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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Trump and Sanders Absorbed by Establishment Agendas

Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran insurgent primary campaigns directed against their respective party elites and gained a following of millions, shaking the Democratic and Republican establishments and threatening the dominant neo-liberal order at home and challenging America’s global role. But, despite Trump’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate and Sanders’s victories in 22 states, it is increasingly clear that party elites are slowly winning back the initiative, using their enormous resources to manage and incorporate the challengers into politics as usual. The results are not identical in each party because the Right has greater salience in the GOP than does the Left in the Democratic party. Trump, therefore, has far more room for manoeuvre and can maintain more of his racialized style within the Right, boosted by the fundamental fact that he won the nomination without serious opposition. Sanders, on the other hand, lost, despite frightening Democratic leaders and is now actively backing Hillary Clinton as the progressive candidate America needs.

Yet, this process of selective incorporation and marginalisation is fraught with problems for party elites and the American electorate that has shown its deep disdain for the main political parties’ programmes, records and styles in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War and especially the relentless rise of income, wealth and power inequalities since the financial meltdown in Wall Street in 2008. A large part of Trump’s appeal echoes that of Bernie Sanders’s – of voiceless millions for whom the American dream is pure chimera.

Trump’s choice of conservative Mike Pence and Hillary Clinton’s of conservative Democrat Tim Kaine is a signal that the insurgencies are being defanged. Party elites may believe that they’ve successfully absorbed discontent through means both fair and foul; but the greater danger to the body politic and for America’s global role is for party elites to close their eyes to the massive undercurrents of political and economic discontent that the primaries and conventions have exposed. As Thomas Jefferson noted, a little rebellion from below is significant precisely because it provides a health-check of the political system, opening the way to reform. Ignoring the politics of mass discontent and returning to normalcy may merely store up an even greater explosion – of either Right, Left or both – in 2020 and beyond, crippling American politics and hamstringing its global power.

For Donald Trump to prove his seriousness as a presidential candidate and have any chance of governing the nation should he prove victorious has already forced him to compromise. His selection of Governor Mike Pence – a hard core Tea Party conservative close to the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, who have rejected Trump’s divisive anti-conservatism– is a major sop to party elites, contradicting the anti-conservative political base that Trump’s campaign championed. Mike Pence has alienated the LGBT community, organised labour, and backs lower taxes on the rich and corporations. Since his selection as running mate, he’s also backed Trump’s call to ban entry to Muslims from countries facing terror attacks. Trump’s recent declaration that his administration would reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act is not just an anti-Bill Clinton tactic but also an attempt to shore up his white working class political base and the pent up anger at Wall Street financiers. And party elites have moved reluctantly to accept Trump’s rhetoric and style with a view to be perceived as beyond reproach when or if the billionaire loses the election in November 2016.

Sanders’s incorporation is in fact the greater story of 2016. His role appears to be to bring into the Democratic fold an enthusiastic young electorate and other liberals, disappointed with President Obama’s refusal to challenge the powers that be, despite promises, and eager to change the politics of neoliberal order and challenge the militaristic role of the US in world politics. Yet, Sanders’s defeat was nowhere near total – hence his ability to win elements of his programme onto Clinton’s platform – on college tuition fees, a public option in healthcare reform, the future role of super delegates, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, a new unity commission on party democracy, and so on. Yet, he made only a minor, and probably temporary impression, on Clinton’s robust support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key element of Sanders’s campaign. But (Wiki) leaked emails showing the Machiavellian manoeuvring of the DNC’s leader, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, including trying to tap into Southern Baptists’ perceived anti-Semitism, against Sanders have led to her resignation, opening the way to further intra-party change. Claiming, with Clinton, that the party has the most progressive platform in its history, Sanders appears to be rowing back from calling for a new independent progressive party of the left. Even more than that, Sanders has acted as a cheer-leader for Hillary Clinton and made strenuous efforts to dampen the protests of the very people he mobilised in his campaign.

Bernie Sanders’s anti-Trump stance has helped Clinton promote herself as the last best hope for America, or the least worst. Yet, despite the strength of anti-party elite feeling during Sanders’s primary victories in 22 states, and millions of votes for an overtly ‘socialist’ programme, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate is a major blow to the insurgents. Kaine is a conservative Democrat, hawkish on the issues of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Islamic State, for full blown free trade that’s devastated working class communities and contributed to increasing inequality, and demands a soft line with Wall Street banks and money power, elements of which got him elected as Virginia’s senator in 2012, against a hard core tea party Republican.

In what has been a celebration of the last 8 years of Democratic control of the White House, Hillary Clinton has chosen to defy the millions who voted for Sanders and taken the strategy of winning the centre ground, gambling on anti-Trump feeling to draw Sanders’s supporters into her camp – they have nowhere else to go - by November. Rather than offering a vision to America or a new grand bargain to reduce the power of finance and of America’s global military deployments, Clinton has cautiously moved to court ‘moderate’ Republicans uncomfortable with the overtly racist and alienating character of Trump’s rhetoric and political base. She has chosen to ride two horses – declaring the party platform as the most progressive in its history while also suggesting she’s a safe pair of hands. Trump is now the more radical-sounding candidate in the 2016 general election even as he moves closer to GOP elites and Wall Street in search of desperately-needed election campaign funding.

By November 2016, America may face a choice between a programme of caution and the domestic and global status quo, and an anti-politics right winger claiming to speak for ordinary people while dividing them. Americans will choose from the lesser of two evils rather than a positive vision of economic renewal, popular empowerment, reduction of the power of big money, and a realistic approach to a changing global order.

The crisis of America’s elites is set to continue because they appear to have failed to account for the political earthquakes of 2016.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Whither the Trump Insurgency? Where it came from and where it’s headed

The American political system remains a mystery to most outsiders and, well, most Americans too. It’s perhaps not quite the Soviet Union which Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but one question that’s still common, even in the midst of the Republican party convention’s endorsement of Donald Trump, is how to explain where Trump’s popularity suddenly came from and, equally, where it might be headed. Wherever that may be, Trump appears to leave chaos, anger, and division in his wake. That might be his legacy.

C.D Jackson, President Dwight Eisenhower’s special assistant for psychological warfare, and former publisher of Fortune magazine, during the height of McCarthyism, noted that the American political system threw up characters like Joseph McCarthy, much to the bewilderment of America’s allies who feared for their alliance with so erratic a superpower.

“We are bound to get this kind of supercharged emotional freak from time to time,” Jackson commented. When a senator goes on the rampage, he opined, there is no party discipline to stop him. “Whether McCarthy dies by an assassin’s bullet or is eliminated in the normal American way of getting rid of boils on the body politic… by our next meeting he will be gone from the American scene.” He was reassuring European political and business elites at a Bilderberg conference at McCarthyism’s height that American power was safe for the world and could manage such “supercharged emotional freaks”.

The key issue is whether Donald Trump represents a tendency that will crash and burn or leave a longer term imprint on America’s political future. There is a deep anti-establishment strain in American history open to exploitation for personal ends at times of crisis. The political opportunism that harnesses that anti-elitist populism may be worked from the Left or Right but it should not be dismissed: there is something very deep at the root of the phenomenon which real leaders and politics must, ultimately, reckon with. What makes demagogues so effective is that they identify and work to crystallise and harness a widespread sense of something being wrong with the ‘system’ – a rigged system run by and for fat-cats and high ups at the expense of ordinary hard-working Americans. And at least some of those demagogue-led movements have left an indelible mark on American political life, for better or worse.

Joe McCarthy’s apprentice?
Donald Trump’s rhetoric about enemies at the gates, or within the fortress itself – Mexicans, Muslims – echoes McCarthyite exaggerations of the influence of communists in all walks of American life, including among the pin-striped elite at the State Department. Communists, like minorities etc…, it was claimed, were eating away at America, ‘taking over the country’ and subverting its values. Yet, there was a lot more to McCarthyism than opposition to ‘communism’ per se – it was also, more specifically, a Republican movement aimed at extirpating the programmes of the New Deal – a programme of massive state intervention due to the 1930s depression – and the increased power of organised labour and the left more generally. Communism was the rhetorical enemy – the effective political enemy was left-liberalism which, by the late 1940s, also embraced the civil rights agenda – racial equality.

Trump’s taken McCarthyism and its techniques to a new level. Not only is Trump a more effective orator than McCarthy, he is also a master of modern media manipulation methods, part of which he owes to his years of hosting The Apprentice. In addition to his short attention span, and off-hand outbursts that seem to divert right-wing media, he also owes a debt of gratitude to McCarthy’s political aide, the late Roy Cohn, a brusque New York City lawyer. According to Cohn’s lover, Trump was Cohn’s apprentice: “I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly,” said Peter Fraser: “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.” Cohn also taught Trump how to keep himself in the media’s gaze by constantly making headlines with exaggerated claims and refusing publicly to back down. And, like McCarthy, Trump argues that the enemies of the American people reside at the very pinnacle of power – in the person of President Obama, the ultimate liberal, minority un-American.

A Barry Goldwater ‘Extremist’?
Unlike McCarthy, who soared in the US Senate for a few years but plummeted once he attacked the integrity of the American military, and brought anti-communism into disrepute, Trump is the Republican nominee for president. In that regard, perhaps a better comparison might be Barry Goldwater? A right-wing conservative, Goldwater, who opposed civil rights legislation, went down to spectacular defeat to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 – with the latter winning 61% of the votes and 486 electoral college votes (of a possible 538). He also divided opinion in the GOP establishment. Republican ‘moderate’ Nelson Rockefeller, like Ted Cruz with Donald Trump, refused to endorse the nomination of Goldwater.

Current opinion polls – for what they’re worth - suggest Donald Trump losing to Hillary Clinton in November 2016. But as conservative commentator George Will put it, “Barry Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future”. Within a few years, the Goldwater brand of conservatism became the battering ram that put an end to the liberal New Deal era and inspired Reaganomics as well as the politics of the George W. Bush administrations. And Goldwater championed a form of straight talk that Trump practices: “I think a guy running for office who says exactly what he really thinks would astound a hell of a lot of people around the country.” And Goldwater uttered the lines that ultimately condemned him as too dangerous to be in control of America’s nuclear weapons: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The extremist label stuck and brought down Goldwater in 1964 but future Republicans crafted a new politics as a result of lessons learned. Trump’s convention speech suggested extremism in the defence of US interests is acceptable.

And therein lies a key lesson: Goldwater won five southern states on a conservative platform attacking racial equality that led to the development of a winning ‘southern strategy’ under Richard Nixon. Despite likely defeat in November 2016, could Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, male chauvinism and appeal to sections of a disenfranchised white working class provide a model for a future Republican ascendancy?

A George Wallace-Style One Man Wall?
Donald Trump employs a mixture of McCarthyite smears, Goldwater’s straight-talk, and pro-segregationist George Wallace-style xenophobia. Wallace ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968. A firm believer in racial segregation and law and order, Wallace’s America First foreign policy has echoes in Trump’s rhetoric: Wallace promised to take US troops out of Vietnam if the war was unwinnable within 90 days of his taking office. He also declared foreign-aid money “poured down a rat hole” and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their own defence. At home, he stood as a one-man wall, barring the doors of the University of Alabama to black students: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," was his rallying cry.

Trump: Doing a Deal with Party Elites?
Unlike some other maverick candidates, however, Trump, who’s secured the Republican nomination for the presidency, appears willing to build bridges to party elites, and the feeling is broadly (though not exclusively) mutual. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s choice of vice presidential running mate signals the way back into the good books of GOP elites. “Someone respected by the establishment and liked by the establishment would be good for unification,” Trump commented. “I do like unification of the Republican Party,” despite a campaign of vilification of practically everything for which party elites stand for. Pence tried to illegally ban Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana, is a staunch defender of the pro-gun lobby, voted against healthcare reform, supported tax cuts to the wealthy and large corporations, capped the minimum wage for the low paid, is an enthusiastic union buster. In short, he’s a darling of the Republican elite, a label Trump now desires for himself. But GOP grandees like the Bushes have refused to attend the convention, while several delegations refused to endorse Trump’s nomination.

The danger for Trump is that he’s got to where he is by defying party leaders, and rejecting the conservative model associated with smaller government and lower taxes: something that his white working class base roundly rejected in the primaries. Pence is a tea partier, hardcore social conservative who’s religious freedom bill would have permitted bosses from refusing employment to gays. The ‘rigged system’ that Trump has railed against has just worked its magic and lured the maverick into the GOP’s embrace. Trump desires power more than he cares for the views of the voters who propelled him to presumptive nominee. He’s doing a deal. The betrayal of his political base has already begun, whatever he may say about reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act to split investment from savings’ banks.
Newt Gingrich, arch-conservative former speaker of the House of Representatives, suggests that Trump is unique in the annals of American politics. “Donald Trump has been in politics now for slightly over 12 months. It’s unbelievable.” That may be true but, like George Wallace, Trump’s popularity seems to be the spasm of a dying movement and demographic, the death throes of a racial system that has an uncertain future. The demographics of America, heading towards a white minority nation, and of the ‘racial’ re-distribution of world power, condemns Trump, and Trumpism, to a slow but lingering death. But it can still exert real influence as the passion, alienation, inequality, and revenge that fuels it is unlikely fully to be extinguished.
It is not another boil that can be removed from the American body politic but the remnants of a racialized white identity politics driven by the deeply felt loss of “their” country. It may never be more than an angry and vociferous minority but it will remain a force in the political fabric of American politics and, possibly, the basis of a new political organisation of the white radical right. Even more dangerous is the prospect of this newly-empowered faction’s permanent installation in the upper echelons of the Republican Party.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

“UK foreign policy since 1940 is as much to blame for Iraq as Blair”

The Chilcot report on the Iraq War has rightly criticised former UK prime minister Tony Blair for misrepresentations on a consistent basis. Blair exaggerated threat levels of non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), backed the United States’ war plans regardless of diplomatic initiatives seeking peaceful outcomes, and improperly equipped British troops once the occupation began. This has led to the denunciation of the war as neo-colonial by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and renewed calls for Blair to be charged with war crimes or crimes against peace by others.

While Tony Blair was pivotal in British decisionmaking that led to aggression against Iraq in March, 2003, he was hardly alone in promoting close alliance with the United States and the case for outright military intervention for regime change. Not only did the then Tory opposition support war on Iraq, Conservative leader David Cameron endorsed violent regime change. Indeed, apart from Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the House of Commons in opposition to the ‘false prospectus’ on which the Labour Government pinned its strategy, support for the war was strong throughout the political and state elite – military, intelligence, and other. And Iraq was hardly the first time that Britain had hitched its war machine to the United States.

Indeed, if we place Iraq in the sweep of post-1945 history, and in the context of a powerful British foreign policy establishment that sprang from the imperial era and became allied with US power elites after 1940, Blair appears as another example of Conservative and Labour leaders’ attempts to hang on to global influence through a one-sided ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Far from being exceptional, as Chilcot claims, the Iraq War stands in a long line of Anglo-American imperial violence in the global south in increasingly desperate bids to maintain Western supremacy. We need only to think of the Korean War, Vietnam (in which Labour leader Harold Wilson provided diplomatic and other support to the US), the first Gulf War, and support for repressive regimes the world over, including the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and ensuing chaos in Libya since 2011, to see that the Iraq war and Tony Blair are part of a broader pattern of Anglo-American military violence. Focusing on Blair alone obscures the bigger picture and makes impossible, by venting against one man alone, a truly illuminating understanding of British foreign policy.    

"The UK's commitment of resources - financial, military, diplomatic - in support of US global priorities remains unparalleled", according to a (Wiki) leaked US state department cable. Britain, it went on, is able and willing to fight wars in faraway lands alongside the United States and mobilising allies. This makes Britain almost indispensable to the US. To former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague, America was the "essential" nation to which Britain turned. The Anglo-Saxon powers had broadly shared interests in the global order which, after all, they had constructed during and after the Second World War – Bretton Woods, United Nations, IMF, World Bank, Marshall Plan, NATO, among others. While these arrangements suited the West, global poverty in the ‘Third World’ continued apace. 

The foundations of the post-1945 order were laid during World War II. According to Cabinet papers, the key decisions were made in 1944 over whether to pursue a pro-empire or pro-American foreign policy. Choosing the empire “will be regarded by the Americans as a Declaration of War…” at a time when the empire itself was disintegrating and its parts leaning towards the USA. And the USA would “certainly make economic war upon us. So much has been made clear to us. And the armoury of the United States is a very powerful one.” Britain signed up to the US-dominated Bretton Woods system because it seemed the best means to preserve its global influence as its imperial power waned.

This is why ‘socialist’ Labour leader Clement Attlee sent to Korea thousands of British servicemen despite the military chiefs of staff indicating that Korea was of little economic or strategic value to British interests. The war – waged under the banner of the fledgling United Nations – lasted three years and led to over 3 million Korean and Chinese deaths, tens of thousands of American and British fatalities. It ended in stalemate – a cease-fire remains in place today dividing the north from south. Using the precise words used by Tony Blair in 2003, Attlee announced that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder,” with the US; wherever the Stars and Stripes flew, the Union Jack would be alongside it.

Two imperial powers – one in denial about its decline, the other hubristic, inexperienced imperial masters of the universe – trying to order the world to maintain a ‘liberal order’ through unrestrained violence – featuring napalm and relentless aerial bombing of a rural country with rudimentary weapons – teaching the communists a lesson, and repeating the same thing in Vietnam a few short years later.

Decades later, not much had changed. Concluding his unofficial enquiry into the first Gulf War, former US attorney general, Ramsay Clark, declared the Anglo-American bombing campaign as “the most sophisticated and violent air assault in history against a virtually defenceless people.”

Chilcot’s narrowness of vision is probably understandable – one could hardly expect it to look at a broader pattern of history or the place of Iraq in the world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But on that basis to declare the Iraq war exceptional and therefore no source of lessons for the future, and for the media to focus so intently on the person of Tony Blair, pivotal though he was, is a major flaw both practically and for our understanding of the dynamics of Anglo-American power. It renders Iraq unique, and places blame on one man, when it is plain to see that Blair’s behaviour fits a long historical pattern within an imperial world view that continues to saturate the British foreign policy establishment.