Going Off the Rails on a Crazy Train

Black Sabbath 1970  Ozzy Osbourne © Chris Walter
Black Sabbath 1970 Ozzy Osbourne
© Chris Walter

I was on my way to work this morning and I couldn’t stand to listen to the news any more. This is a big deal for me, because my children will tell you that mostly the only time I turn off Oregon Public Broadcasting in the car is when they are doing pledge drive. But today, I decided to listen to music so I put on the local hard rock station. And what should I hear but the distinctive guitar riff and voice of Ozzy Osbourne declaiming “mental wounds not healing, life’s a bitter shame, I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.” Gotta think that’s editorializing on the station’s part.

I admit to being as surprised and perturbed by the election outcome as anybody, but I have been saying for at least a year that America is in a revolutionary moment. Of course, when you have a revolution, it might not be the revolution you expected or wanted. Last night was certainly revolutionary. The mainstream Republicans have been hoping all along that Trump would be defeated, just not too badly. Now, they’ve got to figure out how to deal with him, like German conservatives in 1933 had to learn to deal with Hitler. Some German conservatives became principled opponents of National Socialism, like Konrad Adenauer. Others bowed to the will of the people and became servants of the new master, like Franz von Papen, Chancellor in 1932 who subsequently turned over the keys to Hitler and served in his administration, and paid for it in war crimes trials after 1945.

Our political system is designed to permit powerful elites to harness the fervor of the popular masses for their projects. The system is intentionally un-democratic – so, for example, Clinton won the popular vote last night by a margin of almost 200,000 (as of this writing; almost all the votes are counted but there are still a few to go). But the framers did not intend for the person who gets the most votes to take office unless those votes were properly distributed among the states. Small states have disproportionate power, and Trump was strong in small states. Additionally, two big states, California and New York, were strongly in favor of Clinton and gave her large majorities that didn’t affect her electoral college standing. Clinton also polled well among minorities in the south, giving her a lot of votes in states like Texas where she had no chance to capture a plurality. But in a larger sense, the system is designed to deliver legitimacy to an office-holder who, once elected, will govern as he (or she) sees fit, returning to the electorate periodically for a not-entirely-democratic renewal of the mandate. In that sense, Donald Trump has a mandate, but in his case it is a mandate to do a variety of things for, instead of on behalf of, an active electorate who appear to be really tired of being governed.

That, for me, is the big lesson this election. One of my good friends and political comrades cracked after the 2004 election that “nobody ever went broke overestimating the stupidity of the American people”. We can certainly say that the decision to vote for an entirely unqualified candidate whose personal life and character are repugnant to the values that most Americans profess is stupid by the standards we are used to. But those are the old-fashioned standards for selecting a representative to rule on behalf of the people. We were taught to choose a candidate who has the skills and background to do the job effectively and whose character gives confidence that the decisions they make will be in the public interest. Additionally, you look at the policy proposals of the candidate both as such, as a program for their actions during their mandate, and as an indication of how they would decide future questions that might arise.

But today, people are tired of being ruled by elites, even when those elites go through a periodic simulation of democracy. This is why Clinton had so much trouble defeating an elderly socialist Jew, Sanders, who resembles everybody’s irate uncle (as an irate uncle myself, I can say this), in her primary campaign. Clinton represented the continuation of a 230-year tradition of indirect republican rule by the political class. Most of Trump’s opponents in the Republican primaries were like her in this.  Sanders and Trump represented a new populist spirit that holds that government should do the people’s will. Sanders was arguing that the people’s will was that American society should become more open and egalitarian, with such initiatives as free college education, national health care, and public child care. Trump argued that the people’s will was that American society should be more exclusive, with immigration limited and the central place of heterosexual white men in our society recognized and respected. Clinton adopted many of Sanders’ policy proposals, and Trump’s fellow Republicans echoed many of his policy proposals. But in both cases, they did their adoption in the classic mode of policy papers and wonky explanations that did not pick up on the central populist message. The people should rule – at least, in each case, the people as the candidate defined them.

Obama managed to pick up on some of this populist fervor during his campaigns, which explains why he was able to beat two old-style candidates in McCain and Romney. He is smart and had those old-style qualifications of character and ability (if not much experience), but he was able to assure the people that he wanted to do their will. He tried to translate his magic to his designated successor, but she could never echo his style.

So now we have had our revolution, or perhaps cemented the revolution of 2008. American politics will never be the same. The people have chosen a tribune instead of a representative, and that tribune, like the Roman tribunes of old, will be expected to do what the people want. They want to “lock her up”; I think we can expect that there will be some locking up. It’s kind of unclear on what grounds, but one consequence of what’s happening is that in a revolution, people aren’t too concerned about the niceties of trials and evidence and guilt and innocence. The people want to “build that wall”, one assumes that it will now get built. The people want to ban Muslims, one presumes that they will now be banned. The people want to kick out illegal immigrants; presumably they will now be duly kicked. Trump says he will run America’s finances like he ran his businesses, which suggests that American government debt is about to become a bad investment.

But what about Constitutional protections? The Constitution says the US government can’t default on its debts. How is this consistent with Trump’s proposal to renegotiate and perhaps negotiate down the national debt? The Constitution says that there can be no religious tests. How is this consistent with Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants? Etcetera. There are a number of answers. One is that, as Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “we are a government of laws under the Constitution, but the laws and the Constitution are what the Supreme Court say they are.” The infuriating tactic of Senate Republicans in blocking Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is about to pay off bigly, as President Trump will nominate a justice who will presumably be willing to vote for his policies. Supreme Court justices are notoriously independent sorts, though, so it is always possible that some of the conservatives currently on the court will become principled opponents of authoritarianism – American Konrad Adenauers (but be careful, John Roberts, Adenauer lived in Germany throughout the Nazi era but spent a good deal of time in prison and nearly got himself shot, except for the intervention of a Communist fellow prisoner who managed to get him off the death list). There is precedent, though, for authoritarian American presidents to ignore the Court. When the Supremes decided that Andy Jackson’s Indian removal policy was unconstitutional in 1831, Jackson responded “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made its decision, now let him enforce it” and went ahead with the removals anyway. In any case, the president has a lot of independent authority over foreign policy matters, and immigration certainly falls under that heading. Immigration judges are employees of the executive branch rather than the federal courts and thus subject to President Trump’s orders. As Obama demonstrated in the last several years, the president has a lot of independent authority. Trump doesn’t appear to have a lot of respect for Constitutional norms anyway, and so he is probably willing to do a whole lot on his own initiative and not wait for the courts to say it’s OK. With the legitimacy of an electoral college triumph, he can give orders to the whole enormous edifice of the federal government and people will be obliged to do his will or lose their jobs. Finally, there are a lot of people among Trump’s “deplorables” who can be expected to be willing to do his extra-Constitutional will. Again, there’s a precedent for this:  in the period after the end of the Civil War, a combination of unofficial violence and increasing control over local governments in the south by conservatives allowed southern whites to regain control over local politics and disenfranchise blacks in direct violation of the Constitution. People in the north deplored this, but there was little they could do aside from fighting the Civil War over again. And northerners mostly controlled the presidency during that time; now the president will be behind the “gun clubs”, “three percenter militias” and “citizens’ councils”.

So, it is distinctly possible that we have just elected Caesar. One of the great fears that the framers of the Constitution had was that in the past, especially in the classical times that they were all familiar with from their educations, republics tended to degenerate into tyranny. Julius Caesar and Augustus in Rome, Alcibiades in Athens, and so on, all object lessons for republics in the Enlightenment. Greco-Roman philosophy supported this nervousness: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Cato, Virgil, Plutarch, all the classical authors who commented on politics had cautionary words about the danger of tyranny as a consequence of too much democracy. They may be having the last laugh today.

On the other hand, as I’ve already suggested, there is precedent in American history for the various proposed or feared misdeeds of President Trump. The most noteworthy example of a feared Caesar was Andrew Jackson, the seventh president. A military hero who had defeated the British at New Orleans and pillaged and sacked a variety of Indian tribes, Jackson lost his first presidential bid in 1824 despite winning the most votes. This was the result of what he termed a “corrupt bargain” between his rivals, who traded support in the House of Representatives after the four-sided election failed to produce an electoral majority for Jackson. Jackson stormed back to win in 1828 at the head of a populist uprising against what was seen as a corrupt political system. He took power and faced an opposition who called him unqualified to be president, repugnant in character, and a potential tyrant. Sound familiar? Jackson increased the power of the presidency in the American system but he was no tyrant. Ultimately (with the help of the very much underappreciated Martin Van Buren) he refashioned the American political landscape, creating what is known as the second party system as the head of the Democrats. At the end of his second term, in 1837, he left office and went peacefully into retirement. People still name their kids after him.

The Republic survived Jackson. One reason was that he never attempted to interfere with the electoral process beyond organizing the heck out of his supporters to build a political movement (something, I might add, that the Donald doesn’t appear to be particularly good at). Everybody cheated like mad in those days but Jackson wasn’t outstanding in this regard.

There’s no denying that this is going to be a tough four years for gay and transgendered people, for people of color (including my own family, I’m afraid), for immigrants (my family too), for women (the front-page headline of the Clackamas Community College newspaper this morning was “Trump Grabs America By The Pussy”). Hard times might provoke populist resistance. Just like Jackson’s supporters were energized by his “corrupt” defeat and came back in enormous numbers, it could well be that we will come back in enormous numbers in two years – Democrats never vote in off-year elections, you say? – and certainly in 2020 when a new generation of Democratic leadership can step to the front.

So for those of us who want what Bernie Sanders wanted, what Hillary Clinton (mostly) adopted into her wonky platform, the answer is not more policy papers. The answer is to build a better democratic organization and win elections. We need to start from the bottom, from state legislatures and local offices. We need a “bench” of potential leaders we can draw from. We need to have our “ground game” organized in every neighborhood. Flipping through the list of Democratic Party ward-heelers in my county, I note that probably 2/3 of the slots are not filled. (This comes under the heading of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, you’ll notice that my name isn’t there either). But what we need to do, instead of weeping or smashing stuff or stocking up on guns (not that there’s anything wrong with guns), is organize. We need to make contacts with poor white folks. Actually, a majority of the really poor white people who voted were for Clinton. Trump’s supporters appear to have trended somewhat more affluent than Clinton’s. If we could have turned out the real white working class we could have won, but they are hard to find and harder to get to the polls. We have to be willing to do the hard work.

I have two teenage sons. If Trump takes us to war, or if there is civil war, they are just about the right age for the infantry. I’d much rather work on political campaigns than watch them march off to war.


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