Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Greenwald, Trump, and Normalization

Shortly after the election news broke, I navigated over to The Intercept to hunt for signs of mea culpa or -- I briefly dreamed -- perhaps even of an olive branch extended to the rest of the Left, after the devastating result. I was curious to see if Greenwald would show any flickers of self-doubt or second-guessing, now that all that vituperation he had penned against Clinton and the establishment Democrats had proven to be directed against an increasingly irrelevant target. I was wondering what Greenwald would find to do with himself, what he would write about, now that the Democrats were in abject defeat across the board, and he might actually have to devote some energy to criticizing the Trumpists who are now in power. Greenwald, I thought, was one of many people that this election had essentially put out of a job.

I have mixed feelings about Greenwald, as readers of this blog will know. For a sizable chunk of the Obama presidency, to be sure, he has played a most valuable role as a thorn in the side of an establishment Left that had become complacent about Obama's continuation of Bush-era human rights abuses. His arguments about hypocritical liberals who had castigated Bush but remained silent on the subject of Obama's drone program and civil liberties incursions were, in fact, one of the main spurs behind the creation of this blog back in 2013, shortly after the Snowden controversy broke. This was so because my co-editor and I found Greenwald's take persuasive, but perhaps even more so because I recognized that, in my case at least, the criticism was valid. I hadn't really protested these things, up to then, with all my heart and mind, and I felt that I ought to begin trying to rectify this.

But in a world without Democrats and complacent liberals in power -- a world run by the kind of men who openly despise human rights and civil liberties protections, rather than blithely pretending to respect them while failing to do so (and Trump, lest we forget, whatever he may have told the New York Times yesterday, has suggested that water-boarding is not a harsh enough form of torture, and that terrorism subjects should be brutalized simply because "they deserve it") -- Greenwald was surely going to have to find something else to talk about, I thought. He was going to have to get hold of at least one more idea from somewhere. Baiting establishment Democrats is a dead end, surely, when there is no more Democratic establishment. Right?

No, Greenwald has if anything doubled down. His immediate post-election take was headlined "Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit." Okay, okay, so we were all in a god-awful mood that day. A short while later, my heart gave a flutter of hope when I saw another Intercept headline that began "Reckoning with a Trump Presidency..." Ah, "reckoning," eh? Well, that's an encouraging word. Perhaps it suggests a willingness on his part to reassess, a shift of focus away from the increasingly pointless condemnation of the now routed Democrats. But no, the rest of the headline reads, "And the Elite Democrats Who Helped to Deliver It." So it goes.

Greenwald's chief claim in these articles is that Democrats and liberals should be blaming themselves for the results of the election, and examining their own elitism and self-righteousness, rather than continuing to denounce the institution of the electoral college, racism and xenophobia, etc. He writes, with an unsettling degree of totalism, which has become an increasingly common tendency in his writing: "any autopsy or liberal think piece or pro-Clinton pundit commentary that does not start and finish with their own behavior is one that is inherently worthless." Ouch! This is especially rich, by the way, given Greenwald's own apparently complete refusal to engage in any self-reflection or self-criticism after the election results -- which, he confesses, came as a surprise to him as well. Nowhere in his latest articles will you see him entertain any doubt as to whether, say, he made the right choice in focusing nearly all his critical and investigative energies as a journalist on Clinton rather than Trump over the past year, or whether he was not overhasty in repeatedly dismissing concerns about Putin-ist ties to the Trump campaign as sheer neo-McCarthyism, despite mounting evidence that there are real connections between the two, including the statements of Russian diplomats. Greenwald blasts Democrats with language that could well be directed at himself, writing that despite the total defeat of their expectations, they "appear more self-righteously impressed with themselves, more vindicated in their messaging and strategic choices, than ever before." Physician, heal thyself!

Throughout this entire election, I have been waiting -- waiting, hoping, praying -- for the moment when leftists would finally get the fact that -- whatever their internal divisions, and those are certainly important, and blah blah blah -- nothing could be clearer this election year than that they had a common problem and a common enemy in the quasi-fascist candidate running on the opposite side. This does not mean I am or have ever been an uncritical follower of establishment Democrats. While I have no doubt that Greenwald would consign much of this blog's election analysis to his expansive definition of the "inherently worthless," I am not in fact a "pro-Clinton pundit," or a pro-Clinton anything. I was an admirer of Senator Sanders from before he was everyone's progressive darling, and I supported him early on in the primaries with both my wallet and my pen. I detest and condemn the role the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, have played in Haiti, in Honduras, in Iraq, in their crime policies and their support for welfare reform.

But there came a point in the campaign when this just didn't matter that much anymore. Clinton was winning in the primaries by every possible measure -- and no, friends, that was not just because of evil Debbie Wasserman Schultz and "Democratic elites" and the limited number of debates, but was due chiefly to the fact that the majority of the rather staid, centrist -- even conservative -- Democratic Party is not made up of Sanders-style leftists and never has been. Those of us who are leftists may resent this fact, but it has been true for a very long time.

It is fascinating, while we're on the subject, that Greenwald can write the following words about the results of the Nov. 8 election: "Democrats need to accept responsibility and blame, and stop pretending that they were just the victims of other people’s failures and bad acts. They’re not divinely entitled to support from voters, nor to an unimpeded march to victory for their preferred candidate" -- and thereby sweepingly write off concerns about voter suppression and the unrepresentative nature of the electoral college and the role these things may have played in the outcome -- without ever once pausing to notice that the same critique could well be leveled against the Sanders people, who have tried time and again to blame Clinton's victory in the primaries on everything other than the plain fact that she was the more popular candidate with Democratic primary voters.

I thought that at some point people would get this. It thought they would make the simple calculation that Clinton, whatever else might be said of her, was by late Spring of 2016 the only plausible challenger to Trump, and that it was everyone's moral duty to do what they could to support her (though not uncritically -- never uncritically). That didn't happen. Okay, give it time. I thought that after the election, at the very least, and Trump won, now at least people would stop relentlessly flogging Hillary and turn their attention to the shared work of combating Trump. Hillary, however much people seemed to hate her, was not worth scapegoating now that she was powerless. Wrong again! If anything, the Trumpists have been kinder to Clinton, after the election, than the Greenwaldians and the Bernie people have been!

And so, one very much begins to fear, perhaps Greenwald is after all that breed of human whom Hazlitt once referred to as the "person with one idea." If one eases the pressure for an instant on the Democrats, if one shifts one's gaze just slightly rightward, to take in the much larger Trumpian ogre currently raising its club in preparation to bring it down on all our skulls, Greenwald accuses one of never having been really serious about criticizing "Democratic elites" to start with. 'Well, when have you criticized Hillary lately,' he seems to be asking. 'When was the last time you spoke out against Obama's drone policy?' and if you try to defend yourself, saying, "Last week! Last month! I did so" that is not close to good enough either. It should have been yesterday. It should have been today. "If you happen to remark," writes Hazlitt, of what it is like to converse with the person with one idea, "'It is a fine day,' or 'The town is full,' it is considered a temporary compromise of the question; you are suspected of not going the whole length of the principle."

But what outlet will Greenwald have for this single idea of his, in the years ahead, when all three branches of government are controlled by Republicans? Who will he have to target, other than the GOP? It calls for a change of direction for him, but it doesn't seem to be happening. His condemnation of Clinton only seems to be getting more strident -- and really, quite a bit more vicious and ugly -- with time -- perhaps because he recognizes, on some subconscious level, its futility.

Greenwald's recent commentaries descend into depths of Hillary-bashing that make me profoundly uneasy -- and that is delivered in words that could well have been lifted directly from Alex Jones' "Infowars" or Breitbart news. In Greenwald's telling, Clinton has "spent the last several years piggishly running around to Wall Street banks and major corporations cashing in with $250,000 fees for 45-minute secret speeches even though she had already become unimaginably rich[.]" Comparing Hillary Clinton to a "pig," in this manner, in the immediate aftermath of an election in which she was assailed by threats to jail her, lock her up, put her "in stripes" -- an election in which she was the first female nominee of a major party and was confronted by an unprecedentedly misogynistic opposing campaign and by a GOP candidate who has in fact called many women "pigs" and worse over the years -- doesn't look well on Greenwald, to say the least.

He is not alone, however. Leftists love to criticize Democrats for the same reason that teenagers argue with their parents, or campus activists occupy the offices of liberal university administrators. There is a chance, in all these cases, that the targets will listen to you, will sympathize, will maybe even apologize. It is altogether a more frightening thing to focus one's opposition on people who despise you and your values entirely, or who will turn the coercive power of the state against you to the utmost of their ability.

This is, of course, the real reason why that anti-Trump coalition did not form ranks after the election, as I had hoped it might, and why liberals and left-wingers instead dissolved promptly into internecine squabbling and back-biting, or else into portentous efforts to "understand" why a "majority" (ahem) of Americans has chosen to support such an "unusual" candidate.

I find it extraordinary, therefore, that Greenwald has settled on this narrative that smug elite Democrats have signally failed to engage in searching self-criticism after the election. From my vantage point over the last two weeks, it has seemed that just the opposite was the case. The response I've witnessed from liberals in the media has been astonishingly in line with the Greenwaldian advice, in the sense of assuming that the fault lay with themselves. New York Times columnists and Senate Democrats have been seeking for ways to "work with" Trump. One particularly bizarre NYT article suggested that Trump could fix everything by building a large edifice or statue somewhere, as if a new Brooklyn Bridge would make up for the campaign trail promises to deport millions, torture people, and ban an entire religious group from entering the country. As Masha Gessen summarizes, in one of those rare and treasured articles that manages to say more directly and piquantly something I realized I had been vaguely gesturing toward in my own writing before:
Similar refrains were heard from various members of the liberal commentariat, with Tom Friedman vowing, 'I am not going to try to make my president fail,' to Nick Kristof calling on 'the approximately 52 percent majority of voters who supported someone other than Donald Trump' to 'give president Trump a chance.' Even the politicians who have in the past appealed to the less-establishment part of the Democratic electorate sounded the conciliatory note. Senator Elizabeth Warren promised to 'put aside our differences.' Senator Bernie Sanders was only slightly more cautious, vowing to try to find the good in Trump [....] However well-intentioned, this talk assumes that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short, it is treating him as a 'normal' politician. There has until now been little evidence that he can be one.
The result of this is that nearly all the mainstream analysis I have read has focused on Democrats' failures to win over the allegedly "working-class" and "rust-belt" Trump voters -- much as Greenwald is demanding that they do. There seems to have been shockingly little investigation into the role that voter suppression and the new voter ID laws may have played in swinging the outcome -- despite the fact that suppression demonstrably took place, at least in some areas (whether it was statistically significant or not) -- including coordinated efforts by Republican activists in some states to block African American voters through challenging each individual's right to vote separately in court. Few seem inclined to dwell on the fact, likewise, that Clinton won more votes than Trump did, by a margin that keeps increasing. Nor is anyone paying much attention to the fact that, as Human Rights Watch pointed out back in October, at least 6 million adult citizens are still barred from voting in this country by Jim Crow-era legislation restricting the voting rights of people with criminal records. My home state of Florida, always a swing state, and one that could well have determined the election in Clinton's favor if things have been just slightly different, forbids people with felony convictions from voting for life -- thereby making them into permanent second-class citizens. Then there is the fact, as HRW also adds, that 11 million undocumented immigrants still have no path to citizenship that might one day allow them to cast a ballot in this country, where many of them have been living for decades.

It is certainly telling that Clinton won the popular vote by such a large margin even with all these restrictions on voting rights in place. Yet to spend any time remarking on this is perceived as sore losing and a failure to admit blame -- and one hears these accusations from no one as loudly as from mainstream liberal pundits and Glenn Greenwald -- for once in an uneasy alliance with one another.

In this and so many ways, we have already lost the battle of ideas. Trump has been normalized. There was a period immediately after the election when we might still have held the line. I'm not saying we shouldn't have respected the election results and the peaceful transition of power -- and I get that the outgoing president had some responsibility on his part to calm the markets after November 8 and keep the whole country from unraveling by making some soothing public utterances. But liberal commentators did not have to adopt the same tone. They could have continued to make clear that Trump was not a legitimate political leader with whom they were willing to make strategic compromises. We could have insistently reminded everyone that however much Trump pivots and twists and writhes before his various audiences in the months ahead, it will not change the fact that he built a campaign on promises to violate core civil, constitutional, and human rights. Other presidents, of course, have violated all those things. But no one before Trump in my lifetime so openly displayed his contempt for even rhetorical deference to these values -- which are, meanwhile, not negotiable side issues, but the core guiding principles of free societies.

"But he appealed to so many people!" you say. First of all, not as many as you might think -- see above. Second of all, who cares? If history has revealed nothing else, it is that large numbers of people can be wrong at the same time. And as the Bible says, "Thou shalt not follow the multitude to do evil." (Ex. 23:2)

Trump, like Hitler before him, managed to attract a plurality of voters to support him -- and because of the weakness of the democratic institutions around these two men, and the disarray and pointless in-fighting of the opposition in both cases, a plurality was enough to carry them to victory. (Not that Trump and Hitler are the same, or even close to morally equivalent, but some comparison between the two is analytically useful nonetheless.)

The reason why such a plurality supported Trump is of some academic interest, to be sure. I incline toward the one theory that Greenwald seems least willing to entertain -- committed as he still is to the belief that the Trumpian victory was just a great upwelling of misdirected "antiestablishment" Sandersism, and that many of those folks who voted against Clinton would have backed the Senator from Vermont if he had gotten through the primaries. Namely, I lean toward the theory that many Trump voters actually agree with significant elements of Trump's worldview, and do not agree with liberalism or the values of Glenn Greenwald (or of Bernie Sanders). They are not slumbering socialists waiting for a genuine populist to seize control of the Democratic party so that they might vote for him. They oppose socialism, and they oppose liberalism. And they by no means represent the "working class" as some monolithic bloc.

Lots of people pretty much always oppose liberalism, in this as in all societies, and it's easy to see why. Liberalism -- in the broad sense of the word -- requires one to live in a state of constant tension. It requires one to tolerate the presence of other faiths and viewpoints that one finds disagreeable, and even odious. It necessitates that we place strict constitutional limits around the government's ability to remove, incarcerate, detain, or kill people whom one may regard as a potential threat to one's safety, one's value system, or one's sense of personal wellbeing. There is no obvious reason at all why this should be a popular doctrine. As Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1930 (standard trans.):
Liberalism- it is well to recall this to-day- is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural. Hence, it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. It is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.
Trump offers people a relaxation of this discipline. He holds out an alternative set of truths -- indeed, a fictional reality -- in which finally they no longer need to bother their conscience or experience the tension of living with others (at least not if one is a white and more or less middle-class American). Trump made repeated campaign promises that appeal to the same instincts and emotions that have turned other mass societies into enthusiastic supporters of ethnic cleansing. He promises relief from the tension of having to restrain one's desires to express passing racist or Islamophobic thoughts (I have them too). He gives people free rein to place their own interests first, their own pride first, their own selves first, their own ethnic and racial group first. He promises to unburden whites of the profound moral discomfort most of us experience in seeing videos of police abuses of African Americans on camera, or refugees drowning in the Mediterranean or dying at the hands of gangs in Central America. Lord knows I wish I could be free of those images too! And here comes Trump to tell us that they aren't real. In the Trump version of reality, there are no police abuses of power, there are only media fabrications implanted by Black Lives Matter activists. Likewise, refugees aren't actually suffering, and we Americans don't have to feel bad for doing squat to help them, because they are really ISIS agents trying to smuggle themselves into our society.

It is not entirely surprising that appeals to ethno-nationalism sometimes draw in a plurality of voters. It is an electoral strategy that has worked in countless other polities before. It is flattering to think that your needs are more real than other people's needs; that things you would never tolerate if they were done to yourself or your family are okay when inflicted on others; that your nation and culture are just plain better than others. As a professor of mine once put it simply, "We are all ethno-centric, because we are all ego-centric."

The question is not how could Trump have gotten a plurality to vote for him on such a self-congratulating program -- that much is easy to explain -- but how is it that the rest of us, despite being the majority of voters, still somehow "lost" the election? What are the weaknesses of our electoral institutions that prevented all adult citizens from being able to exercise their right to vote, or that ensured that certain people's votes counted for more than others'? And why is it that the Left, despite being faced with the greatest existential threat to its values and ideals in a lifetime, is still failing so completely to mount some kind of coordinated and focused opposition, but keeps devolving instead into internal debates over safety pins and Sanders?

Partly, it is because retreating into self-criticism is a comfortable thing for most liberals. It is because they do not really incline toward totalism and absolutism that they became liberals in the first place, after all. It is hard for them to believe, ultimately, that the "other side" is wrong and "our side" is right.

The trouble, however, is that this generally admirable characteristic leaves them utterly unequipped to confront those rare individuals who are in fact pathologically mendacious, like Trump -- who make systematic use of falsehoods which -- however transparently incorrect -- are nonetheless deeply appealing to people, because they promise relief from guilt and self-doubt, and reaffirm core positive narratives that people want to believe about themselves and their country.

Liberals -- and leftists and Greenwaldians too -- are already starting to lose sight of the fact that Trump's worldview is built on these kinds of wishful fabrications -- on lies, that is to say. To remind people of this is already to sound shrill and "biased." We don't want to be liberal elites, after all, do we? Notice how many of us have already, within a matter of days since the election, accepted the key elements of the Trumpian characterization of ourselves and our positions. Greenwald has certainly learned the lingo of "elites" versus Trump voters (who are not in fact representative of "the people" or "the working class," but that hardly seems to matter anymore). We are plagued by the suspicion, like a character in Darkness at Noon, that perhaps we were wrong after all. Perhaps, as Robert Lowell wrote, "one always took the wrong side." We worry that maybe our non-Trumpian worldview isn't so fact-based after all, or maybe that our deployment of "facts" in any form is somehow elitist and anti-popular. The seed of doubt is planted. We are being fed a line about ourselves, and precisely because we are conscientious and want to see the best in other people, we are tempted to believe it.

Isn't the real problem just that we too have become too polarized, we liberals are starting to ask -- isn't it just that we have our narrow viewpoint, and the conservatives have theirs, and we've all retreated to our media bubbles and we need to come out of them and try to find common ground?

This is how Trumpism gets pulled into the mainstream. This is how beliefs that are flatly untrue come to be seen as simply one among many legitimate "alternative perspectives." We are losing our sense even that there are truths and falsehoods, and that it is possible for us to disentangle one from another from a non-partisan perspective. As a character in V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, on seeing a slogan from the nameless "Big Man" dictator of the novel's later chapters, reflects: "What a complicated lie those words had become! How long would it take to work back from that, through all the accumulated lies, to what was simple and true?"

I am aware that Trump has backpedalled in recent days on most-- perhaps nearly all -- of his campaign promises (for now, and for at least one of his several audiences). But his total lack of predictability and substance in these matters is almost more frightening to me than some kind of consistent policy agenda would be. It adds even more to the fun-house atmosphere of truthlessness and "accumulated lies" that Naipaul's narrator describes.

Besides, the genie is out of the bottle now. A presidential campaign has been run in the modern United States that more or less nakedly appealed to an impulse toward ethnic cleansing and the erosion of basic rights protections. Is all that now just going to disappear, after we have been shown that it exists in us, in our own society? Can you think of any example in all of modern history in which such an ethnically chauvinistic campaign was run and then quietly retired into pacific oblivion once it carried a candidate into power on its back? The ghastly events of recent weeks in Burma suggest that rhetoric breeds action, even if it is over the course of years or decades. You don't get to start a few paces down that road and then just turn back as if nothing happened.

Strategic compromises with Trumpism will not work; accommodation will not work. Recall that Obama's harsh immigration policies throughout his administration have been justified on the theory that at some point the hardliners would be appeased enough that it would open the door to comprehensive reform. But what actually happened is that the entire center of the debate shifted rightward, and now we have Trump. This too will be the consequence of any effort to make guarded concessions to a Trumpist agenda. It will normalize their position and bring their unconscionable proposals into the mainstream.

What might work instead, however, is the fact that there are actually more people in this country who oppose Trump and everything he stands for than who support him. And if we can just find some sort of way to keep our wits and our courage about us, and cease the pointless in-group vituperation, we might prevail.

So, Greenwald, will you join us? Trump has put you out of business for now as contrarian leftist critic of the Left. There are no more jobs for you or anyone in that industry, because there is no Left left, to speak of. But there might just be a vacancy for you in the Resistance. Come over and lend a hand, if you will have us.


  1. I agree that all should have rallied around Clinton after she won the nomination. And from what I acn tell, they did. Bernie did, his supporters overwhelmingly voted for her and very few defected to third parties in critical states. What happened was that in key states those that voted for Obama did not come out an vote for Clinton. Why not? Well, it seems that those people, theose that either voted for Obama before and voted for Trump now or did not vote at all were feeling shafted and threw the dice for change. Rational? Not IMO. Understabdable? Yes.

    I mention this becuase this swing vote was critical and it moved becuase of Clinton's real problems addressing their issues, as compared to Bernie say. It is imprtant to focus on this now becuase if we dont then we will have anothe Clinton next time around. Those that lost it for the dems, are not interested in hearing taht THEY lost it. No, the republicans stole it or bernie bros sabotaged it or the Russians did it or, or, or. This alternative scenario will, if made standard will prevent a reorientation of the Democratic party. That's why it is worth repeating the story that the Clinton people screwed up. If this does not happen, they will be there to screw up again. They have lots of money and feel entitled to run things given their superior smarts, education, savvy etc. the only thing standing in their way is the obvious fac that they screwed up, big time. Hence the importance of NOW showing that they did.

  2. Hi Norbert, thanks very much for reading and for the thoughtful comments. I agree that Sanders did the right thing after the DNC and that third party candidates, the much-feared specter of Bernie defectors, etc., ended up being a totally negligible factor in the election. The point about left-wing infighting has more to do with Greenwald himself. My sense from reading him over the past year has been that he basically thought that Hillary had a lock on the election (as did most of us), and so assumed that the important thing for him and the rest of the Intercept team was to prevent the awfulness of Trump from deflecting all attention away from Clinton's many failings. After the election outcome, however, I was hoping to see him offer a bit more self-reflection and self-criticism about this choice to focus his critical energies almost exclusively on Clinton. Of course Greenwald has usually placed some sort of critical remark about Trump in most of his articles, but he doesn't seem to have devoted any kind of sustained investigative effort to Trump's campaign, past, etc. Meanwhile, I think he has been far too dismissive of some of the critical narratives about Trump coming from the Clinton camp. Here's something I wrote back in February about this:

    As to your larger point... I guess it comes down to this question of whether or not a sufficient volume of people who stayed home or voted for Trump would have voted for Sanders instead. My instinct is to say that if Sanders was too far to the left to win the Democratic primaries, he would be too far to the left to carry the country. This is mostly based on the narratives I've imbibed from former elections (Dukakis, etc.) that the American electorate is just always much more fundamentally conservative than I would like it to be. But I am open to being persuaded. Thanks again for your thoughts!

  3. Thx for your comment. Btw, I really enjoy the blog, fwiw. Ok, re whether Bernie could have won. I am not sure that should be the central issue right now, as we will never, and can never, know. What is important is whether you believe that going forward the Democratic party need to move back to the left, in roughly the New Deal direction that Bernie was trying to move it. Surprisingly, he was quite successful, so it seems that there is some hope it can so move. But, the real issue is not that one but whetzher the DLC vision of politics enshrined in Carter, Clinton, Obama is dead and whether this is a good thing. I believe it is. But there are lots of resources behind this view and it wont go quietly. The foght right now is over why the dems lost. The DLC view is a sophisticated version of the old stab in the back narrative. If this works, and it looks to me that the Vox crowd is pushing it hard, then there will be no move to the New Deal direction. Thats why I dont find the Greenwald coomentary inapposite. When we bury the DLC it will be time to change tunes. Trump is the problem, but so is the DLC visioin which helped him get there.