by Paul Street TruthDig Jan 9, 2019
As the United States lurches toward its 2020 presidential election cycle, it is useful to revisit the central tension of Donald Trump’s presidency. I’m speaking, of course, about his phony populism and the politico-financial establishment’s utter contempt for his political ascent. As the Democratic field slowly takes shape, the question now is whether the ruling class has finally had enough.
This is not to suggest that these elites dislike Trump for the same reasons a Truthdig reader might. Those who stand atop the nation’s power structures have long been comfortable with American corruption, patriarchy, racism and outright sociopathy. For evidence, look no further than the disparate presidencies of the so-called American century.
No, what’s different and problematic for our country’s oligarchs is that while the presidency has long served America’s imperial interests, it has typically done so while purporting to stand for something more noble. The U.S. government and, above all, its executive branch, are expected to masquerade as forces for “good”—democracy, liberty and peace, at least in the abstract, and an outwardly multilateralist management of world affairs.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both Ivy League law school graduates, were skilled and telegenic masters of that ruse. Even the comparatively dimwitted George W. Bush had the basic courtesy to cover his hideous machinations in Iraq with the rhetoric of freedom. “Dubya” knew better than to openly and theatrically boast of U.S. arms sales to the murderous and absolutist rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Trump is a new and different kind of presidential animal. He makes no pretense of himself, the presidency or the United States being about anything more than mercenary and socio-pathological self-interest. He gives not one flip about racial and ethnic diversity, equality or the state of global affairs, much less the fate of our planet.
Trump openly mocks and assaults science, expertise and intellectual rigor, denying the obviously anthropogenic nature of our climate crisis. Openly assaulting the very notion of veracity, he repeats the same false statements long after they’ve been proven false by exhausted reporters.
The president adamantly refuses to pretend that he, his office or the nation he represents lay any special claim to the notions of dignity or integrity. He eschews civility and graciousness, instead basking in an Archie Bunker-like disregard for political correctness. And he continues to use his Twitter account to pounce on his perceived personal and political enemies, turning Washington into an “Apprentice”-style (un)reality show.
Trump embodies what we might call American unexceptionalism, behaving like one of the bizarre and petulant Third World dictators the U.S. has long sponsored around the world.
But beyond being bad for the brand, Trump brazenly flouts ruling-class institutions and conventions. He does not consult the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council, the Wilson Center or the Brookings Institution on foreign or domestic policy. He doesn’t read policy briefs or white papers from establishment think tanks.
Instead, he prefers to take advice from fellow wacky billionaires and right-wing media personalities with whom he regularly consults by phone late at night, alone in his bedroom, or via Fox News. He claims to know more about developments in other nations than his own top generals and spooks.
It is unimaginable that any previous U.S. president would have defied his own intelligence agencies’ finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Or stood next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki to say that he believed the Russian president—and not the CIA—when he said that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Neither would any previous American president have deployed troops to the southern border in a transparent attempt to rally Republican voters on the eve of a midterm election. Or shut down the federal government, possibly “for years,” in Trump’s words, if Congress doesn’t give him the money to build a useless wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ultimately, Trump is the first man to ascend to the post-WWII U.S. presidency from outside the global consensus. In and of itself, that has been an incredible development, bothersome indeed to the United States’ economic and military establishment. (The bad news, for the rest of us, is that he emerged from the white nationalist right rather than the egalitarian and social democratic left.)
Still, there are real limits to the establishment’s discomfort with Trump, who has been useful to the nation’s rulers and owners in four key ways.
First, for all his talk of protectionism, Trump is a rapacious neoliberal who has rewarded the 1 percent with personal and corporate tax cuts, as well as deregulation designed to funnel wealth upward. The superrich and their retainers in Washington have been willing to tolerate his misbehavior because his policies have lined their pockets.
Second, the endless Trump circus functions to divert the masses from the corporate looting that his administration and much of Congress is advancing behind the scenes to devastating effect.
Third, even as he serves the moneyed elite, the mendacious mogul currently occupying the White House has been deceptively labeled a “populist.” His base is widely (and, for the most part, falsely) considered to be “the working class”—the white and “heartland” working class more specifically.
The ruling class especially likes that. It allows it to point out what happens when the rabble is allowed to run rampant in politics, without proper checks and balances from the top down. It also gives it cover to suppress the genuine populism it fears most—democratic socialism. Unlike the reactionary “populism” of the right, which directs its rage at vulnerable communities, Bernie Sanders and his ilk are seriously and substantively opposed to corporate plutocracy and its enablers in the professional class.
Fourth, Trump’s awfulness lowers the bar for whoever might replace him in the White House. “Anybody but Trump” is understandable, but it opens the door for millions of Americans to gratefully welcome a Wall Street Democrat like Joe Biden, a cipher like Beto O’Rourke or, perish the thought, Hillary Rodham Clinton herself.
Anybody-but-Trumpism is hard to resist, given the creeping fascism of our current president, but it intensifies the deadly superficiality of a candidate-selection process that functions to elect presidents well to the right of actual majority-progressive public opinion. And it marginalizes a genuine progressive like Sanders, who would likely have defeated Trump in 2016.
So could the dual pressures of the working and corporate classes end Trump’s presidency before the 2020 elections, whether through impeachment, the 25th Amendment or resignation? Up until last year, I felt highly confident in saying, “Not a chance,” given the durability of his base and Republican control of the Senate, where 67 votes are required to remove a president following impeachment in the House.
But things have changed radically since November.
- The Mueller investigation, which likely contains blockbuster findings, is finally coming to a head—this after guilty pleas from Trump’s former campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, his former national security advisor, his personal lawyer and a bevy of lesser players, all of whom have turned state’s evidence on their former boss. It is distinctly possible that the final report will reveal Trump has engaged in criminal and impeachable activities.
- Longtime fixer Michael Cohen named the president as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in criminal payoffs meant to keep Trump’s sexual peccadillos out of the media on the eve of the 2016 election.
- Robert Mueller’s inquiry has invited separate inquiries into Trump’s business practices, his administration and his associates. Subjects include obstruction of justice, money laundering, influence peddling by Gulf monarchies, and corruption in Trump’s inauguration committee. It’s about much more than just alleged collusion with Russia.
- The midterm elections damaged Trump’s stature in Washington, with the record Democratic turnout a referendum on his chaotic presidency.
- The new Democrat-controlled House will bombard the administration with subpoenas, document requests and hearings that will certainly produce new disclosures of corruption, both in the executive branch and the Trump organization.
- Numerous key White House personnel, including a chief of staff and a secretary of defense, have all but quit in disgust, and Trump is finding it difficult to fill the vacancies.
- Top Republicans who were once strong Trump backers have publicly criticized some of his recent actions, including his unflagging support of the Saudi kingdom after the gory murder of Khashoggi, as well as his abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. These Republicans have expressed open dismay over former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation.
- Trump’s approval rating has recently fallen to its lowest level since he infamously acknowledged “good people on both sides” of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017.
- U.S. stock markets just had their worst December since the Great Depression, with top financial analysts reporting widespread concern that Trump’s trade policies—above all his trade war with China—could bring on a recession.
- Economic turmoil seems ever more imminent, something that will sink Trump’s approval rating to new lows, making him more of a liability than ever to many Senate and House Republicans.
- An unhinged, increasingly isolated Trump has opened the new year with a ridiculous and highly unpopular government shutdown that has left roughly 800,000 federal workers without paychecks—all in the name of a preposterous wall along the southern border.
All of this and more could convince the rich and Republican elites that Trump’s presidency poses clear and present dangers to their economic and political bottom lines, and that it is therefore time to unseat him before the next national elections. Whether he stays or goes, however, the American ruling class is likely to escape a long-overdue rebellion that transcends the narrow confines of U.S. electoral and constitutional politics.