Surprise! President-elect Joe Biden isn’t listening to progressive voices in his party. Instead, he’s been rounding up the usual suspects for his cabinet and staff. Turns out, progressives, that if you give your support and vote to a Democratic establishment tool like Biden without making firm demands, you won’t get anything in return. Who knew?
Here are a few good articles on Biden’s staff and cabinet:
At TomDispatch.com, Danny Sjursen gives a sharp-eyed summary of the typical Biden operative in the realm of military and foreign affairs. Here’s what Sjursen has to say:
In fact, the national security bio of the archetypal Biden bro (or sis) would go something like this: she (he) sprang from an Ivy League school, became a congressional staffer, got appointed to a mid-tier role on Barack Obama’s national security council, consulted for WestExec Advisors (an Obama alumni-founded outfit linking tech firms and the Department of Defense), was a fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), had some defense contractor ties, and married someone who’s also in the game.
It helps as well to follow the money. In other words, how did the Biden bunch make it and who pays the outfits that have been paying them in the Trump years? None of this is a secret: their two most common think-tank homes — CNAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — are the second- and sixth-highest recipients, respectively, of U.S. government and defense-contractor funding. The top donors to CNAS are Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and the Department of Defense. Most CSIS largesse comes from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.
With the news that Tony Blinken will be Biden’s Secretary of State, Caitlin Johnstone makes the following salient point:
Blinken is a liberal interventionist who has supported all of the most disgusting acts of US mass military slaughter this millennium, including the Iraq invasion which killed over a million people and ushered in an unprecedented era of military expansionism in the Middle East. So needless to say he will fly through the confirmation process.
Meanwhile, Julia Rock and Andrew Perez note the incestuous nature of this process, or how the national security revolving door keeps spinning:
On Sunday, Bloomberg reported that Biden has chosen his longtime aide, Tony Blinken, to serve as Secretary of State and will name Jake Sullivan, his senior advisor and a former Hillary Clinton aide, national security adviser. Former Obama Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy is considered the favorite to be Secretary of Defense.
After leaving the Obama administration, Blinken and Flournoy founded WestExec Advisors, a secretive consulting firm whose motto has been: “Bringing the Situation Room to the board room.” Flournoy and Sullivan have both held roles at think tanks raking in money from defense contractors and U.S. government intelligence and defense agencies.
Biden has been facing calls [Ha! Ha!] from Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocacy groups to end the revolving door between government and the defense industry. One-third of the members of Biden transition’s Department of Defense agency review team were most recently employed by “organizations, think tanks or companies that either directly receive money from the weapons industry, or are part of this industry,” according to reporting from In These Times.
Meanwhile, defense executives have been boasting about their close relationship with Biden and expressing confidence that there will not be much change in Pentagon policy.
Please forgive the “Ha! Ha!” parenthetical, but all this was predictable based on Biden’s record and his statement that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration.
Progressives have essentially no power in the Democratic Party. Look at who the Speaker of the House is! Nancy Pelosi, once again, the ultimate swamp creature.
Expect no new ideas from this bunch, meaning grim times are ahead. Isn’t it high time that progressives take the plunge and start their own party? They are voiceless and powerless within the Democratic Party. Failing that, they had better discover their spines and model themselves on the Tea Party in outspokenness, else they will remain utterly irrelevant.
Bernie Sanders who? Elizabeth Warren who? Progressive reforms? Not with the usual suspects that Joe Biden is selecting and empowering.
I write a lot about politics and war, and both are depressing and frustrating subjects here in the USA. But I’m not an intense political junkie, nor am I closely following all of America’s wars. If I were, I might be clinically depressed.
I’m sure my readers find purpose and comfort in something other than America’s tragic political scene and its endless wars. One thing I like to do is pick up my camera and go for walks. And since I live near a salt marsh, there’s always opportunities to take photos of nature.
Here are a few that I took this AM:
I’ve been taking photographs since high school, where I took a photography class and developed my own film (black and white). I had a basic 35mm camera for the longest time. I think I bought my first digital camera about 15 years ago. It’s a hobby and I’m strictly an amateur with the most basic equipment, but I truly enjoy getting outside and taking pictures. The camera forces me to slow down and look more closely; to abide in nature, if you will.
I hope you enjoy these “bracing views” and that you also have a way of escaping, a place of solace.
For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.
Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”
Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.
Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.
Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.
Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.
Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15). For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel. Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:
“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”
We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up. Makes sense to me.
By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home? Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely? Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.
The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical. Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire. At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left. Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade. You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end. Not so. The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”
I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory. Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed. And what kind of “victory” would that be?
“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits. Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.
In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor. That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.
Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere. If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.
Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
The predictable headlines are here: “Biden plans to reach across the aisle” to solicit Republican support. Even though he just won the popular vote by more than five million and a clear electoral victory as well, Biden must compromise with Republicans. Just because.
Remember when Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million in 2016? And eked out electoral victories in three states? Did he feel the need “to reach across the aisle” to Democrats? Of course not. Trump and the Republicans took no prisoners. They got the tax cut they wanted. They did their best to overturn Obamacare. They got three supreme court justices. No reaching across the aisle required.
If Biden were a real Democrat, and the Democratic Party a real party, there’d be no premature talk of aisle-reaching and bipartisan handshaking. But Biden and the DNC are essentially moderate Republicans, as Barack Obama himself admitted in an interview. You might say they’re DINOs: Democrats in name only. Dinosaurs.
Speaking of dinosaurs, remember when Americans made fun of the aging leaders of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s? “Gerontocracy” is the word I remember back then. Joe Biden will be 78 when he takes office; Mitch McConnell, likely to remain the Senate majority leader will also be 78, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, is 80. I have nothing against senior citizens, but it’s not a coincidence that the three most powerful people in U.S. government are 80 or pushing 80. They are all creatures of a system that is all about sustaining a status quo. A status quo in which two parties, one that’s center-right and the other far-right, work to ensure that money keeps flowing into the usual pockets, irrespective of world-changing events like climate change.
With respect to Biden’s cabinet, early reports are that we’ll see a lot of Obama and Clinton retreads espousing the usual neoliberal or neoconservative positions. They’ll be more “diverse” voices,” i.e. more women, more people of color, even an openly gay guy (Mayor Pete!), but the song will remain the same. I’m guessing not a single prominent progressive voice will be added to Biden’s cabinet. None.
With respect to action, I don’t see Biden even trying to expand the Supreme Court. I see a lot of half measures: a weak attempt at a “green” economy, a weak attempt at reforming Obamacare, perhaps an expansion of Medicare to cover people 60 and older, and so on. These and similar half measures will be consistent with what the donors and owners want. And if Biden fails even with this tepid plan, he can always blame Mitch McConnell and those obstinate Republicans who just can’t seem to reach across that same aisle that Biden is so eager to cross.
Of course, there is no “aisle” to reach across. There’s plenty of bipartisan consensus already in Washington. One clear example is at the Pentagon and the Defense budget, which continues to soar no matter which party is in power.
The only “aisle” Biden truly needs to reach across is the progressive one within his own party — and I can almost guarantee you it’s the one he’s least likely to cross.
Perhaps my favorite biblical verse comes from the New Testament in Luke 17:21 when Christ says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.” You could spend a lifetime thinking about that.
Recently, I googled it and discovered the Catholic church has tried to demystify it, retranslating it as “the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” and suggesting Christ here is trying to awaken the Pharisees to his presence and to recruit more apostles. So much for looking within at this most profound of Christ’s teachings.
I have many gripes with “modern” translations of the Bible, which largely diminish, even despoil, the poetry of older translations like the KJV (King James Version) or the even earlier translation by William Tyndale.
So I broke out my Catholic Bible from 1962; it renders the passage as “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” My NIV Bible from 1984 is the same, except there’s a footnote that says “within” could be translated as “among.” Is nothing sacred, all you wannabe translators and all you organized church tools?
Christ’s teaching that the kingdom of God is within you is a mystery. What does it mean? This is what it means to me. In trying to understand God, I think we humans are really trying to understand ourselves. The vast power of our own minds and imaginations. It’s not God that’s limitless: it’s our conceptions of what god (or gods) can be. But even as we humans imagine and conceive of god, we become jealous of our mental creations and then start lording them over others. We conceive of god(s) as jealous and vindictive and violent because we are.
Some will immediately say that I blaspheme; that I’m saying that humans are really god in the sense we create god. Of course, the Bible teaches the opposite: that God created us.
It is of course a matter of faith but think about this. We’re told we’re made in God’s image (even though we’ve been so busy creating him in our image). Surely this doesn’t refer to our bodies, which age and decay. Surely this refers to our minds, our dreams, our imaginations, which viewed in the aggregate across humanity continue to grow, to discover new things, to conceive of new ideas. To create. As humans, we create. And when we create, we ignite the divine spark within us.
Yet we are obviously not god. For I was taught God is good. God is love. And we humans are definitely not consistently good or loving. Quite the opposite. But of course we can displace our sins onto a fallen angel who corrupts us: Lucifer. It’s not our fault, or not entirely ours, right? The devil made me do it.
I prefer to think of god as the absolute best of us, the most mysterious part of us, our ability to create, to conceive of new things, to dream, to imagine. That human ability seems god-like in the sense it’s truly unlimited. And if it’s not unlimited, how would we know it wasn’t?
It’s not time to worship ourselves in place of god. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln said in a different context, it’s time to start looking to the better angels of our nature. It’s time to tap the kingdom of God within us. And to share it without jealousy or rancor or exclusivity.
And not only within us; the kingdom of God is also all around us. Humans are an incredibly destructive lot. We must not think much of God when we’re so busy despoiling and destroying her creation.
The sacred is within and without. And if we start thinking that way, and have a proper reverence for the sacred, we can focus on being constructive rather than destructive. We can honor the god within us by cherishing and saving the god without us. That means putting life first, all forms of life, including our own, as manifestations of the divine spark.
Postscript 1: I hope God forgives my random capitalization of her/his name.
Postscript 2: A friend notes how much ink’s been spilled throughout history contemplating God’s nature, the lives of saints, and so on. Theology used to be “the queen of the sciences.” I sent this back to him:
One thing about studying theology with such fervor — you probably won’t invent weapons to blow the world into a literal Armageddon from above. No — you’ll just imagine Armageddon coming from above. That said, it’s also true that religion can be used so powerfully to condone the murderous mistreatment of others. Knowledge is power, after all, even (especially?) knowledge of god [whatever “knowledge of god” means]. God is good, but humanity? Not so much.
In Christianity, God sent a Gospel or “good news.” He told us to love one another. How has such a simple message of goodness and giving become so badly twisted and so often ignored?
I come from a family of veterans. My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II. My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star. Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery. Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.
Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people. They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution. Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.
Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did. But for what purpose, and to what end? We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged? If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.
Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty. This isn’t just my sentiment. As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.
A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore. Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.” From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I. Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war. The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”
The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker. In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up. Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat. There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.
Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war. When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.” For the Navy, service was about “adventure.” For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.” These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy. America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end. Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007. I really thought I had one article to write, focusing on the disastrous Iraq War and the way in which the Bush/Cheney administration was hiding its worst results behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus. Here we are, in 2020, and my latest article is my 75th contribution to the site, which truly amazes me. Special thanks to Tom Engelhardt for publishing my first piece back in 2007 and for setting a stellar example of what alternative freethinking media can be.
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
Channeling Lloyd Bentsen
As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.
In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.
Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.
Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.
And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.
A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.
Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.
It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.
Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.
If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”
Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?
A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends
What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.
And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.
And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.
One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.
Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.
I’ll admit it: I never saw Joe Biden as president. Not when I remembered his abortive presidential run in 1988, when he lied about his college record and plagiarized speeches of Bobby Kennedy and Neil Kinnock.
He made an effective vice president for Barack Obama, mainly at first because he reassured White America that the Black guy was OK. Being vice president is an “It must have been cold there in my shadow” kind of job, but Joe handled it pretty well, and even catastrophically deferred to Hillary Clinton as Obama’s rightful successor in 2016.
After that debacle, Joe persisted, and in the campaign of 2020 he found a Democratic establishment that loved his pro-business and pro-banking record, his strong support of high military spending and overseas wars, and his past calls for cuts to Social Security as well as his steadfast opposition to Medicare for all. Our kind of Democrat, the owners and donors said, and with a big push from Obama, Biden found himself anointed as the candidate to defeat the Orange Ogre.
But Biden didn’t defeat Trump; Trump defeated Trump. Trump’s response to Covid-19 was so incompetent, so reckless, and so tone-deaf to lives lost that even the usual spin about fake news and alternative facts didn’t work. Indeed, Trump first said the pandemic would magically disappear, then tried to blame it all on China, then said the media was covering it only because it hurt his chances for reelection, then persisted in holding rallies that turned into super-spreader events for the virus.
Despite all of Trump’s flaws, despite all of his lies, he still almost defeated Biden, a stunning achievement when you really think about it. To my mind, the closeness of this election, the narrowness of Biden’s victory, is as much a reflection of the weaknesses of Joe Biden as it is the strength of the Trump cult.
What kind of president can we expect Biden to be? He won’t be anything like Trump, which in some ways is a bad thing. What I mean is this: Trump turned the narrowest of victories over Hillary Clinton into mandate-level deeds. He got the big tax cut Republicans covet. He got to pick three Supreme Court justices and to redefine lower-level courts for a generation. He served his base and made no apologies.
What is the likelihood that Biden adopts a progressive agenda? That he takes no prisoners, that he rides roughshod over Republicans, that he calls them traitors and dictates terms to them? Unlikely indeed. Even if Democrats win a majority in the Senate, which we won’t know until January and runoff elections in Georgia, Biden will likely position himself as a centrist, i.e. a moderate Republican, a man willing to reach across the aisle for bipartisan accord.
It’s likely Biden will even appoint Republicans to his cabinet. I’m betting we’ll see more Republicans in his cabinet than progressive Democrats.
I won’t shed any tears when Trump departs, perhaps into a new self-named media empire. Because for Trump it’s Trump now, Trump tomorrow, Trump forever. Biden, unlike Trump, has at least some experience with public service, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The question is: Which publics will Joe Biden serve with the most passion?
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