Our philosopher-king regurgitates what he learned in high school

jackson schlesingerWhen Don John of Astoria, a.k.a. Donald John Trump, was in high school in the early 1960s, one of the dominant schools of thought among American historians was that embodied by Arthur M. Schlesinger, junior, author of The Age of Jackson (1945.) Schlesinger de-emphasized Andrew Jackson’s career-long focus on promoting the expansion of slavery to turn his focus on Jackson as a nationalist.

Central to this project was the story of President Jackson’s confrontation with South Carolina when that state attempted to block federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods brought to the Port of Charleston.  The elevation of this incident to a central place in the history of the Jackson presidency, and of the political movement that created that presidency, implied that it had a greater importance not only than did such an event as the genocidal evacuation of the Cherokee nation from their ancestral lands, which historians in Schlesinger’s day tended to overlook, but also the disestablishment of the Bank of the United States, which they most definitely did not overlook.

That implication can be defended only if Jackson’s forceful response had prevented an outbreak of civil war. Indeed, it was commonplace well into the 1980s for high school history teachers in the USA to claim, not only that Jackson prevented war in 1832, but also that the approach he took to the Nullification Crisis might have prevented the war that actually did break out three decades later had his successors been faithful to it. This consensus is reflected, not only in the presence of Jackson’s face on the $20 bill, but in such improbable places as Martin Luther King’s nod to the Nullification Crisis in the “I Have a Dream” speech, when he refers to Alabama governor George Wallace “having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”

Since Don John does not seem to have read very much on American history or any other topic since leaving school decades ago, it should not have surprised anyone when he claimed that Andrew Jackson had a formula that could have prevented the Civil War:

ZITO: Oh, that’s right, you were in Tennessee.

TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.

ZITO: Yeah, he’s a fascinating —

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

ZITO: Yeah —

TRUMP: People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

What does still surprise me is that Schlesinger was able to carry his argument as far as he did even in the 1940s. Jackson’s approach to the sectional conflicts stemming from slavery was in fact tried again by at least one of his successors in the antebellum period. President Zachary Taylor, who, though he was elected president as the candidate of the Whig Party that grew up as the opposition to the Jackson administration, said that Jackson was his political lodestar, and responded to the crisis of 1850 in a style entirely modeled on Jackson’s approach to the Nullification Crisis.

And Taylor’s policy was a disaster. As he refused to make any concessions to the Slave Power regarding the Western territories or anything else until the Southern states forswore secession, it became steadily clearer that the South was ready to secede, and the North was not ready to fight to prevent secession. Indeed, even in 1861, after a decade of constant compromise and concession, the North was barely able to muster sufficient forces to stop the South breaking away. Had the war begun in 1850, with no attempt at a compromise peace, it is hard to imagine how the federal government could have mounted even a token opposition, much less saved the Union and written slavery out of the law books.

Taylor’s intransigence, coupled with the fact that he was himself a slave-owner from the Deep South, may lead the suspicious-minded to wonder whether secession and the eternal enshrinement of slavery in a new confederacy was not his true objective all along. At the time he was generally regarded as a fool whose inexperience with politics led him to adopt an insane policy. Perhaps if he had lived to bring the crisis to a head we would have the information needed to make a determination as to his motives. As it happens, Taylor died less than halfway into his term, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, quickly signed the Compromise of 1850. While that bargain is reviled for its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was of course a horror, it not only gave the anti-slavery side its way on every other point, but also made it possible for the North eventually to defeat the South and put slavery on the path to extinction. That is one of the reasons why my avatar on many social media platforms is a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore.

Don John seems to identify very strongly with Jackson, and in his ineptitude bids fair to be another Taylor. The people I respect who tried to talk themselves into supporting Don John for president in last year’s election had hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of Fillmore, who, in response to the Crisis of 1850, replaced a policy of confrontation with one of compromise, who, as the author of tariff acts on the model of the one South Carolina tried to nullify in 1832, was a champion of a trade policy that would underpin the industrialization of the USA, and who, as the presidential candidate of the American Party in 1856, was a moderating influence within a movement devoted to a restrictionist policy on immigration.  They hoped that as president, Don John would de-escalate US militarism in favor of a conciliatory policy towards Russia and other powers, that he would revise our long-standing Finance First trade policy, and that he would tighten immigration policy without ravaging the rule of law. In fact, Don John has not shown any of Fillmore’s statesmanship, and those people have not expressed much satisfaction with any of his actions since he took office.

 

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Frying Pan versus Fire

The other day, Scott Alexander called on voters in the USA to cast ballots for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. Scott Alexander himself will apparently be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, though the title of his post is “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein.”

I agree that Mr Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, is not suited to the presidency.  I do have a number of demurrers to Scott Alexander’s piece, however.  Let me share one of these.

Scott Alexander writes:

[O]ne of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

“Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out” is “one of the central principles behind my philosophy,” as well. That’s precisely why I won’t be voting for HRC.  On the one hand, the hyper-warlike approach to foreign affairs that informed her support for US-led wars in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, and now for the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a strong tendency to destroy all existing systems in and hoping that some mysterious force replaces them with something good. For that matter, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration- for example, deregulation of the financial sector, gutting of the “welfare as we knew it,” and the erection of an industrial policy that subjects all other economic interests to the transnational mobility of capital and the defense of intellectual property- whatever may be said in their favor, have been all about destroying previously existing systems, with very little specified as to what was supposed to replace them. For that matter, measures such as warrantless wiretapping and the presidential “kill list” represent a disruption of the system of judicial oversight called for in the Bill of Rights and codified in centuries of legislation and court rulings, a system that has long guaranteed civil liberties in the USA. HRC has been deeply involved in all of these acts of destruction, continues to support them, and does not propose anything that might bring an end to the age of destruction.

On the other hand, when systems that directly benefit the world’s ruling elite face a crisis, that elite has consistently tried to defuse those crises before they could force any change in the way those systems operate.  It hasn’t always been this way; 95 years ago, when President Warren Harding faced a financial crisis that would put many major concerns out of business, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon spoke for his fellow financial titans when he advised against bailouts, arguing that “the recession will find what the auditors miss,” purging bad practice from business and leaving the economy stronger in its aftermath.  The sharp downturn and even more dramatic recovery during the Harding administration would seem to be a clear example of a system strengthened by crisis.  Compare that with the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 and 2009, with the fear that financial concerns had become “too big too fail”- and with the fact that those same concerns have now been allowed to grow even bigger. By 2012, the US Justice Department was openly admitting that it was afraid that the financial system had grown so fragile that HSBC would have to go unpunished for its crimes, lest a prosecution bring the whole house of cards crashing down.  Thus the fear of the fragility of the financial system, leading as it has to bailouts, acts of impunity, etc, has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vacillating between reckless interventions to destroy systems with little thought of what will follow and equally reckless interventions to prop systems up by stripping them of the parameters that regulate them, the Bushes and Clintons and their colleagues have, these last 30 years, created a political moment  in which it is very likely that Don John of Astoria will receive between 220 and 280 electoral votes for the US presidency. If, as seems likely, that number is below 270, then HRC will become president, accompanied by a Republican Congress. They will together continue the policies which have brought us to this pass. Electing Don John to the presidency this year would precipitate a catastrophe; protracting our current political arrangements for another four years might precipitate a still greater catastrophe.

I can understand why people would vote for HRC, hoping perhaps that things will somehow improve sufficiently between now and 2020 that in that election the country will not face another choice between apocalypse now and apocalypse later. That hope would be an example of hoping that the “build a better one” step will “happen on its own,” however. Such a vote, however defensible it might seem in the eyes of the one casting it, would certainly not be a sufficient response to this situation. Voting for the Green Party isn’t a sufficient response either, but at least it is a step towards building a set of movements to adjust the relationship between mass and elite to a more sustainable balance and enable a new departure in our political life. Failing such a new departure, the next few years are likely to be very dark indeed.

A not-so-good cartoon

Many psychologists study the way the brain reacts when too much information comes up all at once. For example, this cartoon by Randy Bish, embedded in a tweet by Matt Bors, brought to my mind more objections than I could, all at once, put into words:

Why is this a dumb cartoon? Well, here are a few reasons:

  1. Many veterans of the US armed forces work in fast food restaurants. Like nonveterans in the same line of work, they deserve to be paid a living wage.
  2. Many workers at US fast food restaurants are shot at or actually shot in the course of robberies. Like their coworkers who avoid that unenviable fate, they deserve a living wage.
  3. Fast food workers and enlisted military personnel in the USA are, by and large, working class people. Is Randy Bish saying that working class people don’t deserve a living wage unless they subject themselves to violence? If that isn’t what he’s saying, then what he is he saying? I can’t find an interpretation of the cartoon that doesn’t involve that idea.
  4. The difference between substandard wages many fast food workers currently receive and the living wage proposed by strikers demanding at least $15 an hour would not come from veterans’ benefits, or pay to active duty military personnel; these are not the groups in conflict in these strikes.
  5. The military has not been deployed to break fast-food strikes, and is not likely to be so deployed. There is no reason to expect confrontations of any kind between strikers and either active-duty or retired military personnel. The confrontation seen here is one that exists only in the imagination of Mr Bish. Usually editorial cartoons dramatize conflicts that are actually going on in the world; that he presents us with this imaginary one suggests that he sees it as somehow real.
  6. When right-wing commentators grow lazy, they often invoke veterans as a symbol of whatever position they want to promote. This imaginary veteran with his passive-aggressive remarks thus represents, not the views of actual veterans, but cartoonist Randy Bish’s failure to engage with the topic. Mr Bish should be ashamed of himself for hiding behind veterans.
  7. Warriors on the front lines sometimes develop a mentality in which they lump everyone not in the line of fire into the single, undifferentiated category of “lucky bastard.” I don’t know whether Randy Bish has been going around getting himself shot at, whether in uniform or out of it, but as a widely syndicated editorial page cartoonist he has a job far enough from the front lines that he can hardly claim to have come by such a mentality honestly. I’ve spent enough time in VA hospitals and known enough veterans, including veterans who have emerged as leaders in the labor movement and the antiwar movement, to know that such an attitude rarely dominates the minds even of the most battle-hardened vets after they’ve left the combat zone.
  8. Many people in the USA seem to regard it as socially acceptable to disapprove of adults taking jobs in the fast food industry; these are not, for the most part, people who shun fast food itself, but people who regard it as a disgrace or punishment to work at a fast food restaurant once past adolescence. This attitude is often manifested most strongly in the same kind of people who tend to fetishize everything about the military (except actually serving in it, which they are glad to leave to others.)  The cartoon seems expressly designed to appeal to the emotions of people who show both disdain for fast-food workers and exaggerated respect for the idea of the military.

So those are eight things that came to my mind right away. Since they all came at once, it took me several minutes to put my thoughts in order. During that first rush of thoughts, there was a moment of disorientation that may have been similar to what Mr Bors felt when he commented “You know what? Shoot me. I want to die.” A world where such sheer, condensed stupidity can not only exist, but can find its way onto editorial pages that can’t seem to find space for good cartoons by, well, Matt Bors for example, that’s a dispiriting place. And when the reasons for that dispiritingness seem to be both so numerous that you can’t put them into words, and so obvious that you can’t believe you have to put them into words, the thought of giving up completely and succumbing to the homicidal stupidity at the heart of the cartoon may logically occur.