Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Postmodern Dystopic: One Year/Year One of the Trump Presidency

President Donald J. Trump & former FBI
Director James Comey, January 22, 2017
(Photo © NBC News)
On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. His presidency really began, however, on the night of the national election last fall on November 8, 2016, when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton, by a 77 vote margin in the Electoral College and despite a loss of nearly 2,868,691 popular votes. Or, one might even argue, it began before he was formally elected, while Barack Obama was still the legal president, when Trump's rise signaled a shift, long underway, in our election process and public discourse that his victory only confirmed. In saying this I am not referring to the now steadily amassing body of evidence that suggests that Russia involved itself extensively in the 2016 election, and had numerous ties of various sorts to the Trump campaign. What I am suggesting is that Trump's ascent, from his declaration of his candidacy in the summer of 2015 forward, marked him out as the emblem not only of the contemporary Republican Party, for which he is the standard bearer, but underlined where our politics and society had begun to head during latter years of Bill Clinton's and all of George W. Bush's presidency, and which has found its true tribune in him.

Before I say anything more, let me note that I have found these last 12 months so exasperating, depressing, maddening, and absurd to the point of outright laughter by turns--though I have also been trying to convey in personal conversations that in some ways they still do not approach the insanities of 2001-2008, a period this country has still not recovered from, which in part has made Trump's rise possible--that I have not registered here, as I once might have, every significant outrage committed by this president or his allies and defenders. First, there are too many and they come in such steady and heavy flurries that they would make a snow-cloud jealous. Second, it really would require someone with the patience of Job--or an army of fact-checkers--to keep up with the daily tide of lies, misstatements, half-truths, and misinformation, let alone the innumerable questionable and potentially actionable violations of rules and laws that this administration seems to engage in. We currently have one major political party, the Republicans, who hold all the reins of federal power, utterly in his thrall, and a second, the opposition Democrats, who still have not reckoned with the opponent they face nor with the shifts in the broader social and public discourse that demand that the the Democrats change how they function in order not just to remain a viable party for the future, but a potential backstop against the complete dismantling of our society.

On October 2016, as I watched the election unfold, I wrote a post entitled "Our Postmodern Election(s)." (Jeet Heer later wrote an article in New Republic that expounded on some of these themes while exploring other ones in relation to this president.) It had its limitations, and on the key point of Trump's electability, I was wrong. One of my dear colleagues recently decried the idea that Republicans, let alone this president, have taken up postmodernism and run with it, though I think it is a foregone conclusion that they have, and as I tried to assert in that earlier blogpost, the postmodern condition (and, in many ways, an essentially neoliberal framework) underpins our entire society, including our politics, so it is not merely the GOP that has adopted and warped a postmodern worldview, but, more broadly, it defines this society itself to an estimable degree. I won't restate that post, but I think it's fair to say that "truth" has no fundamental relationship to how Donald Trump operates, unless one takes the Platonic (in the sense of his The Republic) and, perhaps more correctly, Nietzschean views that truth is what the ruler--or Übermensch--or similar corporate entities declare it to be.

In fact, as Trump has made clear for decades and especially over the last few years, especially with his championing of the Birther conspiracy, verifiable factualness, material evidence, reasoned argumentation, and science-based statistics have no bearing whatsoever on what he believes, let alone how he acts and moves through the world. Yet it is not Trump, but large numbers of Americans who reject verifiable facts, appeals to any authority but that of their feelings and those who agree with them, even what we might call objective reality itself. Additionally, both the mainstream media, by manufacturing consent (as Noam Chomsky brilliant argued years ago) and "normalizing" Trump's actions, and numerous parallel organs of reportage and pseudo-reportage, have served to make a muddle, at least for a sizable number of people, of what "truth" might look like. Figures like Steve Bannon and Mike Cernovich are quite aware of the tenets of postmodernism, as the latter pointed out in a New Yorker profile earlier this year, and have made great use of them. This is a feature, not a bug, of how they and the Right have come to operate.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Dr. Ben Carson, at his confirmation hearings
(Copyright © NBC News)

In that earlier post, I did not believe that American voters would elect Trump. Or rather, that enough white voters would not be so appalled by his campaign and behavior that they would vote against him. (My predictions about the Senate were closer to how things actually turned out.) As I say above, I was wrong. Despite admitting that he had forcibly kissed women and groped their private parts without their permission, while also pursuing married women "like a bitch," he received 52% of white women's votes. Since taking office, he has lurched from crisis to crisis, now so numerous it's hard to keep track of them. In this regard, he has made Obama's first year, which included addressing inherited national and global financial crises and multiple wars, while also trying to pass a stimulus bill, a comprehensive health insurance bill, and a bill to rein in Wall Street's excesses, look like paint drying. Trump's first year has also transformed the slow-rolling catastrophe of Bush's inaugural year into a series of surprising but nevertheless dull anecdotes, 9/11 notwithstanding. In January I thought about regularly posting on the Trump administrations scandals, which seemed to be accruing as soon as he entered the Oval Office, and then again, after his first 100 days, which seemed to mark yet another low-point in his tenure. But one could pick any point over the last 11 months, or before, to find evidence of the debacle this presidency is turning out to be, and so it might perhaps be best to say that like the classic figure of synecdoche, any point is representative of the whole, and metonymically, the Trump administration is synonymous with corruption, disruption, and a sense of foreboding and rolling disaster.

If, as Aristotle once pointed out in the Nichomachean Ethics that "Man is the rational animal," while also arguing that there also was an irrational component to human existence, Trump has exemplified that this country's most powerful man is the dominating and dominant "emotional animal" whose main goal is to satisfy his own psychological needs and energize those of his core supporters. This would be worrying in any leader, but it should be especially concerning to have such a person at the head of the most powerful government and military on earth. One effect has been to keep not just his government, but the entire national and globe in a state of disquiet, dis-ease, since the demands and effects of his emotional needs and outbursts cannot be contained within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump campaigned like a right-wing racist nationalist and has seeded his government and presided like an ultraconservative white supremacist authoritarian. He appointments to his Cabinet, save one or two, are to the right of the kinds of people George W. Bush placed in office, and his Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has positioned himself so far to the right that  Antonin Scalia, the justice he replaced, would be envious. Significantly and in Orwellian fashion, many of the people Trump has placed in positions of power actively and openly seek to undermine or destroy the very organizations they are running, and ensure, as his formally dismissed but still potent advisor Bannon championed, the "deconstruction of the administrative state," or rather, the federal government as we have come to know it.

Several Cabinet departments, among them the most important like State, appear to be in disarray and withering on the vine, at a time when world affairs, made so precarious in part through prior US attempts at creating a "New World Order" and "nation building," are approaching a precipice. To take one example, the chief means by which the United States has kept North Korea's nuclear ambitions and aggression in check has been through diplomacy and partnership with allies and, in some cases, hostile countries that have a vested in interest in containing the North Korean government. Under Trump, however, we keep inching nearer and nearer to outright war with the North Korean government, a turn of events that would most certainly lead to cataclysm, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of people in South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and countless other countries if nuclear weapons were involved. Yet Trump at times appears to be undermining his Secretary of State, former oilman Rex Tillerson, who, for his own part, appears to undermining the State Department itself, through a bungled reorganization that has led to numerous empty bureaus and widespread understaffing. One major lever of power the US yields, through its wealth and influence, for good or bad, is soft power via diplomacy, yet even in a crisis zone like Korea, under Trump and Tillerson, we lack an ambassador to South Korea since Trump, in one of may steps against precedent, summarily canned all of Obama's ambassadors shortly after taking office.

Rather than detailing the numerous crises, scandals, failures, and so forth that have occurred under Trump's watch, though a number of sites do have lists, cheat sheets and more notating the Trump administration's mis-actions through this month. It should suffice to note that beyond appointing Gorsuch to the court; striking down many of Obama's executive actions; succeeding in most of his appointments to his administration; and presiding over the growing economy bequeathed by his predecessor, Trump had no major successes in the legislative arena until the recent monstrous tax cutting bill, a massive giveaway to billionaires and corporations, which still requires reconciliation between the House and Senate and could yet end up another of his failures. In his account, by contrast, he has been the most successful president since Abraham Lincoln, though unlike each of the various men to hold the office before him, he is the least popular president at this point in his term, with a majority, upwards of 50% in many polls, disapproving of his governance.

United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
(Copyright © CBS News)

Among the low lights thus far of Trump's tenure, and this is hardly an exhaustive list, once could mention:

  • his constant attacks, deflections and projections on and mis-representations of the free press, his opponents, his former campaign opponent Hillary Clinton, his predecessor Barack Obama, the US intelligence services (including the CIA and FBI), and even fellow members of his party;
  • the repeatedly attempted Muslim ban (which, after revision, was finally allowed to take effect); 
  • firing the FBI director, James Comey, initially for one set of reasons proposed by his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, only to contradict them on television and later to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, in the Oval Office (more about this below);
  • his dismissal of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who had warned him about General Flynn;
  • the resignation of his now convicted National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, after 24 days, for allegedly lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russia (more about this below); 
  • the repeated failure in his attempts to legislatively repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare (though he continues to shred it by other means); 
  • his equivocation on the white supremacist Unite the Right tiki-torchlight march and subsequent murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville;
  • his failed response to Hurricane Maria's battering of Puerto Rico, which remains in dire condition;
  • his flipflops on the DACA policy, leaving countless young undocumented Americans in legal jeopardy, and his rescission of the refugee policies for Haitians and Salvadorans;
  • his illiberal pardoning of Arizona prison chief and avowed racist Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted on a misdemeanor charge for contempt of court, because he was disobeying a judge's order to stop racial profiling.
  • his attacks on Black football players and other athletes protesting state and police violence on and racism against African Americans and other people of color;
  • his establishment of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, admirably bi-partisan, but headed by a man, Kris Kobach, known for racist views and who has actively worked against expanding democracy and voting rights;
  • abandoning the Paris Climate Accords, leaving the US only one of 2 nations not to sign on;
  • losing two Communications Directors, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci, within the span of six months, while also forcing out his chief of staff, former RNC head Reince Priebus;
  • his advocacy for the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline (which actually burst not long ago, leaking 210,000 gallons of oil);
  • his appointment of new commissioners who are vowing to repeal net neutrality;
  • his use of a slur against Native Americans during a ceremony to honor Native American military heroes, the famous "Code Talkers," while standing before a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, whose record of extensive anti-indigenous policy and violence is well-documented;
  • his promotion of anti-Muslim videos, including one considered to be fake, posted by a fringe, extremist white nationalist British political group;
  • his constant tweeting, through which he has advanced conspiracy theories, false information, and unilateral policy without alerting his administration (such as banning transgender troops in the military without first discussing this or consulting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff)

To conclude the list, Trump is now campaigning for and recording robocalls for a man, Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and assaulting another teenager, was twice removed from the bench, and whose ideas are so far out of any mainstream that he repeatedly lost out in prior attempts at runs for statewide positions in a state dominated by his party. And the above list does not even touch upon the administration's possible violations of the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution; the Hatch Act; the Logan Act; and other ethical or legal landmines. Nor does it include the debacle of the Al Hathla Raid in Yemen, which faces a humanitarian crisis in part because of US-supported actions by the Saudi Arabian military, or the Tongo Tongo ambush, in Niger, which still remains unexplained to the wider public.

Amidst all of this, as a backdrop, Congressional panels in the House and Senate, as well as a Special Counsel, lifelong Republican and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, continue to investigate the Trump administration for obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey and its ties to Russia before and after the 2016 election. The investigation includes the various revelations in MI5 agent Christopher Steele's "dossier"; alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee's server and the accounts of other DNC and Democratic officials, as well attempts on state and local voting systems; the Trump campaign's ties to various Russian officials, oligarchs, and emissaries, as well as Russian, Russian-allied and foreign banks and institutions; the Trump campaign's links to Wikileaks; other alleged Russian forms of and attempts at meddling in the US election process; and the Trump campaign and administration officials' financial ties to other foreign entities like Turkey, Ukraine, and so on. (And there may be even more that I have not listed under investigation.) The bizarre scene earlier in the year, involving the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister, in which the US press were effectively barred, is just one of many strange moments in this administration's shadowplay with Russian.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary R. Herbert
swears in Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. as U.S. Ambassador
to Russia during an Ambassadorial Swearing-in
Ceremony at the Utah Capitol Saturday, October 7, 2017.
Mary Kaye Huntsman is in the middle.
Among Mueller's actions so far have been to indict former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort and his adjutant Rick Gates on felony charges; to secure a felony guilty plea from former Trump advisor George Papadopoulos; and to gain a felony guilty plea for lying to the FBI from Michael Flynn. Attorney General Sessions, special advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr., and many other Trump campaign and administration officials, including the President himself, may find themselves caught up in the FBI's net as well, as a fundamental line propagated by Trump from the very beginning of his campaign, that he had no ties to Russia, now looks increasingly like a falsehood, and the President's actions since taking office have not advanced the perception that he views Russia as a hostile foreign power, as his predecessors and most of the US's allies, all have.

But--and this is a major point, beside this backdrop, as I have labeled it, Trump's power to disrupt remains. To give but one very contentious example, he could fire Mueller, it seems, creating a constitutional crisis if the GOP were unwilling to stand up to him, and whereas even some very conservative Senators expressed faith in the investigation months ago, they now appear to be wavering. The conservative head of one Congressional committee, California Republican Devin Nunes (temporarily?) recused himself after troubling contacts with the White House. Although several Democrats, led by Congressman Al Green of Texas, have introduced Articles of Impeachment, nothing can happen unless either the Republican majority decides to act upon them, which is not assured even if the Congressional committees and Mueller identify possible material evidence of collusion, coordination, and financial crimes, or the Democrats win an airtight House majority and a significant enough one in the Senate in 2018. The former is not inconceivable; the latter is much more of a stretch.

In our postmodern political and social climate, there is no guarantee that even in the face of proof of obvious crimes the GOP in Congress, let alone Republicans across the US, would sanction impeachment of Trump, nor agree with attempts by Bob Mueller to indict him or his family members, if it came to that. Nor is it a lock that the Congressional Democrats, unlike those of the 1970s or 1980s, would have to have the will and fearlessness to take Trump and his administration on either. Thus far they have done a mostly lackluster job challenging him publicly or creating a compelling counternarrative to energize voters to oust the GOP. For the Republicans' part, they very well might argue, as some seem to be doing and, as one, a "anonymous source linked to the Bush administration" told journalist Ron Suskind in the October 17, 2004 issue of The New York Times Magazine:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

That empire under Bush was a putative failure, but Trump's has quickly taken shape and continues to emerge. Truth may have an implicit "liberal bias," as some wags like to say, but nearly one year of Trump has shown us that the liberal imagination, and liberal, democratic and republican structures remain imperiled when a leader decides, with the support of millions, to create and enact his own reality. At the rate things have occurred this year, we should all, whatever our perspective, be very concerned about what will await us at this point one year from now. 

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