Trump Is Not the Worst Thing in the World
I have a friend who thinks that Trump is the worst thing in the world.
That's why my friend is so intent on beating Trump. He'll do anything to beat Trump. In his view, as long as we beat Trump, the world gets better.
This is not just bad thinking, it's dangerous.
Obviously no one thinks I'm for Trump; nor would I minimize the damage that Trump's administration has done to our civic institutions. On the contrary, democracy in America is in big trouble -- Red Alert! Battle Stations! All Hands on Deck!
But if we are going to fight a war, the first thing we must do is to correctly identify the enemy. Then, we need a good plan to win.
Declaring Trump the enemy and simply replacing him with "any functioning adult," as the bumper sticker goes, will most likely make things worse, not better.
Actually, in the short term, "any functioning adult" will make things at least slightly better.
But if we do not address the root causes of our current situation, and we do not defeat our true enemy, then the root causes will continue to fester, and our true enemy will strengthen, and in the long run things will get worse, not better.
Those who are older recognize the pattern. Things were bad with Nixon, much worse with Reagan, even more worse again with GWBush, and far, far worse with Trump. Each wave of conservatism destroyed civic norms in ways that had previously seemed unthinkable.
And, unfortunately, my friend is demonstrably wrong that Trump is the worst thing in the world.
You don't even have to go back to Hitler. Consider Pinochet in Chile; Suharto in Indonesia; Bolsonaro in Brazil; Duterte in the Phillipines; El Salvador's death squads. Authoritarian governments that kill their own citizens are common enough. The only things preventing the United States from becoming the worst kind of tyranny are civic and democratic norms, such as the Senate's willingness to condemn lawless behavior from a President -- the very norms that are under attack right now.
Trump's ascent heralds the collapse of democratic norms in America.
But Trump didn't cause the collapse of those norms; he's not smart enough or competent enough to engineer something like that. Instead, Trump is a symptom of that collapse.
And what comes after the collapse of democratic norms in America, if the collapse becomes complete, will be much worse than Trump. More lawless, more violent, more effective, more destructive of human rights -- and for those who survive, much scarier.
My mistaken friend seems to think he is living in Nazi Germany -- the one where death camps are filled with political enemies. He is not. He is living in the years before Hitler took power. He is witnessing the kind of conditions that allowed fascism to take complete control of Germany's government.
If, instead of Hitler being appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, "any functioning adult" had been selected, that would not have tamed the forces that Hitler whipped up and rode. Indeed, it would hardly have even slowed Hitler down.
So when I hear my friend say that Trump is the enemy and it doesn't matter much who replaces him, I feel a good bit of fear for our future.
Unless we replace Trump with someone capable of bringing both economic and political balance to a country that has been destabilized by economic inequality and by the erosion of political norms, and someone who is ALSO capable of taming the political forces that nourish Trump -- taming the forces that would groom and feed a successor to Trump -- then replacing Trump with just anyone will only make a little difference in the short run and could make things even worse after that.
When I talk about "the political forces that nourish and feed Trump," I do not mean anything mysterious.
In the 19th Century they were called "Robber Barons." Franklin Roosevelt called them "Economic Royalists." C. Wright Mills called them "The Power Elite." Later, they were just "The Establishment." Bernie Sanders calls them "the one percent," and challenges citizens to take on the greed and corruption of powerful industries like fossil fuel, finance, insurance, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, and the drug companies.
The billionaires who shower endless "dark money" on Republican puppets who subvert the public interest did not choose Trump because he is stupid, unpredictable, and difficult to control. But because the Republican Party was too incompetent to win its own primary election, Trump snuck in. And the billionaires quickly determined that Trump could nonetheless be a useful idiot through whom they could not only ram their agenda, but even accelerate it. And they did.
These robber barons, economic royalists, and power elite -- the 1% -- they have most of the money, and they control both political parties, and the mass media, most of the state legislatures, and a good chunk of the federal judiciary.
Our position is not good. We do not have much room for error.
And if we are to succeed, it will take decades of sustained effort to rebuild our civic and political institutions and to re-institute the norms in which a democracy can function, including educating a citizenry for democracy. I don't mean STEM; I mean critical thinking, media literacy, interdisciplinary understanding, and civic engagement.
It might not happen.
But it definitely will not happen if we allow the money powers to take over any more of our government and monopolize any more of our economy. We're pretty much down to our last few breaths.
Now in 2020 it happens that the Democratic Party has been too incompetent to win their own primary, which creates an opening for regular people to seize power and through the political system and drive out the money powers.
But how does it happen that corporate power gets subdued and driven out of power?
People like my foolish friend have faith in the existence of a "middle ground" upon which all reasonable people can agree. They think that there is some way of compromising with the wealthy interests that have taken over our political system and our economy.
Such people do not understand the position we are in.
There is obviously no way of compromising with Mitch McConnell. But Mitch McConnell isn't just some bad stubborn guy. He is bought and paid for by corporate power, and he does not compromise because the money power that has taken over our government does not compromise. The enemy lurking behind the face of Mitch McConnell is not Trump. It's not even the Republican Party. The enemy is the money power that controls both the Republican and the Democratic Parties.
Nobody but Bernie Sanders is even proposing to take on that power.
And even if somebody else said they would take on the 1% we would be unwise to believe them unless they had something close to a lifetime's commitment and a solid plan, because talk is cheap. And once again, only Bernie Sanders has those things.
If some corporate-friendly politician like Joe Biden tries to compromise with corporate power the way Obama did for eight years, the wealthy will continue to consolidate their power and weaken the civic institutions we need to defend our democracy. Then, we will have lost our last toe-hold in a recognizable version of America, and the next tyrant will eviscerate what's left of the rule of law.
If some politically unsophisticated politician like Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg tries to split the difference with corporate power because they have no beef with billionaires, the result will be the same. The wealthy will continue to consolidate their power over our political system and our economy, and we will have no way left to fight back.
And heaven forbid we count on a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg to reign in the power of billionaires. That will never happen.
Even if we elect Bernie, he might not succeed -- it's late in the game to turn this around, and the odds are against us.
But it's not so late in the game that we shouldn't try. I wouldn't walk off the field right now. We have to try.
So the right question isn't whether Bernie can win the presidential nomination, but, instead, What do we have to do to make sure that he wins the nomination and then succeeds as President?
There is a long list of things.
But at the top of that list -- number one above all others -- we have to abandon three ideas.
First, we must abandon the idea that Trump is the problem. Trump is a symptom of the problem, and removing him won't make the problem go away.
Second, we must abandon the idea that it does not matter who we replace Trump with. It matters immensely. Any functioning adult won't be enough. In fact, if we replace Trump with someone who is not seriously committed to driving money out of government and monopolists out of our economy, then we will just be setting up another downward cycle, and the next cycle will lead to a vicious tyranny unlike any America has seen.
Third, we must abandon the idea that there is some middle-ground politician, some decent person, who can bring all sides to the table and have a thoughtful conversation. The kind of politician willing to compromise with white supremacists, or compromise with robber barons, is not suited for the job that needs to be done, fundamentally misunderstands the task at hand, and will only end up strengthening our opponent.
We have to drive the money power out of our government.
We have at most one last chance to do it.
Bernie Sanders is that chance.
And unless a significant majority of Americans get behind him, right away, the odds of our succeeding will not be good.