A Bitter Pill, but not a Lethal One
The COVID-19 pandemic and the riots following yet another brutal cop killing of a black man, have shown Donald Trump’s duplicity, incompetence, and insensitivity as never before. He is so profoundly out of touch with the reality of those suffering, and so fearful of protesters, that he cowers in the presidential bunker when they turn up in huge numbers outside the White House. However, what he fears most is not protesters, but being seen as a ‘loser’—as a one-term president. In press conferences over the last months he has lashed out and dismissed reporters who instead of dutifully praising his leadership mildly question how well he has responded to the pandemic. He threatened to stop the daily White House briefings because their ‘hostile questions’ prevented him from using the forum as a campaign rally. He is worried about the implications of a potential mail-in ballot election that he cannot control.
In a pandemic or political crisis, we want our political leaders to be composed, to be accountable for their actions, to show empathy for those who suffer—to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time for the right reasons. We want them to be up to speed on what is at stake and do what needs to be done. We want them to delegate important tasks and rely on those with expertise and knowledge. The problem is that Trump becomes agitated and hostile when questioned, believes he is not accountable for what he does, has no capacity for empathy, the attention span of a three-year-old, and is constitutionally incapable of taking advice or deferring to those who know more than him. Even worse he has created a political environment where health officials and political aides who might help guide his decision-making in constructive ways constantly feel under threat of banishment if they do not agree with him: even when agreement means keeping silent when he says COVID-19 is a ‘hoax’ perpetrated by Democrats who want to malign his presidency; even when agreement means standing idly by while he encourages the ludicrous notion that the World Health Organization helped the Chinese government cover up facts about the origins of the virus; even when agreement means looking on while he petulantly and unilaterally decides that the US should withdraw funding of the WHO and pull out of the agency; even when agreement means saying little or nothing when he disseminates dangerous misinformation about ‘cures’ that involve taking hydroxychloroquine or drinking or injecting disinfectant.
Every day that shows a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths in America (2,289,487 and 121,293
respectively as of June 19) Trump’s rhetoric becomes more unhinged. He fears that if these numbers continue to rise, a reckoning will come. That is why Republicans (with help from a far-right Supreme Court) are doing everything possible to maintain gerrymandered districts, curb voter registration, and suppress the vote of minorities, young people and the poor. They know that the more voters there are who get to the polling booth the less likely Republicans will stay in power. They also know that the more barriers they can put in the way of mail-in voting, and the more propaganda they can disseminate about voter fraud and the danger of voting in person during a pandemic, the better off they will be. However, as unfeeling and violence-prone as his language has been in the face of a pandemic, police assaults on protesters, none of his responses should be considered surprising, random or unpredictable.
In fact, much of the way Donald Trump has behaved during these recent crises or even in ongoing day to day domestic and foreign affairs is quite predictable once you assume that he is a megalomaniac with textbook narcissistic personality disorder. His megalomania/narcissism manifests as a delusion of exaggerated intellectual and personal superiority, a lack of empathy, violent tendencies, a need for constant and excessive praise and admiration, a sense of entitlement, the demand that others be entirely obedient and submissive to his ideas and wishes, admiration and praise for autocratic leaders, envy or hatred directed to anyone he might be unfavourably compared to, a belief that detractors are motivated by jealousy and so on. Behind the facade of omnipotence, however, is deep fear and instability. Trump is only comfortable when surrounded by unquestioning supporters. He is instinctively hostile when confronted by reporters, advisors, military generals, ambassadors, political rivals who challenge his ideas or decisions.
A thorough analysis of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy decisions demonstrates not simple arbitrariness, lawlessness or ideological obsession, but crass self-aggrandizing calculations grounded in the need to appear and be constantly praised as intelligent and all-powerful—as a ‘winner’ when compared to any ‘loser’ predecessor. For example, the decision to abandon the international accord with Iran was not because the latter state violated the terms of the agreement. Neither was it done solely to curry favour with Israel’s Netanyahu. This was all about erasing what Trump deemed to be an Obama success story. The same predictability holds when it comes to anything Obama did that might be deemed ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’—usually in the form of delegitimizing, withdrawing from and/or repealing any program, agreement or order signed by Obama. That Obama could so get under Trumps skin has less to do with ideology than it does with the kind of obsessive enmity and unhinged spite which is the product of a diseased mind formed and cultivated in a militaristic, violent empire ruled by corporate elites and incapable of coming to terms with its racist, xenophobic past.
That is what we are talking about here: a person sitting in the office of the most powerful nation on earth who has deeply troubling psychological issues that appear to many as virtues. In a polarized and depoliticized culture of cruelty where celebrity distraction and spectacle prevail, where fear and insecurity are constants, where heavily armed extremist militia groups are allowed to roam the streets, Trump’s megalomania, love of autocracy and narcissism appear as strength, forthrightness and even infallibility. Since the 1980’s neoliberal economic policies have deliberately entrenched wealth disparity, precarity and a fearful depoliticized culture that becomes all the more vulnerable to populist demagogues like Trump. The citizen virtues of considered judgment and critical reflection that a liberal democracy requires are displaced by a corporate capitalist consumer culture where citizens retreat into an ‘us versus them’ ethos and are guided primarily by emotion, tribal loyalty and rank prejudice. Trump’s audacious rejection of so-called ‘liberal’ values of inclusivity, civil rights, gender equality and internationalism, his constant MAGA refrain signalling a return to the ‘traditional values’ of a racist, intolerant, xenophobic past, his tweets calling for violence against protestors are intended for an exclusive audience who long for an archetypal father—for someone who appears to the fearful and vulnerable to be fearless and invulnerable, whose megalomania and narcissism are seen as virtues of super-human strength and resilience. Recall that this is a person who grew up in an abusive, financially privileged, and emotionally stunted environment; who had below average intelligence; who was, by any yardstick, an abject failure as an entrepreneur and businessman; and who was taught to believe that telling yourself you’re the ‘best’, or the ‘most intelligent’ or a constant ‘winner’ makes it true.
Trump’s tax cuts helped the billionaire class but did nothing for his working-class supporters. But in Trump they have the perfect bullhorn through which they can vent their hatred, their feelings of inferiority and their resentment against all those ‘liberals’, Obama supporters, blacks and immigrants who they believe have infiltrated and ‘stolen’ America from them. Back in 2016 many voters and pundits argued that Republicans and Democrats who voted for Trump did not necessarily like him, but were simply fed up with the Clintons, with trade agreements and the corporate outsourcing of jobs, with the political establishment and media as a whole. By voting for Trump they were simply registering their anger towards the utter failure of the political class to bring about genuine change. They knew he was crude and coarse, but believed they really had nothing to lose in electing someone that seemed authentically anti-establishment.
Those justifications and excuses will no longer wash in 2020—and not merely because Trump is the establishment candidate par excellence, the latest in a long line of feckless political leaders who have degraded democracy and embraced corporatocracy. No, Trump is not only establishment, but a truly malevolent and extremely dangerous head of state. Let us be completely honest: anyone who puts an X beside his name in 2020 is no less morally depraved than Trump himself.
What then of the ‘Never Biden’ people? One can certainly have sympathy for their argument that the Democratic party will never put forward a truly progressive candidate so long as people are willing to dutifully vote for corporate-shilling lackeys like Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. The problem is that when such arguments prevail and people refuse to vote, proto-fascists like Trump inevitably come to power and take the country down a road which is far worse than they could have ever imagined.
There is no disagreement here with the claim that both Republicans and Democrats have accelerated the legacy of neoliberalism. Over the past 40 years political and democratic decision-making regarding geopolitics, policing, war, climate change, environment, taxation, public interests and the furthering of public good has been taken over by the private profit interests of corporations who maintain the surveillance-carceral-military-industrial complex. To be sure, what John Ralston Saul presciently described as a corporate coup d’état in slow motion has been going on since at least the American Trilateral Commission determined in the late 1970’s that there was just ‘too much democracy’ and that citizen interests were far too demanding of government. The neoliberal answer to democratic governance was corporate governance: the noxious idea of trickle-down economics which culminated in Ronald Reagan’s odious maxim that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Trump is not the exception to this sordid history, but the predictable outcome of it. However, it is also very clear that the Trump presidency has not only accelerated a corporate coup by funnelling taxpayer money to an already super-rich elite, brazenly used the office of the presidency to advance private gain and done everything possible to turn the executive branch into a fascist autocracy, but, even more ominously, brought America and the world closer to the precipice of both climate and nuclear catastrophe. Let’s take each of these in turn.
Trump has done everything possible to dismantle environmental protections and repeal laws that limit GHG emissions not to mention protecting endangered species, streams and wetlands; he pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement; he has rolled back restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants, the regulation of offshore drilling, and fuel-efficiency and pollution standards for vehicles; he has loosened regulations on methane emissions and industry toxic air pollution.
Meanwhile, Trump has unilaterally brought the world closer to nuclear conflagration by undermining international nuclear weapons treaties; by delaying the START Treaty “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration” according to Trump; by withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty; by issuing reckless threats against China and Russia; by trashing the Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) with Russia in order to develop a new generation of weapons that would exceed the range of current nuclear missiles; by tearing up the agreement with Iran and urging recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights. In only 3 years Trump has moved the Doomsday Clock closer to civilization-ending nuclear war than it has ever been: 100 seconds to midnight.
Trump’s response to the current global pandemic has been reckless and even criminal. But if given a second mandate, the havoc he could potentially wreak on both the climate and nuclear fronts is almost too frightening to imagine. You do not have to be persuaded by ‘lesser evil’ arguments to know that if Trump remains president America and the world will be brought closer to disaster than at any time in history. You may, like me, be one those who recoil at the idea of being compelled to choose between two immoral alternatives. You may rightly complain that the lesser evil argument perpetuates rather than ‘lessens’ evil. You may even be convinced that voting in America cannot really be understood as an exercise in democracy within a neoliberal corporatist duopoly. All that said, refusing to vote because you are convinced that Biden is ‘just as bad or incompetent’ as Trump would be both irrational and irresponsible. One does not have to whitewash Biden’s historical record of supporting regressive legislation on crime and policing, the Middle East and trade agreements, to grasp that even given all of the latter he would still be preferable to another four years of Donald Trump. To argue otherwise is not to violate an abstract ‘lesser evil’ principle, but simply to be blind and deaf to the reality of the last three years. The decisions made by Trump with respect to the environment and nuclear weapons were founded on the premise that if Obama signed or supported it, it must be withdrawn or repealed, regardless of whether it was reasonable or responsible policy. So, what would a Biden presidency look like?
Biden won the nomination with Obama’s help and you can be sure he will have the latter’s support going into the Fall election. A Biden presidency would be influenced by Obama people, and oriented around Obama-like foreign policy and diplomacy. For many on the left that would be a bitter pill, but it would not be a poison one. At the very least, a Biden presidency would extend the new START treaty, support Open Skies and restore some of the more forward-thinking immigration, climate and environmental programs and policies implemented by the Obama administration. The most important point to keep in mind is that a Biden presidency would be, in some measure, persuadable—much more likely to evolve as a consequence of outside pressure, mass protest and progressive urging on war, environment, climate change, immigration and policing than Trump, who only takes marching orders from far-right pundits like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
That obviously does not mean that there would be anything approaching radical change or even much in the way of ground-breaking progressive politics. Far from it. There will not be universal health care, or paid family leave or free college education under Biden. Neoliberalism and American belligerence in foreign relations will continue, though in far less threatening fashion. Policy toward Israel will not significantly change: there will be mild opposition to Israel’s continuing illegal settlements, restoration of funding to the Palestinian Authority, and continuing (empty) rhetoric regarding a two-state solution. Biden will not reverse the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and he will continue to toady up to AIPAC, criticize the BDS movement and likely increase funding to Israel. More significantly, however, Biden will defend the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran—which will certainly anger Netanyahu and the far-right, but will also significantly reduce the tensions in the region, not to mention the possibility of war with Iran. Biden has also committed to ending US support for the truly disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen. By contrast, Trump’s exuberant praise of the murderous Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman was perfectly realized in his reckless veto of a bipartisan Congressional resolution to end US military involvement further aiding and abetting the world's largest humanitarian crises.
Money in politics will not suddenly disappear, austerity for the many will continue and America will not be any closer to social democracy for choosing Biden over Trump. Biden will not be a cause for radical change over social, racial or economic justice or an expanding police state—in a neoliberal duopoly that kind of transformative power will always ultimately rest with mass movements for justice, peace and racial recognition.
However, what there will not be in a Biden presidency is the autocratic and hate-filled glorifying of violence towards peaceful protest, or the complete lack of empathy which has normalized and escalated human rights violations against immigrants, transgender and LGBTQ, and people of colour. What there will not be is foreign relations based on a reckless, xenophobic and ego-based unilateralism and obsequious fawning over autocrats and despots. What there will not be is a complete denial of climate science or a criminally negligent attitude toward international arms treaties. Mediocre leadership, yes. Age-related forgetfulness, undoubtedly. Yet, as unexceptional as Biden is, he is not a criminal degenerate who calls for violence against opponents or praises white supremacists; he is not the sort of reckless, unstable, psychologically disturbed megalomaniac and narcissist who would refuse to listen to the wise or pragmatic counsel of doctors, constitutional experts, diplomats, policy wonks or environmental scientists and researchers.
That is what every American, and, indeed, everyone who supported Bernie Sanders must now think through before they vote (or decide not to vote) this coming November.