On the NFL, Dysfunctional Presidents, and Dysfunctional Politics

Trump kind of looks like an old, deflated football.

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The whole kerfuffle over the NFL protests is pretty funny when you think about it. For a time it looked as if they might fizzle out. The owners had made an example of Kaepernick and there are reports that they were closing ranks to blacklist other participants. The players (most of whom don’t get paid as well as one may think and will only have a handful of earning years before their bodies give out) seemed to be mostly keeping their heads down. Then Trump went and opened his big dumb mouth and heaped abuse on NFL player/protesters. In doing so he rallied not only players who would have otherwise stayed out of all this, but even owners and executives who were doing everything they could to put this issue to rest. In addition to showing the class nature of free speech under capitalism (“you don’t have free speech when you’re at work!”) this controversy  has once again revealed what a bad politician Trump is.

That Trump isn’t very good at this isn’t a novel observation; politicos on both sides of the isle recognize this. This is a guy whose complete lack of tact, inability to grasp policy details and follow a coherent strategy means he’s not been able to notch a single major legislative accomplishment in spite of controlling every branch of the federal government. His attempts to lobby congressional Republicans often end up comically backfiring.  And while Trump’s tenure has by no means been harmless, both his campaign and his administration have been rife with unforced errors and unnecessary fights.

Less remarked on is what this says about the political class. If a half bright fool like Trump can walk all over the best prospects in both parties what does that say about the competency of America’s “best and brightest.” He didn’t do this through some kind of Machiavellian maneuvering. Nor is the staff he surrounded himself with doing him many favors. This is how helpless the political class is. Trump is like a bull that wandered into a china shop and was able to break everything because  we assumed the dishes were much stronger than they actually were. He dispatched the front runner in the Republican primary through a combination of name calling and suggesting that maybe the Iraq war wasn’t the best idea. He defeated the Democrats because they insisted on nominating an unpopular candidate that, even without real and imagined scandals, was an avatar for all of the opportunism and rightward drift of the Democratic party. Oh, and by the way she also supported the Iraq War.

The effects of the Iraq War on the politics of the United States is extremely under analyzed. The Iraq war was poorly thought out, poorly executed, and disastrous by virtually any rubric. It’s lead to a rolling crisis the scope of which is difficult to comprehend. It’s probably the worst foreign policy blunder in US history. It was also supported by the “Responsible Adults” in both parties and the media (perhaps explaining its lack of analysis). It would be weird if this did not result in some kind of crisis of confidence in the political elites.

Because of the nature of American discourse (particularly around militarism) the discontent the war and it’s aftermath inspires is often expressed irrationally and projected onto other issues. For example many a white, flag-standing-for patriot I’ve encountered resent the fact that US service people are constantly put in harm’s way by these interminable series of conflicts, not to mention exorbitant amount of money spent. But instead of blaming the ruling class which created this mess, blame is redirected at Muslims and Arabs whose supposed violence and fanaticism necessitates these endless wars. Since mainstream sources can’t or won’t really question American Imperialism or its role in the middle east (US use of force can only ever be a strategic mistake, never a moral one) the only explanation for the endless wars and repressive regimes is some version of the clash of civilizations. Thus potential anti-war sentiment is transformed by racism into grudging support for the latest bombing campaign. That’s just one example of the way our politics is deformed by the Iraq war and its aftermath; the subject could (and should) be a book.

The impact of the Iraq war on US politics is not felt all at once, like other more one off events. Rather it’s more of a festering would continually poisoning the body politic. It certainly aided the rise of both Obama and Trump. Obama’s anti-war stance played an important part in his victory over Clinton in the 2008 primaries. Eight years later Trump could stand on debate stages with both Republicans and Democrats and plausibly claim to be the only one untarnished by the debacle. Now he’s like Pooh Bear, except instead of getting his head stuck in a jar of honey he got it stuck in the executive branch.

That the political class couldn’t get it together to put down a guy like this shows how little legitimacy and popular support the current order has. There is a deep desire for alternatives. Trump fell ass backwards into this opening, while Bernie charged purposely through it. This is why I think Bernie would have won; not because I like his tepid brand of social democratic new dealism. Rather he presented an alternative to a technocratic neoliberalism that isn’t aging very well.

Imagine if the working class could pose it’s own alternative. Imagine if it had it’s own institutions of mutual aid, of economic and political organization, or of education capable of posing a challenge not just to neoliberalism and bald reaction, but to the state and capital themselves. What would that even look like? It’s hard to say in 2017 when those institutions seem so mired in the past yet still so far in the future. But if there’s hope in this belly of reaction that we find ourselves in maybe it’s that this weird opening will allow us to build the organizations that one day pose that alternative. Or at least the organizations that build those organizations.

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