Friday, July 22, 2016

bruce wilder 07.22.16 at 7:05 pm

For much of the post-WWII era, American politics was eminently predictable: if the economy was good in February, the incumbent or the incumbent Party was favored to win the Presidency in November. In general, the Democratic Presidents tended to be better for the economy viewed from the perspective of the general population of wage earners over the course of their four years, but conservatives found ways, sometimes, to undermine the Democrats in election years. And, in the reverse of this pattern, Republican Presidents tended to be bad for the economy (from the perspective of the general population of wage earners) except in election years.

Early on, ex-Presidents imitated Cincinnatus. Truman moved in with his hateful mother-in-law and people worried that he didn’t have enough to live on. Eisenhower went to his farm in Gettysburg. Lyndon Johnson had secured his fortune while in office as a Senator and was able to hold onto office for Texas only by presenting himself as sufficiently corruptible to Texas oil interests. But, Johnson, like Eisenhower, seemed to think reactionary Texas millionaires (they were mere millionaires in those days) were crazy and irresponsible, and needed to be handled and marginalized.

Nixon found the enduring fracture points in the post-war liberal consensus; he used his own personal and deeply felt resentments like a hammer and chisel, first as the most successful commie-baiter and later as a reinvented epitome of mediocrity. His personal corruption, by 21st century standards, was as modest as his wife’s Republican cloth coat. But, he saw that the next generation of the left was anti-authoritarian and wanted to separate from the diminishing working classes and he helped them along on their course. His sociopathy was different from Trump’s narcissism, but it knew few bounds; unfortunately for him, there still were bounds in American politics and while he broke some of those bounds, some of the bounds broke him. He was still a statesman — at least in his own mind — working on a long-term vision at home and abroad, even if it was without much consciousness of his own severe myopia.

Nixon’s many sins tend to get erased from collective memory, partly because he was so deft at using the left against itself. The Keynesian boom he induced to over-insure his own re-election was a catastrophic precedent that would be repeated and amplified by Reagan and GWB and, finally, Obama. This cynical maneuver became the basis for storytelling from the right that overthrew Keynesian demand management. As Corey Robin notes, he prolonged the Vietnam War, killing more Americans than Johnson and spreading and deepening the war in ways that destroyed Cambodia as well as more deeply scarring much of Vietnam. Just as he sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks in 1968, Reagan’s dark eminences would sabotage Carter’s Iran talks. And, Reagan would run bigger deficits and took over Carter’s deregulation push, using it to destroy organized labor and restore predatory finance.

George H W Bush was the last veteran of WWII to be elected President. He organized the first gulf war to vindicate the post-war principle of non-aggression, pushing Saddam Hussein’s forces back within his borders and containing him. The bounds, and the reasons for the bounds, were clear to him, at least where a narrative of aggression was available and the proper response was to mobilize a consensus with self-restraint as glue.

His son, George W Bush, whose honorable service limited his wounds received to dental work in Alabama, did not understand bounds. When the opportunity arose he went instantly from complacent nonchalance (“you covered your ass” in response to warnings) to pure righteous reactionary (and may I say, stupid?) anger. No plan, really; no real consciousness that he needed a plan. No consciousness that he needed even an actual justification. I say, “he” rhetorically; this is politics not personal psychology though the two may mix — his Administration and much of his popular support came to embody this shared conviction that ordinary means and constraints should be broken. It didn’t matter that Iraq had nothing to do with 9 / 11. William Safire was sure there was “smoking gun” evidence of a connection. Tom Friedman thought America needed to beat an Arab country senseless, or something like that. “Torture”? We were quickly mesmerized by ticking time-bomb scenarios and television heroes who did what it takes, righteously beating the truth out of suspects.

The history Corey Robin reminds us of has always had more than a fair share of crazy shit going on. That’s certainly true. Some of today’s Republicans are not that far removed from yesterday’s John Birchers.

But, there’s also something to the fear that the history of the last 70 years has been of a world system that managed against daunting odds to reach adult maturity in the fall of the Berlin Wall, George H W Bush’s Gulf War or Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo or the reinvigoration of the EU in the early 1990s and now show every sign of deteriorating into dementia. We keep doing the same things over and over, and for a while it looked like we were learning, and then we weren’t and it didn’t matter to us anymore. Colin Powell told us we wouldn’t repeat Vietnam; then, he went before the U.N. Security Council and lied the world and the U.S. into the war crime of aggressive war. No one needs no stinkin’ Glass-Steagall! What we need is financial innovation; the home equity ATM of no doc mortgages financed by a savings glut from China of all places.

The U.S. has been involved in endless, fruitless war for nearly the whole of the 21st century. We cannot end it. We just keep extending the pattern, without little acknowledgement that diminishing returns is progressing into blowback. We cannot end the post-WWII era, because, I suppose, we quietly fear what comes after — a zombie politics with a brain-dead Trump or a brain-eating Clinton?

Reagan, though already demented as he left the Presidency, made some fairly serious money making post-Presidential speeches. The Clintons took that to a whole ‘nother level of Davos Man with a collection plate. The corruption involved is epic. When Trump says, “the system is rigged, I know” people believe him, they believe he knows, I believe he knows. And, then he looks at Hillary and Bill. I know it makes no sense to elect a supreme huckster to be huckster-in-chief as if putting a Fox in charge of the chicken coop will protect the chickens, but we stopped being rational enough to respond to feedback or anticipate the obvious a while back.

The Pageant can be total pollyanna b.s., of course, but it can also be instructive about the trajectory we are on, and that trajectory is not looking good.

Pretend and extend, kick the can down the road, is not working out well and the popular impulse to simply break the system in contradiction to “it’s complicated” and “there is no alternative” is growing in strength. And, there really doesn’t really seem to be that much a left left to provide an alternative.

bruce wilder 07.22.16 at 7:29 pm

Turkey’s NATO membership is a bomb waiting to go off. A small-minded dictator who is apparently willing to stage terror bombings and coup attempts to provide pretext for enhancing his own power to destroy his country’s modernist secular political culture holds the Western allies hostage to their ability to penetrate his smokescreen, during a hot war involving Iran, Assad, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Hezbollah, the Kurds, . . .

Compared to that, Latvia and Ukraine are simplicity itself.


bruce wilder 07.22.16 at 10:26 pm

Those putative hot thugs of Latvia might find ways to provoke the Russians. They haven’t been very nice to their Russian populace lately — understandable given the history, but it is what it is. Similarly, attacking the status of the Russian language in Ukraine was probably not a good way to make friends, but Ukrainians are often passionate about it.

Offering NATO protection to Latvia — which is offering U.S. protection; the German Army would have a hard time driving from Bavaria to Berlin in a rain storm — is inviting trouble, entangling the U.S. in local politics it cannot control or even understand for no good reason other than habitual hostility by the U.S. toward Russia.

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