It is not often that Medea Benjamin, the charismatic founder of Code Pink, offers us her insight into a troublesome American reality that is almost simultaneously confirmed by The New York Times, the virtual bible for secular liberals in the United States. Yet it happened, most surprisingly, in a positive portrayal of one thin slice of Trump loyalists—veterans of recent foreign wars. Medea reports on a conversation with such a veteran on a train out West, and was impressed that he felt Clinton much more likely than Trump to get Americans killed in a future distant war disconnected from any reasonable defense of the homeland. The New York Times in a front-page feature article reached this same plausible conclusion on the basis of a wider scan of relevant evidence.
Here are two disturbing realities worth pondering as we come closer to this most potentially momentous of American presidential elections. While the civilian national security establishment in the United States is outspokenly supportive of the Clinton candidacy, many combat veterans seem to consider Trump less of a warmonger despite his loose talk about crushing the enemies of America. Is it that the national security establishment has entered the arena of partisan politics because it is so worried about Trump’s petulant style and go it alone adventurism or because it finds Clinton’s record of military internationalism strongly to their liking? Or maybe a combination?
The second cluster of observations concerns the split between those of left liberal persuasion who reside in America and those living abroad, especially in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Those outside, whether American citizens or not, think of what these bitter rivals are likely to do once ensconced in the White House, and it makes them fearful. Typical is the view of Slavoj Źiźek, the celebrity Slovenian public intellectual: He believes that Trump is “apparently less dangerous” than Clinton, a view overwhelmingly held among Russian elites, and not just Putin. In complementary fashion Julian Assange insists, with the weight of Wikileaks on his shoulders, that the American political class will not allow Trump to win. Such opinions are also shared by many expatriates (as well as in country America First isolationists who are all in for Trump) who consider Clinton fully committed to continuing the American global domination project, no matter its costs, with twin ominous dangers of raising tensions with both Russia and China.
Those of us on the left who live mainly in the United States see the risks and dangers differently. We are more inclined to repudiate unconditionally anyone with Trump’s unsavory views on nuclear weapons, race, women, Muslims, immigrants, climate change, guns and torture without bothering to look further. And if this is not enough, then Trump’s commitment to appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who embrace a jurisprudence that resembles the approach of the recently deceased arch conservative, Anthony Scalia, lower taxes on the super-rich and is cavalier about the menaces posed by nuclear weaponry and global warming, is more than enough to turn many, including most disappointed Sanders’ enthusiasts, into reluctant Clinton supporters. Additionally, those with Wall Street portfolios also have reasonable fears that Trump’s rejection of trade agreements and commitments to scrap existing arrangements and negotiate better deals with China and others, as well as make countries being defended by American military power pay their fair share will lead to an unraveling of the world economy, collapsing stock markets, and a return of protectionist policies leading to a new economic downturn reviving grim memories of ‘beggar thy neighbor’ trade wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s, which also operated as one incubator of the rise of fascism. Trumpism might also destabilize security arrangements to such an extent that several states will go all out to acquire their own stockpile of nuclear weapons, and a series of regional nuclear arms races ensue.
We learn from this recital of competing fears, what has always been implicit, but now becomes apparent, that the United States is a global Behemoth whose missteps have for decades harmed the wellbeing of peoples around the world. For this reason, continuity with the past tends not to be viewed favorably by many foreign progressive observers, especially the projection of American military power throughout the planet. Trump for all his flaws is perceived as embodying a crucial discontinuity, and this alone makes him attractive for the very same reasons that Clinton appeals to many mainstream Republican and neocon foreign policy analysts. Additionally, Clinton is seen domestically as less of an uncertain quantity. She is predictable and stable, which explains the overwhelming support she receives from the American political class, including the media, Beltway think tanks, Silicon Valley, liberal centers of learning and much of the military industrial complex.
Even though my months spent in Turkey each year have made me a partial expatriate, I still regard the political choices primarily from an insider’s perspective. This helps me justify to myself why I am a reluctant supporter of Clinton, which in the end strikes me as a clear choice, which would hold up even internationally if properly appraised. Although it is naïve to expect that Clinton has learned to be more cautious about the use of American military power on the basis of past failures of regime-changing interventions and muscular geopolitics, it feels grotesquely naïve to trust Trump with the ‘nuclear football,’ as well as to risk a mighty economic crash or the dire consequences of neglecting climate change (a hoax according to Trump), which if any materializes, would be catastrophic far beyond the borders of the United States, and as usual in such circumstances deliver the most crushing blows to the poorest and most vulnerable among us here at home and abroad.
One aspect of the conventional wisdom is to say that Clinton has experience that shows she can get things done. In contrast, Trump is almost proud of his lack of experience, and the prospect of his twisting Congressional arms to reach a compromise in support of his policy initiatives seems like what in American football talk is called ‘a hail Mary.’ Yet reflecting on this prospect the contrast may not be so clear. After all Clinton as president will almost certainly face a Republican-dominated Congress determined to nullify her presidency by all means at its disposal. Trump as winner, which at present remains an improbable outcome, would enjoy a tactically sympathetic Congress controlled by Republicans, who despite themselves being sharply divided, would probably join with centrist Democrats to be more legislatively effective than a Clinton presidency.
What is most deeply worrisome about the Trump candidacy, win or lose, is the degree to which it has empowered a hitherto relatively dormant proto-fascist underclass, which for its own reasons of alienation had long been boycotting mainstream politics (at least since Reagan), although gradually building a populist base during the last decade via the extremist Tea Party. Trump now has a movement at its disposal that can create havoc either as the mobilized base of an extremist leadership or as the militant vortex of a disruptive opposition that could pose a threat to the future of the republic, especially if mega-terrorist incidents on a 9/11 scale were to happen in the West, and especially within the United States, or economic hard times occur.
To the extent I equivocated earlier in this electoral cycle, it was to consider seriously giving my vote to the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. I think third party candidates have every right to seek as widespread support as they can gain, and that existing rules restricting their participation in national debates should be relaxed to allow their voices to be heard nationally. This would make such political alternative more competitive with the big money machines that the two major parties have become, and create a live possibility of candidates whose program and character can be affirmed, freeing persons like myself from the demoralizing dilemma of voting for the lesser of evils. If American democracy is going to be strengthened it must begin to give the citizenry political alternatives that resonate with our ‘better angels.’
I admit voting for Ralph Nader back in 2000 when it seems that Nader’s votes in Florida swung the election to George W. Bush with some help from the Supreme Court. Few strangely cast blame on the 300,000 or so Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida, and were hence a much larger factor in explaining the outcome. Liberals are scornful of those who voted for Nader, while giving a pass to their more wayward fellow Democrats, perhaps forgiven because they didn’t ‘waste’ their vote.
My vote for Nader represented a refusal to acquiesce in the lesser of evils argument. I was also influenced by my perception back then of Al Gore as militarist and unapologetic champion of neoliberal globalization, making only Nader the only candidate to express views that I could endorse in good faith. In retrospect, I did underestimate the leverage of neoconservative forces surrounding Bush, and wanting, partly on Israel’s behalf, to restructure the Middle East by what became euphemistically described as ‘democracy promotion’ but can be more realistically described as forcible ‘regime change.’ It was the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that gave the Bush presidency a political climate within which to pursue this disastrous neocon program in the Middle East, centering on the attack and occupation of Iraq starting in 2003, and undoubtedly a primary cause of much of the suffering and turmoil that now afflicts the region as a whole. It is reasonable to believe that Gore would have responded similarly to 9/11 with respect to Afghanistan and the tightening of homeland security, but likely would have acted more prudently in the Middle East, although this is far from a certainty.
Perhaps, I can end by taking note that American presidential elections generally, and this one in particular, should be understood as a type of two-level political exercise. On its primary level, the election is treated by both sides as inward looking, and determined by which side is most persuasive with voters on domestic policy issues. This domestic focus has itself become quite problematic, affected by Republican efforts at ‘voter suppression’ (ways to deny the vote to African Americans and Hispanics), by relentless fundraising favoring the priorities of the most wealthy, and by a variety of ways to manipulate results in the few key ‘battleground states’ that determine which side wins enough electoral college votes to gain the office of the presidency. For the sake of balanced perspective, it should be acknowledged that there have been serious infringements on the proper exercise of the right to vote ever since the United States became a republic.
Then there is the secondary level of this American electoral process where people around the globe view American elections as directly affecting and threatening their lives in a variety of tangible ways. These people situated around the world are victimized (or benefitted) by the American global state but are disenfranchised so far as being denied any voice, much less a vote. From the primary level, Russian efforts to meddle in American elections are totally unacceptable, but viewed from the secondary level, are completely understandable. Putin is not irresponsible to believe that vital Russian interests are at stake, and that Trump is less likely than Clinton to produce inflammatory confrontations. From a nationalist perspective, Trump’s possible encouragement of Putin’s concerns seems treasonous; from a global perspective, Russia is acting prudently by acting nonviolently to avoid an electoral outcome in the United States that could have grave consequences for its future wellbeing, and for that matter, so is Wikileaks.
In this respect, there is a real erosion of global sovereignty in the sense of self-determination that results from this non-territorial salience attributed to the effects of an American presidential election. For a truly legitimate political order of global scope, we need to begin thinking of how to construct a global democracy that is responsive to the multiple experiences of political, economic and cultural globalization.
To aspire to such an end presupposes the ethos of ‘citizen pilgrims,’ those who transcend national identities in their journey toward a promised land of peaceful co-existence, equitable distribution of material goods, ecological vigilance and sensitivity, a culture of inclusive human rights, and above all, enhanced and variegated spirituality. It may sound utopian, and it is. I believe we are reaching a biopolitical threshold that increasingly equates prospects for human survival with the achievement of an eco-political utopia. This presupposes that utopianism must soon become the new realism of a politics dedicated to a benign human future.
Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University.
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