A conversation on American politics

I only recently heard the sad news of the death of the visual artist Tom Moody, a frequent commenter on my blog here and at Alex on Film. I never met Tom, but we had some great discussions online and I always appreciated getting his unique point of view. We can have a real connection and attachment to people we only interact with online, something that Tom’s death brought home to me.

The last set of posts Tom put up on his blog were responses to things I had written, which he put in the form of a dialogue. Since I don’t know how much longer that material will be kept up, I thought I’d repost a bit of those conversations here with some light editing.

Alex Good (from my review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit): Sandel and [David] Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

Tom Moody: This is an interesting take on Trump but omits his smart mouth that appealed to many Americans. Trump heckled loser Jeb about his sainted mother — who was actually a battle-ax and mediocre dynasty-builder, much kidded by Dems in the Bush years for talking about her “beautiful mind” that would not be cluttered with Iraq war details. While Jeb was waxing sentimental about her during the Republican debates Trump wisecracked that “she should be running” (as a candidate herself, annoying the clearly-not-ready-for-prime-time Jeb).

Calling Bush Jr.’s Iraq war a mistake based on lies, on the national debate stage, is something the media would expect from a Jesse Ventura or Mike Gravel or Ron Paul but here it was being voiced by a juggernaut candidate on his way to the presidency (though no one knew that yet). The US public wasn’t just thrilled to hear the Iraq truth spoken aloud because they identified with Trump as a “fellow loser,” as Alex Good suggests, but rather because it was true and no establishment debater or media figure up to then had the courage to speak it. Later, as President, Trump wanted to know what could possibly justify the U.S. presence in Syria post-ISIS. (Fighting a dirty war on behalf of some sleazy U.S. “allies”? Or was it the instantly-manufactured defense of “the Kurds! the Kurds!”? it depended on the politics of who answered.) Eventually Trump’s handlers reeled him back in and he made his laughable claim that the US was there to “protect the oil” (that is, Syrian oil in the ground coveted by other countries).

If Bush Jr were still president, the “left” would have applauded all these “outrageous” Trump statements. With the onset of Trump Derangement Syndrome in 2016 (a term borrowed from Bush Jr.), the antiwar faction immediately discounted Trump’s few sensible/courageous statements simply because he was Orange Hitler. The MAGA crowd was paying attention, though, including many families of maimed veterans, and appreciated hearing those occasional, inconsistent truth bombs from the mouth of their chosen “loser.” If you want to understand the election, understand that at least — it wasn’t all about bullying and “racism.” It was straight talk people forgotten could be spoken.

Tom Moody: One thought on why the US succeeded postwar and began failing after Reagan’s election. It was actually due in part to a system the US Republicans would say was the opposite of merit: the US Civil Service.

In order to execute the New Deal programs you needed a dedicated, mostly not corrupt caste of worker bees. These people weren’t paid super-well but had good pensions and benefits.

The US Republicans spread the propaganda meme of “lazy government workers” in order to justify dismantling and privatization of Civil Service positions, carnage that is still ongoing. As government gets noticeably less competent, this justifies further cuts.

Alex Good: Agree completely. What the Republicans stand for more than anything today is hatred of the government. The more old-school “conservatives” will describe this as “limited government” but what it really amounts to is what Sarah Kendzior refers to as stripping the state down and selling it off as spare parts/scrap. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is a popular take on this, but it’s really everywhere. Big Government is now so evil that it can’t even be trusted to handle things like rolling out a vaccine. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of tearing down the government has always been there (Grover Nyquist’s line about shrinking government to the point where it can be drowned in the bathtub), but it’s been taken to a new level, and new seriousness, with the program of people like Bannon, who talk explicitly and enthusiastically about destroying the state.

My own theory here is that the Republicans are basically looking at what happened to post-Soviet Russia as a model to be followed. Single-party rule, one state-owned media outlet, and control of the economy by a group of oligarchs who represent a government-business partnership. It’s not far removed from China either. It’s something that a lot of the old Cold Warriors seem to be missing. These guys aren’t the commies any longer, with a godless, evil system that’s a rival of or threat to capitalism. They have a better system of capitalism that America’s oligarchs want to emulate.

Tom Moody: Post-Soviet Russia had a lot of interference from Milton Friedman types in the US. That stopped under Putin and Russia seems to be evolving its own hybrid system. China has a better safety net than the US and actively funds its rural areas under Xi. Both countries are autocratic but seem to be run by a government as opposed to a handful of private corporations and CEOs.

I mentioned the US Civil Service in response to Michael Sandel’s statement “Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful.” The 1940-1980 elites created the social programs but left them for non-elites to run. I haven’t read Sandel’s book so I don’t know if he makes that distinction.

Alex Good: The private sector in Russia and China is very much subordinate to the government. But I think that’s actually the system that the right wants in the U.S. because it’s not a communist or socialist government but one where a bunch of rich families and oligarchs own everything, whether they’re members of the (only) party or friends of people who are. Putin is reportedly the richest man in the world for being czar of what is not a wealthy country. What politician wouldn’t want a slice of that? Think of how much money can be made from dismantling the American state.

I think the endgame the Republicans, or Western elites more generally, seem to be aiming for is something very similar to these formerly communist countries: control the media, get rid of democracy and replace it with one-party rule by a class of oligarchs who control the government, and then work together with the private sector to enrich themselves.

Tom Moody: Trump and Bannon (I know we don’t agree on this) are bugbears for the real villains: the “liberals” that internalized Chicago School talking points about budget-balancing and the free market. There is almost no space between Bill Clinton and Paul Ryan on the issue of so-called entitlements. They think social spending threatens to drain the country and they don’t care at all about the cost of military spending. (There is actually a video somewhere of Clinton and Ryan having a tête-à-tête backstage at some event, where Clinton is assuring Ryan that on the “next vote” — whatever that was — they would have support for the cuts Ryan wanted.) Of course the right believes in “markets” but the Dems have actually been able to turn this ideology into policy. I would say on the “need” to cut Social Security and Medicare, Clinton, Obama, and the hated Trump are in near-complete agreement. Biden currently has an appointee inside Medicare (Elizabeth Fowler) who is working to privatize the system as much as possible.

Alex Good: I’d agree with that, but what I think the Trump phenomenon revealed to the Republicans (and elites more generally) was that they could go a step further. For example, as bad as Clinton and the neoliberal Dems were (and are) I don’t think they believe in getting rid of democracy entirely and turning the U.S. into an authoritarian state run by the Party, with all other parties being deemed illegitimate. After Trump I think the Republicans saw that this was possible and it’s what they’re working toward. As for Trump himself, I don’t think he has any political ideology at all, or goals beyond using the office to get attention, make money, and stay out of jail. But he’s been useful for pushing things along in this direction faster and further than anyone thought possible. Or at least that I thought possible.

Tom Moody: The Republicans (Trumpist and otherwise) and Democrats all benefit from the appearance of a working two-party system as cover for the orgy of looting by the oligarchs (tech, Wall Street, Pharma, etc) who back both parties. Trump’s flaw was “he gave the game away” with his flaky outspokenness (Iraq was a mistake, we’re in Syria for the oil, CNN is fake news — the latter of which is certainly true, as evident from their “Russian aggression” narratives concerning Ukraine). All those truth bombs meant Trump had to go — hence the Russiagate propaganda blitz and weak cases for impeachment.

Hitler/Trump comparisons never persuaded me — Hitler was a fanatic and control freak; Trump likes his golf and luxury. The MAGA hat rallies apparently scare people outside the US. These are conservative people who fear change and Modernity (not without reason) — there may be brownshirts at the rallies but it’s mostly about solidarity among the working class and rural population.

Alex Good: Yes, Trump is no Hitler. As one historian pointed out a couple of years back (I can’t remember his name), Trump is what the German conservatives wanted Hitler to be: a demagogue buffoon who would get people to vote for him but who would have no interest in actually governing. Instead he (Hitler) turned out to be something more dangerous. Trump, on the other hand, really is a moron just trotted out to play to the rubes, with no political platform at all. The tax cuts and stacking the judiciary were things he didn’t understand or care about, though he’d brag about them all the same. That was all Ryan and McConnell.

I agree that fear of change is a big part of his appeal, especially among older voters. I think we have a difference of opinion on Russia. As far as I can tell Trump’s only real business for the last twenty years or so has been money laundering for Russians. I actually thought he did enough to get impeached the first time, and the second time should have been a slam dunk. The Ukraine phone call really was a hundred times worse than Watergate.

Tom Moody: I don’t think Trump was trotted out — I think he trotted himself out in a wild-card year of working class rebellions. We started 2016 with the depressing news that the media had decided the election was going to be Jeb vs Hillary — two utterly mediocre dynasties — and ended 2016 with the certainty that both those fools were gone from the world stage. I found this uplifting but by that point most of nt friends were far gone into Trump Derangement Syndrome and couldn’t share my joy.

The news outside the CNN bubble is the world is realigning to a tri-polar situation after 30 years of US control. If de-dollarization continues the US will have to act less like The Hegemon bully to other countries and will have to get its own house in order. Riots, COVID, woke destruction of standards, offshoring, etc.

Alex Good: I agree with you that Trump wasn’t initially trotted out. He was seen as a party crasher. I think Republicans hated him from the start, and from all the reporting I’ve read they still do. Even the ones who kiss his ass the most.

But despite that hate they find him a useful idiot for the reasons I mentioned: he fires up the base and has no interest whatsoever in actually governing, giving the party establishment a free hand to do pretty much whatever they want. Some may grumble about trade wars and the rest, but when push comes to shove — and that was the tax cut bill — they drew a hard line in the sand. The donors were insisting on that. And after tax cuts and stacking the judiciary there really wasn’t much else on the agenda. The Republicans are a party without a platform. Building a wall, infrastructure, a big beautiful new healthcare bill . . . these were things they didn’t even attempt. It got to the point where they finally didn’t even bother publishing a platform for Trump’s second nomination. I don’t think so much because they were just deferring to “whatever Trump says” as that they didn’t have much they really wanted.

Ah, we do part ways on Russia. I am not in the NeoCon camp and think Russia had plenty of legitimate grievances with NATO expansion etc. Nor do I think Trump is a Manchurian candidate figure. I do, however, think Putin thinks of him as (again) a useful idiot to have in the White House (he publicly stated he wanted Trump to win), and I don’t think there’s any denying that Russia did intervene in the election to help Trump. I don’t know how big a part that played in the election (Clinton was probably the very worst candidate the Dems could have put forward), but it was an issue. I’m disturbed by writing off the connections that were made as a hoax or a fraud. The two sides were meeting. They were working together. They were trying to keep it secret. We don’t know how much of it they did keep secret.

10 thoughts on “A conversation on American politics

  1. Great read, but a sad loss. There’s too many fools on the world stage, and it’s frustrating that so many have woken up to what’s wrong, but there’s so little we can do to change the world.

    This line doesn’t chime well today; ‘CNN is fake news — the latter of which is certainly true, as evident from their “Russian aggression” narratives concerning Ukraine’. How does that sit with you?

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    • Tom felt that the media was ginning up a war in Ukraine. This was wrong, but in his defence I know a lot of people who felt that way at the time. People he was reading, like Matt Taibbi, came out after the invasion and said they’d been mistaken. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but we had a great exchange of views on lots of topics and he certainly corrected me enough on occasion.

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      • Cool. I’d never want to pretend to be right about everything, it annoys me when people try. Like your late friend, I wondered if there was a media-created phoney war, Wag the Dog style, but unfortunately, this isn’t some CNN creation. I’ll do my dilligence on Tom, he coulds like a clear thinker, and we really can’t afford to lose more of them right now. Sorry to hear this.

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