How many times have you been at a party and a fistfight has erupted over what’s Brecht’s best play? We’ve all been there, right? If I had a dime for every time some drunk kept shouting about “Mother Courage and Her Children,” while another loudmouth stinking of White Claws insisted on the merits of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and of course the dilettantes wouldn’t shut up about “The Threepenny Opera” or “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny”….
But I’m gonna stump here for 1941’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” an allegory about Hitler’s rise, set in Roaring Twenties gangland Chicago. (I have it this week in my German Expressionist Theater fantasy league.)
At the end of the play, after the Hitler figure has been defeated, Brecht issues this ominous warning for the audience to curb its enthusiasm:
Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the beast that bore him is in heat again.
Res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for true dat.
The defeat of Donald Trump is cause for rejoicing, no doubt about it. The rise of Joe Biden marks a return to sane, rational governance by competent grownups—a return to governance full stop, for that matter. Even those who take issue with Biden, whether progressives down on him from the left or conservatives down on him from the right, will cop to a sigh of relief at the prospect of not being hammered night and day by insane, self-destructive, criminal edicts from our mad king…..of not waking up every day to wonder what fresh hell.
But of course, as Bertolt warns us, grave perils remain: chief among them, the fact that the conditions that gave rise to Trump are still dangerously in play. (74 million votes for him, even after observing his horrors for the past four years, tell us so.) It would be incredibly reckless to think our problems are solved, and—in addition to the massive repairs we must now undertake—that we need not be on guard for the return of the insidious foe we just vanquished.
And that foe is not just one morbidly obese, preternaturally orange-hued man.
As we have previously noted, Trump’s defeat is far from the end of Trumpism or the problems that beset us. The idea that Joe Biden will merely take us back to the good ol’ days, as if this was all just a bad dream, is both unrealistic and unwelcome, and neither possible nor desirable.
BETTER BUILD BACK BETTER
Early in his primary run, speaking to a group of wealthy donors at Manhattan’s tony Carlyle Hotel, Biden promised a return to normalcy—feeding the seductive notion that, if elected, he would return things to the way they were before. “Nothing would fundamentally change,” he told the crowd.
Outraged progressives seized on this speech as evidence that Biden was nothing but a classic neoliberal apparatchik and no real alternative to Trump. That image haunted him for much of the primary campaign, even if it reassured or even won over some “moderate” Republicans unhappy with Trump and willing to abandon him. At least that was so until the center-left and hard-left branches of the Democratic Party wisely made peace in the interest of defeating the common enemy.
Three things about that mischaracterization of Uncle Joe:
First, notwithstanding the temper tantrums of the left’s more adolescent members, even a classic neoliberal apparatchik who represented the pre-2016 order would have been preferable to Trump. Would it have been the best alternative? Of course not. But as Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, describing the resistance from some progressives, “It was as if a waiter had returned from the kitchen with news that the specials were gone, and all that was left was oatmeal. (Of course, they always had the option of more rat poison.”)
Second and more crucially, Biden actually took that criticism to heart in building his winning coalition. Despite the grumblings of the Bernie bros, the truth is that Biden— experienced pol that he is, and capable of reading the room—genuinely adapted, moving to much more progressive policy positions almost across the board. That was an impressive evolution, especially since in so doing he had to thread a very thin needle. He successfully moved left to woo progressives while maintaining his credibility as a lifelong moderate, even as the GOP was trying—and failing to paint him—as a rabid Marxist (the loss of south Florida notwithstanding).
Third and most importantly, Biden’s willingness to shift left represented not merely a practical—some might say cynical—strategy, but a substantive recognition that things have to change and cannot in fact go back to the way they were. Biden and his team understood that it was that blinkered pre-2016 order that allowed Trump to rise in the first place. A mere return to it would only take us back to the toxic conditions that conditions that fed that catastrophe.
Don’t get me wrong. The failures of the Democratic Party in the post-Watergate era did not singlehandedly create this venal, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, kleptocratic con man-cum-demagogue. Per Richard Hofstadter, that strain goes back to the very beginning of our country, and has always been stronger than we wanted to believe, even when it has been subterranean. But Democratic failures did offer it fertile ground to grow, and those failures must be addressed if we want to avoid this kind of nightmare in the future.
Now comes the time when we hold Joe’s feet to the fire and ensure that he follows through.
Early signs are encouraging. For example, Biden has promised to claw back the Robin Hood-in-reverse 2017 tax cuts for the rich by raising rates on the wealthiest 1% of Americans, those making over $400,000 a year—a direct rejection of the appeal he made to those wealthy donors in June 2019. I suppose in this case, the charge of bait-and-switch (less a charge than a plaudit, from the perspective of the progressive wing) hinges on the definition of the word ”fundamentally.” Biden is not proposing a proletariat revolution—only a return to a fair distribution of the tax burden, akin to what we once had, and which helps ensure a stable, equitable society. Which is arguably both a return to sanity and fairness, and start toward something even better.
He is also moving quickly and aggressively regarding the Paris Climate Treaty, the JCPOA, and the border, along with much-needed moves on the coronavirus, on other foreign policy and economic matters, and just generally beginning to take charge and act like the President. Which is a good thing, as the guy currently in the job—even as he is frenetically trying to hold onto it—seems wildly uninterested in actually doing it, apart from lining his pockets and entrenching his loyalists on his way out the door.
WOULDA COULDA SHOULDA
There are two other—related—ways in which there can be no return to “normalcy.”
The first is that Trump and the Republican Party have done so much damage that there is no more normalcy left to return to. More precisely, we might say that the normalcy to which we were accustomed is dead and gone.
As Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic:
Since 2016, America’s international reputation has been transformed. No longer the world’s most admired democracy, our political system is more often perceived as uniquely dysfunctional, and our leaders as notably dangerous. Poll after poll shows that respect for America is not just plummeting, but also turning into something very different. Some 70 percent of South Koreans and more than 60 percent of Japanese—two nations whose friendship America needs in order to push back against Chinese influence in Asia—view the US as a “major threat.” In Germany, our key ally in Europe, far more people fear Trump than fear Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
That state of affairs cannot be fixed with a mere reset. It will require careful rebuilding that takes into account the world’s new awareness of the fundamental weaknesses and cancers in the American experiment. (It ought to go without saying that atop the permanent damage that Trump and the GOP have done, COVID-19 has of course irrevocably remade our world.)
The second barrier to “normalcy,” and an even more worrying one, is that it’s clear that the GOP has no intention of abandoning its scorched earth methodology.
We see that already in these wanting days of this lame duck administration, per the WaPo’s Dana Milbank on what Trump and his allies are doing in the final weeks before their eviction:
He’s trying to sow doubts about the integrity of the election he lost by 6.3 million votes. On Sunday, Trump’s madness extended to suggesting his own FBI and Justice Department may have conspired to commit election fraud against him.
Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is shutting down emergency Federal Reserve lending programs that the Fed says “serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after busting up a covid-relief deal between the White House and Democrats, is now entering his seventh month of blocking pandemic relief, exposing millions to potential hunger and eviction. The absence of covid relief could in turn lead to a government shutdown in December—another potential shock to the economy—as Trump threatens to shoot down the annual defense bill for the first time in 60 years so that military bases will continue to honor Confederate generals.
And Trump just moved to strip job protections from hundreds of White House budget analysts and other experts, The Post’s Lisa Rein reports, part of an effort to make it easier to fire tens of thousands of civil servants.
And it will only continue.
Republicans are congenitally predisposed to be bombthrowing outsiders who can wreak untold havoc on a Democratic administration even from the peanut gallery—perhaps especially from there, as they will be relieved of the bother of having to actually make policy and govern (which, by contrast, they suck at).
The GOP will also still wield significant obstructionist leverage if it manages to maintain control of the Senate, which remains likely despite Trump’s best efforts to ruin the Georgia runoffs for his team. Indeed, not holding the presidency but maintaining control of the upper chamber of Congress, as well as a majority of governorships and state legislatures, not to mention the federal judiciary, gives the Republican Party an almost ideal situation in terms of ability to set policy without being held accountable by the average American, who looks mostly to the White House. Which the GOP intends to screw with a vengeance.
Garden variety, pre-2016-style talk of Biden’s Cabinet picks, for example, strikes me as woefully naïve. From the Democratic point of view, the idea seems to be that nominating all these massively qualified centrists will make it hard for McConnell & Co. to oppose them.
Pull the other one, as they say in Britain. Who here believes that the GOP will not engage in a Merrick Garland-style blanket refusal to confirm any of Biden’s nominees, and for no good reason at all?
Talk of the Senate rejecting Neera Tanden to head the OMB because of her harsh tweets about Trump—oh, the irony!—or Sally Yates because of her criticism of the White House over Russiagate miss the point. The GOP is going to find a reason to object to every Biden nominee. The new President may have no choice but to use acting Cabinet officials, just as Trump did. (And he controlled the Senate!) At which point the GOP will howl about the travesty of such action.
This is what we have come to in American politics.
We already see this dynamic unfolding with the laughable nature of the initial Republican complaints. Oh, poor babies; is Neera Tanden too partisan for you? Unlike Mick Mulvaney, or John Ratcliffe, or Mike Flynn, or Ryan Zinke, or Bill Barr? Suddenly Republicans are all for consensus? Give me a break. (This after they made a real life Internet troll like Richard Grenell DNI…..or a real life Internet troll like Donald Trump POTUS?)
We saw Marco Rubio sneer at the “Ivy League” credentials of Biden’s picks, an attack right out of the faux populist Trumpian playbook. (You remember Rubio, right? “L’il Marco,” as Trump once dubbed him, before the Senator decided to surrender his balls.) After four years of having woefully unqualified Cabinet officers, the American people are desperate for actual leadership, and yet the GOP snickers at the idea of competence? We finally found proper crewmen to take over the cockpit of our plummeting aircraft, and Republicans continue to deride how elitist it is to want a pilot to fly the plane?
Coming from an alleged moderate like Rubio, one who is still mentioned as a potential leader of the party going forward, it’s an especially telling sign of how deeply Trumpism has infected the GOP and how hard it will be to eradicate.
But it’s no coincidence that Neera Tanden has been the chief target of the GOP’s assault, and it’s not because of her acid wit. It is, however, connected to his gutting of civil service protections and the installation of stay-behind Trump loyalists charged with gumming up the works for the Biden team.
As Heather Cox Richardson explains, the OMB that Tanden would head is an especially key agency in Trump’s plan:
Real Clear Politics obtained a memo saying that the Office of Management and Budget, which under Trump has been a vehicle for implementing the president’s plans contrary to law—it was the OMB that held up appropriated money to Ukraine in 2019, for example—is planning to put 88 percent of its employees into this new category.
In military operations, a retreating army will sometimes leave commandos behind as the advancing enemy advances, operatives who let themselves be “rolled over” so as to pop up and attack the enemy from the rear when that enemy has otherwise relaxed, believing victory has been won. That will be the role of these Trump-appointed bureaucrats embedded in the OMB and other civil service branches.
Until Biden’s infantry roots them out.
In terms of this sabotage as Trump leaves office, in some ways, it’s just fair gamesmanship. If a progressive administration were giving way to a reactionary one, I’d be all in favor of front-loading the system to keep our policies as strong as possible and hamper the new regime’s ability to change them. But in this case, in the context of Trump’s other anti-democratic, counter-majoritarian efforts to undermine the integrity of the election, delegitimize the new administration, and cripple it going forward, these efforts feel more insidious, and connected to his general refusal to accept peaceful transfer of power.
And even if they weren’t, at their root of course, the policies the GOP is trying to entrench and defend are simply odious in their substance. So I suspect history will not look kindly on Trump’s James Buchanan impression.
And there will be more demagoguery and shamelessness to come.
During Trump’s reign the GOP already blithely abandoned its alleged “fiscal conservatism” and ran up the federal deficit to the tune of almost 4 trillion of dollars, beginning with the aforementioned 2017 tax cut, even before the COVID stimulus packages. (Much as it did with the Bush tax cuts and the treasury-busting cost of the Iraq war. I see a pattern.) Already that hypocrisy is redoubling as—surprise!—Republicans re-discover their selective loathing for deficits now that Biden is about to take charge, even as the country is desperate for further pandemic relief.
What else? Well, half of all Republicans believe the presidential election was stolen (but not any other races). Many of those same folks even believe, in jawdropping defiance of all the evidence, that Trump won in an landslide. How can there be “normalcy” when tens of millions of Americans have become convinced that the Biden presidency is illegitimate, when the peaceful transfer of power itself—the very bedrock of democracy—has been despoiled? That is a recipe not just for gridlock for the next four years, but for a violent right wing insurgency—which the GOP will condone and even applaud and openly abet. We all knew this was coming because we watched Trump spend nine months ginning it up, but it’s still terrifying in its implications.
The willingness of tens of millions of people first to vote for Trump even after four years of observing his, ahem, vision for this country, and now to go along with his would-be coup d’etat, suggests that some 40% of Americans are basically cool with fascism. The cowardice of the GOP officialdom (they’re not worthy of the term “leadership”) in enabling him goes without saying.
As The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last writes, “We now live in a country where a coup is possible.”
That same segment of the American population also believes COVID is a hoax, and so is climate change. What kind of monsters are the people chanting “Fire Fauci!”, the violence-threatening “Liberate” cabal in Michigan, and others who traffic in flat earth anti-scientific denialism in the midst of a pandemic, putting us all at further risk? How will history view the nation in which they arose?
It goes on.
We are told that Trump—a TV showman at heart—is planning to announce his 2024 campaign during Biden’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 2021. A class act to the end, ol’ Donald. That this run is mainly a slush fund-filling scam, unfettered by pesky campaign finance laws, is not the point, except to make it even worse.
Meanwhile, as local officials in Georgia are subjected to death threats from MAGA Nation, an outraged state election official, Gabriel Sterling—a Republican no less—pleaded with Trump not to foment violence. Trump replied by doubling down on his incendiary claims, tweeting, “Rigged Election. Show signatures and envelopes. Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia. What is Secretary of State and @BrianKempGA afraid of. They know what we’ll find!!!
Trump’s not alone in fueling violence, of course. Steve Bannon says Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Chris Wray should be beheaded, and Trump lawyer Joe DiGenova says former election security boss Chris Krebs should be shot. Both men, under intense pressure, later backpedaled, claiming they were just kidding. (Because, hey—funny, right?) But even if those were truly just “jokes,” do you think they’re taken that way by the kind of people who conspired to kidnap and murder Gretchen Whitmer?
But, hey, what matters conspiracy to commit murder to a man with the pardon power? With unassailable logic, NYU law professor and former federal prosecutor Andrew Weissman, one of Robert Mueller’s chief lieutenants during the Russiagate probe, argues that Trump will definitely pre-emptively pardon his children and try to pardon himself. Even if the Supreme Court slaps down this patently illogical (and probably unconstitutional) ploy, what does Don have to lose? Worst case, he winds up exactly where he is now. Best case, his 6-3 conservative majority, including three justices he handpicked, gives him its blessing and he skates away like Brian Boitano.
And speaking of pardons, this week we learned that the DOJ is investigating the possibility that Donald Trump has been accepting bribes in exchange for pardons. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t; we’ll see. But one argument you’re never going to hear—not even from his defenders—is that it’s not possible because he would never do such a thing.
I could go on, but I see your eyelids drooping. Because all of this hellscape is of a piece with everything we’ve seen for the past four years: with the normalization of white supremacy, of hate speech, of kleptocracy on an unprecedented level, of heretofore unthinkable behavior by our elected officials, of the destruction of truth itself.
This is the USA in which we now live. We couldn’t go back to pre-2016 America even if we wanted to.
WE’RE ALL NORMAL AND WE WANT OUR FREEDOM
In fact, it’s the very façade of a return to normalcy that really worries me. The GOP wants to go back to its version of politics-as-usual, too., while retaining all the benefits it accrued under Trump. It wants us to forget what it did during the last four years and act like it’s a reasonable political party again and treat it as such, including blather about civility and reaching across the aisle and compromise. As if it engaged in any of that.
Fuck you, GOP. We’re never gonna let you forget what you did, what you condoned, what you applauded, what you abetted.
As I’ve noted many times (because it continues to be the most accurate assessment out there), Noam Chomsky has said that the contemporary GOP has ceased to be a political party at all and become a radical insurgency. He has also called it the most dangerous organization on Earth, which in light of the urgency of the climate crisis, the perennial danger of nuclear war (which it has always been very keen on), and now the ongoing evisceration of American democracy, might not be hyperbole.
In The Atlantic, the intrepid science journalist Ed Yong writes:
The US cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.
Yong is writing specifically of the coronavirus and public health, but his prescription holds true for American problems across the board.
The only good thing that could ever be said about the Trump presidency is that it has overturned the rock and let us see the putrid slime underneath. We can no longer live in blissful ignorance of the ills that beset us as nation, or pretend that they are not there—and that is a blessing, painful though it’s been.
The time to reckon with it is now at hand.
Photo by Ferne Pearlstein. Pro-Trump conspiracy-mongering graffiti on Canal Street, Lower Manhattan, November 2020.