Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Trump as Mirage

Trump As Mirage
P. Schultz

            Donald Trump is a mirage. He is a mirage of health and a mirage of power. As such, he – and others – obscures the most important question that should be addressed in the upcoming election.

            The most important issue is: What is the state of the United States these days? Are we healthy or diseased? Are we powerful or weak? Trump’s message is that we are healthy, we are powerful, if only we would recognize these things. Trump’s message is not all that different from Obama’s message – “Yes We Can” – when he ran for the presidency in 2008. And both messages are appealing because they suggest that, essentially or deep down, everything is or can be good for the United States. “It’s all good,” as one current phrase has it these days.

            The unspoken assumption for this kind of politics is that there is nothing fundamentally defective about the United States these days. That is, its principles, i.e., its political, economic, and social principles are sound, even exceptional. They are principles that should be universalized, that deserve to be universalized. And they can be universalized ala’ “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again.”

            But what if, as people seem to sense, America is diseased, not healthy, weak, not powerful? What if the American empire, established after World War II, is crumbling, losing its vitality, and using up its resources in a vain attempt to maintain itself in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria? What if the task that should be undertaken is accommodating the demise of our predominance in the world, rather than vainly trying to resist this situation?

            Insofar as this is our situation, then what Trump offers is a mirage. That is, the allegedly hard-headed realist, the no-nonsense businessman, the allegedly “tell like it is” spokesperson, is peddling illusions, is offering us a politics of fantasy, much like those fantasies offered up by Hollywood such as “Star Wars” or “Revenant.” Unlike Hollywood’s fantasies, which harm no one, not even the animals used in the filming, Trump’s fantasies, his illusions, will do great harm to many, both here and abroad.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Washington: Decayed, Not Broken

Washington: Decayed, Not Broken
P. Schultz

            In lingo that is current and has been for some time now, it is said often that “Washington,” meaning our political order or system, “is broken.” So, many of those now residing and practicing politics in Washington say that it needs to be “fixed,” as if the government were a mechanical device and politicians were mechanics. But this is inaccurate. Our political order is not broken; it is decayed. It doesn’t need to be fixed; it needs to be reborn.

            What does this mean, to say our political order is decayed? Quite simply, it means that that order no longer serves those it is intended to serve, “the people,” meaning most people in the US, while it does serve the interests of those few with power, what might be called our “ruling class.” This ruling class comprehends both of our major political parties as well as those institutions and individuals who have the greatest impact on how the nation is governed. All political orders – what I like to call “regimes” - eventually decay, which is why the Declaration of Independence says that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  This means, among other things, that any form or kind of government, any regime, not only may but will become destructive of that end all governments should pursue, viz., securing the “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

            That our political order is decayed is noticed across the political spectrum, e.g., by both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement.  Both of these movements, each in its own way, reject the current regime, because while this regime claims to be providing for “the people,” providing security, prosperity, and freedom, its actual goal or at least its effect is to “stifle” the people, to oppress them for the sake of maintaining the status quo, that is, their own power, wealth, and status.

            So, while the Tea Party and the Occupy movement differ in that the Tea Party would dismantle the current arrangements of power while the Occupy movement would take over those powers, and even expand some of them, both want us to provide for ourselves and each other, thereby displacing the current “providers.”  In other words, both of these movements know that the current regime is decayed and needs to be remade or reborn. They also sense that reform is insufficient insofar as it is merely patchwork. That which is decayed cannot be saved by patchwork, no matter how sophisticated it might seem to be. Rather, the decayed must be discarded and replaced by something healthy, something fresh, something new.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Trump World: A World of Losers

Trump World: A World of Losers
P. Schultz

            Below is a link to an op-ed that appeared in the NY Times, written by Frank Bruni, arguing that Donald Trump has an “existential pickle,” which he put himself in by using the term “loser” to describe his rivals and others with whom he disagrees. Bruni argues that this puts Trump in a position where he cannot lose without actually destroying his campaign. Once he becomes a “loser,” as he might by finishing second in Iowa, Trump is, Bruni thinks, finished.

            There are at least two interesting aspects to Bruni’s column. First, he doesn’t seem to understand that the term “loser” as Trump uses it does not refer to actual events or whether a person is successful or not. For example, as Bruni points out, Bill Maher, Howard Stern, and Karl Rove are “losers” in “Trump world” and all three are and have been quite successful. No, for Trump, the concept of “loser” refers to character, to what a person is rather than to what a person does, to whether a person is successful or not. So, if Trump finishes second in Iowa, he doesn’t become, as Bruni thinks he will become, a “loser” because Trump, by self definition, isn’t a “loser” and cannot become one because he happens to be unsuccessful in a particular event or at a moment of time. “Losers” are losers whether they win or lose and “winners” are winners whether they lose or win, at least in Trump World.

            But there is another aspect to Bruni’s column that, to me, is even more interesting, viz., that it is devoid of any criticism, sustained criticism, of Trump’s politics. As this is not unique to Bruni, as others quite frequently criticize Trump’s tone or his abrasiveness rather than his politics, this should give one pause to wonder why. Could it be that Trump’s politics aren’t as far from the mainstream as some want to think and, so, those in the mainstream, those who embrace mainstream politics like Bruni, cannot offer any sustained critique of Trump’s politics? Could it be that his politics makes Trump rather impervious to criticism, just as it was his politics that made Ronald Reagan the “teflon president,” as he was so often described? Both were much more mainstream than their critics realized, who then attributed to them a special something that protected them from meaningful criticisms.

            Insofar as this makes any sense, it would mean that we need to question, to subject to criticism, sustained criticism, our mainstream politics. Could it be, as reflected by Trump’s success and his rhetoric, that our politics is best described as “mainstream extremism?” That would make for an interesting situation.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Obama and the State of the Status Quo

Obama and the State of the Status Quo
P. Schultz

            As some might expect, President Obama’s state of the union address was just more of the same. As is said often: “Same shit, different day.” Why do I say this?

            Most importantly, I say this because Obama did nothing to change the terms of our political debate, leaving us in the same political eddy we have been left in for the past 8 years and beyond. As a result we go round and round, getting nowhere, while the current ruling class – which encompasses both Republicans and Democrats – sounds out the all-too-familiar mantra, “Washington is broken,” as if Washington was a machine and not a collection of human beings with free will. If Washington is “broken,” then it is so because our ruling class prefers it that way. And they do because it is in this way that they can preserve their power, maintain their grip on the government, while doing little or nothing to “fix” D.C.

            Here is an assessment of the state of the union from a Republican strategist, taken from a NY Times article analyzing the president’s speech:

“It’s increasingly clear the anxiety voters feel is not just economic,” said Sara Fagen, a Republican strategist. “They are concerned with what they perceive as a weakened America on the world stage. They believe that even if America was leading, the rest of the world would not follow us. Obama’s actions on Iran, Syria and Russia have done nothing to assuage that fear.”

            Now, the interesting thing about this assessment is that it is made in the same terms that Obama used in his speech, the only difference being that Obama claimed that some people were too fearful, that the U.S. was still strong and still the world’s leading nation. But, says the Republican strategist, no, the U.S. is not strong enough and, hence, is not really leading the rest of the world. So, there you have it, two arguments that are exactly alike, viz., it is strength and leadership that defines the state of our union. More strength, a more healthy union. More leadership, a more healthy union.

            Ah, but this is not what the American people are anxious about. As the Times article points out, “two out of three Americans still feel the country is on the wrong path.” Note should be taken: The U.S. is on the wrong path. That is, increasing our power in order to exercise world leadership is the wrong path. The American people are anxious about the status quo, that is, the path the country is presently on. Why? Well, for example, “because the gains of the last few years have not been distributed evenly. Income disparities have grown worse. The poverty rate is 14.8 percent, higher than when Mr. Obama took office.” The American people are also anxious about wars that have dragged on and on and on, with few signs of progress, while American troopers die or are maimed and billions and billions of dollars are spent in these endless wars.

            This is why people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both men not known as mainstream characters, are as popular as they are. This is why our political drama has the intensity it has, why many events, which could seem to be of minor importance, seem to take on an importance far beyond their actual significance.

            But Obama and the Republicans both fail to address these concerns, trying to preserve the status quo, that is, a politics that uses divisiveness to ensure that the government stays on the path that the U.S. is currently on, because to do otherwise, would threaten their power and the regime they control. If this seems to you like a losing game in the long run, it seems so to me also. A question is: What will happen when this game is lost? It is an interesting situation.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Richard Nixon and the Tragedy of American Politics

Richard Nixon and the Tragedy of American Politics
P. Schultz

            I have just finished reading an excellent book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner, one of my favored authors. Weiner has also written books on the FBI, entitled Enemies, and on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA. All of these are excellent books.

            Weiner’s latest on Nixon is quite gripping and enlightening with regard to Richard Nixon and his presidency. Drawing on the Nixon tapes and oral histories given by those who were involved in the affairs of the times, Weiner reveals just how “dark” Nixon could get and, interestingly, just how insecure this man actually was. As his presidency was going down the tubes, as is said, Nixon actually fell apart, being replaced by the likes of Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger as those who were in control of the government. Moreover, it becomes clear that Nixon as not nearly as intelligent as he thought he was and as some have made him out to be. What became known as the Watergate scandal and especially the subsequent cover-up that Nixon attempted was actually little more than one mistake after another, mistakes usually made by Nixon himself. After all, if Nixon had at the outset taken charge, admitted that the burglary had been undertaken by his “CREEPs,” and then fired everyone involved – and maybe some who weren’t involved - while claiming that he would never approve or even condone such behavior, he could have survived, even maybe have prospered.

            So, a question arises: Why did Nixon not take such action? Surely, it would have crossed his mind to do so and certainly the benefits of such action would have also occurred to him. Why did he undertake to cover-up something that he could have seized upon, while easily separating himself from its perpetrators, and preserved his presidency?  It is a question to which I have no answer but it leads to an interesting aspect to Weiner’s book, viz., its melodramatic character.

            Weiner sees Nixon as a deeply flawed human being, so deeply flawed that his life, at least his political life, was tragic. This is reminiscent of other accounts of other American politicians, e.g., Oliver Stone’s account of John F. Kennedy in his book, The Untold History of the United States, or of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, recently published. It is also reminiscent of her book on Lyndon Baines Johnson. In brief, this is a characteristic found generally in accounts of American politicians, especially those of recent vintage.

            But there is room to wonder whether such accounts are as enlightening as they seem to be. For example, here is how Weiner concludes his book in the epilogue. It is worth quoting at length.

            “Richard Nixon fought wars he could not win, feared his enemies at home would defeat him, and felt unconstrained by law when he sought to destroy them first. That belief led him to break his oath of office and violate the Constitution. He permanently damaged people’s respect for the presidency, a danger in a democracy.

            “And now his legacy is all around us.

            “Some presidents who succeeded Nixon never seemed to learn. Ronald Reagan ran covert wars overseas with clandestine funds. His top national security aides were indicted, then pardoned, by George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury. George W. Bush’s abuses of power dwarfed Nixon’s – secret prisons, sanctioned torture, limitless eavesdropping, all supported by presidential fiat and secret statutes, aided and abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney. Barack Obama’s administration tormented more reporters and their sources under threat of subpoena or prison than Nixon’s ever did. In America, now more than ever, campaign cash from corporate magnates controls elections.” [p. 315]

            Now, given this state of affairs, isn’t it necessary to ask whether Richard Nixon wasn’t just a reflection of the American political order, how it functions, and how it has to function to “work?” That is, there was nothing all that unique about Richard Nixon and the way he thought about, talked about, and did politics, little that distinguished him from others who occupied the presidency, the pinnacle of the American political order. He rose to the pinnacle of that political order, occupied it with some distinction, all the while practicing the kind of politics required by established regime.

            The problem with a melodramatic account of Richard Nixon, as also with such accounts of other American politicians, is that they obscure the character of the established political order. As a result, the impression is created that Richard Nixon, for example, was an aberration, that his actions should be traced to him rather than to the political order which led him to behave as he did. So, as Weiner’s title indicates, it was “The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.” But it could be this is too sanguine; it could that it wasn’t simply Nixon’s tragedy. It could be that it was and is “The Tragedy of the American Political Order.”