A lot of people are rightly panicking about the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am one of them, more often than not. In this discourse, Trump is an absolute evil that must be stopped no matter what the cost, even if that means holding your nose and voting for Hillary Clinton — or, at the most extreme, even doing the unthinkable and supporting Rubio. Anything to stave off the very worst.
What if the very worst already happened, though? What if the very worst was George W. Bush? Here we have an illegitimate president who lost the popular vote, who spent the early months of his presidency trying to drum up hostilities with China, who engineered a vast hand-out to the rich, who ignored warnings and hence neligently allowed the worst terrorist attack in American history, who leveraged all those corpses into widespread popular support that he then used to sell the nation a war based on lies, who created a world-wide network of torture camps and openly defended it through legal causistry, who tried to appoint a personal crony to the Supreme Court, who left a great city to drown, who refused to acknowledge the expert consensus that his war was a failure, and whose term culminated in the greatest financial crisis and economic decline of the postwar era. Well over a million people are dead as a result of his actions and their consequences (ISIS, for example), hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods destroyed, with more and more power concentrated in the hands of wealthy nihilists and fewer and fewer protections against arbitrary government surveillance and violence. Trump would be hard pressed to surpass this record of sheer evil and destruction.
When confronted with the actual, so-far worst (fingers crossed!), the Democrats not only failed to protect us, they actively abetted it. They went along with the tax cuts that undid their much-vaunted legacy of balancing the budget. They went along with the Iraq War and in 2004 nominated a candidate who had supported it. The transformative candidate they offered up in 2008 — with considerable reluctance, I might add — virtually endorsed the Bush tax cuts and national security measures. And Hillary Clinton, the current candidate who is supposedly our sure bet to fend off the Hypothetical Very Worst, did essentially nothing to obstruct the Actual Very Worst while she was in the Senate. In a way, she even represents a step backward, because at least Obama had actually opposed the Iraq War (though I’ve always wondered what would have happened if he’d actually been in the Senate at the time it was voted on).
Admittedly, this analysis does not issue in an easy recommendation for who to vote for in the primaries or what speculative scenario is most likely to play out, which may be why you don’t see many reflections along these lines. The fact that Bush was so bad certainly isn’t a reason to be indifferent or even optimistic about a Trump presidency, nor do the Democrats’ past failures disqualify them as the “lesser evil” — though it perhaps places less emphasis on the “lesser” than the “evil.” What it does is put us in the position of Nietzsche’s Hamlet or Dionysian man:
both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no — true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man. (Birth of Tragedy, section 7)
Once you’ve seen how truly fucked this country is, the notion that we can even begin to fix it with one election insults your intelligence. The idea that an elderly eccentric senator from a state with two dozen people in it is leading some kind of political revolution that will fundamentally change our society is an embarrasing joke. If only the votes in some state you would barely deign to drive through go in a certain way, everything will change! Who can actually believe that, in all seriousness?
And what of Trump himself? He’s not unlike Claudius, who openly flaunts his illegitimacy and his quasi-incestuous affair with Gertrude, who all but admits that he killed his own brother and dares anyone to call him on it — and everyone goes along with it. Something is rotten in Denmark indeed, and removing the figurehead (whom Shakespeare might equally address as “Denmark”) won’t remove that rot. How different is this from Bush, the Harvard-educated son of privilege who trained himself to talk like a good ole boy with an IQ of 80 — betraying his open contempt for his supporters, who then rewarded him with a personality cult for someone with no discernable personality? It’s easy to want such men removed from power, even to want them dead — but isn’t it insulting to think that getting rid of this one guy can fix a problem so deep?
But don’t worry. I’ll suspend my disbelief long enough to do what’s needful behind the curtain of the voting booth — though I doubt my aim will ultimately be any better than Hamlet’s was when similarly situated. As for my uncouth and counter-revolutionary opinions, I’ve taken the precaution of sharing them during an early stage of the process, before many people are paying attention. No swing voters in Ohio are reading. Bernie still has a chance, and even if he doesn’t pull through, Hillary is a really smart and seasoned politician who can make quick work of a buffoon like Trump, much less an empty suit like Rubio (you know, a young, fresh-faced senator from an ethnic minority). And even in the worst case, I saw on 538 that Democrats can probably take the Senate anyway.
10 thoughts on “What if the worst has already happened?”
This is great analysis, and I think clearly points out the absurdity of going full Chicken Little about the prospects of a Trump presidency. It takes a rarified form of privilege to be more concerned about the fact Trump says bad things about Muslims than Rubio’s expressed desire to go to war with the entirety of the Muslim world while eliminating their right to free assembly at home.
I think we also have to consider that if the modern American right is going to be destroyed, it will get very ugly first. Every appeal to xenophobia and racism that can be made will be made before its all over, so the fact that we see that happening can hardly be unexpected.
It is a post-apocalyptic age. Probably could grab some funny quotes from novels and films “The natives were trying to enact ancient rituals for which they have lost the texts and meanings” but I’m too busy cheering on the imminent AGW extinction event. And maybe it is species extinction, in sight but denied, that is driving our collective unconscious.
If the worst has already happened, then things can only get better. I offer this morsel of optimism: the only primary candidate with a moral compass is Bernie Sanders (perhaps a case for Rubio can be made in this regard). Regardless, the status quo is indeed wanting, and restlessness is a bad voting block, anger far worse, and sentimentality puts Trump in office. That scenario belies the thesis in play: the worst is yet to come and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I agree: Hillary can’t pass the stink test, but no one is able to say that Sanders is a breath of fresh air. Obama’s 2-term presidency suggests the majority of Americans is ready for a deep breath of something refreshing. But in the media’s “newspeak,” it seems that fresh air stinks and the foul breath of old dragons provides the only ‘realistic’ choices.
The fact that the worst has already happened does not exclude the possibility that the worst will recur, or even indefinitely remain. There is no necessity of improvement.
How does my “straw man” differ from your characterization of Sanders’ strategy? I did say “begin to fix.” If I’d said everything will be immediately fixed by one election, then yes, that’s a straw man. But that’s also why I didn’t say that.
As for the rest: what is meant by “damaging” a deeply corrupt and destructive status quo? What does that look like? Trump, somehow? Shouldn’t you vote for Clinton if she’s so destructive? You seem to want to have the Dionysian/Hamlet despair and really clear policy proposals at the same time. I don’t think that works.
Voting for the fascist because worse is better strikes me as dangerous sophistry. But again, you’ve lured me onto the field of political strategery, when I already know what to do: vote for Sanders in the primary, vote for the Democrat in the general. They’re asking me for my preference, and no, I don’t prefer any of the Republicans over Clinton, especially not on “heightening the contradictions” grounds.
In any case, the ongoing persistence of the neoliberal consensus is what does the worst possible damage to it — think of how much less legitimacy it has now than it did during those halcyon days of the late 70s and early 80s, much less the “happy” 90s, how much more resentment and rebellion it has fomented, how the very name of capitalism has (mirabile dictu!) been tarnished even in America. Voting for the fascist and letting him run rampant just opens the door to “if only we’d listened to the technocrats.”
When we’re in the realm of political bank-shots, you can make a case for anything. Better to just vote for what’s closest to what you want.
You forgot that Bush’s FEMA stood by and did nothing after Hurricane Katrina until they were absolutely shamed into responding.
As for the substance of the post, I keep waiting for the US to become a majority-minority state. It’s either that or embrace Schopenhauer.
Wow, I did miss one of Bush’s many world-historical crimes! I’ll add it.
And demographics won’t save us. White supremacy is in the driver’s seat, and it can game our convoluted system indefinitely.
What is interesting to me is the extent that various comments above seem to flirt with some form of accelerationalism – either out of conscious choice or resignation (“if the modern American right is going to be destroyed, it will get very ugly first”).
The problem of course is that things can always continue to get worse, and they can stay bad for a very very long time (even historically – and we are now at a point where the gap between the power of the state to impose and the citizenry to resist is greater than any time in the past).
The very worst after 1950 was Reagan, closely followed by Thatcher. Bush doesn’t even come close. Fascists would be even worse than that but if they flourish again it is because the former two planted the seeds (unintentionally, I think, but still).
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