Presidential Pantomime

by , January 31, 2008

The president’s State of the Union speech was pointedly ignored, even while it was going on, according to the report filed by The Hill, the Beltway’s newspaper of record. All eyes were on the two Democratic presidential aspirants, whose closely watched nonverbal cues acted out a political pantomime:

“When Bush proclaimed, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt,’ Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated. The president’s line divided most of the Democratic audience, with nearly half standing to applaud and the other half sitting in stony silence.”

So here the lines are clearly drawn. In the presence of Power, a candidate who spun and twisted her own rapidly shifting position on the Iraq war is suddenly struck with an attack of wordless honesty: applauding the mythical “surge” and the war she’ll inherit and prosecute to the fullest, while her challenger sits on his hands and stares into futurity.

Ah, but she still had the presence of mind to calculate her responses somewhat, even as the truth serum worked its way through her system:

“In one instance Clinton appeared to gauge Obama’s response before showing her own. When Bush warned the Iranian government that ‘America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf,’ Obama jumped up to applaud. Clinton leaned across Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), seated to her left, to look in Obama’s direction before slowly standing.”

A kumbaya moment for the Democrats, as they all stood and saluted the main plank in the War Party’s platform: the centrality of our newly conquered Middle Eastern possessions. If Obama wins, his “New Frontier” will be a new frontier of empire, and he’s cool with that. So are his followers, or the great mass of them: they’ll follow him into battle in yet another overseas crusade to make the world safe for America’s hubris. As he enunciates platitudes as if they were profundities, his fans swoon. They’ll fall for practically anything he says, as long as he says it as if he were John F. Kennedy channeling Martin Luther King. Once in office, President Obama will be declaring that we’ll “pay any price, bear any burden” faster than you can say “we shall overcome.”

The Hill reminds us:

“The Illinois senator strongly criticized the former first lady last year when she supported a resolution calling for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to be designated a terrorist organization. Obama supporters and other Democrats charged the vote would give Bush political cover to begin military operations against Iran.”

Yet it seems that the division between the candidates on this issue isn’t that great, after all. Obama’s campaign rhetoric was appealing to the base, without mentioning that he agrees in principle with the Clintons (and Bush) that our “vital interests” include everything from the beaches of the Mediterranean to the salty shores of the Caspian Sea.

All are united in their fealty to the Empire. What they disagree is on how to manage it and how to go about expanding it:

“There also appeared to be some division among Democrats Monday over whether to continue to pump money into the Iraq war effort. When Bush said he would ‘ask Congress to meet its responsibilities to these brave men and women by fully funding our troops,’ Obama and Clinton remained seated while Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) stood up behind them to applaud.”

Forget the television ads, the speeches, the promises, the debating points – this Kabuki play performed at the Capitol Hill Theater tells us all we need to know about what really matters in an American president. Our celebrity politics minimizes serious discussion of foreign policy issues, as the media floods the airwaves with endless speculation as to whether Hillary was really crying or if Obama is “black enough.” It takes a Washington moment such as this to dramatize where the lines are drawn and where they’re blurred.

On the Republican side of the aisle, things are bleaker still. John McCain, a vainglorious braggart with a volcanic temper and dangerous foreign policy views, is attacking Mitt Romney for wavering in his support of the “surge,” and the campaign has been turned into a warmongering competition. McCain is sure to be the winner in that contest. Whether that will be enough to earn the reluctant nod of the Republican establishment remains to be seen.

I was saddened by the inglorious fate of the Kucinich campaign: is this what the alleged left wing of the Democratic Party has come to? One thinks of Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, politicians of some stature and with some appeal. Today, there is nothing comparable. It’s tragic, really, and I wonder if anyone will ever again fill that vacuum in American politics, the space a principled, old-style leftist would occupy. I’d settle for another Norman Thomas.

If anti-imperialism of the Left is moribund, then the same sort of “isolationist” sentiment is stirring on the Right. Ron Paul is the avatar of this rising movement, which derives a strict non-interventionism from an even stricter reading of the Constitution. There is no provision for an empire anywhere in that document, and therefore Paul is against it: that, at least, has been the thrust of his campaign. The candidate himself, however, is much more general in his critique of what he and his followers call the “welfare-warfare state.” The campaign’s failure to get into double-digit territory is a real disappointment for many antiwar activists, on the Left as well as the Right, and this shortcoming is due precisely to a lack of emphasis on the war issue. Aside from the organizational problems that arise in a spontaneous movement on the verge of taking on a mass character, the campaign failed to pose the question point-blank: Do we want a republic, or an empire?

As Garet Garrett – editor, journalist, and sometime novelist of the Old Right – put it in 1952:

“Between government in the republican meaning, that is, Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity. Either one must forbid the other or one will destroy the other. That we know. Yet never has the choice been put to a vote of the people.”

Call me na├»ve, but I truly believe that if it ever comes to a vote on the question, the republic will win – hands down.

Yet these are problems with the campaign, not the candidate. Rep. Paul is the most principled politician in American politics; even his enemies will grant him that. When it’s just the candidate speaking extemporaneously, as in the debates, the issue of war and peace is always front and center, much to the despair of his more conservative supporters (and would-be supporters). That’s why he’s so beloved by all those “Paul-tards” out there, who, if enthusiasm could be measured and translated into votes, would catapult Paul into the Oval Office with the greatest of ease.

What is needed, however, is a more solid movement, one that incorporates non-electoral means to achieve its goals, as the essential element of a long-range strategic vision for the growing Left-Right alliance against imperialism abroad and authoritarianism on the home front. That is the real challenge, and electoral politics matters, at this stage, only insofar as it furthers a larger organized movement operating on many fronts.

The merger of identity and celebrity politics is blinding many liberals to the essential similarity of the Democratic contenders when it comes to the vital realm of foreign policy. The ritualized gestures and nonverbal proclamations of the cartoon candidates that pass for “front-runners” in the presidential sweepstakes tell the whole story with no need for words.

The unspoken pact of the two wings of the War Party is unity even in division, unity on the one overriding issue that concerns them all: global hegemony as America’s manifest destiny. Whether it’s done in the name of exporting democracy or acting out our self-image as righteous humanitarians, unilaterally or through the UN, U.S. military intervention around the world is retained as a prerogative by all the “major” presidential candidates and all “serious” policy analysts in Washington. We’re all preemptionists now.

Well, nearly all: there is a remnant, on both the Left and the Right – think of, oh, fans of Glenn Greenwald and avid readers of The American Conservative – that is developing into a significant factor, with much potential for growth. Given the right strategy and organizational discipline, this rising trend could easily fill the vacuum left in American politics by the demise of mass opposition to overseas adventurism: the Brahmin anti-imperialists of New England, who opposed our first foray into empire-building; the old-style left-wing populist upsurges, from William Jennings Bryan to SDS, which were invariably energized to a large degree by anti-imperialist fervor; and the Old Right tradition stretching back to the America First Committee and such heroic figures as John T. Flynn, about whom I have written extensively. The Paul campaign represents another chapter in this continuing history, and by that measure it is a resounding success. One needn’t vote for him – or vote at all – to realize that the energy generated by Paul could move mountains.

It will take time, dedication, and the kind of intellectual and political entrepreneurship that comes with building a genuinely broad-based yet principled movement, and in increasingly troubled times, at that. The leadership of such a movement will be tested and tested again, and some will be found wanting, while others will rise. Yet the knowledge that we represent a valid, vital, and even hallowed tradition in American politics, one that deserves to be revived and will yet have its moment, is what will carry us forward, well beyond this election year.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

The new edition of my 1993 book Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement is available for pre-order on Amazon. The book is due out sometime in May, and I’m really looking forward to it. In light of the above discussion of the importance of evoking the historical continuity of anti-interventionist and libertarian activism in this country, the subject matter of Reclaiming is especially pertinent. While I am in no way breaking new ground in this work, what I attempted to do was synthesize the arguments and summarize the organizational histories of the movement known as the “Old” Right, the pre-Buckley, pre-National Review conservative movement that was dominated by the hated “isolationists” – i.e., American patriots who foresaw what would happen to us once we became an empire, dreaded it, and fought like hell to prevent it. I tell the story of how and why I was inspired to write it here, the first in a series that turned up at Taki’s Top Drawer.

Speaking of which, I’m having fun blogging over at Taki’s joint: he’s always a blast to be around. Go check out the stuff that’s either too naughty or just plain off topic for Antiwar.com. It’s a good thing that old devil Taki is kind enough to let me get away with it.

Read more by Justin Raimondo