Bookends: The Truman to Trump Era

TRUM__: illegitimately chosen, racist, unqualified mediocrity with a nuclear arsenal at his command
How to complete the spelling of the name above? Perhaps I am first to note the irony in the fact that the post-war American era is now bookended by two presidents whose names begin with the same four letters. It’s just a strange co-incidence, but it helps in tying things together for an instructive comparison.
In spite of the glowing hagiographies that have been written about Harry Truman, and the conventional view that he was one of the great presidents, the description in the header above can be pinned to both Truman and Trump. Aside from the similarities in the spelling of their names, they both won narrow victories at a time when many Americans felt that democracy had been hijacked by big money and party bosses. The similarities extend to other presidents, but the historical record and the nature of American politics seems to have been forgotten in this season of hysterical reaction to the electoral victory of Donald Trump.
Aside from the similarities, Truman and Trump have very different personalities and biographies. Truman was regarded as sincere and decent, while Trump has been diagnosed as a narcissistic and vulgar hedonist. Yet both have been called racists and failed businessmen, although Trump has the magic touch that enabled him to grow richer after each bankruptcy. Interestingly, polite society was very forgiving of Truman’s faults and deeds, while today’s establishment has tried very hard not to see any redeeming qualities in Trump, in spite of the evidence that his character and behavior are within the normal range for Americans of his class (crass, arrogant, fun-loving, gregarious, family man). He has been fiercely feared and condemned even though he has no record as an elected official. Why is the American establishment suddenly so intolerant and unforgiving of this one individual? Is there really that much space between Truman and Trump, or between Trump and all the other flawed men who were presidents in the past?
Although Truman is regarded as one of the great presidents, there are historians who have taken a harsher view. Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, in The Untold History of the United States, saw his presidency as a tragic turn in world history. They viewed him as a mediocrity, unprepared to lead America at the end of WWII and into the post-war era.[1] The decisions he made led to the Cold War and the nightmarish dread of the nuclear arms race. Truman went into politics because local party operatives found him, down on his luck after one of his bankruptcies, to be an ideal placeholder for a seat in the US Senate. Tom Pendergast, his handler in the party machinery, boasted that he wanted to prove that they could take any “office boy” and get him elected to the Senate.
As a Democratic senator from Missouri, Truman held the typical racial prejudices and anti-Semitism of southern Democrats of that era. Like Donald Trump this year, many Democrats at the time refrained from denouncing racist supporters.
In 1944, with war still on, Franklin Delano Roosevelt easily became the Democratic presidential nominee for the fourth time (there was no two-term limit at that time), but the real contest came down to the one for the vice presidential nominee, who was at that time chosen by vote at the convention and not simply appointed by the presidential nominee.
It was well known at the time that FDR’s health was not good, so the contest for VP carried the implicit understanding that the winner would likely become the president before the next four-year term was finished. In a rigged process led by party bosses, reminiscent of what happened to Bernie Sanders in 2016, the obvious popular choice, the current vice president Henry Wallace, was edged out in favor of the inexperienced cipher Harry Truman. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick wrote in a CNN editorial:
Despite the opposition of the conservative Democratic Party bosses, Roosevelt had the moral authority and political muscle to insist upon Wallace remaining on the ticket as... the majority of Americans desired. The Gallup Poll--a US public opinion survey--released on July 20, 1944, the first day of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, reported that 65 percent of potential Democratic voters wanted the enormously popular Wallace back on the ticket as vice president. Two percent wanted Truman. The internal machinations that resulted in Truman’s selection are a sordid tale with which few Americans are familiar.[2] 
Based on what is known of Wallace’s record, the pacifist policies he favored, and his knowledge of Roosevelt’s wartime relationship with Stalin and Churchill, Stone and Kuznick conclude, “Had Wallace become president upon Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 instead of Truman, there would have been no atomic bombings of Japan and possibly no Cold War.”
The right wing of the Democratic party, which got Truman into the White House, was getting ready to fight the Cold War, and the progressive Wallace, who wanted to end British imperialism and coexist peacefully with the Soviet Union, was too much of an obstacle to those who were planning to establish a post-war world of American supremacy propped up by the revived British and French Empires.
With an almost total lack of outrage from elite American opinion, Truman committed the atrocities of dropping two nuclear bombs on a soon-to-be-defeated nation.[3] He held racist views, and he helped the right wing of the Democratic Party move away from the achievements of FDR’s presidency. He went along with his cabinet and advisors as they created the paranoia and existential dread of the Cold War.
71 years later, it is interesting to note that both then and now, in the way America looks back at this time, Truman’s presidency is not regarded as a national trauma or crisis of conscience for journalists, historians and government employees. He is more highly regarded now than he was then, thanks to hagiographic films and biographies and the preferences of the “greatest generation.”
In the 1940s there was dissent at the margins of society over the atrocities committed against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wallace ran as an independent in 1948 and picked up a small percentage of the popular vote, but was damaged by accusations of having communist sympathies. Intellectuals and artists expressed great pessimism and fear about the direction of the country, but mainstream media and liberal opinion did not suffer, as it does now, from vaporous fainting spells and dread fears that democracy had been hijacked, the president was capable of dropping nuclear bombs, and the nation was heading down a path to fascism—all of which was actually the case. This might have been the time for Americans to start worrying, not 71 years later when the problem has taken deep root and emerged in more sinister form.
In the 1940s, few professionals and civil servants wondered whether they should cooperate with this new, morally reprehensible regime. In contrast, the East Coast American literati is now in a quandary about whether they should refuse to collaborate with President Trump when he begins “making America great again” or whether they should go along to get along in order to prevent the worst from happening. There were no such qualms about drone warfare and Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State of destroying Libya and Syria, or about other items in a long list of entrenched outrageous practices that have been normalized in recent decades. Civil servants didn’t go on strike when the US government was establishing and supporting fascist dictatorships throughout the world, but now elite opinion suggests it is time for the intelligentsia to search the depths of their souls for the right way to respond to the Trump presidency.
There is certainly an unprecedented ugliness in the rise of Trump. He and his campaign drew out the worst elements of America (that have always been there) and gave them license to express themselves. Yet Trump was simply traveling the frontier wild country, picking up votes where Hillary Clinton feared to go. He wanted votes the way a carnival barker selling snake oil wanted dollar bills, taking votes with no questions asked and no judgment made on the character of his customers. If the suckers had ugly motives and false hopes of a cure for what ails them, that was their problem.
Trump may be reckless, vulgar, ignorant and unprepared to lead, yet again it is not as if this is the first time that America has elected a deeply flawed and mediocre talent as president. Many presidents also exhibited dubious personal behavior. Yet in the big picture, what does it matter if the man who signs off on the drone kill list is a good father and husband, or whether he has a scandalous personal life? The public actually used to expect that naturally only men with the most alpha male and aggressive traits would rise to power. It was par for the course. The quick rise of a clean, upright family man such as Barack Obama was a phenomenon that should have aroused suspicion that the party machinery had chosen its necessary illusion—a figure meant to be an eloquent and charming distraction so that business and politics could continue as usual.
One sample of the fraught new obsession with how to react to Trumpism was written by Rick Perlstein in the journal In These Times:
Now comes the test of our institutions: the bulwarks that outlast elections, meant to stand between strongmen, mobs and their awful instincts. How will they fare? … And from the evidence of Clinton’s concession speech, those atop the commanding heights of the Democratic Party clearly lack the will for the heroic fight ahead to resist the lawless madman who commands the executive branch. Who will lead the resistance? More fundamentally: Can a nation that cannot acknowledge genuine trauma even resist?”[4]
The problem is that such questions are a century late and a few trillion dollars short. America has never acknowledged the genuine trauma it caused in other lands or to large segments of the domestic population, so it is no surprise that the capacity for resistance is lacking now. The obvious answer to Perlstein’s question is that the bulwarks—the institutions--may be the problem. There are too many structural constraints on the voting system, to cite just one example.  More radical solutions are necessary, but mainstream liberals act as if there haven’t been any far left or radical movements crying in the wilderness for a very long time about the need for drastic reform and the danger of fascism coming to America. Bill Ayers, veteran of the radical anti-war movement of the 1960s, said in a recent interview:
Today what we need more than anything is an ability to step outside the frames that are given to us for reasonable legitimate debate and say there is something else. What could be and what should be stand just on the horizon. I refer back to Emily Dickinson: imagination is what lights the slow fuse of possibility. I think we have to remember that in a war of fixed positions we always lose. In a war of the imagination, people from below can win.[5]
Educated elites should have known that the American system was as vulnerable as any other great power in history. The universities that produce Washington’s management class perhaps stopped teaching Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, with its fundamental lesson that the tyranny inflicted abroad eventually comes home to feast on the homeland. Alan Ryan summed up the modern relevance thus:
The importance of the Peloponnesian War for our purposes is obvious. First, ... Thucydides’ account of it exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in ways that every succeeding age has seized on. On the one side, the resourcefulness, patriotism, energy, and determination of Athens were astonishing; on the other, the fickleness, cruelty, and proneness to dissension were equally astonishing. ...Second, it reveals one major reason for the ultimate failure of the Greek states to survive the rise of the Macedonian and Roman empires. Greek city-states were conscious both of being Greek and of their own narrower ethnicity: Athenian, Theban, Spartan.[6]
Another example of the recent concern with ethical behavior in journalism and public service appeared in an essay by Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books shortly after Trump won the election:
It is not impossible that if the Times and the political establishment follow Friedman’s advice and shower Trump with praise whenever he is so much as civil, he will respond positively... Perhaps, if hundreds of federal employees stand firm and do their jobs exactly as they should be done in the face of breaking norms—and assuming they don’t get fired—Trumpism will fail. Or perhaps it will fail if they refuse to do their jobs. We cannot know.
Similarly, we cannot know whether Western sanctions have kept Vladimir Putin from invading more neighboring countries or shedding more blood in Ukraine—or, on the contrary, have caused him to be more stubbornly brutal and militaristic than he would otherwise have been. In other words, we cannot know whether economic punishment of the Russian government has been, in the realist sense of the word, “effective.” What we do know is that sanctions were the correct response from a moral standpoint—even if it is a response we have applied inconsistently elsewhere—simply because it is right to refuse to do business with a dictator and his cronies.[7]
Such liberal class soul-searching was never done when Truman dropped the atom bomb, nor during the long list of atrocities carried out or enabled by US military and economic interventions since then. There is also something hyperbolic in the Gessen’s comparison of the present era to Jews who cooperated with the Nazis in the hope of forestalling and minimizing suffering. Why not discuss the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s instead? What sort of moral dilemmas did people face then when the American-backed coup sub-contracted the killing to a nation-wide militia of street gangs?
The evoking of Nazism in a discussion of what may come from a Trump presidency overlooks the fact that the authoritarian nightmare that Trump might bring on would probably come with many original features that couldn’t get very far in the present American demographic, and others that would be accepted merely as incremental changes in what already exists. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that Donald Trump, a man who has operated for decades in multi-cultural New York City, with a predilection for revelry and luxury, has any interest bringing about such atrocities—which is not to say his recklessness won’t cause unintended disasters.
As some commentators have astutely noted, Trump’s opponents take him literally but not seriously; while his supporters take him seriously but not literally. Yet elite opinion likes to tells us there is a class of deplorables which supposedly lacks the mental sophistication to perceive the nuances of the situation.
The sad fact is that with the NSA spying on everyone and a long list of eroded civil rights, America may have already installed its optimal form of fascism, adapted to its modern circumstances. Terror and repression happen away from the view of a populace that is kept entertained, distracted and financially insecure. The elites were just not interested in taking note of the problem until a bogeyman arrived to make it look frightening. As comedian Lee Camp remarks about this time of late-stage capitalism:
“A cruel and morally bankrupt elite, backed by the organs of state security and law enforcement, will… bankrupt the citizenry through state-sponsored theft, war, austerity and debt peonage…” That sounds really scary, but relax. They’ve pretty much done most of it.[8]
If there were anything convincing in Gessen’s argument, the insertion of an irrelevant and erroneous comparison to Vladimir Putin gives away the game. For some, Putin has become what Vietnam was for Walter in The Big Lebowski. Whatever anyone was talking about it had to have something to do with his time in “Nam.”
Any small effort to learn about what has happened in Ukraine in recent years would reveal that the overthrow of the government in 2014 was aided and abetted by US interference and false promises of prosperity if Ukraine joined the EU and NATO—two hopes yet to be realized, ironically, at a time when the “populist” revolt threatens to dissolve the EU like an echo of the Warsaw Bloc collapse a quarter century ago.[9]
President Yanukovich was overthrown without the constitutionally required impeachment, so the new regime is technically illegitimate, but that doesn’t seem to bother any Western mainstream journalists.[10] Once in power, the new regime began to threaten ethnic minorities, which provoked the predictable Russian response to protect them. What a moral dilemma! Should Russian minorities have cooperated and held out hope that these threats were idle passing expressions of extremism, or should they have chosen to pursue support from Russia? “We cannot know,” to quote Gessen, but Putin and the Russian minorities within Ukraine made their choice. Russia supplied weaponry to the eastern provinces, and mercenaries from Russia came to assist, but there was no invasion. If there had been, the conflict would have ended quickly. Likewise, there was no invasion in Crimea where 25,000 Russian troops were already in place because of a pre-existing treaty.
If Gessen wanted to express concern about Nazism and the “correct response from a moral standpoint,” there is a long list of American crimes to choose from. If we should be so concerned about the possible rise of another fascist regime targeting Jews, we could look not to Trump but to the historical revisionism now approved by the illegal regime in Ukraine. Since the new government came to power in 2014, history textbooks have been rewritten honoring as national heroes the Nazi collaborators who exterminated Ukrainian Jews.[11] It is inconvenient when the enemy of your enemy is your enemy, but the silence of the global Jewish community on this issue is extremely curious.
The author Charles Hugh Smith observes that the new, hyperventilating theme expressed by American mainstream journalists is a reflection of their unmanageable contradictions and their losing control of the narrative that supports the status quo:
... the mainstream media that was once the defender of the free press is now merely an extension of elitist propaganda… Democracy has the implicit responsibility of the citizenry to be able to sort out who benefits from the narrative that’s being pushed… The narrative that is being pushed to support the status quo does not benefit the bottom 95%, and the people are awakening to this...[12]
So what are journalists and the intelligentsia, or “management” class, to do at this juncture in American history? Before they become overly obsessed with the profound moral dilemmas of cooperating with their new overlord, they could repent for their obedience to the previous ones and consider what forms of protest would really be necessary to turn things around. Ted Rall is on the right track when he summed up in his essay Ameri-Splaining:
The United States has always been corrupt, savage and brutal. It has always been wildly dysfunctional and hypocritical. But now, thanks to a president-elect who is loudly ignorant and utterly devoid of impulse control, the mask is off. The horrible truth about the United States can no longer be denied. Trump epitomizes truth in advertising.[13]
As of this writing there is an obscure plot afoot, arising out of an apparent alliance among the Washington political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishment. The media is playing a willing role in the psy-op that alleges that Russia poisoned the minds of Americans through hundreds of “fake news” sites and hacked the election in Trump’s favor. It should come as no surprise that the Russian government favored the candidate who didn’t want a war with Russia, and it is not news that governments are involved in cyber espionage, but is ludicrous to state that a foreign nation’s interests in its foreign relations could amount to a noticeable influence over America’s elections. Countries do exert pressure on each other’s’ domestic policy. How could that not be the case in a globalized economy? However, this media campaign is promoting the absurd notion that Russians succeeded in running Trump as their Manchurian candidate and also succeeded in parasitizing the minds of millions of voters, as if they could be zombified and body-snatched by Vladimir Putin himself. The Washington propaganda effort seems headed toward a coup via an electoral college rejection of the president elect, or at the very least it will serve to teach Trump that the Pentagon budget and foreign policy are off limits, even for a president. Liberals and progressives are going along for the ride, deluded that cooperation with a CIA plot is the brave protest that is going to save the Republic. And without a trace of irony they say it is Trump supporters who are dupes.
Further reading on this theme:
Sam Kriss, 
“The Rise of the Alt-Center,” Slate, December 16, 2016. 

[1] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon and Schuster, 2012), in Chapter 4: The Bomb: The Tragedy of a Small Man.

[2] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, “Without Pearl Harbor, a different world?“ CNN. December 9, 2016.
[4] Rick Perlstein, “The Rush to Normalize Trump,” In These Times, December 1, 2016.

[5] Chris Hedges, On Contact: Restrained Resistance with Bill Ayers, November 7, 2016.
[6] Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), in Chapter 1: Why Herodotus?

[7] Masha Gessen, “Trump: The Choice We Face,” New York Review of Books, November 27, 2016. 
[8] Lee Camp, Redacted Tonight, Episode 126, 08:40~ . Lee Camp was quoting an essay by Chris Hedges.
[9] Steve Weissman, “Meet the Americans Who Put Together the Coup in Kiev,” Reader Supported News, March 25, 2014.

[11] Josh Cohen, “The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2016.
[12] Keiser Report Episode 1000, 11:00~ . Interview with Charles Hugh Smith. See also
[13] Ted Rall, “Ameri-Splaining,” Counterpunch, December 8, 2016.

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