Friday, October 27, 2017

Donald Trump's October Revolution

Feast of the Supreme Being, France 1794, via AlphaHistory.

Or, Ten Days That Snooked the World. Or, in David Brooks's own headline formulation, "The Week Trump Won". Trump is apparently Lenin, Bannon is Trotsky, Mitch McConnell is the hapless Kerensky of the defeated Mensheviks, and I guess the Democrats must be the bewildered nobility, not yet regrouped, or fleeing to France and Germany with our diamonds sewn into the lining of our immense fur coats:

One hundred years ago on Friday, John Reed was in St. Petersburg watching Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks take over Russia. It was interesting to read his account, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” this week — the week when Donald Trump and Steve Bannon solidified their grip on the Republican Party and America’s national government.
No, I'm really not seeing that. I'd say it's ten days in which, if anything, Mitch McConnell won some signal victories against the forces of what he regards as Bannonite chaos and darkness, from the calls Trump made last week to Senators on Stephen Bannon's kill list, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, promising them endorsements, to the House's 216-212 vote to approve the Senate-passed budget resolution yesterday morning, and let's just say nobody's talking about Bannon's proposal for a 44% marginal income tax rate (his Breitbart home page headlines don't include any mention of the budget or tax proposals at all: it leads with praise for Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate Trump unsuccessfully opposed, and attacks on Obamacare, immigrants, and Jared Kushner).

The vote was extremely tight, and it's still really hard to imagine they can put majorities together in both Houses for any tax bill they can write, with that planned $1.5 trillion increase in the annual deficit and an end to the state-and-local-tax deduction, and the threatened cap on tax-free 401(k) contributions, which Trump tweeted that there would "be NO change to" on Monday, but had begun to hedge on by Wednesday:
"Well maybe it is, maybe we'll use it as negotiating, but trust me, that's one of the great things," Trump said. "There are certain elements of deals that you don't want to negotiate with — and Kevin knows this, and I think Kevin Brady is fantastic — but he knows how important 401(k)s are."
Nevertheless, McConnell is a lot closer to his tax goal of a massive transfer of money from government programs and middle-class taxpayers to the very wealthiest (that average $4000 a year we're supposed to get out of it, in the Republican talking points, is the salary raise our bosses are going to give us eight or ten years down the line when they've got so much money they don't know what else to do with it, and if you believe that I've got an ice rink on the river Styx I'm willing to sell you).

Brooks isn't thinking of anything so humble as political reality, naturally, but of the theater:

The Republican senators went to the White House and saw a president so repetitive and rambling, some thought he might be suffering from early Alzheimer’s. But they know which way the wind is blowing. They gave him a standing ovation.
Even Alexander Kerensky didn’t abase himself so humiliatingly.
Ridiculous factual error there: they didn't go to the White House on Tuesday to meet with Trump, Trump went to Capitol Hill, which is a substantively different matter with respect to whose hat was in whose hand.

The ovation certainly had the desired effect—he mentioned it, or them, in three of the next morning's tweets, it was almost as cool as the Bastille Day parade in Paris, and as I say he immediately began backing off from his own demands (and presumably Bannon's as well) on the tax proposals. It's true that the way to get what you want from the Emperor is to flatter him shamelessly. That doesn't mean he has more power than you, it means he has less cunning.

Also, Kerensky didn't abase himself at all. He continued to resist as long as he could and then left Russia. Brooks seems to think Kerensky was shamed when he wept at the conclusion of a parliamentary speech, quoting Reed's book, "to plead passionately for national unity, once bursting into tears at the end": but he didn't bow or surrender. Reed's original description for The Liberator says,
At the opening of the Council of the Russian Republic I again heard him, and twice more, raising himself and his audience to heights of emotion, collapsing utterly afterward, and the last time weeping violently in his seat. A tall, broad-shouldered figure as he stood there, in his utterly plain brown uniform, rather flabby around the middle, with flashing eyes, bristling hair, abrupt gestures, and swift, resonant speech. What did he say? Nothing very concrete, except once when he bitterly denounced the Bolsheviki for provoking bloodshed.
You can tell Brooks is upset when he abandons the concept of civility:

The people who oppose Trump [by "people", he means McCain, Corker, and Flake] make a big error: “Let’s Get Togetherism.” This is the belief that if we can only have a civil conversation between red and blue, then everything will be better. But you can’t destroy a moral vision with a process. You need a counter-moral vision.
Given Brooks's blindness to what is happening, I don't know that I want to bother arguing about his proposed solution to Trumpism, which is the usual one, attributed today to that noted expert in the American civic constitution, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and a speech he gave the American Enterprise Institute at a dinner on Tuesday when he received the Institute's Irving Kristol Award (Brooks doesn't reveal where he got it but it wasn't hard to find out), and sounds in spots as if it had been written by David F. Brooks, all about renewing the biblical covenant on which the US was founded:
See how odd it might sound to anyone but an American. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Those truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known. They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible. And that is what made G. K. Chesterton call America “a nation with the soul of a church.
I usually think old Rabbi Lord Sacks is a sweetheart in his way, but those last two sentences are profoundly offensive. (Not least for the pointed omission of Muslims, which certainly would have shocked Jefferson.) And the whole concept is wrong, in that the Tanach was around for 2000 years before the concept of equality arose at all, let alone being self-evident to anybody, in the process of European emancipation from the shackles of institutional religion, developing precisely with it from Locke's tolerance of religious pluralism through Rousseau's idea of a "civic religion" (very Brooksian in concept but never adopted except very temporarily in the craziest phase of the French Revolution) to Jefferson's radical secularism. (The Exodus story Sacks and Brooks allude to as an inspiration to Franklin and Jefferson isn't about equality at all, but the other pole of the dialectic, freedom.) And I'm pretty sure you can find many Jews and Christians who are very comfortable with social hierarchies even today, my lord.

Trump spending the morning wishing a happy birthday to Lee Greenwood, the composer of "God Bless the USA". He had to do it twice because he found out, an hour after the first time, that he'd gotten the email address wrong. You can see his close and methodical hold on the levers of power, now that he and Bannon have conquered the Winter Palace. 

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