Thursday, March 22, 2018

Trump and Republicans' revolutionary (?) means

A report about vandalizing a statue fits in well with an issue I've been thinking about, which is how Trump and the Republicans are willing to use "revolutionary" means to achieve their ends, while the Democratic Party tends to be phobic about the word "revolution," except when they are pushing for regime change in a foreign country whose government has fallen out of favor with them.

This is the vandalism I mean: Katy Bergen, Historic John Brown statue in KCK vandalized with racial slurs and a swastika Kansas City Star 03/18/2018; updated 03/18/2018. More on this below.

I'm more reserved than ever about easy generalizations on typical ways democracy in other countries is eroded. That's because so much of it is proposed in service of some regime-change agenda. And the international reporting in the mainstream US media is often so spotty or just plain bad, I try to be careful about jumping to conclusions.

Having said that, it's generally understood that some kind of independence of the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies is necessary for the rule of law to function. And at some point, attempts to influence the justice system for political reasons does become an overriding of the rule of law.

You can tell this isn't a straight polemic, because I'm putting so many qualifications out there. But the lines can be confusing. I have serious doubts about lifetime appointment of federal judges, for instance. But electing judges is also a bad idea because that inevitably politicizes the justice system to so extent. But every system of selecting judges depends for its effectiveness on the participants taking their responsibilities seriously. The Dred Scott decision was clearly a political decision with massive consequences. It was an instance where the judicial system tossed its responsibilities and the rule of law overboard for a political cause: slavery, a cause of the worst kind.

Another famous situation where these issues were raised was Franklin Roosevelt's fight against the Nine Old Men of the 1930s Supreme Court. (William Leuchtenburg, When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court – and Lost Smithsonian Magazine May 2005) A reactionary Supreme Court was knocking down law after law passed by Congress that were aimed at improving economic conditions after the devastating Great Depression. Leuchtenburg gives a measured judgment on the practical lessons that historians and politicians have drawn from that fight:
The 168-day contest also has bequeathed some salutary lessons. It instructs presidents to think twice before tampering with the Supreme Court. FDR’s scheme, said the Senate Judiciary Committee, was “a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America.” And it never has been. At the same time, it teaches the justices that if they unreasonably impede the functioning of the democratic branches, they may precipitate a crisis with unpredictable consequences. In his dissent in the AAA case in 1936, Justice Stone reminded his brethren, “Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern.” These are lessons— for the president and for the court — as salient today as they were in 1937.
The conventional wisdom is that FDR overstepped and tried to improperly interfere with the Court by his proposal to appoint additional Justices, remembered mainly by the pejorative label of Roosevelt's "court-packing scheme." But the CW also holds that FDR's public fight against the Court jolted them into a (genuinely) more judicially reasonable position on New Deal legislation.

Roosevelt's proposals in that situation were a very different thing from what's going on now in Pennsylvania, where the Radical Republicans are trying to impeach the state supreme court justices who struck down an extreme, partisan gerrymandering scheme the Republicans put in place. (Sam Levine, Pennsylvania GOP Moves To Impeach Supreme Court Democrats For Gerrymandering Ruling Huffpost 03/20/2018)

The Republicans are willing to use impeachment for the most crass partisan purposes. But the Democrats never bothered to even hold Congressional hearings on strong indications of what looked an awful lot like improprieties by Supreme Court Justices Clalrence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. The symbolism of this is sadly ironic: "When Justice Scalia died two weeks ago, he was staying, again for free, at a West Texas hunting lodge owned by a businessman whose company had recently had a matter before the Supreme Court." (Eric Lipton, Scalia Took Dozens of Trips Funded by Private Sponsors New York Times 02/26/2016) See also: Ujala Sehgal, A Brief History of Clarence Thomas' Ethical Entanglements The Atlantic 06/19/2011.

Currently, we have a Republican Party that is committed to appointing highly activist judges and is willing to toss normal procedural and normative practices out the window in order to get rightwing ideologues entrenched throughout the federal judiciary. (See Garland, Merrick) In 2016, the Republicans in Congress effectively nullified the Constitutional procedure for selecting Supreme Court Justices. But when Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Court, there was no resistance on the Democratic side remotely comparable. The net result is that the Republicans have dominance of the selection of federal judges entirely out of proportion to the number of American voters who support their party.

As bad as that is, I wouldn't call that a "revolutionary" method. Trump's blatant threatening and bullying of the FBI and the Justice Department over the Mueller investigation is. From his public statements and the firings of James Comey and Andrew McCabe, Trump has made it very clear that he wants the Justice Department to act on his behalf in much the same way his political mentor and longtime attorney, mob lawyer Roy Cohn, did for years (Ron Elving, President Trump Called For Roy Cohn, But Roy Cohn Was Gone NPR 01/08/2018):
This much is clear: Cohn was Trump's model in the handling of public relationships and media warfare.

Cohn's code was built on self-interest and loyalty; his style was all about intensity. If he was your lawyer, he was prepared to do anything for you; if he was your adversary, no holds were barred.
The title of the NPR article refers to a Trump quote reported by Michael Schmidt in the New York Times, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” (Obstruction Inquiry Shows Trump’s Struggle to Keep Grip on Russia Investigation 01/04/2018)

As Schmidt reminds us, Cohn "had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986." So Joe McCarthy's authoritarian heritage that was willing to ignore democratic and Constitutional rights and norms has now come to the White House is a potent form via Roy Cohn's political protege Donald Trump. (For more on Cohn, see also: Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man New York Times 06/20/2016; Marie Brenner, How Donald Trum and roy Cohn's Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America Vanity Fair Aug 2017; Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg; The man who showed Donald Trump how to exploit power and instill fear Washington Post 06/17/2016)

Seve Bannon has rotated out of Trumpian favor for the moment. But his declaration that his goal in February 2017 when he was still a White House strategist that his goal is the "deconstruction of the administrative state" echoes the advocates of the Conservative Revolution in the 1920s, from which he draws some of his ideas and perspective. Francis Wilkerson reported last year (Bannon's Requiem for the Administrative State Business Insider 03/27/2017):
It's unclear so far what Bannon's phrase "administrative state" means, or what "deconstructing" it would entail. Deregulation is surely a key element of it. But Obamacare seems about as clear an example of the administrative state as you can get. It's a vast and highly complex regulatory regime that administers intrusive and often restrictive rules while transferring payments and benefits from some Americans to others via federal and state governments.

In effect, Obamacare is the leading edge of what National Review writer David French called a "vast and bloated executive branch -- existing through its alphabet soup of agencies such as the EPA, IRS, DOE, ATF, and the like."

The "administrative state," in other words, is all the structures and functions of government that conservatives dislike, an alien force that, as French said, "intrudes into virtually every aspect of American life." [my emphasis]
This certainly is a goal that has a "revolutionary" edge to it, though in the sense of "conservative revolution," i.e, overthrowing the existing legal order by extralegal means to establish an authoritarian order.

There is a rich and contentious history of debate and polemics over what how revolution should be defined which I'm not addressing here. But the Republicans have invoked revolutionary rhetoric for decades. The Reagan Administration and its policies were referred to by Republicans as the Reagan Revolution, a term the mainstream press didn't find alarmingly inappropriate. The official White House website still contains this: "At the end of his two terms in office, Ronald Reagan viewed with satisfaction the achievements of his innovative program known as the Reagan Revolution, which aimed to reinvigorate the American people and reduce their reliance upon Government." (my emphsis) 40: Ronald Reagan (n/d; accessed 03/20/2018; sourced to “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey; 2006)

Later there was the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994, also called the "Republican Revolution," in which the Republicans under Newt Gingrich's leadership won control of the House of Representative. (Andrea Stone, Republican Revolution fades USA Today 01/19/2003; updated 01/22/2003) Steven Gillon in 2016 characterized the Gingrich Revolution by its highly abrasive, transgressive style of politics that failed " to appreciate the distinction between means and ends." (The Gingrich Revolution and the Roots of Republican Dysfunction Huffpost 10/12/2016) He writes:
The person most responsible for injecting [the current] virulent strain of partisanship into the Republican party was another dethroned House Speaker — Newt Gingrich. The firebrand conservative leaders today are Gingrich’s children. Gingrich rose to power in the 1980s as the pied piper of a new assertive conservatism that merged the moralistic rhetoric of the New Right, and the mystical conservative faith in tax cuts, into a powerful ideological message. It was Gingrich who manufactured the hyper-partisanship that defines modern politics.
And when Republican donors like the Koch Brothers decided in 2009 they needed an Astroturf movement to publicly protest Obama, it quickly became branded as the Tea Party, i.e., a familiar patriotic symbol of the American Revoluiton.

The there was the Neoconservative Revolution, which was heavily influenced by Trotskyism, which became the defining outlook of the Cheney-Bush Administration's foreign policy, including the Iraq War. John Judis wrote about this aspect of the neocons' outlook in the very Establishment journal Foreign Policy in 1995 ("Trotskyism to Anachronism - The Neoconservative Revolution" July/Aug 1995). Noting that the hawkish foreign policy adviser Paul Nitze, who drafted the famous 1950 NSC-68 memorandum during the Truman Administration, was a major influence on the neocons, he also writes:
The other important influence on neoconservatives was the legacy of Trotksyism - a point that other historians and journalists have made about neoconservatism .... Many of the founders of neoconservatism, including The Public Interest founder Irving Kristol and coeditor Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Albert Wohistetter, were either members of or close to the Trotskyist left in the late 193os and early 194os. Younger neoconservatives, including Penn Kemble, Joshua Muravchik, and Carl Gershman, came through the Socialist Party at a time when former Trotskyist Max Schachtman was still a commanding figure.

What both the older and younger neoconservatives absorbed from their socialist past was an idealistic concept of internationalism.
Trotskyists believed that Stalin, in trying to build socialism in one country rather than through world revolution, had created a degenerate workers' state instead of a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat. In the framework of international communism, the Trotskyists were rabid internationalists rather than realists and nationalists. ...

The neoconservatives who went through the Trotskyist and socialist movements came to see foreign policy as a
crusade, the goal of which was first global socialism, then social democracy, and finally democratic capitalism. They never saw foreign policy in terms of national interest or balance of power. Neoconservatism was a kind of inverted Trotskyism, which sought to "export democracy," in Muravchik's words, in the same way that Trotsky originally envisaged exporting socialism. It saw its adversaries on the left as members or representatives of a public sector-based new class. [my emphasis]
The distinction between conventional war and revolutionary war was a familiar one in the 19th century. Conventional war involved fighting to defeat an enemy army, possibly taking over the opposing country or part of it, without seeking to change the basic structure of social relationships in the enemy country. Revolutionary war includes the latter. A model case would be the wars immediately after the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars, in which not just conquest but the implanting of republican governments and the dislocation of feudal social relationships were a part of the goal and practice. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, that was understood as a shift from conventional war, aimed at removing the rebel governments, to revolutionary war, that intended to undo the slave system that was the foundation of the Southern plantation economy.

The main official justification for the Iraq War was Saddam Hussein's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction." And Dick Cheney didn't give a flying flip about democracy or freedom or basic human rights in Iraq. But that Administration's policy in the Middle East was also justified as installing democratic governments on the inverted-Trotskyist model.

So the Republican Party has been comfortable with the rhetoric of "revolution," though overthrowing corporate capitalism is certainly no part of their agenda. And the highly partisan approach of Trump and his party toward justice right now is a (conservative) "revolutionary" approach to policy. Joe Conason describes the recent majority report of the House Intelligence Committee on Russiagate as a "surrender of Congressional authority to the White House" of a kind which bears "a sad resemblance to the behavior of bogus legislatures under authoritarian regimes."

The Democrats on the other hand, have become allergic to the whole idea of "revolution," unless it comes in the form of a "color revolution" against a government friendly to Russia or hostile to the United States (and to Israel, in the Middle East.) We see it in the way the Democrats shrink from any favorable invocation of the party's two main founders, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Both of whom fought in the American Revolution and both of whom were key leaders in establishing and expanding democracy. So they leave behind any patriotic imagery or symbols associated with the American Revolution and shrug when the Republicans appropriate the symbolism of the Tea Party or Andrew Jackson.

Yes, in real history there are elements in every period of American history that deserve critical summary, not the least of them slavery and Indian policy. But it's one more element of partisan imbalance when the Democrats are unwilling to claim any of the patriotic heritage of the country prior to 1860 while the Republicans effectively appropriate all of it they want to for their own purposes. The Democrats don't even contest it, for the most part, which is one of the ways they allow the Republicans to define themselves as the party of Real Americans.

In the 2016 Presidential contest, Bernie Sanders straightforwardly talked about his program as a revolution. Which he defined clearly as getting more people to participate in the political process including voting, reducing the massive corporate corruption in American politics which is plain to everyone,establishing a solid social-democratic infrastructure including single-payer healthcare, and a more peace-oriented foreign policy with a smaller military budget. Whether that qualifies as dramatic a change as kicking Britain out of the US in the American Revolution or overthrowing the Slave Power in the Civil War is open to discussion. But it certainly is more deserving of that name than the Reagan Revolution or the Gingrich Revolution.

But the Clinton campaign tried to use the "revolution" label against Sanders. Politics is politics, so of course they were going to do that. So we heard campaign-promoted comments like: revolutions get people killed; we don't want to have a revolution, we want to elect a President; Sanders talking about "revolution" and "socialism" makes Hillary the Electable One for the general election.

This kind of fearful/contemptuous attitude toward the left has been a chronic problem for Democrats since 1972. The 2016 Hillary campaign version of it just reinforced the conservative tone in which the Democrats all too often frame themselves.

It doesn't have to be that way. It wasn't that long ago that Democrats could speak with approval of the Roosevelt Revolution that brought the New Deal. The Dems still will speak sometimes of the "civil rights revolution," though it's typically framed as a series of events in the 1950s and 1960s rather than anything ongoing. And even as non-revolutionary a Democrat as Lyndon Johnson could invoke the song that for the civil rights movement was a hymn invoking militancy and radical change: "And we shall overcome."

And even now, the Democrats as a group are trapped by a toxic centrism with a conservative cast that recently led them to oppose Trump's militant populist rhetoric, which included actual incitements to violence at his rallies, with a bland slogan like Stronger Together. Which goes well with the obsession with Bipartisanship that the Democrats can seem to shake off.

Which brings us to John Brown's statue. If there was any white man in the United States prior to the Civil War who was devoted to democracy, despised slavery and actively tried to end it, considered blacks equal to white and women equal to men - in other words, characteristics that liberals now condemn pretty much every citizen of the US prior to 1860 - it was John Brown.

But will Democratic Party liberals be jumping up and down in outrage over seeing his statue defaced? This is the Democratic Party we're talking about, so the answer is: not many. The reason is illustrated by the opening paragraph of an article on Brown from 2005 by historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote a good short biography of Andrew Jackson that takes a nuanced view of him without falling into anachronisms ("Homegrown Terrorist" New Republic The New Republic 10/24/2005):
John Brown was a violent charismatic anti-slavery terrorist and traitor, capable of cruelty to his family as well as to his foes. Every one of his murderous ventures failed to achieve its larger goals. His most famous exploit, the attack on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, actually backfired. That backfiring, and not Brown’s assault or his later apotheosis by certain abolitionists and Transcendentalists, contributed something, ironically, to the hastening of southern secession and the Civil War. In a topsy-turvy way, Brown may have advanced the anti-slavery cause. Otherwise, he actually damaged the mainstream campaign against slavery, which by the late 1850s was a serious mass political movement contending for national power, and not, as Brown and some of his radical friends saw it, a fraud even more dangerous to the cause of liberty than the slaveholders.
While it's a serious point, Wilentz' argument here bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the notorious "moderate" argument during the 1960s: if blacks actively protest against segregation, it will make whites more resistant and damage their own cause.

John Brown fought in the guerrilla war between the pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas Territory. And the operation during which he was captured at Harper's Ferry was one he designed to set up resistance bases in the Appalachian Mountains to encourage and facilitate the flight of slaves from their masters' plantations. But America's center-left party, the Democrats, don't really want to invoke that heritage, either. It might get in the way of Bipartisan cooperation.

I'm not suggesting that the Democratic Party set up guerrilla bases in the mountains. In fact, I can't really envision such a thing in my imagination.

But the Democrats mostly let the Republican have John Brown, too! Antiabortionists invoke John Brown to justify extralegal violence against abortion providers. The racism and anti-woman attitudes so common in that movement would be completely repugnant to Brown.

And the Democrats should be able to recognize that in the face of a Republican Party in power employing revolutionary means to wreck liberal democratic institutions, something more militant than Stronger Together bipartisan bromides is needed. As long as they are allergic to even talking about "revolution" in the sense of getting more people out to vote, they will have a hard time getting there. And unless they can do more than "bipartisan" surrender to Trump and the Republicans on issue after issue, it will be hard to convince voters than the Resistance talk is serious on their part.

On the other hand, for the Democrats to try to imitate the loose talk from the right about "Second Amendment solutions" sounds kind of bizarre. (Ed Kilgore, Democratic Congressman Hints at Armed Rebellion Against Trump New York 03/19/2018) A party that can't organize its Congressional representation to block an ill-conceived bank deregulation law isn't going to be organizing its own popular militia.

The problem for the Democrats is that so many of its leaders and office-holders are stuck in the we-aren't-lefties attitude that establishment Democrats in the 1968-72 period used, even Democrats who were born well after that time. This way too often leads them to frequently adopt conservative framing and conservative arguments for their more liberal/progressive positions. They really need to stop doing that, as George Lakoff has been urgently recommending for years now.

Also, despite their enthusiasm for "color revolutions" today, Democrats have often blundered and sometimes caused great harm in no small part due to their inability to take a practical, nuanced view of homegrown revolutions in other countries, from Woodrow Wilson and the Russian Revolution, to Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Libya and, to some extent, Syria.

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