Dahlia Lithwick had a cri de coeur in Slate the other day, worrying that the faith she’d placed in Robert Mueller & Co. to deliver us from Trump may be misplaced. It might have been good news had this paradigmatic liberal realized that trusting prosecutors and the national security state to perform good works might not be such a great idea after all. But, no, Lithwick’s concern is that Trump and his cronies have no respect for the rule of law.
This faith in the rule of law is touching—though, as Corey Robin often points out, many of the worst things in American history, from Indian genocide and slavery through Jim Crow and the McCarthy purges and onto ICE raids on immigrants, with multiple imperial wars along the way, have all been entirely legal. But what’s most striking about Lithwick’s argument is its lack of a politics. There is a buried mention of taking to the streets, but it sits weirdly, like an undigested morsel, with the legalism–moralism of the rest of the essay, when it should be the screaming centerpiece.
Another recent cri from the liberal wing: Katha Pollitt’s reflections on her efforts at anger management in the year since Trump’s election. Actually, the piece reads more like anger nurturing, but let’s bracket that. Bracket too her thinly veiled attack on me and my wife, Liza Featherstone:
I hate everyone who thought there was no “real” difference between the candidates because Hillary was a neoliberal and a faux feminist and Trump was not so bad. I hate people who spent the whole election season bashing Hillary in books and articles and Facebook posts and tweets, and then painfully, reluctantly dragged themselves out to vote for her, as if their one little, last-minute ballot cancelled out all the discouraging and dissuading they’d spent six months inflicting on people.
Part of my argument against Hillary all along was that she was a terrible candidate and her supporters may come to regret their support for her. I was right, but having Trump as president does interfere with my self-satisfaction.
Pollitt has forgotten that, a bit over twenty years ago, she wrote a brutal review of HRC’s It Takes A Village, that includes these lines, which are a reminder of how sharp and witty a writer she once was:
The First Lady is thus a kind of center-liberal version of Arianna Huffington, who claims that “spirituality” and volunteerism can replace the welfare state. For H.R.C. the state itself becomes a kind of pilot project, full of innovation but short on cash, and ever on the lookout for spongers.
And these words, on the Bill Clinton’s signing of welfare reform:
Liberalism is the idea that the good people close to power can solve the problems of those beneath them in the social order. Its tools are studies and sermons and campaign contributions and press conferences. The trouble is, the political forces they call on are not interested anymore — and this is true not just in the United States. In country after country, social benefits are being slashed and the working class’s standard of living lowered, and the major parties, including the ones that call themselves Labor or Socialist or Democratic, accept this process as a given.
Now that she’s embraced the politics she scorned two decades ago, she’s left with little but anger. As with Lithwick’s column, there can be no thinking about the bankruptcy of center–left politics, which is collapsing worldwide—precisely because of its embrace of the attack on the working class’s standard of living. No anger can be directed at Hillary Clinton for running a dismal campaign—no acknowledgment of the disasters reported, from rather different perspectives, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in Shattered or Donna Brazile in Hacks. Allen and Parnes describe the dilemmas of HRC’s speechwriters, unable to come up with a rationale for her candidacy or distill her agenda into anything remotely inspiring. Brazile describes a campaign driven by data, also lacking in anything like a moving agenda—and one run largely by arrogant white men, all its pretenses of diversity to the contrary.
Lithwick and Pollitt can’t think about these things, because they would undermine their entire worldview, perfectly described by the 1996 Pollitt as the use of “studies and sermons and campaign contributions” by “good people close to power.” (In her anger screed, she takes herself to task for not having contributed enough and written more.) They’re not interested in organizing popular movements, because that’s messy and involves working with people “beneath them on the social order.” For example, the reproductive rights movement has relied almost exclusively on litigation and lobbying; unlike the Christian right, it’s done little to mobilize a large and passionate constituency. Nor are our progressive neoliberals interested in stepping on the toes of the powerful, even in pursuit of a modest social democratic agenda like that of the Sanders campaign. It’s telling that most of Pollitt’s hate is directed not at elites but the masses and the left. And it’s also telling that Lithwick is looking to prosecutors and cops to deliver her from Trump (and into the hands of Mike Pence) and not anything emerging from political agitation.
It’s looking like the GOP is going to get some sort of horrid tax bill passed. (There is the hurdle of the conference committee, which will have to resolve discrepancies between the House and Senate versions, so it’s not a done deal.) So far, the passivity of the Democratic leadership in the face of this abomination has been striking—it’s as if they expect it, in combination with Mueller and the Russia obsession (which is starting to look like a psychiatric disorder), will deliver them an effortless landslide in the 2018 elections. The contrast with the right’s tireless fervor is striking, but that fervor can be explained by the fact that they believe in something more potent than mild tweaks to the status quo.
It may not be impossible to beat something with nothing, but it’s pretty damn hard.