External Affairs

Trump-Comey Affair Is Modern Adaptation of Classic Elite Political Theatre

The Russian connection appears to be a red herring serving the Democratic and Republican parties’ purposes of disciplining the White House and providing pseudo-dramas for the news-hungry media.

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Credit: Reuters

This is a murky story of skulduggery on a massive scale; political theatre unseen since the 1970s political Watergate scandal, but more closely resembling Cold War McCarthyism – with political charges levelled on the basis of suspicion, innuendo, half-truths, unnamed sources and leaks from federal agencies. It’s a tale of accusations against a pluto-populist president – a billionaire from the mainstream American establishment, parading as a man of the people; the powers that be horrified by the pluto-populist POTUS. They have forced through congressional hearings, FBI investigations, CIA intelligence and a special counsel. This political circus is officially focused on alleged Russian hackers and their Trump-collaborators.

But the real story is hardly heard. This is a war of attrition by the political establishment – a vast network across the two parties, the media, think tanks, foundations, military and intelligence communities and other state intellectuals united in disciplining a president and his tightly-knit coterie of unorthodox advisers that neither party wanted in the White House.

The irony is that this is precisely the sort of politics that Donald Trump practised and practices – fake claims, ill-founded accusations, smears, name-calling, repetition of falsehoods to hide his own chaotic style, political and governing inexperience and simple incompetence – now hoist with his own petard. But I doubt he wants the show to end – it’s easier than actually governing a nation, a pursuit in which he has little competence or talent. He is deconstructing the state by not engaging at all with it in any ‘normal’ way.

Yet both sides of this political performance, worthy of Hollywood or Broadway, seem very keen to keep it going. Each protagonist has their audience lapping up their champions and calling out the villain of the piece. Trump, self-declared people’s champion, plays to his anti-establishment core voters, who despise the political class in Washington, DC. They are yet to see through the Trump-fog that this is a road to nowhere: Trump is playing the very game that he was elected to terminate – he is of the swamp.

Trump’s array of opponents are doing the same – duping progressives into thinking that they are really going after Trump’s reactionary administration and exposing him as a fellow-traveller or agent, in McCarthyite style, of a foreign power – Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So far, there has been precious little hard evidence of any such collusion.

The soap opera continues – a Trump tweet calls James Comey “a coward” and hints darkly about investigating the former FBI director’s “illegal” leaks. Meanwhile US attorney general Jeff Sessions plans to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee next week. The drama takes another twist and the media salivates at ratings-driven advertising revenues.

Therein lies a major problem, especially for those who find odious in the extreme the xenophobia, misogyny and crass Islamophobia, among other things, of the Trump administration. Americans are being encouraged to support, even take pleasure in a McCarthyite witch-hunt because we disagree with the administration on so many fronts and therefore, no holds are barred in order to block Trump, to tie him up in proceedings, hearings and investigations and question on the flimsiest of bases anyone associated with him. That is, Trump is being ‘out-Trumped’.

The problem is not even that there’s little, if any, evidence for the charges being levelled at the administration. It is the deeper problem that for good or ill, Trump is the elected president of the US, who broke the political rules but won within the constitutional set up governing US elections.

Is it okay to block and divert just because we oppose his politics? I submit that we are in danger of becoming or may have become the unwitting instruments of a new instance of an old elite strategy against one who rejects the status quo, as defined by an establishment of power.

If that establishment succeeds, who’s to say that when we get someone in office that we might actually like, who happens to be a ‘radical’, that very power elite will not do exactly the same to ‘our’ democratically-elected POTUS.

While Washington’s abuzz with the psychodrama of the Trump-Comey-Russia affair, the central faultline exposed by the tumult of 2016 remains unaddressed and unattended, festering, simmering, breaking out in symptoms, random and organised violence and political clashes on the streets. That’s all about a racialised class system – working, middle and billionaire, the former in conflict with the latter and with unorthodox ideas and candidates demonstrating the fragility of the established order, opening up new horizons, hopes and aspirations for radical change.

For the fact is that the Comey affair is classic elite political theatre posing as real politics, with corporate media lapping up, whipping up the drama with each upcoming set piece – John Brennan’s testimony, what James Clapper knew, what Comey might say and whether Trump has taped conversations with the fired FBI director. There are investigations to feed the media frenzy – the House and the Senate have several committees that provide a form of outdoor relief for the people’s representatives to gain notoriety through air time. All of them are all gainfully employed, very busy “doing politics”.

The circus was perhaps predictable given the unprecedented character of the 2016 campaign and the election of the unpredictable and wild card Trump. The whole Trump style and message was extraordinarily offensive on race, gender, xenophobia. But it was also anti-conservative, opposed to the party establishment, galvanising a racially-anxious white Republican electorate with promises of realising the American dream – which had been snatched from them by usurping minorities on the march since the 1960s.

The Trump message was also totally opposed to the post-1945 liberal international order – NATO, the Japan and South Korea security treaties, military intervention in the Middle East and America’s role in upholding it. This latter message was the one that truly galvanised the foreign policy establishment – from the Council on Foreign Relations to the American Enterprise Institute, the CIA to NSA and FBI, not to mention the military and other armed forces. Practically all of those groups were forged in the heat of war – WWI, WWII and the Cold War. They helped make the world the way it is and America’s hegemonic role within it. They are not going to allow the maverick Trump to upset their apple-cart. Except it isn’t just Trump they’re really taking on – he is a proxy for American anti-elitism, the major movement and lesson of 2016.

For those who live in the evidence-based community, the Russian connection appears to be, at the moment, a red herring serving the leaders of both Democratic and Republican parties and providing pseudo-dramas galore for the news-hungry media. For Democrats and their corporate media allies, Russian hackers for or on behalf of Trump snatched the election from them, and would overturn the liberal international order, including free trade agreements. For the Republicans, Trump’s unreliability and crisis-prone style and character threatens to derail a domestic neoliberal agenda and NATO, their much-loved bulwark against Russian expansionism.

It is instructive to note that both parties and their media supporters are unanimous in applauding Trump when he bombs Syria and Afghanistan with reckless abandon, sells arms to the Saudis, backs the illegal war on Yemen and continues Obama-era military aid to Israel to maintain its qualitative military edge over other US allies in the Middle East.

That’s their view of what it is to be presidential. On that front, Trump remains unreliable, is not ‘one of us’ and has odd friends. He needs to be monitored and disciplined.

Inderjeet Parmar is head of international politics at City University of London. He is chair of the Research Network on the Presidency of Barack Obama.