Politicking Without Politics

Democratic elites are delusional — you can’t subdue the reactionary right without a robust alternative political vision.

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi on Inauguration Day. Marianique Santos / Department of Defense

For a distillation of the Democratic Party’s self-conception today, one could do worse than consult Nancy Pelosi’s recent pronouncement: “We don’t have a party orthodoxy — they [the Republicans] are ideological.”

For some time now, this view of the political divide — Democrats are consummate pragmatists, Republicans are rigid slaves to dogma — has predominated in elite liberal circles. Hillary Clinton, after all, centered her campaign on competence and experience far more than any actual conception of politics.

And despite the resulting disaster, this desire to have a politics without politics — this strategy to build a coalition bereft of any clear values or principles — has continued to animate liberals’ opposition to Trump. Democrats really believe, it seems, that they can subdue the reactionary right without articulating any alternative political vision beyond prudent governance.

The irony here is twofold. First, in clinging to an obviously failing strategy, elite liberalism reveals itself to be an ideology every bit as impervious to contradictory evidence as the reactionary Republicans it defines itself against. And second, for all of the Democrats’ paeans to pragmatism, they are just as committed to their own version of neoliberal capitalism as the Republicans, and just as unwilling to brook dissent with it. In fact, only a few days before declaring the Democrats free of orthodoxy, Pelosi responded to a student’s question about socialism by effusing, “We’re capitalists. That’s just the way it is.”

When attacking the Right, the Democrats are non-ideological and pragmatic. As soon as a challenge from the Left is sighted, however, the party suddenly stops being coy, and declares itself forthrightly in favor of capitalism. The result is an ever-rightward-moving political landscape that ends up abetting the very forces and figures that Democrats oppose — including Trump.

A Hapless Opposition

Even before Trump’s election, Democrats’ affinity for politicking without politics had landed them in unsavory territory.

Throughout the campaign, the Clinton camp would drag up whatever blood-drenched warmonger from the Bush administration they could find, exclaiming, “See? Even [John Yoo, Robert Kagan, Max Boot] thinks Trump has gone too far!” The short-termism should have been evident to all, as yesterday’s disgraced imperial adjuncts were dusted off and presented as today’s statesmen of reason.

Of course, this could hardly have been of concern to Clinton herself, who agreed with the neoconservatives on most of the fundamentals of American foreign policy. Those opposed to yet another discursive lurch to the right had more reason for distress. The Democrats were, quite literally, more comfortable opposing Trump with Republican figureheads than articulating any identifiable ideas of their own.

Since Trump’s accession to power, Democratic elites have taken their ineptitude to new heights. Thus we have the tawdry spectacle of Representative Ted Lieu tweeting, in early February, “Last 24 hrs on Twitter, Donald Trump went on rant about ‘death & destruction,’ ‘FAKE NEWS,’ & ‘evil.’ Should he get mental health exam?” and then introducing a bill requiring a White House psychiatrist. Leaving aside the nasty history of using psychiatry to police politics, Lieu’s complaint against Trump centered on the man’s comportment, rather than any aspect of his policy agenda.

Frequently, Democrats have tried to fell Trump simply by catching him in some act of hypocrisy. This reached a fever pitch immediately after Trump announced his initial travel ban, as liberals of all sorts rushed to accuse the president of excluding countries where he had business ties. Wisconsin representative Mark Pocan even raised the specter of impeachment over the supposed conflict of interest. Trump’s flacks wasted no time exploiting the awkward position Democrats had placed themselves in, snarking, “If people in the media would like to recommend additional countries to be added, you can send us your suggestions.”

And once again, Democrats had turned an opportunity to assail a noxious, unpopular political figure into a chimeric chase for a “gotcha” moment. Rather than pillory the measure as racist and xenophobic, they pursued an “apolitical” line of attack that looked no less partisan, while evading the real political issues raised by the ban.

Rachel Maddow fell into a similar trap Tuesday night. After making breathless promises to reveal Trump’s tax returns, the MSNBC host treated viewers to a twenty-minute journey through all manner of speculations, from what could be in the tax forms to why Trump could have been hiding them. Over the course of the expedition — during which she sounded more than a little like a Tea Partier circa 2010 explaining Obama’s Kenyan birth — Maddow covered such crucial topics as where Trump’s financial backers parked their yachts and the connections between Azerbaijani oligarchs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And when she finally disclosed the contents of the tax returns, it was clear the big surprise was even more boring than the buildup. In brief, Trump made an obscene amount of money in 2005, and paid in taxes more or less what the super-rich usually do. Unable to dwell on a “gotcha” revelation, Maddow and her guest were forced to fill the remaining time with conjectures about what Trump would owe if his tax plan passed, or whether he himself had leaked the returns (now who’s playing eleven-dimensional chess?).

Throughout the program, Maddow insisted that “whether you’re a Trump supporter or not,” the returns, and Trump’s initial refusal to release them, were A Very Big Deal. For liberals like Maddow, issues like these, supposedly above politics, are what will allow Democrats to discredit Trump and return the party to power. By the end of the show, however, it was doubtful whether even all of Maddow’s faithful would consider the tax returns a major issue.

Undoubtedly the most insidious element of Democrats’ hapless anti-Trump attack, however, has come around the president’s relationship to Russia. Liberals appear positively elated at the chance to turn around and target conservatives for once with charges of treason. Democrats, it seems, have rediscovered the virtues of Cold War Russophobia.

Even ostensible progressives like Michael Moore have gotten on board, calling Trump a “Russian traitor.” Bernie Sanders hasn’t, thankfully, indulged language quite this inflammatory, but he has endorsed the substance of Moore’s accusation, asking “whether our president’s foreign policy represents the best interests of this country or the best interests of Russia.” Both Moore and Sanders are old enough to remember when the slightest hint of dissatisfaction with American capitalism was immediately met with accusations of Russian treason. To see them rehabilitating this kind of rhetoric is nothing short of shameful.

And it will almost inevitably backfire. First, it’s never good for the Left when liberals start slinging around charges of treason. The McCarthyite purges, after all, began with Democrat Harry Truman’s 1947 executive order establishing an investigation force to police “loyalty” among government employees. Truman, too, was concerned about citizens acting in the best interests of the US rather than Russia. It is positively delusional to imagine that the Democratic hacks who view someone like Sanders as disloyal will not brandish charges of Russian collaboration against the Left at the first opportunity.

Second, and more frightening, the Democrats appear to have embraced the most bellicose posture toward Russia as a way of playing up Trump’s alleged cooperation with Putin. In January, Democratic senator Jack Reed ominously warned that “Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy at home and abroad and destabilize a country on its border . . . cannot be ignored or traded away in exchange for the appearance of comity.”

One does not have to romanticize Putin’s brutal oligarchy at home or imperialist foreign policy abroad to find such declarations chilling. Ironically, the very same Democrats who accuse Trump of destabilizing world politics apparently have no qualms about moving from comity to confrontation with another nuclear-armed power.

The Crisis in American Liberalism

The liberal attempt to undercut Trump using some mythical higher standard, something “above politics,” risks undermining the very resistance that’s developed in opposition to his various initiatives.

Most centrally, this kind of strategy simply won’t work. Even as liberals like Lieu express horror at Trump’s outlandish behavior, it is plain that, for many of his supporters, Trump’s refusal to behave like a traditional politician is precisely what they find appealing. The endless articles condemning Trump for his “unpresidential” behavior were no salve for those suffering plant closures and stagnant wages, for whom Trump at least represented the possibility of a break from politics as usual. The status quo, which Clinton vigorously defended, certainly wasn’t working.

Over the longer term, the fruits of the Democrats’ strategy are even more troubling. In framing their opposition to Trump as non-political, Democrats are perpetuating the crisis in American liberalism.

Obama initially appeared to be liberalism’s savior, promising to redeem it from its abject failures during the Bush years. But eight years of managerial centrism left the party hollowed out both institutionally and ideologically. Without any real challenge from the left, Obama never strayed far from the path laid out by the banks and tech companies that funded his campaigns. While his personal gifts allowed him to win very high approval ratings for a two-term president, his policies did little to alleviate the growing misery in many parts of the country. Obama’s inability to rewrite the political and economic rules of the game ensured that any candidate who lacked his talents would be unable to stitch together the same coalition.

It is this continued fidelity to American capitalism, this unwavering commitment to keeping things more or less as they are, that stands behind the Democrats’ apparent fear of ideas. Any actual attempt to advance the principles that loom large in the American liberal imagination would entail some sort of confrontation with capital, and the Democratic Party, bought and paid for by capital, is unwilling to contemplate such a step.

Pelosi is, in a sense, right: while the Republicans have a clear ideology, a clear vision for society (gruesome as it may be), the Democrats can offer little more than meritocratic nostrums and technocratic tweaks. The social order should basically remain the same, their position seems to be, with an improvement here or there from smart, competent people.

While this social vision wins plaudits from the educated middle class, and the Democrats will always receive some support from the groups that the GOP most directly scapegoats, it is no surprise that they find themselves increasing unable to mobilize support outside these core constituencies.

Rejecting the Road to Defeat

Fortunately, the alternative to Democratic vapidity is not hard to find. It has reverberated through much of the popular resistance to Trump’s presidency. When thousands of people gathered at JFK Airport to protest the Muslim ban, they didn’t make an hour-long subway trip to stand in the cold because they thought Trump was being hypocritical or unpresidential. They gathered because they felt Trump had infringed on core values of egalitarianism and fairness. They were moved by a basic sense of injustice. They were moved, in other words, by politics.

While the liberal evasion of politics gives the impression that the Democrats have no ideas they are confident enough to defend, mobilizations like the refugee solidarity protests do the exact opposite. When thousands of people assemble with signs declaring “Refugees are Welcome Here,” they stake out a political ground that directly confronts Trump. They provide a political pole capable of further mobilization.

Ultimately, it is only mobilizations like these that can thwart Trump and the Republican Party. Left to their own devices, the Democrats will continue proffering anemic managerialism, punctuated by the occasional self-pitying snark (“but her emails”), all the while leading us down the road to defeat.

Instead, the anti-Trump movement will have to unabashedly voice the political principles, like equality and solidarity, that motivate it. This will mean both developing our own conceptions about what these principles look like today, and developing our own organizations capable of advancing them. While the Democrats seek to oust Trump and return the country to Obama’s status quo, our movement must base itself on a politics capable of confronting both Trump and the rotten elite liberalism that enabled his rise.