The centre cannot hold: Yeats and 2017 disintegration

William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” the year after World War I. It’s better known for the line “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” which definitely captures 20th century war and progress. I was re-reading it, and felt that parts of it, in particular the first stanza, hit way too close to home in 2017.

Here is the full poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Resistance: if not now, when?

CNN reported a few hours ago the following:

Senate Democrats are weighing whether to avoid an all-out war to block President Donald Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick, instead considering delaying that battle for a future nomination that could shift the ideological balance of the court, sources say.

Democrats privately discussed their tactics during a closed-door retreat in West Virginia last week. And a number of Democrats are trying to persuade liberal firebrands to essentially let Republicans confirm Trump’s pick after a vigorous confirmation process — since Trump is likely to name a conservative to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

After a full year of Republicans blocking any Supreme Court nominee, the Democratic minority is considering doing none of that, in order to preserve the filibuster for some fight down the line.

This is all deeply troubling whether you are moderate, liberal, or leftist. The idea that this is different because Scalia is a conservative justice is absurd, considering that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are well over 75 at this point. Deciding to cement the 5-4 split for an indefinite amount of time (years? decades?) while mass protests are already far beyond small concessions certainly shows the side of the Democratic Party that explains their inability to defeat the most unelectable person in living memory last November.

It’s the underlying sentiment, though, that bothers me. Politician or protester, it is a dangerous assumption to think that there are further opportunities down the road. A few uncomfortable truths establishment liberals aren’t going to tell you, but are on the table:

  • Republicans control all of Congress, the Presidency, and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships.
State legislature party control, post-2016 elections (NCSL)
  • This includes almost all the key swing states that Clinton lost (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida). These states also had competitive Senate elections, which are also state-wide and have the same voting infrastructure as presidential elections.
  • It is clear that voter suppression was a huge factor in races at all levels in 2016, and states that wish to increase such efforts are not going to face Justice Department scrutiny anymore.
  • Thus, 2018 and especially 2020 could very well be, in the absence of strong resistance, basically unwinnable for anyone not right-wing- independent, Democratic, or otherwise.

The idea that everyone should wait out Trump’s first term, which was a big idea on Jan. 20, is pretty much dead by now. It’s clear that nobody really knows what the US political structure will be in Nov. 2020.

So we reach the familiar Hillel quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

The resistance has already begun. Don’t assume the future will be what you want or need it to be. Fascism of any type and degree has never respected democracy, and used it as a weapon to silence opposition. If you don’t like what’s being implemented now, stopping its enactment is a far better idea than waiting for some point down the line when it can all be repealed.

Steve Bannon and the green card smokescreen

We know about two things Trump senior advisor Steve Bannon has done in the past few days:

  1. Overruled a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interpretation of the travel/refugee ban executive order that, saying that green card holders were also subject.

2. Get a seat on the National Security Council (NSC) while removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

#2 is unprecedented, a power grab by an advisor with no relevant experience. It’s a clear signal that Trump would rather displaced senior leadership than learn from it.

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I think the two are linked. The travel ban has been such a media focus that the NSC issue has mostly been noticed by watchdogs tracking post-9/11 changes to homeland security. The insistence by Bannon that the ban apply to permanent residents has made this issue so explosive. If only refugees or temporary visa holders were targeted, these protests would not be nearly as large. But the EO seemed primed for maximum chaos- it was both broad and vague.

It remains to be seen how long the rest of the executive branch will stand by while a half dozen rookie advisors take their authority away.

Austerity destroys progress

So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.

What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.

On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.

Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.

And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.

There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?

T+5: A Time Long Thought Past

(these posts will be dated based on days since the 2016 Election. Tuesday, Nov 8 is T-0.)

It is a huge mistake to think that the election marked the birth of a new era in American politics. In the past two years there have been arson attacks on black churches (including one at the beginning of November in Mississippi). Police violence against protesters in particular, and people of color in general have never died down. But the election is still an important line of demarcation.

This series, the Trump Era (TE), is devoted to how the climate is changing. In particular, how the election has provided a de facto justification for white supremacy. The Obama administration had many incidents of vigilante and police violence against unarmed civilians. But the administration did establish that such things were not okay, and there should be consequences to violating the human rights of others.

Since Tuesday, friends of mine have been arrested. One was beaten up by police. Two men have been arrested and charged with attempted murder after a shooting on the Morrison Bridge in Portland. Swastika graffiti is ever-present: schools, religious buildings, dorms, sidewalks. Given that the Trump campaign has often encouraged harassment and the use of force against dissent, these situations can always escalate. And communities should be prepared for that.

Of course, there are still people alive who remember a time when national leaders were proudly fascist. The hope for a progressive era- in which society continues to improve from the nadir near World War II, may now be increasingly naive. Things can always go backwards. The core of Trump supporters once had superior status and power to people of color. They lost this, and to regain this they necessarily have to take the country back in time. When someone says they “want their country back” they mean so in a possessive sense. This means marginalization and regression.

David Neiwert published a book in 2009, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American RightIts thesis is that conservative media and politicians were moving supporters in a dangerous direction. Opponents were not only wrong, but an existential threat to the American way of life. Vigilante attacks are a symptom that eliminationism is becoming an increasingly mainstream ideology. Donald Trump will be the first modern eliminationist President.

“Wait and see” or “giving him a chance” is a white privileged luxury. For people of color, the costs of being unprepared are total. Liberals who castigated Trump for a year and a half are hypocritical if they stop now. In this situation, unity means submission, since the Trumpists have preached us vs. them.

Trump will not  become president until January 20, 2017. But his era has already begun in full. His supporters will not wait for legal sanction. They will attack because they can. And communities must consider to what degree to they respond.

Glimpse of a Mad King

Even if the present downward spiral persists all the way to November 8th, the 2016 presidential election will not be a historic blowout. Since 1960 a half dozen elections have been lopsided, including two where the winner came close to carrying all fifty states. Yet, despite this historical perspective, 2016 may feel like those elections. Because qualitatively, the Trump campaign seems like a disaster.

It is clear that despite statements to the contrary, campaign workers and the GOP establishment have lost control of their candidate. Now that the conventions are done, Trump and Clinton will receive classified briefings. Within 24 hours, there was already concern that Trump may have described a top secret video. He did not, but few think he is incapable of such things. Many Americans simply have zero faith in Trump to do the right thing, for that is often the selfless thing. And not only is Khizr Khan right that Trump has never known sacrifice, he has no ability to do so.

What I think is interesting right now is that with the Republican Party, we see a glimpse of what an authoritarian America would look like. While the US is an oligarchy in practice, there is a political culture that curtails what leaders can do. Right now in the GOP, there is no one higher than Trump, and if he chooses to self-destruct nobody can stop him. Conservatives are getting a taste of the old days of European royalty, where insane monarchs ruled for years because they were, on paper, the leader.

This all remains in large part a vanity campaign. But in the service of ego stroking, the consequences may not be as trivial as the candidate.

On defeating Teflon Trump

Long before he ever announced running, going back to the 2012 primaries, it has been hammered home that Donald Trump is incredibly unqualified for high elective office. But he managed to power through his opponents, despite most experts across the spectrum assuming he would burn out.

The disparity comes I think because Donald Trump is very well-suited to running for President. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Trump is the Teflon candidate. His public image and private life have been raked over the media for decades, such that we became desensitized to traits and actions that should be a huge deal. By 2016 all of it congealed into this buffonish likability, where faults strangely morph into assets given enough time. Hillary Clinton has Teflon aspects, but she never had the pop culture exposure that elevates someone from a (flawed, vulnerable) politician and not a character.

trump

Thus the zombie campaign. No matter how many shots are fired, there has never been a real dip in poll numbers for Trump since the beginning of the primaries. The only thing that would really have a serious impact, if we think primarily about his business and rhetoric, would be a full leak of his tax returns. But since he can keep tight about that until after the election, only a well-timed Wikileak is going to make that a reality.

This is why I feel the speech by Khizr Khan at the DNC, along with tons of follow-up media and a Washington Post editorial by his wife Ghazala, are really a tuning point against Teflon Trump. The usual criticism has lost its impact. He has no record in elected office. And his long-term political history is eclectic, since he was socially moderate and friendly with Democrats until recently. But that speech hit a fresh vein. Candidates are often criticized for not serving in the military, or for getting cushy posts away from the frontline. Personally, I don’t equate military service with patriotism and vice-versa. But going into the concept of sacrifice, which means so much more. And it’s a new way of looking at Trump’s wealth and privilege. If public servants are supposed to be selfless, then any good candidate should have had to sacrifice something. Trump has indeed sacrificed nothing, anything, while the Khan family lost their son.

When this speech went viral, Trump had a response that was unusually poor. Trump often says too much, or the wrong thing in public, but this always went back to the well-tread criticisms America had grown used to. He came off not only as an asshole, but unprepared to deal with the accusation that he has not known sacrifice. His plans to ban Muslim immigration came into new context, and he lacked the self-assuredness that allows his (usually half-baked) ideas to stand as legitimate policy planning. Instead of Teflon Trump, we saw a house of cards.

All of this should be surprising. Another late night monologue about his marital history and Trump Steaks seems trite. Khan in a few minutes managed to dig through Trump the character, the pop culture celebrity, and expose him as the racist, petty, vapid man he truly is. This needs to happen more. Trump is not a joke, he is a menace, and has made discrimination and harassment of non-white groups somehow acceptable to his supporters.

The Teflon Trump must lose his shine.