This summer 2017 edition of Tikkun has several articles focusing on the trauma that the Trump presidency has generated. While many liberals and progressives responded to this trauma and horror in the earlier months with mass demonstrations and a commitment to resistance, it soon became clear that, as important as they were for reviving the spirit of people on the Left, the demonstrations did not make much of a dent in the consciousness of the tens of millions of people who voted for Trump.
Sadly, the liberal and progressive forces continue to demean, shame, and blame all those who did not vote for Democrats in the 2016 election. This takes the form of suggesting that all of these tens of millions of people who voted for Trump and other Republicans (or who did not bother to vote) did so because they are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, coarse, bullies, or just ignorant. Though this accurately describes many of his supporters and a large number of the people that he has appointed to key positions in his administration, these characterizations do not fit everyone that voted for Trump. The liberal viewing of Trump supporters as the Other has done little to win people to a progressive way of thinking. In fact, in many instances they only served to push some decent Trump voters further to the Right even when they had doubts about some of Trump’s policies. A substantial number of people vote for the Right not because they agree with its policies, and not because they are racist, sexist, etc. but because they are sick and tired of feeling demeaned and looked down upon by the liberals and progressives.
The mainstream Left fails to put forward a truly visionary alternative to the “solutions” of the Right, and slips into a posture of fighting off the bad instead of building the good while casting all Trump voters as the “Other.” This pattern reached a new peak during the Clinton campaign with the repetition of the unofficial campaign slogan “At least she’s not Trump.” This reactionary strategy did not work; and despite its repeated failure, we are witnessing the Left fall into the pattern again by using Russia’s interference with the elections to attack Trump. While this strategy may lead to a Trump impeachment (which would be a good thing) it will do little to transform the dynamics at play and support the emergence of a just, compassionate, environmentally sensitive and love-supporting society that is badly needed.
Times Are Urgent
Like many liberals and progressives, we find the Trump presidency a huge disaster. The Trump Administration is in the process of undoing all the good that was done in a slow and piecemeal way by several generations of liberal legislators: they are dismantling environmental protections and withdrawing from the Paris environmental Accord; accelerating the Obama-developed process of mass deportations; enabling even more brutality by taking procedural restraints away from ICE; promising to use presidential powers to undermine Obamacare if the Republican Congress continues to fail to find a way to eliminate it through legislation; reducing support for public education; eliminating and weakening safety and health protections for working people; and attempting to fill the judiciary with right wing ideologues.
The Response Has Been Tried Before
The outrage at Trump is legitimate, but the mainstream liberal and progressive forces have refused to face the fact that for the past several decades they have been a minority in Congress and are continuously becoming less relevant to people whose lives are filled with pain at the way they are treated in a society whose materialistic and “looking out for number one” values have been undermining families, friendships and community. That undermining is actually caused by the internalization of the values of the capitalist marketplace. Many on the Right blame the undermining on the Left. Many on the Left insist that the only pain worth our attention is that of those identity groups seem unaware of this societal-wide pain and focus only on economic deprivation or on identity groups that the Left recognizes as oppressed, labeling everyone else as privileged and benefiting from the suffering of others. This approach makes many people feel worse about themselves, and then, in the not too long run, angry at those who have mistakenly claimed that they were living lives of privilege when in fact they are suffering from the system as well.
For years “pragmatic” legislators were so focused on compromise and “realism” that they rarely worried about articulating a worldview that could explain to the American public how these piecemeal changes would contribute to the kind of world that might appeal to people not yet part of the liberal or progressive world. Thinking that they were so clever and pragmatic, Meanwhile, local single issue organizers consciously avoided speaking in a visionary language for fear that they would be dismissed as ideological. As a result, while the small battles were being won, there was no unifying theme that could speak to the growing pain and upset in the lives of many Americans, a pain that was rooted in the individualism and materialism of capitalist society.
The quintessence of this failure was the Obama Administration’s failure to champion “medicare for everyone.” Universal health care that built on the Medicare program that already served tens of millions of retired Americans was very popular, and had a proven record of providing people with all the choices they needed without siphoning off money to the health care insurers. We at Tikkun told Obama that he should be framing a universal health care ideal within a larger frame for his presidency—“The Caring Society—Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.” Instead, Obama ruled out even discussing how a single payer system might be expanded to the whole population. If the health care system is dismantled it will not be because it was too progressive, but because it was not progressive enough. It appeared to many Americans as just another instrumental bureaucratic tinkering because it was neither visionary nor framed as part of a larger vision for our society.
The lack of a positive and inspiring vision of the world we want is an important element in why the Right has been winning so dramatically on the state level in many parts of the US. The Left does not recognize Trump as a symptom of deeper problems rather than as the major cause. By the “Left” here, we mean the mainstream left. The Left has always been populated by visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Michelle Alexander, North Carolina’s Rev. William Barber, Christian Ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Princeton University’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and many writers in Tikkun. Instead of listening to the visionaries, the Left has focused ever since the 2016 election on how to catch Trump in some impeachable offense—and come up with very little that could possibly move Republicans to impeach one of the own.
A Left Divided
There are three factions within the Left. Let’s call them the Mainstream Left, the Radical Left, and the Visionary Left. The Mainstream Left is primarily the Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Representatives and Senators, elected Democrats on the state and local levels, the array of wealthy donors who play an important role in shaping the direction of the Party, the array of think tanks and policy institutions seeking to influence the Democratic Party policy shapers, plus the Democrats’ mass base of tens of millions of voters. Obviously there will be many differences of worldview and opinions in this kind of broad configuration. However, because the Democratic Party is not democratically constructed, the opinions of most of the mass base are frequently ignored, and so in this editorial when I talk about the Mainstream Left I will be referring to the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Party elected representatives in Congress and state legislatures, and the wealthy donors, as well as people like Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, their entourage of advisors, former members of their Administrations, and the media sycophants who quote them and thereby can count on them for story leads or quotes. The Radical Left includes the Green Party but also many who vote for the Democrats and were attracted to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. They often have deep critiques of mainstream institutions and economic arrangements, and some of them even are overtly critical of the capitalist system as a whole for its failure to deliver the political rights and economic entitlements to the American people that the Democratic politicians are always promising but rarely delivering even when they have won control of the Congress and presidency or the State Houses and Legislatures. The Visionary Left shares many of the criticisms of the capitalist system and of the failure of the Mainstream Democrats to deliver the political rights and economic entitlements about which they talk during elections, but largely forget afterwards in the name of being “realistic.” But the Visionary Left adds to the discourse an ethical, psychological and spiritual analysis and articulates a vision of the world it seeks couched in a language of empathy, generosity, love, and the sacredness of humanity and the Earth.
Since the 2016 election, we have seen the Mainstream Left and the Radical Left moving closer to each other as they rightly see the importance of challenging the Trump administration’s policies. They hope to increase their chances to win back control of Congress in 2018 and of the presidency in 2020. Yet most of their energy has gone into attacking Trump himself far more than his policy ideas (except for the Democrats’ resolute opposition to the Republican health care plans, for which the Dems deserve our appreciation). The terrain of their attack on Trump, central to their hope to undermine the credibility of the Republican Party, has focused on Trump’s relationship with Russia, and the way people central to his 2016 campaign, his current Administration, and/or his personal family may have had some role in encouraging or at least unfairly benefiting from Russian interference with the election outcome.
The mainstream Democrats have a powerful ally in this focus on Russia: a constellation of institutions that Peter Dale Scott, Dennis Kucinich and others have dubbed “the Deep State.” The Deep State is a label for the people who for many decades have run the foreign policy of the US no matter which political party won the latest election. The Deep State includes the CIA, NSA, and FBI, the military industrial complex that includes major defense industries and oil and gas interests; media opinion shapers including the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC, CBS, ABC; and an array of policy institutes from liberal to right-wing.
The Deep State serves as an agent of America’s ruling elites, supporting foreign policies whose implicit goal is to protect American corporate interests and maintain the global capitalist system. Most rank-and-file supporters and activists of the Mainstream Left are more interested in promoting democratic, human rights and environmental sustainability-oriented policies. Yet they often find themselves supporting national leadership, presidential candidates, and Congressional leaders who, in the name of “being realistic,” capitulate toward the policies of the Deep State (even though some of these mainstreams Dems started out in politics with a genuine interest in the same values as those who elected them). Indeed, those leaders who do not tilt toward the policies of the Deep State on foreign policy issues are often dismissed by the major funders and media as unworthy of attention, support, or in most cases even of media coverage.
This helps us understand why many leaders of the Democratic Party, while continuing to insist that their commitment is to a world of democracy and equality, only rarely implement policies that would promote democracy and equality around the world. We can see this in the way that when Democrats had control of Congress and the presidency in Obama’s first two years in office they did not shut our torture centers (particularly Guantanamo), did not implement a Global Marshall Plan (though Obama had personally promised me he would support that), did not make U.S. support to Israel conditional on ending the Occupation of the West Bank, escalated drone attacks on suspected terrorists (killing more civilians than actual terrorists), failed to cut off aid to Egypt after a military dictatorship overthrew the (admittedly misguided but democratically elected) government of Egypt, worked out a huge sale of military goods to Saudi Arabia as it continued its human rights-denying policies, and wildly escalated the roundup of “undocumented” economic and political refugees and jailed or expelled them. So the Democrats’ current alignment with the Deep State in demonizing Russia is not a total break with its past.
For the skeptics among us, it’s helpful to remember that the Democratic Party controlled by the Mainstream Left has rarely been the champion of democracy and human rights when it was the one actually implementing foreign policy (how many of them loudly protest drone attacks and deportations which occured during the Obama administrations?).
All of the pious outrage about the electoral from Russia must seem ludicrous and hypocritical to those around the world who have watched as the CIA, the US military, and other agencies interfere in the internal politics of country after country. Through most of the past several decades, the reality of international interference in domestic elections is familiar to anyone who knows how the US has engaged with Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Libya, and the list could go on. This is just the first time that Americans are watching the practice we refined hit our own society.
The Deep State first coalesced in order to secure US economic and political hegemony by attempting to overthrow communist and nationalist regimes which the Deep State theorists perceived to be a threat to US economic and political hegemony. For several decades the US was able to set the terms of trade, and together with its junior partner NATO allies, benefit by controlling much of the world’s economic dealings. As communist regimes in Europe collapsed and Russia and China emerged into capitalist economies with authoritarian regimes, new tensions were born that brought the dominance of the US Deep State into question. Russia and China began competing with the US for new markets, labor, and sources of raw materials. This competition was perceived to be a potential threat to US global economic dominance, and the Western elites that benefitted most from it.
The US (the Right, the Mainstream Left, and the Deep State) needed to employ new tactics and narratives to assure US dominance and profit in a new age of competition. Most importantly, they needed to keep the gears of the military industrial complex churning so they could benefit from the payments to defense contracts and maintain military superiority. We saw that tactic employed as the US began a never-ending “war on terror” that was used to justify huge military budgets even when there was no plausible enemy that could be fought with the weapons the US was building.
The success of the efforts to fix public attention on the (real and not totally exaggerated) evils of Russia under Putin has given the Deep State what it has been looking for, a potentially credible “evil other” around which it can build mass support for escalating military spending and possible interventions, if not against Russia directly than against its allies in Iran, Syria, and most immediately against North Korea (all of them states which we at Tikkun frequently critique). All this helps distract Americans from the escalating classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in the US and the increasing militarization of American police forces in municipalities around the US.
The Mainstream Left may be going along with the anti-Russia discourse because their interests are truly aligned with the Deep State, but why is the Radical Left following suit? It seems odd that so many Bernie followers are de-facto legitimating and building popular hostility to Russia that could revive the Cold War or even lead to a hot war. Especially considering Noam Chomsky’s point that developing friendly relations with Russia thereby undercutting the likelihood of war with one of the nuclear powers that could pose a danger to the future survival of life on this planet, is the only good thing that Trump has done.
The Democratic Party is focusing on the dual enemies of Trump and Russia to avoid the question that they most need to answer: what have they done wrong to lose so much support in the US? They won the popular vote but lost the presidency in 2000 and 2016; they did nothing in President Obama’s first two years when he had a Democratic Party majority in the Congress to create a constitutional amendment to make elections more democratic in the U.S. They keep losing in important ways, and instead of asking why, they blame their losses on the Other, first Trump and his lies and manipulations, then on his alleged alliance with Russia. All their charges may prove 100% correct, but what is motivating them on a deeper level is the inability to reflect on their own errors.
Meanwhile they avoid considering the dangers of a Pence presidency should Trump be removed from office, and the pivotal question that the 2016 elections posed: What needs to change in our strategies and ways of communicating to the American public in order to win enough popularity to be able to create a truly progressive agenda that would ensure that our government and country prioritize the well being of people and the planet over money and power? As we’ve argued for the past 30 years, to achieve this the liberal and progressive movements would have to stop the shaming and blaming of people not yet on our side, develop an empathic and compassionate approach to them, and educate people about the self-blaming inherent in the meritocratic fantasy that underlies capitalism’s self-justification for immense disparities of wealth and power in Western societies.
We have to talk about building a world of love and kindness, social and economic justice, environmental sanity and the need to overcome the discourse of “we are more oppressed than you so you should feel guilty and feel bad about yourselves”—and instead help people understand that what is needed now is a movement that affirms the humanity and fundamental decency of everyone who is not actively and explicitly advocating for hate and oppression of others. To advocate for a “New Bottom Line” based on promoting love, generosity and justice, to call for “the Caring Society: Caring for Each and Every Person on Earth and Caring for our precious Planet” would be far more effective than critiquing Trump for wanting to build peace with Russia and sharing Israeli reports of Al Qaeda or ISIS (the Islamic State) or exposing his or his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s disreputable money-making schemes.
None of this is meant to argue against impeachment.
Trump is so unpredictable that it is not impossible to imagine him seeking to prove that he is not a puppet of Putin and the Russians by switching his policy toward that of the Deep State, but doing it in such a provacative way that Putin felt he had to respond in kind. Without intending to, Trump might find himself in circumstances that would lead him to believe that the only way he could be seen as a successful president would be to launch a first strike nuclear war against Russia or North Korea or Iran. In fact, Trumpists have already been at work to reverse previous laws that prevented the US from conducting a first strike. The very possibility of Trump stumbling into a nuclear war, analogous to the way European nations stumbled into the First World War, is enough reason to want to see him replaced, even if the immediate consequence is to strengthen the reactionary forces that would inherit the White House. So if impeachment is a matter of life and death, then we choose life.