traditions and broadly appealed to the American people.

5. Any strategic policy worth its salt should not only point out the main obstacle to social progress, but also the larger class and social forces that have to be assembled if there is any hope of slaying the immediate dragon and moving on to confront other dragons that block the doorway to freedom. Once this is done then a whole range of other questions — issues of struggle, forms of action, approach to unity, main sites of mass engagement as well as popular demands, slogans, and messaging become easier to resolve on grounds that move beyond individual political preferences and rest on larger objective realities.

 

The political center, the Democratic Party, and taking racism out of the shadows

1.  The notion that Democrats are clinging to the political center strikes me as problematic. Things are clearly changing in the Democratic Party and across the country, and have been for a while now. The party’s election platform reflected these changes as did Hillary’s campaign. Free trade, unregulated banks, and austerity aren’t the toast of the party as they had been. Instead, the conversation is trending in a progressive direction, even if what is doable legislatively is very limited for the moment. And without question, Bernie Sanders and his campaign had a considerable hand in this process.

Furthermore, at the local level, new faces and energy are filling the rooms at Democratic Party meetings. And perhaps to the surprise of some, the party’s leadership in Congress has conducted themselves quite well in difficult circumstances.

That said, much still needs to be done. And the immediate challenge is to unite its various currents against the Trump-right-wing-authoritarian juggernaut — and especially in next year’s elections, while, at the same time, contesting in a cooperative spirit over program, policies, and priorities and rebuilding the Democratic Party in urban and rural America alike.

What isn’t of any value is over-zealous efforts to call out the “center” or to isolate the “left. The unity of one with the other, notwithstanding political tensions, is especially imperative in present circumstances.

2. It is said by some on the left that the political center in U.S. politics has disappeared. Some say it is “imaginary.” I find that to be a harmful notion if taken seriously. The country is polarized in many ways, but it doesn’t follow that tens of millions comfortably fit on the progressive-left end of the political spectrum. I wish that were the case, but I don’t see the evidence for it. In my own interactions, which I realize can’t be generalized, people hold very contradictory — some disturbing — positions on a range of issues. Few possess a consistent and articulated progressive-left worldview. Many are of mixed, even warring, minds. Most don’t like Trump, but more than a few are suspicious of “big government,” worried about taxes and terrorism, and on issues of race, gender, and immigration the conversation can become problematic.

To say otherwise in my view comes from a radicalism that is in too much of a hurry and too anxious to reach its final destination as well as isolated from everyday working class life. It fails to understand that the maxim”haste makes waste” can ring true in politics.

Now don’t get me wrong. Progressive messaging and candidates are a indispensable piece of the puzzle, but only a piece. It will also take millions of conversations on people’s doorsteps and elsewhere and involvement in seemingly mundane day to day struggles — not to mention a left that has majoritarian politics on its mind.

3. Bernie Sanders’ speech at the recent People’s Summit in Chicago sounded a lot of right notes, but I couldn’t help noticing that he largely reduced racism to simply a tool of division and disunity in the working class movement. I have heard others on the left, usually advocating a progressive populism, do much the same.

What goes unmentioned in this narrative is that racism is also a material reality that leaves people of color in subordinate positions and discriminated against in every sphere of life. What also is missing is any mention that racist ideas are pervasive, crude as well as subtle, reach people in both direct and roundabout ways, and rest, in the last analysis, on the systematic reproduction of the conditions and substance of racial inequality. Without the latter, the popularization of racist thinking would have an infinitely harder time finding a receptive audience.

It also dodges the relative, but real, advantages conferred on white workers due to their whiteness, even in this period where broad decline in living standards across large sections of the population, including white workers, has been a defining feature. This isn’t to suggest that racism doesn’t confer by far its greatest on the 1 per cent nor that white workers aren’t disadvantaged in innumerable ways due to racism, but to understand its durability any analysis can’t stop here. It has to take into account as well the relative advantages received by white workers and people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Finally, an appreciation — let alone a deep one — of the unmatchable political experience, political/strategic clarity, and dynamic role of people of color — and especially African American people — in the working class and broader people’s movement over time is nowhere to be found in this narrative.

How do we explain this blind spot? If it is simply an oversight, it is easily correctable. But if it expresses a political-class strategy that considers issues of equality other than divisions along income lines a hindrance to the formation of common class interests and a broad popular coalition against Trump in the near term and corporate capitalism in the longer term, it’s a much more serious problem that should be squarely faced.

For unless it is, it becomes virtually impossible not only to grasp the present moment and how we arrived here, but also how to extricate the country from the current mess and onto a new political trajectory.

4. In his review of the production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” now staging in Central Park. New York Times op-ed writer, Ross Douthat writes that Trump’s presidency is but the latest expression of “a creeping Caesarism in the executive [that] has been a feature of our politics for many years.” I find this highly misleading and disingenuous. Trump and Trumpism constitute a break from past politics – a rupture. Trump constitutes a danger to democratic governance that we haven’t faced ever before. He’s not typical, but atypical. Trump may be a symptom of the larger crisis and longer term trends, but his combination of megalomania, authoritarianism, and plunder with no governor of labor and the earth’s natural systems, is his unique staple and our worst nightmare. If he is a creature of anything, it is, first of all, the rise of the right and its racist, nativist, misogynist, anti-democratic, homophobic, and anti-working class posture and politics. But, at the same time, he is a unique and unprecedented threat to the fundamentals of democracy and life itself.

5. Speaking again of Douthat, in another oped in the NYT he argues that both sides of our polarized political climate are to blame for the violent rhetoric and violence. He mentions Kathy Griffin in the same breadth with Sean Hannity. On its face it may sound sensible to many readers, but if set against the actual record of the past 40 years, its intellectual dishonesty and political opportunism is unmistakable. No one — and Douthat has to know this — comes remotely close to approaching what the extreme right has done to poison the atmosphere and politics of the country. Its stock and trade has been racism, misogyny and sexism, nativism and anti-immigrant incitement, homophobia, anti-unionism, hyper nationalism, and violence.

 

Authoritarian rule, the implosion of class understanding, and other loose ends

1. I have come to realize that the rule of law should never be taken in a cavalier way. It isn’t simply a superstructural phenomenon that obediently dances to the tune of the economic base and assiduously follows the dictates of the dominant class in a social structure. Nor by the same token does it enjoy full autonomy from the economic and class relations that shape society.

The rule of law is, instead, a contested terrain. On the one hand, it can, and usually does, sanction awful practices. Evidence of this reality abounds in our country’s history as well as the histories of other countries, capitalist and socialist alike. But, on the other hand, it can protect individuals and people from arbitrary power from above as well as expand and deepen the formal and real boundaries of freedom. Both sides of this phenomenon should figure into our thinking and practice.

2. The testimony last week by former FBI Director James Comey was a dramatic and chilling piece of evidence that Trump and gang are a clear and present danger to the rule of law and the institutional structures of our democracy. It is easy at such moments of high drama to either become an onlooker parsing every twist and turn in Washington politics or to consider all of it a distraction from current battles on the streets — over income inequality and wage stagnation, immigrant roundups and deportations, health care legislation, racist police brutality, and the like.

But we have to resist this temptation. The battle to defend democracy and its institutional structures against an authoritarian president is of overarching importance. It doesn’t eclipse other democratic and class struggles, but, by the same token, how it is settled will either expand or narrow down the parameters that will frame them. Imagine, for example, if Trump were able at his whim to replace sitting judges. Or delay elections. Or declare Washington a protest free zone. Or revoke voting rights for whole sections of people. Or suspend investigations of White House wrongdoing, as he attempted to do in his meeting with Comey.

Thus, Trump’s attack on democratic governance isn’t an issue for Washington insiders alone. It bites us all. And it requires no less than an aroused and massive movement to resist any efforts – even the smallest — to hollow out our democracy and its institutional structures.

3. Movements in an authoritarian direction are far easier to resist and reverse in their early stages than later on when they gather steam and momentum, sometimes as a result of an invented crisis or sudden shock. Our job, therefore, is to keep Trump and his motley crew on the defensive, while being prepared at the same time to respond quickly and demonstrably to any power grab by them. And, hopefully, the support of people in high places, the corridors of power, and the mass media will do likewise.

4. Comey is against Trump, and I’m happy about that. While Comey is a member of the “deep state,” as I’m frequently reminded by commentators of the right as well as the left, he is also a patriot, as he understands that term, and a defender of bourgeois democratic governance and institutions. Both put him at loggerheads with Trump and his authoritarian brand of politics. Sometimes we forget that politics is messy and full of contradictions – a place of peculiar and impermanent bedfellows who find common cause, even if they don’t share the same motivations and aims. An opponent one day can become a friend the next.

In fact, during periods of progressive advance in the 20th century, social movements utilized such contradictions and temporary alliances to good effect. If we are smart, we will do much the same in these perilous times.

4. A recent article in the Washington Post returned to the much discussed subject of the makeup of Trump’s voters. The authors in their analysis stitch together statistical evidence to make the case that the majority of Trump supporters in last year’s primary and general election were other than working class.

“In short,” they write, “the narrative that attributes Trump’s victory to a ‘coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters’ just doesn’t square with the 2016 election data. According to the election study, white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.”

What I found interesting here is that even if their analysis is spot on, (and one could quarrel with their methodology), what goes unaddressed is the qualitative dimension of white workers’ voting decisions, that is, what accounts for the fact that a substantial section of white workers across income and education lines cast their ballot for Trump?

Not since the arch-segregationist George Wallace ran in the Democratic presidential primary in 1968 has a presidential candidate – now president – been so outspokenly, brazenly, and defiantly racist, misogynist, and anti-immigrant. So much so that to suggest that Trump’s message of in your face, unfiltered hate didn’t figure into the voting calculus of white workers who supported Trump bends credulity.

Some of these voters, I’m sure, agreed with every word that Trump uttered; others only with some of the hateful notes that he struck in his speeches; and still others, while not signing on to Trump’s vile message of hate, liked what he said on other matters. What stands out here isn’t a class in revolt, but an implosion of class understanding and retreat into white, nativist, masculinist identity and thinking. Even among the group who were motivated to vote for Trump for reasons other than his rhetoric of hate and division, they were still objectively throwing significant numbers of their class brothers and sisters under the bus.

In doing so, they, along with the other white workers who hitched themselves to Trump, violated an elementary maxim of the labor movement: An Injury to One is an Injury to All.

Or to put it a little differently, if we understand that class consciousness isn’t some ill defined anger at “elites” in high places, but rather is a mode of thinking that at its center includes, among other things, a keen awareness of the organic interlocking of class and democratic struggles (against racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, and more), one thing seems obvious: the class understanding of this group of white workers was nowhere to be found in their political and voting calculus. No supporter of labor should attempt to sugar coat this in the name of a specious partisanship.

Moreover, it is wrongheaded to argue that Hillary and the Democratic Party are singularly responsible for this turn of events. Such a posture is of little help, eliding as it does such things as the rise of the right and its reshaping of public discourse in a backward direction, the atomizing and disaggregating role at the mass level of neoliberal financialization and globalization, and the decline of working class collectivities — robust democratically driven unions in the first place.

Nor does such an analysis factor in the impact of relative advantage of white, male, and U.S. born workers in the workplace and society over workers of color, women workers, and immigrants, the intractability of segregation — especially in housing and education, the backlash to the breaking of long standing racial, gender, and sexual barriers, and the migration of workers and their families from the Global South in search of a livelihood to the core countries of capitalism.

Finally, consideration has to be given to the long term marginalization — partly self-imposed — of the left since the 1970s.

I would add that any hope of escaping the nightmare of Trump’s presidency and resuming the forward march of the working class and progressive movement will turn in no small measure on squarely facing the reality of the rise of retrogressive thinking among too many white workers and the confluence of factors that explain it.

5. The latest terrorist attack in London should be a reminder that the broad democratic and progressive movement (from Democrats to the radical left) can’t yield the issue of terrorism and its interpretation to Trump and the right in general. It must offer its own analysis and practical solutions. To cede this ground to the far right, who have turned the exploitation of senseless human tragedy and people’s understandable fears into an art form to promote their backward, inhumane agenda, would be a huge mistake. Terrorism isn’t likely to go away soon.

6. Left-center unity is a key strategic concept of STRUGGLE. It isn’t a final destination or a resting point. To the contrary, it is a dynamic vehicle to turn broad popular and working class unity from a wish into reality.

7. I have said before that fascism isn’t around the corner. In fact, the journey down that path isn’t easy, smooth, or inevitable. A lot of ducks have to be in a row at the level of the state and society. And it carries great risks and consequences. But this hasn’t stopped loose talk about the fascist (or neo-fascist) danger being imminent. This wouldn’t bother me too much were it not for the fact that it removes from the public conversation what is a more likely, that is, a push toward some intermediate position between where we are now and full-blown fascist government. It is this danger and the ways to prevent it that should preoccupy us.

 

Trump’s devil’s bargain

A first take: Yesterday’s disastrous — no hyperbole — announcement to withdraw from the climate change accord is of a piece with other retrograde statements and policy decisions over the past month by Trump and his acolytes. Trump, after some mixed signals in his first 100 days, appears to have made, not surprisingly, a devil’s bargain with the likes of Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and other right wing authoritarians in his administration and a fraction of the capitalist class, especially connected to the fossil fuel and military and military related industries.

While it’s never easy to divine what’s going on in Trump’s head, it is obvious that in decisively casting his lot with these miscreants he is endangering the lives of tens of millions and the sustainability of the planet. He is also taking a sledgehammer to our democracy. In his immediate crosshairs is the well being and safety of immigrants, people of color, and the poor. No deed is too dirty for Trump and his motley crew.

Meanwhile, his trip abroad last week — not to mention his long standing connections to Putin — gives every indication that his intention is to align his administration with right wing authoritarian, militarist, hyper-nationalist leaders and regimes in the world.

Fascism isn’t around the corner in my opinion. In fact, the journey down that path isn’t easy, smooth or inevitable. Among other things, it would be sure to meet massive resistance, as is evident from the current opposition to Trump coming from varied quarters, classes, constituencies. But at the same time, tendencies in that direction are unmistakable.

What makes things worse is the obsequious role of Republicans in Congress, although that is changing a bit and could change more under the impact of mass pressures, events, revelations of wrongdoing, and any erosion of Trump’s base.

If anything positive can be teased from this situation, it is this: the recent political thrust of Trump — his doubling down in a backward, reactionary, authoritarian direction — will come back to bite him sooner than he realizes. He doesn’t understand that what he is doing will likely greatly energize and broaden the opposition to his presidency and policies.

What to do? More of the same for sure. But that isn’t enough in these new circumstances. The struggle against Trump has to be raised to a new level. People not yet active have to be drawn into practical actions of one kind or another. Preparations for next year’s elections have to be stepped up. The vote has to be protected and expanded. The investigations into Trump-Russia ties and election manipulation has to be continue without White House interference. The immediate targets of Trump’s policies have to be defended. Coordinated mass actions on a bigger scale have to be organized. And, not least, anything that narrows down the opposition to Trump has to be rejected.

 

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