The Soul of the Nation Remains Unwell

Written by: Riley Fink

With the election over and the honorable Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. now brandishing the title of president-elect, we find ourselves in a period of painful transition. President Trump may for the time being lack liberal affection, but judging from the low bars he had to clear to earn their praise, and the stubborn expectation that he would at some point “rise to the moment,” it’s not at all unlikely that the presidency of Donald Trump will in the near future be looked back upon fondly by those party loyalists who in the current moment abhor him.

Nostalgia for past eras of supposedly morally-upstanding American leaders is a delusion. Those who simply want to go back to brunch and forget about politics sincerely believe this country was excellent and righteous until Donald Trump came to power. They either don’t acknowledge the previous destruction of American imperialism or maintain that it was all done in good faith. 

Look only at how those reviled by liberals in their own time are being rehabilitated today. Nixon illegally extended the war in Vietnam by five years and oversaw the deaths of three million Cambodians and Laotians alongside Henry Kissinger, promoter of “limited nuclear war” and a friend and ally of the Clintons. The younger Bush’s wanton militarism resulted in thousands of dead Iraqis and the poisoning of Fallujah with depleted uranium, leading to never-before-seen birth defects at rates exceeding that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The man’s actions displaced and killed millions in the Middle East. But it really is great that people like Ellen DeGeneres can remain good friends with him despite their “differing opinions.” It’s wonderful that Obama’s first memoir defends Bush’s honor and refers to protests against him as “graceless and unnecessary.” Harry Reid’s fondness for the man he so vehemently despised a decade ago is excellent because at the very least Bush is a decent, patriotic man. This I cannot deny.

If you don’t think the same will happen with Trump then you’re kidding yourself. There will always be a greater evil and a more important election on the horizon.

But even blue-blooded pinkos are no saints. Jimmy Carter is seen by so many as appropriately detached from the evils of the American empire as anyone. Yet despite his humble origins, feckless demeanor, and charming peanut farm, he’s no better than the rest. Under his bloodbath of a presidency, the Gwangju massacre took place. He sanctioned the brutal Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste which resulted in the deaths of East Timorese. He launched the Brezinski-led Operation Cyclone, which armed the Mujahideen and destabilized Afghanistan. At home, under President Carter, the Fifth Party System crumbled and the New Deal Coalition was razed to make room for the rise of inexpugnable faith, evangelical chauvinism, and the megachurch. President Reagan’s deregulation was borne out of Carter’s support for the neocons who would later go on to steer the elder Bush and Clinton administrations. 

Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, which aimed to “put an end to welfare as we know it,” was a capitulation to the Heritage Foundation and essentially a fulfillment of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Fourteen years later it’s clear it was a failure in every respect, as deep poverty has increased and aid to profoundly poor families has continued to decrease. This has given people like David Brooks the fuel to argue against alleviation programs because he claims they have no effect on poverty rates. He fails to consider the devastating impacts of spiraling inequality and stagnant wages, and that non-cash benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned income tax credit are not considered in federal calculations.

This isn’t meant to just rattle off the horrors of presidencies past. It’s to highlight how these transgresses are in little time forgotten, forgiven, and even looked at approvingly. The two-party system in the end matters not. It’s all one big club. It is dangerous to idolize any public figures or celebrities, especially politicians, because they most likely have compromised their integrity in some way to get to where they are. You have to be a soulless husk to do what the job of president requires.

If you watched Aaron Sorkin’s recently released miserable depiction of the 1968 Chicago protests in The Trial of the Chicago 7, you might have heard Sacha Baron Cohen’s Yippie luminary Abbie Hoffman spew something utterly ridiculous and unbefitting of his character. Hoffman’s line was something to the effect of: “the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things” but at the moment happen to be “populated by some terrible people.” This is clearly a line meant to meet the moment of present day; it suggests that, if President Trump were gone, all would be well again, too. That’s foolish and naïve.

This country is sick and is truly an empire in decline. Our institutions are the miasma, not the panacea. They don’t become a cure-all when staffed with new figures. Though, to be fair, the people themselves are often pretty ghoulish in their own right. Some key individuals comprising the incoming Biden administration demonstrate as much. The choices so far augur well that Biden’s statement “nothing w[ill] fundamentally change” was right on the mark. Here’s why NOT to be excited about them:

Deficit hawk and austerity champion Bruce Reed, who cost Democrats over 60 House seats in the 2010 midterms after leading the disastrous Bowles-Simpson Commission to cut Social Security and Medicaid, was seriously considered for the head of the Office of Management and Budget before pushback from progressives dashed that dream. Now Neera Tanden has been announced as Biden’s choice instead, possibly as a sacrificial choice, as she especially will face a tough Senate confirmation. Tanden, a prolific late night Twitter griefer, part of the Clinton 1996 welfare reform team, and president of the Center for American Progress, at one point proposed that Libya cede their oil to pay for our deficits incurred through our bombing of the country. Her thinking was that it would be easier for the American people to support wars if they saw them explicitly pay for themselves. This is perhaps even darker than Trump’s similar belief that the United States should take Iraq’s oil to make up our debts.

Brian Deese has been selected as Biden’s top economic advisor. An alum of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and huge investor in fossil fuel shares, Deese has leant his talents to financing fracking and deforestation. As a corporate-friendly accomplice of the destruction of public lands, he’s faced the ire of environmentalists in particular. During his time in the OMB under the Obama administration, Deese also advocated for austerity and means-testing Medicare, positions which, now proposed as the head of the National Economic Council, could be disastrous as tens of millions of Americans face eviction and food insecurity.

Secretary of State pick Antony Blinken got rich securing military contracts for private corporations between the Obama and incoming Biden administrations. His pop-up consultancy firm WestExec Advisors handled shady clients with offshore interests. A former public sector employee taking part in the nontransparent world of strategic consulting is nothing new, but Blinken’s “expertise” worked to enrich weapons manufacturers and genocide profiteers. An institutionalist warmonger, Blinken likewise championed a litany of horrendous foreign policy decisions, from the war in Iraq to the Saudi Arabia’s military action in Libya.

And of course there’s Rahm Emanuel, neoliberal icon and former Chicago mayor, first being considered first for Transportation Secretary, and now the lower-profile position of U.S. Trade Representative. The visibility of the position of course doesn’t matter, because in a perfect world he would be shunned and exiled from every professional community he once belonged to if only for his role in covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police. Rahm’s brother Ezekiel is part of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board. He has the uniquely twisted view that people over the age of 75 or so have no real value at all and may as well die, simply because they aren’t producing as some cog in a machine.

Deranged articles claiming that “it’s time for a woman to run the Defense Department” have been especially popular in recent days. It doesn’t matter who is in a position of that nature, because to lead the Department of Defense is to be the head of a chthonic beast of death. You do not do good in a position like that. Michèle Flournoy, the likely pick to lead the Pentagon, worked with Tony Blinken on much of the same war profiteering. Their identity means nothing if their ideology is toxic.

So Biden’s picks are nothing for progressives to be excited about. It’s clear that any plans to “push him left” after the election were misguided. Biden’s calls for unity are a fantasy, drawn from a mindset poisoned by the West Wing-fueled, manners and decorum-focused tactics of the Obama era which gave McConnell free reign. Unity is not a possibility. All that can be produced from this mindset is one party of purposeful cruelty and one of accidental cruelty. Factionalism was set to doom our institutions from the second it was written about in the Federalist Papers.

Along that same line, few prominent liberals seem to understand that the Lincoln Project is no friend of the Democratic Party. Their ostensible mission: To bring about the end of Trump and Trumpism. Their real goal: To make the two major parties indistinguishable from one another. And, judging from the increase of the Republican share of support for Trump compared to 2016, they succeeded at the latter more than the former. Yet still Democrats insist that they remain the party of meaningless platitudes. They will continue to say they “don’t see red states or blue states, but united states” until they grow melancholy mad.

Because that’s all it’s about. Aesthetics. Orderly behavior. Intelligence. Polishing the brass. Not actually doing anything. “America is already great.” I don’t know what it means when these nominees claim that “America is back.” Why is that good for anyone?