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Don't Let the Corruption of the Powerless Bring Down the Democrats

In politics, moral purity is just a fashionable way of being morally indifferent.

Former National security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence before the start of a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House June 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former National security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence before the start of a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House June 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“You may not be interested in ideology, but ideology is interested in you.” I have taken a bit of liberty with a quote widely attributed to Lev Trotsky—he actually is supposed to have said that about the “dialectic,” but it’s a two-dollar word that’s almost meaningless in everyday English, so I’ve substituted “ideology,” a term that in a modern context probably better conveys his meaning.

I learned a few things about ideology while toiling away in the boiler rooms of Republican operations on Capitol Hill. That was during the intellectually lazy and irresponsible time when silly/clever pundits like Maureen Dowd or Ron Fournier were concocting sophisticated cocktail-circuit theories of how Barack Obama was an aloof dictator who played too much golf and wouldn’t lead the nation.

It was the same period when it hit me with full force that the Republican Party was rapidly becoming a death cult—a development that had completely escaped the attention of the establishment media. But it was a death cult with a difference.

For all the manifestly toxic idiocy of their ideas, Republicans took ideology seriously in a way Democrats did not and do not, because the latter generally lack any belief system other than that of posturing as enlightened and on the right side of history. But how have Republicans taken ideology seriously when today they’re for free trade, and tomorrow against it; or they’re yesterday’s cold warriors and today, Vladimir Putin’s or Xi Jinping’s lapdog?

"Not knowing what to do with power, or, more properly, lacking confidence in themselves in their handling of power, makes Democrats fearful. I saw this several times during my career. And Republicans, like a predatory animal, can smell that fear."

Because they understood, and understand, that ideas—and the simpler the better—are advertising slogans that mobilize people based on patriotism, or fear, or the basest motives of which humans are capable. And the GOP’s ideological flexibility—although they probably make themselves believe what they say in the moment they’re saying it—results from the fact that ideology, however important, is an instrumentality in service of power, and not the other way around. Like it or not, that’s politics.

A few Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt understood the relation between power and ideology. Lyndon Johnson understood it, then forgot it when he became determined not to be the first president to lose a war. He then lost an expanded war and destroyed his party. Ever since, Democrats have only obtained power when incumbent Republicans have engineered a colossal disaster—which has been often enough, but which remains an insufficient basis to establish a secure grip on the levers of power.

It is this 50 year history that has made the Democrats fundamentally reactive to whatever the GOP is doing. And not just reactive: not knowing what to do with power, or, more properly, lacking confidence in themselves in their handling of power, makes Democrats fearful. I saw this several times during my career. And Republicans, like a predatory animal, can smell that fear.

To be fair, the de-ideologization, weakening, and demoralization of the center-left is an international phenomenon. In Europe, the homeland of social democracy, bullies like Viktor Orbán go from strength to strength, while the extreme Right edges ever closer to power even in major states like Germany. The center-left intellectual class, once the engine of social democratic innovation, has become, like its American cousins, etiolated and irrelevant.

Even their critiques of Trump’s America lack punch. For all its geopolitical heaving and sighing and quoting of heavyweight European politicos, this piece, penned by a Briton, manages in nearly 5,000 words to avoid any mention whatever of the political or the ideological. Thus the conditions the writer excoriates, like racism, police abuse, the hollowing out of American governmental institutions and national infrastructure, simply seem to have fallen from the skies on an unfortunate America, and Trump merely showed up one day in the Oval Office.

But the Southern strategy, law and order as a code phrase, privatization and governmental “streamlining,” anti-science bias—all of these concepts have a specific ideological content, and all have been overwhelmingly the property on a specific political party, a party that has been smoothing the ideological path for Trump for years if not decades. Yet the author, Tom  McTague, instead focuses on aesthetics, as if a humane European liberal’s most trenchant complaint is that those beastly Americans use a fork in their right hands, tines up.

Even the most perceptive foreign observer would have difficulty understanding the sheer organic depth of Republican ideological infrastructure that the party has patiently engineered over decades. It is a mutually reinforcing network of right-wing media, fundamentalist churches, wealthy donors, think tanks, sectarian colleges, 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 pressure groups, corporate lobbies, and bogus “grassroots” campaigns. It is a structure as well integrated, and as ideologically guided, as the state-run political organizations of an authoritarian regime. But its extent is seemingly unknown even to our domestic media.

This organic infrastructure explains what otherwise would be baffling: at no other time in American history would you see large numbers of people “spontaneously” demonstrating for their right to get infected by denouncing cloth masks, a familiar, effective, and uncontroversial means of slowing contagion in use since the 19th century. It explains how Southern and rural culture, with their firearms fetishism, love of NASCAR and country music, and peculiar attachment to the “heritage” of Confederate insurrection, have become a kind of Williamsburg-type tableau for the Republican Party as ideological lifestyle.

"[The contemporary] conservative ideology has achieved a meta-state: a complete and hermetically sealed surrogate reality, proof against factual counterargument as an Abrams tank is to a BB gun."

If you doubt the immersive, 24/7 nature of this ideology, try to convince an uncle or an elderly neighbor that Black Lives Matter is no imminent threat to overthrow the government and murder us all in our beds, or that the current president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic might leave something to be desired, and you’ll find that conservative ideology has achieved a meta-state: a complete and hermetically sealed surrogate reality, proof against factual counterargument as an Abrams tank is to a BB gun.

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The problem for the Democrats, or for anyone else who dwells in the reality that nature provided us, is that if you can’t play the game at the Republicans’ level, or don’t want to, you are tempted to downplay the ideological content and lower the stakes so that none of it really matters. It reminds me of a friend’s remarking on a conversation he once had with a woman of his acquaintance. “Maybe it would be better,” the woman said, “if Democrats didn’t win in 2020, because they’ll get the blame for all the problems Trump caused.”

This is the fear of taking responsibility, which comes from an aversion to exercising power. One could no more conceive of a Republican asking the question than a Bengal tiger passing up a steak.

This sort of neurosis extends higher up: hence a front-page, above-the-fold thumb sucker in the The Washington Post saying that Democrats are tempering their optimism because they “fear” a repeat of 2016. By all means, bear down harder on registering people to vote if that is what’s required to keep one’s negative emotions in check, but what made party operatives think that was a good story to leak?

Sometimes, though, good luck falls in one’s lap; that is, if one knows what to do with it. John Bolton’s book outlining Donald Trump’s obsequious behavior towards foreign dictators came just as the president was reeling from the pathetic bust of his Tulsa rally. For once, institutional Democrats generally have handled it about right: ballyhooing it as yet more evidence of Trump’s unfitness for office, while at the same time condemning Bolton as a self-serving weasel too cowardly to say it under oath.

This time, it was the Left of the party that didn’t waste an opportunity to waste an opportunity. Why play crass, sullying politics if moral purity is at stake? On this very site, one such critic stated that “[O]nly someone with an irrational hatred of Donald Trump—or a desire to bolster the bipartisan military consensus—could turn to the likes of John Bolton.”

But one searches in vain for an elected Democrat who valorized Bolton for writing the book, let alone one saying the party ought to adopt his foreign policy. As to whether a media personality like Andrea Mitchell (who, granted, should have retired several administrations ago) represents the views of congressional Democrats, is unknowable and irrelevant. The author castigates her for saying Bolton’s assertions are “credible,” but doesn’t explain why they aren’t. Bolton’s comments about Trump strike any person who hasn’t spent the last four years in a sensory deprivation tank as eminently believable. A court can use the testimony of a consigliere to convict a mob boss; that doesn’t mean it gives an attestation of sterling character to the consigliere.

All the signs are favorable: a judge ruled that the book could be published, thus overruling Trump’s desire to suppress it, but the strong legal consensus is that Bolton will wind up forfeiting the proceeds. Doesn’t that sound like a win-win? The author seems to think it is impossible to enjoy the spectacle of watching Trump and Bolton trash each other without losing our moral bearings and, impressionable young things that we are, gaining a strange new respect for Bolton’s atrocious foreign policy views.

"It is not just power that corrupts, but habitual lack of power."

If politically profiting from the Trump-Bolton feud is too dreadfully Machiavellian for the Democratic Party, how is it going to unseat a president who is attempting to deny funding of coronavirus testing and thereby condemn unknown numbers of people to death because the testing numbers make him look bad? This is a president, by the way, who happens to lead a party that is deeply invested in its control of state governments to make voting as onerous, and voting districts as unfair, for Democrats as possible.

The views I’ve criticized represent the paradoxical nature of how it is not just power that corrupts, but habitual lack of power. A good many on the Left believe that voting doesn’t matter; but as we can see, Republicans know in their bones that it matters, which its why they make every effort to keep you from voting if you’re not part of their cult.

Likewise the common view that there is no difference between the parties worth bothering about. A former Republican operative, David Frum, has been at some pains to tell us that Trump and his coterie some time ago made a calculated bet that COVID-19 would disproportionately kill Democratic constituencies and non-voting groups, and that they were therefore content to let the virus run its lethal course. Isn’t that a difference that’s worth evaluating on its own terms?

Of course, only an idiot would say that the Democratic Party, or Joe Biden, or any number of other Democrats represent a remotely ideal, or even satisfactory, state of affairs. As long as money rules politics, it will rule politicians. One might as well ask why man was born to suffer and die.

Soon enough, that latter philosophical conundrum may no longer be the province of 2:00 a.m. dorm room bloviation, and suffering and dying could become uncomfortably up close and personal. Donald Trump has already notched 130,000 COVID-19 deaths on his watch, probably over half of them unnecessary but for his delay, obstruction, and sabotage. We can lever him out of power knowing that, no, it will not usher in the Millennium. Or we can indulge in rhetorical figure-skating about our moral purity, keep our hands clean, and grant him a second term.

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