I have just returned from a ten day trip to Paris. It was a good trip. I had two goals for this visit. I spent some quality time with my grandson, Ludovic, and his parents (who live there), and I got some good work done with Daniel Dayan on our book – the working title “Dramaturgies,” a book that will be modeled upon a classic by Daniel’s mentor Roland Barthes, Mythologies. I am glad to report that both goals were very successful.

While there, also, late at night, suffering from jet lag, I tried to make sense of the Presidential election campaign back home, reading The New York Times, listening to PBS and NPR, surfing the web with the guidance of my Facebook friends, and editing, with distance, Public Seminar. Here some compact reflections to be expanded in the coming weeks: first in black and the white, then the gray.

On Trump and the Republicans: the chickens have come home to roost. Since the 60s, the Republican Party has played a cynical game, combining conservative domestic and foreign policy, with gestures to the radical right, including at critical moments in their campaigns and governance subtle, and not so subtle, racism, right wing populism and anti-intellectualism. “The Party of Lincoln” used a demagogic trump card to win many elections in recent decades, while still apparently supporting the rules of the liberal democratic game. Trump and Trumpism marks an end to this. The Party’s likely nominee now has a hard time condemning the Ku Klux Klan and the opposition to the first African American President of the United States has reached the point that the Republican Congress will not fulfill its constitutionally mandated responsibility of deliberating over his nominee to the Supreme Court. Throughout Obama’s two terms, the Republican Party has had the primary project of obstructing governance, and denying the legitimacy of the first African American President of the United States. Now the Birther in Chief has become the likely Republican candidate to be Commander in Chief.

I adamantly oppose Trump and his Party. I find Trump’s presentation of self and his style of defining the political situation particularly objectionable (the allusion to the work of Erving Goffman is intentional, to be a major theme in “Dramaturgies”), and on substantive grounds, I find Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio no better, and now they even are following his presentational model. The Republicans have become the party of racism and sexism, class warfare (for the rich, against the poor) and political disenfranchisement. They now appear as an authoritarian party in form and content, an anti-democratic threat. Returning from Europe, I found a recent piece by Roger Cohen in The New York Times highlighting the view of Trump from the continent that invented Fascism exactly on the mark.

This demands, in my judgment, a clear and unequivocal opposition. I am an advocate of seeing the beauty of the gray, of appreciating multiple points of view, of realizing that the uncompromising pursuit of “the best” is the enemy of “the better,” with a realization that such pursuit can lead to horrors, “breaking eggs to cook the omelet,” as the apologists for Stalinism and the gulag used to put it. Yet, like the person who guided me in appreciating gray’s beauty, Adam Michnik, I know that there are times that one must recognize real danger to decency and justice, take a stand, and act accordingly. Michnik opposed the unjust communist order in this way, as he is now opposing the ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic government now in power in Poland. I think the situation developing in the United States is exactly analogous, suggesting to me the need to forge a broad democratic front against Trump and “Trumpism” (in principle small “d”, in practice capital “D”).

This guides my judgment and position on the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination. I am torn between them. I see good reasons to support both of them. I support Sanders’s goals. I am very pleased with the effects his candidacy has had on the political debate, extending the critique by Occupy Wall Street of the great economic injustices of market fundamentalism (because of its ambiguity in the American context I abstain from using the term neo-liberalism), giving the critique significant institutional support. Also the steadiness of his position, its authenticity, speaks clearly and forcefully about much that is wrong with politics as usual. On the other hand, I am moved by the prospect of a woman becoming president. I think Hillary Clinton has the practical means to realize progressive goals. I think she is likely to win the Democratic nomination. My position on the Democratic Primaries is similar to Jeffery C. Isaacs’s, though I cannot state unequivocally whom I support, as he does. To draw upon Max Weber’s famous distinction, as developed in his essay on politics I am torn between my political commitments guided by, on the one hand, responsibility, and, on the other, ultimate ends.

I think Clinton is more likely to win against Trump, despite polls that now indicate that this might not be the case (i.e. before he is systematically red baited and questioned as a non believer). Clinton’s vulnerabilities have been attacked for decades. Her recent “scandals”: Benghazi , the emails and the speaking fees, along with her older ones, “standing by her man,” Whitewater, killing Vince Foster and the like, are not going to move Democratic and anti-Trump voters. But I admit, this judgment may be mistaken.

I am also informed by the support Sanders is getting from the young and Clinton is getting from African American and Latino voters. There is a profound sense among the young that there are some things that are fundamentally wrong with the present order of things, and Sanders addresses this. On the other hand, Latinos and, even more clearly, African Americans, have known this for a long time and they want to see practical ways of addressing the problems. They believe President Obama has worked to do this, with significant achievements, Obamacare, the stimulus package, and saving the American auto industry to name a few, and they know that he may have done much more if it weren’t for Republican obstruction and key Supreme Court rulings, and they trust that Clinton will push his work forward. She is clearly presenting herself in this way.

My gray view: there is wisdom and practical sense in the position of those who support Sanders and those who support Clinton. The debate between them and the candidates themselves constitute an important democratic project for change, a possible reinvention of American political culture. The debate, I believe, is more important than the outcome, as long as Trump and all he stands for is defeated. The prospects for American democracy is at stake.

4 thoughts on “A Gray View of the Presidential Election Campaign as Seen from Paris

  1. Trump is the product of hypocrisy from the Republicans, but even more, so I think, he’s the product of the attempt to enforce an unnatural ideological purity on the party. They were about to achieve it – think of how Romney had to pretend to be a “severe conservative” to be nominated 4 years ago, and now probably wouldn’t stand a chance. It turns out, as Paul Krugman writes, that the voters don’t care. That’s true about attempts to organize parties by ideologies in general.

    As for the Democrats, I agree that many of Sanders’ ideas deserve to be heard, but his concrete program makes no sense. Foreign policy is a big question mark and his economics do not add up. I’m from Latin America. I’ve seen this movie, and I don’t like the car chase at the end. People with less experience in the collapse of democracies may want to take a chance. Myself, no thanks.

  2. If I were still a Hegelian, believing in the List der Vernuft, this is what I would say: the historical function of Sanders was to push Hillary to the left a bit (he has not succeeded in making her less hawkish in foreign polity). The historical function of Trump is to begin at least the destruction of the Republican party. Alas, Hegelian reason does not always come in. Hillary will still be the same if and when in power.
    And Trump may even win, in which case…..

      1. It is not possible to forget him. We would just say that the Owl of Minerva is a bit late. Not as late as for Marxists, who have waited for about 170 years….since the Manifesto.

        Some of our friends here are still waiting of course, for the revolution that will make everything right, forever. But my time horizon is shorter.

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