Rather, Trump, Fail
by Ray Valentine on August 11, 2016
Trump made another dumb joke and now we all have to read about it. The self-appointed referees of American politics have flooded the media with declarations that the Donald’s little hint that one of his supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton CROSSES THE LINE.
It’s galling to see another round of pearl clutching not about Trump’s delightful mix of racist authoritarianism and supply-side economics, which is basically standard Conservatism at this point, but rather at Trump’s carefully performed mannerisms and his supposed unfitness for office–as if the functioning of the various federal administrative bureaucracies depended on the continence and good will of the president. But if we grit our teeth and carefully examine the contents of these elite condemnations, we’ll see the profound self-deception and pathetic opportunism endemic to the leading personnel of the entrenched political class.
Let’s take washed up ex-newsman Dan Rather, whose crie de couer against Trump has gone viral on Facebook and found its way into my eyes. He says Trump’s comments are “ “grave and unprecedented” and “against the norms of American politics,” and he wants to make sure we know that they’re more than “just another outrageous moment in the campaign.”
But this is dumb. Joking about offing your opponents has a proud history in this country. Andrew Jackson famously said that his greatest regret about his presidency was that “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Jackson isn’t as well regarded today as he was in the past, but he’s staying on the money and plenty of local Democratic parties still hold Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraisers. I guess we are all supposed to pretend that we never cracked the occasional assassination joke in the Bush administration?
Rather says that “a direct threat of violence against a political opponent” is unprecedented because we are a “a democratic republic governed by the rule of law.” That’s some real shit. American political order has always depended on a great deal of violence, including extra-legal violence, even compared to other capitalist societies. The American state is plenty violent against its internal enemies, but our benevolent overlords only seem to get worried about political violence when it threatens to touch a member of their club.
Euro-American civilization exists because colonial authorities depended on an armed population to defend and expand it. Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and their allies dispatched militias to rough up poor farmers protesting against the predatory debt collection and regressive taxation that centralized capital in the hands of major financiers at the country’s founding. Before the class compromises of World War II, employers used private militias to crush labor militancy. Woodrow Wilson rounded up and deported every red he could lay his hands on, and a few other people who looked like they might be reds. Do I really need to bring up COINTELPRO? You may also recall this country had a bit of a civil war.
Let’s talk about that civil war, actually. Dan Rather quotes Lincoln’s plea “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Of course, Lincoln sort of changed his tune when he built the largest army ever seen on the continent, oversaw the invention of modern total war, vastly expanded the repressive power of the federal state to crack down on political opponents, ordered American cities burned to the ground, and executed one of the most massive expropriations of private property ever anywhere in history. And he is one of our national heroes for doing that, because sometimes we really are enemies. Four years after the speech Rather quotes, Lincoln was less convinced of the necessity of averting conflict:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
But Dan Rather does not regard the judgements of the Lord as true and righteous altogether, and he really gives away the game with a final bit of foolery: “It was the eve of the Civil War and sadly [Lincoln’s] call for sanity, cohesion and peace was met with horrific violence that almost left our precious Union asunder. We cannot let that happen again.”
Actually, the civil war was probably the best thing that ever happened to the USA. The southern slaveocracy was not going to submit peacefully to the dissolution of their social system. They refused any consideration of compensated emancipation, and besides no one was going to pay for it anyway. Half of the advocates of abolition wanted to expel black people from the country. But the war destroyed the material foundations of slavery, weakening local repressive powers and allowing American slaves to walk off the plantations in what W.E.B. DuBois called a successful general strike to smash slavery. The Union was forced to put guns in black hands on an unprecedented scale. Rather than gradual, compensated emancipation and deportation, the civil war brought about black citizenship in a social revolution that took a great deal of counterrevolutionary bloodshed to roll back.
If there’s something to regret about our civil war, it’s that the subsequent military occupation of the defeated Confederacy wasn’t longer and more repressive. But for the Dan Rathers of this world the emancipation of four million human beings from a life of being sold on an auction block, beaten, raped and worked to death was small consolation for the sundering of “our precious Union.” The stability of our political system is more important than human freedom, specifically the freedom of those other humans.
I never understand Trump’s appeal more than when I hear these decadent elite mediocrities lecturing us about him because hey, America is already great and we shouldn’t be so extreme. This finger waving from media flunkies who deserve to get punched in the face allows Trump, an asshole billionaire heir who steals from everyone he meets, to seem like a rebel who’s sticking it to the man. One gets the sense that what elites fear most about Trump then is that he’ll usher in an age of mass mobilization and upset the order of things.
It’s not a bad thing to hate your enemies, and anyone who claims that American politics are a genteel conversation is a craven bullshitter. Lincoln understood that history sometimes puts you in a situation where a fight is inevitable and you need to fight to win. We are not in an era where moderation and compromise are going to get much done and win popular support. Trump profits from the lack of viable alternatives to the rotating official elites who keep bumbling from crisis to crisis, although he wants to replace them with even more reactionary, incompetent goons.
But since the leading sections of the ruling class are obviously headed for crisis (economic, ecological, military, you name it) and the far right is on the march, maybe we need to worry less about preventing the next civil war and more about finishing the last one.