As I write this, it seems impossible to believe it was nearly 60 years ago, on 22 November 1963, that Americans received a national punch in the solar plexus that was a hinge moment for the national narrative. On that day, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by a politically agitated but thoroughly disturbed gunman.
The president had been on a pre-re-election campaign trip to Texas, a trip that was designed to heal the growing rifts in the Texas Democratic Party between its liberal and conservative wings. Back in the early 1960s, Texas was still a staunchly Democratic state. Its mostly white electorate remained wedded to the values of the “Solid South” — and the surge of black citizens who would become voters in response to the civil rights revolution was still a few years into the future.
The suddenly sworn-in president, Lyndon Johnson, was also from Texas. He had originally come from the hard-scrabble part of the state, but before becoming vice president he had already had decades of service as a congressman, senator, and Senate majority leader.
Coming into adulthood during the Great Depression of the 1930s and having undergone a thorough change of heart over racial attitudes since becoming vice president in 1961, some of his key presidential efforts became the successful pushes for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the various component elements of the “War on Poverty”. (Had it not been for his dogged pursuit of a disastrous Vietnam conflict, largely at the behest of hawkish, Cold Warrior advisers, Johnson’s place in history might well have been a very different one.)
By 1968, however, those civil rights legislative accomplishments had pushed a majority of white Southerners over to the Republicans in what became known as presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” making those Southern states a bastion of Republican support for decades. This historic shift helped provide a vital impetus for the growth of what is now the hyper-partisanship of US society.
Meanwhile, from the 1950s onward, conspiracy theorising radicalism had been gaining ground, drawing nourishment from the hard right fantasies of the John Birch Society and Robert Welch and claims that the civil rights struggle had been a sub rosa part of some alien, communist plot to destroy the nation. In milder forms, adherents to such right-wing views became an important source of ideas for the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party in 1964, with the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president, although he was thoroughly trounced by Johnson. But the political right, populism and conspiracy theories were growing together into a nearly-permanent bond.
In the untidy present of the ultra-divisive political world of contemporary America, it has now become a commonplace to pin much of the harsh divisiveness of contemporary US society on the ultra-partisanship of Donald Trump, the rise of populism, the racial and economic anxieties of a country moving ever-further towards a majority-minority population and the great economic shifts of jobs and manufacturing away from the traditional heavy industrial areas of the nation. Adding special heat to those factors has been the rise of social media and increasingly virulent, online partisanship, leading many to say that the toxic mix has become both complete and uniquely of this time and place.
But it is also possible to situate this conspiratorial-style, hyper-partisanship in a much deeper historical vein that is not directly tied to that roster of factors just above. Back in the 1960s, written in response to the visible rise of the conspiratorial right at that time, Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 article in Harper’s Magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, delinked this behaviour and way of thinking from any one, unique set of societal or economic factors; instead finding historical tendrils that reached well back into the early 1800s and early anti-immigrant/nativist movements. (Of course, with this newest iteration, the Trumpian version, it has brought these feelings together with a politician whose unique ability to focus all energy on to himself has made this a particularly virulent, dangerous development.)
Hofstadter had written:
“It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it – and its targets have ranged from ‘the international bankers’ to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression ‘paranoid style’ I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
After noting that such developments are obviously not a uniquely American phenomenon, Hofstadter concludes his essay, writing:
“This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture – it is no more than that – that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest – perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands – are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power – and this through distorting lenses – and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him – and in any case he resists enlightenment.
“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
Now how prescient can someone be to help us understand our current circumstances more than half a century later?
Using Hofstadter’s insight, the psychological dimension of Trumpism comes into much clearer focus, up to and including the power of that bizarre grab-bag of ideas such as the inchoate QAnon mishmash. If Hofstadter is right, extrapolating to the present, the phenomenon of Trumpism – with or without Trump – is part of a long-standing strand in US life, albeit one now amplified by contemporary electronic communications.
If so, the incumbent president’s refusal to accept his loss in the recent election, and, instead, to wage a persistent (albeit totally unsuccessful) campaign to upend the results via his public rhetoric or the vaudevillian efforts of lawyers like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell; and to stonewall any assistance towards the president-elect’s transition team have been efforts to substitute a fraudulent reality for the real McCoy the rest of us live in.
Crucially, in the alternative version of reality, the denizens there can spin tales of some vast, interconnected, global conspiracy – including a hidden computer server in Germany, the post-death actions of the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, China, and highly suspect vote-tabulating computer companies, all in league with shadowy Democratic Party operatives. This cabal had put in motion a plot to steal the election out from under the anointed one. Hofstadter would have recognised the phenomenon immediately for what it is, the most modern incarnation of the paranoid style he had described.
And that, of course, almost certainly fits with how Donald Trump will see his future, now that it is inescapable he will be moving from the White House, come 20 January. His will be a future of using electronic communications and social media in some kind of mix to lead this movement against all who were successful in unseating him this time around. (Of course a significant chunk of his time will also be spent fending off all those pesky New York prosecutors eager to nail him on his improprieties over taxes and spending, as well as his increasingly urgent need to generate some money to pay off all those Deutsche Bank loans he signed for that will, soon enough come due.) There will be no need to run for office again. It will be much more fun – and certainly much less taxing – to be the perpetual tormentor of the Biden administration and all who might support it.
Meanwhile, on the increasingly unstable Planet Xenon, otherwise known as the Trump presidential post-election campaign and the last dribbles of his administration, his team has continued to file lawsuit after lawsuit, or to pressure state-level election officers, to reverse somehow the fact of Joe Biden’s wins in those states. So far, this stalwart team of attorneys – led by Giuliani, and up until a few days ago, Powell – has lost every one of those lawsuits or court actions, on the not unreasonable grounds that there has been zero proof offered in court (as opposed to during surreal media conferences) of any significant electoral frauds, corruptions, crimes, or any other legerdemain that cheated Trump of his expected second term.
Slowly but surely, though, Republican politicians, including some of Trump’s close allies such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and a growing number of Republican senators and congressmen, have begun telling him that the match is over. The other side won and they are about to shut off the floodlights, close the refreshment stands and lock the gates to the dressing room.
Further, according to The Washington Post:
“A group of leading GOP national security experts – including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge – urged congressional Republicans on Monday to demand President Trump concede the election and immediately begin the transition to the incoming Biden administration.
“ ‘President Trump’s refusal to permit the presidential transition poses significant risks to our national security, at a time when the U.S. confronts a global pandemic and faces serious threats from global adversaries, terrorist groups, and other forces,’ said a statement signed by more than 100 GOP luminaries. The signers included Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who served as Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and John D. Negroponte, who served as director of national intelligence.”
A similar statement had already come from the US Chamber of Commerce on behalf of numerous corporate heads. This kind of pressure has continued to grow, rather than abate, and it has finally started to force some hard thinking and a bit of real head-knocking in the White House eventually.
In fact, by Monday evening Washington time, following the certification of results in Michigan, along with the urgings of yet other traditional Republican-leaning officials and business leaders and the clear indication there would be no winnings in the courts, the president released his shackles on the director of the General Services Agency, Emily Murphy. She insisted, of course, that she had reached this decision all on her own, even if Trump immediately tweeted about it in a remarkably coherent message, claiming the credit for it.
She certified Biden was indeed the president-elect (not much of a secret to be sure) and authorised the release of transition funding for his team. With that decision, the president-elect’s transition team begins formal consultations with current officials throughout government, as well as the creation of the “landing parties” from the Biden transition team into each government department in preparation for the incoming administration. Transition funding also provides government-funded office space, communications and government email addresses, as well as a leg up on getting the required security clearances for new appointees or nominated individuals who require Senate confirmation.
Over in Grown-up World, meanwhile, Biden has been setting to work to establish his transition team, consulting with Covid experts, gathering opinions from a range of foreign policy experts and former officials, and most recently, settling on appointments and nominations to some of the most senior positions. With his transition office now formally established, things will move faster, as they must, given the twin priorities of the pandemic and the economic malaise and the increasingly imminent inauguration.
Antony Blinken will be secretary of state, Jake Sullivan will be national security adviser, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield will become the US ambassador to the UN. These three are veterans of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment, having served in various capacities during the Obama administration or earlier (although Thomas-Greenfield was technically a career senior foreign service officer), and thereafter in the rarified universe of outside policy advocacy, consulting, or analysis, while awaiting the defeat of Trump.
Meanwhile, John Kerry, the former secretary of state, senator, and presidential candidate, has been tapped as Biden’s special envoy on climate, with the rank of Cabinet secretary. This should be seen as a tangible demonstration of the Biden administration’s intent to treat climate as a key national security issue. As secretary of state, Kerry had been the chief US negotiator at the Paris climate accord meetings.
In addition, Avril Haines will be the director of national intelligence, supervising all of the country’s various intelligence bodies. She, too, has an Obama administration history, having served as deputy national security adviser then. She has also been deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the first woman to hold this position, as well as her new position.
The most recently reported appointments are Janet Yellen to become secretary of treasury and Alejandro Mayorkas to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Yellen had previously been the governor of the Federal Reserve Bank after service as a member of the governing board, appointed by Barack Obama. But she was denied a customary second term during Trump’s presidency. Yellen is well known and highly regarded by the international and national banking community and the business and academic worlds and will be both a steadying influence and an influential one on national economic policy. Meanwhile, Mayorkas was born in Cuba and came to the US as a small child. His previous service at the DHS gives him the ability to start easily in giving a department in turmoil and controversy some stability for the first time in four years.
None of these appointments has really been a surprise, given their connections to the president-elect. The list of appointees to other senior positions is likely to draw from a slightly wider ambit – including other former national appointees and prominent figures in state governments, academia, business and labour, and perhaps from Congress as well. But in all probability there will be few surprises there either. This is to be a government of the tried and trusted.
As is usually the case in a turnover of administrations, there is already a cottage industry among the commentariat about who, precisely, will be tapped for which job. But the larger point is that it is highly unlikely there will be appointments from way out in left field, although the Biden administration is expected to ensure there is significant racial, ethnic and gender diversity among those tapped for service, probably including one liberal Republican, but unlikely any appointees from among the Democratic socialists. Biden ran as a moderate, stable, experienced hand, and he will be picking ideologically like-minded souls for the rest of his team – even if they have strong opinions and are willing to offer them within the team.
A key factor, of course, is that the Biden administration – especially for those appointees who need Senate confirmation – will want to be able to bring in people who can relatively easily gain such agreement, without bruising fights right at the beginning of his term of office. Similarly, his picks will not be nominations whose prior professional track records are confounding or problematic, or who can be portrayed by opponents as near-prisoners of a particular interest group or party faction.
Even as the Trump administration begins to fade away, the incumbent president will continue to try to box in the incoming administration with shortsighted, problematic, or even malicious policy decisions. These will include, sadly, the lack of any national planning on the increasingly rampant Covid-19 pandemic, the suddenly-announced troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the opening up of federal land in Alaska for oil and natural gas exploration, and a spoke in the wheel of the renewal of the one remaining US-Russian nuclear accord.
Still, even if the formal transition remains an awkward effort thwarted by Trump’s ill-will and ill-mannered rallies in support of the lie that Trump won the election, the current administration will inevitably become more and more febrile. Aides and senior officials will begin their migration away from this administration as they search for new employment, (they have mortgage bonds and children’s education loans too), thereby leaving fewer and fewer staff people to actually take direction from any of Trump’s orders, commands, or wild-eyed rants, and as the bureaucracy slow-walks any commands that do arrive from the White House.
That is how it will be, how it will end for the Trumpians; not with a bang, but with a sour, unhappy, reluctant but inevitable whimper. For the Biden team, though, it will begin with the realisation that the rot is deeper than even they thought and that the clean-up must be more thorough than they imagined. And all that in the midst of the pandemic and the economic doldrums. DM
Ireland does not allow the sale of alcohol on Good Friday.
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