Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs
Great Griefs: Notes on the US Election
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDFs of all issues and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
‘Where the greater malady is fix’d, the lesser is scarce felt’, it says in King Lear, a story of compounding calamities. The idea is much the same in Cymbeline: ‘Great griefs, I think, medicine the less’. To put it another way: acute and sudden pain temporarily blots out the chronic complaints that had been troubling you before. Who cares about the latter when a limb has just been mangled?
Something like this describes American capitalism during the period of Covid-19, which malady achieved pandemic status in the US in late winter of 2020, in the midst of Democratic primary season. (The Republican party had by then become such a whipped and cowering creature of Trump’s that GOP primaries were a mere formality.) The abiding troubles of US society, which predate the pandemic and will emerge from it fortified, are well-known. Four in particular stand out. First, secularly stumbling rates of GDP growth have for four decades been accompanied by galloping income inequality. Second, the US does an exceptionally bad job, by comparison to other rich countries, of protecting the lives of its charges, whether from ordinary murder (at the hands of either lone wolves or the homicidal sheep who form the uniformed police) or from the ‘social murder’, as Engels called it, of institutionalised neglect¹. To cite a statistic that often serves as proxy for a nation-state’s overall level of physical health: from 1990 to 2013, maternal mortality in developed countries declined by more than 3 per cent a year, while in the US it increased by 1.7 per cent annually². Today, pregnant Americans die at roughly the rate of pregnant Russians, making it difficult to declare a Cold War winner in this arena. Third, the saga of climate change has not spared its principal author; the country responsible for fully one quarter of historical carbon emissions sees its Western side choked each summer by more and more wildfires, and its Eastern side doused by more and more hurricanes. (The total cost of 2018’s fires in California alone has been estimated at $350 billion, erasing nearly two thirds of that year’s increment of GDP; the bill for this year’s much worse fire season doesn’t seem yet to have been tallied in the same manner.)
Finally, the American political system that pretends to address these and other crises has seen its legitimacy decline across election cycles for half a century. A lack of proportional representation always left a huge portion of the citizenry unrepresented at either the local or national level; in recent decades, this structural deficiency has combined with more dynamic features of the national scene – polarisation of the parties as well as organs of the press, and rank politicisation of a Republican-stuffed judiciary – to make many Americans feel that officials of ‘the other party’, whichever that happens to be, enjoy no genuine right to their offices. A few spasms of comparatively high voter turnout in 2008 and, now, 2020 might seem to contradict the thesis of crumbling political legitimacy; in fact, they confirm it.
In 2008, Democrats mustered at the polls in exceptional numbers largely because they saw George W. Bush as a legal renegade – in his disdain for international law or domestic habeus corpus – whom the Supreme Court had installed as President against the will of voters, and they wanted to repudiate his party accordingly. As for 2020, Trump was, like Bush, a Republican President who had lost the popular vote and exhibited contempt for the rule of law – and one who now turned the tables by insisting to his followers that Democrats (a party of treasonous socialists, in his description, who egged on rioters and looters) could not turn him out of office without having stolen the election. Nothing was ever more certain about the 2020 presidential campaign than that the result – whether the Republican Donald Trump’s improbable re-election, or the Democrat Joe Biden’s expected victory, much less the triumph of the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, which for a few weeks in the spring seemed a likely enough outcome – would be seen as illegitimate by much of the electorate, along with the administration it brought to power.
The effect of Covid-19 upon these problems – economic inequality; bodily insecurity; ecological unsustainability; political illegitimacy – was at once to disguise and to deepen them. Formal public health orders as well as the informal decisions of a frightened populace deprived small businesses throughout the country of much of their clientele, driving unemployment to levels not seen since the Depression, and further concentrating market share among giant publicly-traded firms, most notoriously Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos saw his fortune increase by more than 90 billion dollars, even as he denied his warehouse workers hazard pay. Dramatic income support for the unemployed, enacted in March, may have done more to reduce poverty than any government action in half a century, but was not renewed in the fall. (As of this writing, one in eight Americans goes hungry.) Low interest rates, on the other hand, appear to be a permanent feature of US monetary policy since 2008, and, in 2020, another asset-price stimulus lofted the stock market to record heights. The effect on inequality, in a country where the top 1 per cent of the income distribution possesses nearly 100 times more stock than the bottom 50 per cent, is easy to imagine.
As for the physical well-being of Americans, here too the pandemic exacerbated class differences that had already been grotesque. Overwhelmingly it was poor people, employed in the service sector or in industries such as meatpacking, unable either to work from home or to quit their jobs, whom the virus sickened and killed; needless to say, these were disproportionately people of colour, whether Black cashiers, Latino butchers, or Filipina nurses. And so too did the pandemic erode the legitimacy of both main political parties in the eyes of their outraged opponents. For Democrats, the inhuman indifference of Trump to the first duty of government – namely, to protect citizens’ lives – confirmed his unfitness for office (and, truly, it dishonors the United States for all time to come that no one so much as attempted to assassinate the man). For many Republicans, on the other hand, Democratic politicians flouted the first amendment of the Constitution when they abridged rights of assembly and freedom of worship with edicts restricting the size of gatherings, in churches and elsewhere.
Only in the bleak realm of the climatological has the virus done anything to retard, rather than hasten, the eruption of that comprehensive and continual emergency toward which the arc of American history now plainly bends. As Ivanka Trump – a shellacked socialite and former jewelry entrepreneur appointed Director of the Office of Economic Initiative and Entrepreneurship by an administration shameless in its nepotism as in all else – tweeted after her father’s defeat: ‘FACT: Greenhouse gases generated by the US will slide 9.2 per cent this year, tumbling to the lowest level in at least three decades.’ Ivanka tactfully omitted that the reduced rate of ecocide occurred exclusively because of unplanned economic contraction. A last act of the outgoing administration was to attempt to open the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.
If the outbreak of Covid-19 sped up most of the dire processes underlying American political life, it more nearly did the opposite to American politics proper, above all arresting and perhaps reversing the leftward transformation of the Democratic Party that had seemed to begin with Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 and the emergence thereafter of a American social-democratic left with sincere aspirations to power.
Back in 2016, electoral politics in the US looked divisible into quadrants. Roughly: establishment Republicans, more hawkish than Trump in foreign policy and more neoliberal in their attitude to trade; Trumpian pluto-populism, with its rhetorical aversion to indefinite military commitments and its protectionist reflexes; establishment Democrats as embodied by the Clintons, with ‘realist’ commitments to US imperialism and an equally ‘realistic’ aversion to universal social provision, whether in the form of tuition-free college or nationalised health insurance; and the vaguely eco-socialistic populism of Bernie Sanders, dovish in foreign policy (going so far as to oppose the Saudi blockade of Yemen), and with strong commitments to decarbonisation of the economy and decommodification of health care and higher education.
Four years later, Trump has, in one his main achievements, eliminated for practical purposes any distinction between establishment Republicans and Trumpian freaks. Trump may have outraged previous GOP standards of Presidential decorum, such as that one must not have kept mistresses prior to the Presidency but must keep a dog while in the White House; thrown up trade barriers against the Chinese colossus out of pique; failed to initiate new wars, merely maintaining the international campaign of assassination by drone that Obama had taken over from Bush and enlarged; and exhibited the flagrant racism George W Bush was meant to have banished from Republican administrations with two Black secretaries of state, a Latino attorney general, and so forth. For good measure, Trump was also caught on tape (or in transcripts, rather) threatening a foreign head of state with the withholding of military aid unless his Ukrainian counterpart initiated a criminal investigation into Trump’s chief domestic political rival, Joe Biden – the scandalous action, worthy of a mob boss, which touched off the Democratically-controlled House’s entirely legitimate impeachment of Trump in December of 2019. There followed the Republican-dominated Senate’s entirely predictable acquittal of the President almost two months later. None of it mattered; neither Trump’s occasional departures from Republican orthodoxy nor his daily offenses against ordinary decency weakened the attachment of GOP lawmakers to their man.
What explains the remarkable fealty of fellow Republicans to Trump? So long as he signed off on huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, deregulated polluting industries, nominated youthful reactionaries to the Federal bench, and presided – from 2017 through 2019 – over one of the fastest-growing economies in the wealthy world, the relationship presented no special mystery. More remarkable is that the rats didn’t flee the ship in 2020 when it began to take on water. After all, the sadistic nonchalance of Trump’s response to the virus not only killed off expendable proletarians but culled many of the older voters who form the GOP’s largest constituency; the half-shuttered Covid economy augured badly for any sitting President’s hopes of re-election; and, throughout the entirety of his campaign, Trump’s poll numbers looked (misleadingly) disastrous. No doubt Republican politicians hesitated to break from him partly from fear of Trump’s wrathful tweets, which, if spat out at them, might jeopardise their own re-election. And yet even GOP senators safe from voters for another two or four years, and congressmen and -women in securely Republican districts, refrained from criticising Trump’s rancid personality and feckless governance.
It’s impossible to know the minds of politicians whose public utterances are never in good faith. Nevertheless, a few conjectures suggest themselves. A pragmatist might observe that Trump amassed an exceptionally loyal base of voters – through thick and thin, his approval rating never rose much above or fell much below 40 per cent – and that no Republican politician can afford to dispense with this constituency, for whom Trump possesses a charisma independent of any action or inaction. A psychoanalyst might then add that many Republican officials must have shared with these voters in the special Trumpian jouissance of admiring a leading man who, against all American cinematic convention, was never chivalrous, humble, generous, honest, or brave: not indeed a man at all, in any normative sense. Against the tyranny of such a punishing masculine ego-ideal, Trump offered liberatory identification with an awesome epitome of mediocrity of the kind envisaged by the Argentine philosopher José Ingenieros in his neglected treatise El Hombre Mediocre, which foresaw a generalised rebellion against progress taking the form of consummate moral and intellectual laziness. When Trump whined after 3 November that the election had been stolen from him, even his most perfervid and gun-happy supporters failed to take up arms against the state, as by rights anyone who credited him should have done. Rabid enough to sneer and drool, diehard Trumpists were never rabid enough to bite, and Make America Great Again was finally nothing more than the motto of the cable-news couch potatoes without the mettle for combat. Semi-automatic rifles are for them mere fashion accessories and enormous pickup trucks, commuter cars.
If some such potent cocktail of laziness and nastiness accounts for Trump’s peculiar appeal to his diehard fans, it does little to explain his improved performance since 2016 among the electorate as a whole. Even as he lost the election, he attracted 8 million more votes than four years ago, and did better among Black men, Asian-Americans, and white women, among others. What part of this change may be attributable to the cultural or identitarian features of the two main parties can be considered below. The simplest and surest component of any explanation for Trump’s poll-beating performance has to be that, prior to the pandemic, he presided over a relatively strong US economy – whether by comparison to European counterparts or the Obama recovery, vitiated as the latter was by needless austerity – and that, once Covid struck, Trump signed the CARES Act, which in late March committed the Federal Government to some $2.2 trillion in economic relief for businesses and individuals. Never mind that massive countercyclical deficit-spending and temporary provision of a universal basic income flew in the face of Republican orthodoxy and Trump’s own sadistic nature – checks from the Treasury Department made out to most citizens for $1200 came with Trump’s mad signature (like an EKG of a series of heart attacks) printed on them. Add to this income support of $600 a week for the unemployed – and an emergency plunge into social democracy, by panicked Republicans and Democratic centrists alike, probably came closer than anything else to reviving the fortunes of one of the most reactionary presidents in US history. Had a second stimulus bill passed Congress in the fall, Trump would likely be looking forward to another term, rather than lamenting in vain, on videos posted to social media accounts, that the election was stolen from him.
Virtually the only success of the Democrats came in unseating Trump himself. The party failed to flip the Senate in their favor, in spite of soliciting obscene quantities of money (the liberal online donation clearinghouse ActBlue processed $4.8 billion for use in 2020 elections), and, as of this writing, must cross its fingers for victory in two Georgia run-off elections in hopes of a Senate divided 50–50 between the main parties. As for the lower chamber, one Robby Mook, the campaign manager who masterminded Hillary Clinton’s 2016 debacle, oversaw the House Majority Political Action Committee as the slush fund raised more than $138 million in ‘dark money’ from mostly anonymous sources, with the mission, according to the super PAC’s website, ‘to defend and expand’ the Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives, only to watch this margin shrink by 26 seats. Nor did Democrats manage to overturn narrow Republican majorities in any of the dozen state legislative chambers they had targeted. ‘Their goal’, the New York Times obediently reported, ‘was to check the power of Republicans to redraw congressional and legislative districts in 2021’, following the 2020 census, ‘and to curb the rightward drift of policies from abortion to gun safety to voting rights’ – but one sometimes wonders if that was the goal at all. Why should the campaign consultants, think-tank geniuses, and corporate-press pundits who constitute the Democratic establishment particularly desire electoral success, when failure hardly affects their career trajectories, and only elevates their moral stature? If Trump was a fake-tanned gargoyle groping toward fascism, this circumstance enabled them to style themselves #TheResistance. Morally glamorous helplessness is not a plausible posture for a party in power. In this sense, the Democrats can only ‘win’ by losing.
A Democratic Party possessed of real federal capacity might be expected to do something about it, with respect to climate change and inequality if nothing else. The narrowness of the party’s majority in the House, and a split Senate at best, suggest instead that in office Biden may be able to follow the revered example of his predecessor and former boss Obama in being admired for his supposed good intentions, as opposed to any abundance of legislative achievement.
A majority of the country falls somewhere along the spectrum between a social-neoliberal centre left (as represented by the Clintons, Obama, and Biden), a progressive electoral left (most conveniently exemplified by Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York – AOC), and a simultaneously insurrectionary and abstentionist radical left, with little patience for electioneering. The fact that the US hosts a center-left population has been recognised above all by the Republican Party, whose sustained efforts to ensure minority rule – through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and court-packing – testify to this awareness. If leftward politicians accepted the same reality, political reform along the lines long advocated by Bernie Sanders – including automatic voter registration, and the establishment of a national holiday for federal elections – would be among their chief priorities.
At first it appears strange that establishment Democrats – an idea-free faction uniting behind the genial simpering zombie Joe Biden, aged 78 – recovered the presidency during a time of headlong crisis. A typically brilliant autopsy of the election by Mike Davis in New Left Review emphasised the apparent paradox that ‘the greatest crisis since 1932 or even 1860’ produced nothing correspondingly dramatic but instead ‘a virtual photocopy of 2016’. Miniscule differences between Clinton’s and Biden’s respective performances redrew the electoral map, so that Biden secured as many electors (306) as Trump did four years ago, without the composition of the electorate having changed in any substantial way. Davis undertakes a fine-grained analysis of the Democrats’ regional follies, stressing that they underperformed wherever they expected campaign contributions to carry the day and exceeded expectations only where the Biden campaign ‘converged with existing popular movements: outstanding examples including Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams’ extraordinary voter coalition in Georgia, and Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA)’. To this it might simply be added, in a more psychological register, that paralysis rather than flight is a common response to profound and sudden threats (such as Covid-19), as if danger might be halted by staying put oneself. Such a response may in part account for the turn of the Democratic electorate, during the springtime primary season, toward the most familiar of all candidates, first elected to the Senate in 1972, vice-president to Obama over eight years, and a reliable windsock of center-left opinion.
What does the Democratic Party stand for, except for standing pat? Four year ago, in an essay on the 2016 contest for Salvage, I (with no great originality) characterised mainstream Democratic politics in terms of ‘identitarian neoliberalism’. On the one hand, this meant substituting symbolic achievement for systemic reconstruction, such that the installation in office of a woman and/or person of colour might compensate for the enduring systemic disadvantages suffered by women and people of colour on the whole (as well as white workers) in their pursuit of political and economic power. On the other hand, it represented, in policy terms, a ‘holding pattern: at one moment trimming left toward public provision, at another trimming right toward further privatisation, but basically circling in place while economies grow less dynamic and incomes more unequal.’ I should have observed, but failed to, that an essential condition of identitarian neoliberalism in the US was the frank racism of the American right after Obama’s election, and especially after Donald Trump’s endorsement of birtherism in 2011. In George W Bush’s America, the configuration would never have had the same plausibility.
The Biden/Harris ticket more or less epitomised the identitarian neoliberal approach – a tactic in lieu of a strategy. For his part, Biden represented a return to ‘normalcy’ (a coinage of Republican President Warren G Harding, from his 1921 inaugural address) in the realms of policy and presidential comportment or ‘character.’ For her part, Kamala Harris represented the inclusion at the heights of policy-making of women and people of colour. (Harris, of Jamaican and Indian descent, could be considered at once Black and Asian.) Biden had all but announced Harris’ appointment to his ticket in advance, by insisting he would choose a woman (prior to deciding which one) and underlining his gratitude to the Black women voters of South Carolina, without whom he wouldn’t have secured the Democratic nomination. Harris’ tough-on-crime posture as former Attorney General of California, and her nasal and affectless mode of public speaking, counted for little against her irreproachable ‘identity.’ Since 3 November, President-elect Biden has been putting together a cabinet notable for centrism of views and diversity of background.
What did Joe Biden have to offer the electorate besides his okay character? His great proposal for countering Covid-19 was an unenforceable and perhaps unconstitutional national mask mandate. He did not propose, with AOC, that the government should simply pay people to stay home. Faced with a choice between ‘the science’ and ‘the economy’, many people will understandably choose their livelihoods. As for identitarianism, the ideology appears to be most successful, to judge by exit polls, among cringing white men. Trump gained votes from women and people of colour; his losses were among white males. This implies that identitarian deference is no secure strategy for the center-left. Naturally the approach appeals to many women and people and colour, but the exit polls of 2020 are only comprehensible if it is accepted that considerable portions of the same cohorts feel that a worldview that pays no special attention to ‘identity’ will do more to advance their interests than one that adverts to their subaltern status at all times, and patronises them throughout. For nearly an entire generation now, Democratic strategists have prophesied that shifting demography – toward a multiracial majority, and away from white domination – would soon establish a permanent Democratic majority. They have never bothered learning the simple lesson of Stuart Hall: ‘Politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them’. Mainstream Democrats have wanted demography to do for them what only an actual programme could.
The election returns of 2020 prompted plenty of such Democrats to say what they would say in any case: the party swerved too far left. In reality, as AOC observed, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates won the vast majority of the races they contested. For a generation, Democrats have admired the party discipline of the Republicans, who rarely break ranks in the face of any enormity. In fact, a different strategy – of hegemony, not uniformity – is probably the one for Democrats and other leftward actors to pursue. With sufficient electoral preponderance – as electoral reform by itself would deliver – the Democrats could leverage their lack of discipline into an advantage. Progressive Democrats would continually complain about moderate Democrats; and moderate Democrats continually complain about progressive ones; but the common premise of such debates would be the abiding Democratic majority that any fair conveyance of the popular will would deliver. A Covidian contortion of time makes Bernie’s ascendancy during the spring seem much longer ago than it was. In fact, this yesterday could easily be tomorrow.
The residue of this reading is the anti-electoralist left, strengthened by its street presence, as part of the Movement for Black Lives, throughout the late spring and summer of 2020. Few events in American life have been as heartening as the marshalling, at risk to their safety, of a multi-racial protest movement against police brutality. The weakness of the event was its altruism. Black people form the special victims of police violence, but hardly the only ones. (Indigenous Americans in fact fall to police bullets at a slightly higher rate.) It was not so much Black activists in the uprisings who failed to accept as much, but, typically, well-meaning white ones. The latter, to their credit, know how to rage against a government that recapitulates our country’s original sin every day in the treatment meted out by the carceral state to the descendants of enslaved people. To their detriment, they (or we) can’t easily find a voice to curse the same government for letting our parents or grandparents perish in care homes as casually as if they were bycatch in the net of some fishing trawler. Loss or lack of health care, jobs, and shelter are becoming more universal problems than many heretofore lucky people yet have the strength to admit. But increasingly the US fails its favored subjects also. The American left will succeed at its historic task – sapping capitalism in its homeland – only to the extent that it perceives this overwhelmingly as the project not of the altruistic but the self-interested. In this if nothing else, a capitalism that confers dwindling increments of growth on a dwindling share of the elite, and serves up an ever-larger portion of ecosocial calamity to an ever-larger number of the rest, is the ally of the left. The dispossessed, with a world to win back from their expropriators, are more are more not just some ‘them’ but also you and me.
The paragraphs above were written directly after the 3 November election. As I look them over on 31 December, at the stub end of a terrible year, two worrying developments have been dominating news coverage in the US. A new and drastically more contagious variant of Covid-19, first identified in the UK, has been discovered in the US, and the so-called rollout of vaccines has so far gone much more slowly than had been hoped. Predictably, the absence of a federal plan or adequate federal funding is largely to blame. Less predictably, many medical workers – first in line to receive vaccines, along with the elderly – have refused inoculation: some 20-40 per cent in Los Angeles County, for example.
A new and more infectious variant of a deadly virus; a to-date shambolic vaccination campaign – the scenario virtually sums up a civilisation: one trajectory of catastrophe, racing against another trajectory of rescue. Either ecocidal capitalism will soon irretrievably wreck the world, or some form of ecosocialism will spring forth to head off this development.
In such a context, it’s impossible not to be struck by the spectacular (which is to say passive) quality of American political life, itself the result of legislative stalemate plus hypertrophied social media. The presidency of Trump the TV star was above all a spectator sport, especially gratifying to fans of his singular personality and loathsome to liberals who confused bad taste with bad policy. American leftists often noticed as much, but far more rarely perceived their own ensnarement in the logic of the spectacle. Yet it is the spectacularisation of US politics that mainly accounts for the tendency on the US left toward what might be called the maximalism of impotence: largest demands combined with least power. Why not insist everything when you can do nothing? Abolish borders, the state, punishment, and the value-form, and do so yesterday instead of tomorrow.
Trump in his final days in office glimpsed the lineaments of a sort of disaster national socialism – to borrow a term – that might well command wide appeal in the US, when he at once attempted to provoke Iran into war and insisted that $2000 relief checks be issued to most Americans. A more calculating future Republican figurehead will lack the loose-cannon charisma that endeared Trump to so many of his supporters, but may compensate for this by copying Trump’s recent gestures and joining proposals of federal largesse to designs of imperial belligerence. The Democratic Party will be unable to put up much fight against such a strategy so long as its posture remains multicultural inclusion in personnel, and neoliberal inertia in policy. Committed to looking good rather than doing good, the Democrats have been the consummate party of the spectacle. Not only their fate but much of the world’s depends on leftward US political actors recognising that a minimum of ecosocial rescue will be required to prevent disaster-nationalist catastrophe.
—31 December 2020
¹ Engels’s definition of social murder: ‘[W]hen society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.’
² For Black Americans, the rate of maternal mortality is two and a half times that of whites.
Benjamin Kunkel lives in Colorado and is at work on a short book on the rise and fall of economic growth.