On Lesser and Greater Evils (guest post by Rebecca Hill)

Three Way Fight


“Rather than seeking among our opponents for strategic allies, it would be much better to seek a principled alliance across the left to create a strong center of gravity from which to fight both the center and the right.”

[Editor’s note: Three Way Fight is pleased to publish the following article by Rebecca Hill, which
appears here for the first time and offers a helpful analysis of the
current political situation facing leftists in the U.S. The views expressed are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of Three Way Fight.]

“Don’t normalize it” and “Don’t be hysterical”: These are the two alternating commands that we on the left see in our social media feeds every day. Each side, catching sight of the other, then spends the rest of the day castigating the other side for moral idiocy or hysterical stupidity. Trying to be neither a moral idiot nor a hysterical reactionary, I want to take a historical look at this debate about how to respond to Trumpism. I don’t mean the recent history of the 2016 presidential campaign, nor the more distant history of Nazism in the 1930s. Instead, I trace much of the American left’s strategic conflict over responding to Trumpism to the first era of post 9/11 mobilization. Even then, the American left had become so fragmented that we relied almost entirely on strategic alliances with other political forces that we might acknowledge as “lesser evils” but which we perceived as more powerful than closer potential allies. Rather than pushing the left to the front of American politics, this history of strategic alliances has made it more difficult for different parts of the left to talk to each other to build an actual left strategy, as each side now believes that the other is allied with the side that is not the lesser, but the greater evil. Here’s how I think it happened.

Myopic focus on the Democratic Party
Most of us on the left are familiar with one narrative of the bad consequences of strategic alliances with the lesser evil. The story of the failure of the Democratic Party to represent the aims of the left is one that most of us could recite in our sleep. Instructed by years of experience, many on the left perceive the Democratic Party to be much like Charles Schulz’s Lucy, offering to hold the football for Charlie Brown’s running kick. That is, at one point on the way to political maturity, many of us may have been excited about the left argument for backing a particular Democratic Party candidate, only to find ourselves flat on our backs when those people pursued terrible policy agendas once elected. Long term consequences of such alliances for the left have been devastating, funneling emerging social movements into campaigns to elect politicians who betray left agendas. Even worse, despite arguing that a left movement will push these candidates to go further left, the broader left orbit of progressives generally refuse to seriously challenge Democratic Party politicians out of fear that any protest against Democrats will aid the Republican Party.

As I see it today, those leftists who argue that the Trump-Russia investigation as simply a Democratic Party strategy to avoid taking responsibility for their loss of the election to Trump is flawed by a myopic emphasis on these past experiences. Keeping the story of the 2016 primaries at the center of the field of vision, they don’t see the significant disruptions in US centers of power forged by the simultaneous growth in domestic white-supremacist populism and the international effort by Russia to create a Eurasian power-bloc against NATO. The implication of the argument is that the political center is currently more dangerous than the far right. The assumption is that the far right is small and the center-right predictable.

However, the radical conservative movements that led to the Trump presidency have opened up a fault line within the Republican Party that casual observers on the left rarely care to parse. Even as we on the left warn our progressive friends not to overstate differences among right wing factions to the extent that they shout “Welcome to the Resistance!” to each mainstream GOP activist who breaks momentarily with Trump, we should understand where and how such breaks occur, and what they may mean in the long term for US politics. Just as overstating petty ideological or rhetorical differences can obscure a larger policy consensus, it is also important not to lump everyone on the right together. We chide those on the right who fail to understand differences between socialism and liberalism, and find it ludicrous when liberals refer to critics of the Democratic Party as the “alt-left.” Similarly, we should understand the differences between the Never-Trump Republicans, the alt-right, “alt-light” and others within the Trumpist movement today.

Paleocons and libertarians versus the mainstream
George Hawley, who as a conservative is keenly aware of differences between mainstream conservatives and the far right, argues in his two books on the subject (Right Critics of American Conservatism and Making Sense of the Alt-Right) that the “Never-Trump Republicans” of today are heirs to a long effort at gate-keeping within the GOP. Hawley argues that neoconservatives have long been the dominant voice in mainstream conservative opinion. He defines the neocons broadly as hawkish in contrast with the isolationist conservatives of the 1930s, and sees them as more accepting of egalitarianism than the pre-World War II conservative movement. While Hawley understates the importance of racism in the party’s mainstream as well as overstating the extent to which the GOP has marginalized the extremists in the party rather than themselves moving further right, his discussion of how neoconservatives have sought to exile paleoconservatives and libertarians from the conservative mainstream is informative. (For an account of how the effort to keep the far right within the GOP voting base has pushed conspiratorial ideology into the party rather than out of it, see Edward H. Miller, Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy and Dionne, et al., One Nation After Trump.)

Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks with "End the Fed" sign
Anti-Federal Reserve slogan draws Occupy
activists toward rightist conspiracy theories

Hawley describes David Frum’s attack on anti-war Republicans in the National Review in 2003 over intervention in Iraq as a key moment in the neocons’ current position. At that time, some activists and thinkers on the left advocated strategic alliances with these exiled paleoconservative and libertarians because of their opposition to US intervention, regardless of disagreements on many other issues. The most obvious example of this lesser-evil alliance appeared at CounterPunch, which still regularly publishes pieces by both paleocons and libertarians. Beyond CounterPunch, other left media outlets promoted the website Antiwar.com, run by the Pat Buchanan and Murray Rothbard supporter Justin Raimondo. Thus, despite seeming to have become entirely marginal relative to the rest of the GOP, paleoconservative arguments remained at the center of American popular discussion through the anti-War and the anti-Patriot Act Movements. Ron Paul’s two presidential campaigns contributed to this growing libertarian-left fusion. In addition to opposing US intervention and domestic surveillance, Paul’s campaigns promoted anti-Federal Reserve conspiracy discourse in the wake of the financial crisis, providing a mainstream space for white nationalist organizing, as these groups pushed the narrative of the 2008 collapse from “Wall Street banksters” toward conspiracy theories about “Jewish bankers” and “global elites.” In the Bush era, the mingling of right and left activists in movement spaces became obvious in the growth in the popularity of the “9/11 truth movement,” conspiracy theorist huckster Alex Jones, bizarre anti-Federal Reserve documentaries, as well as in smaller ways, as in the emphasis on buying local and the increase of leftists involved in anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activism.

The decline in status of neoconservatives as a result of the debacle of the Iraq war and the associated domestic surveillance program was a crucial element in the growth of the Tea Party movement that gave us first, Sarah Palin, and then Donald Trump. Trump marked himself as different from neoconservative Republicans during the primaries because of his claim to have been against the war in 2003. In the general election, rather than shifting to the center as predicted, he relied on Steve Bannon’s populist attack on Hillary Clinton’s ties to Goldman Sachs, and today, continues to appeal to conspiracy theories about the “deep state” to dismiss stories of Russian hacking of the Clinton Campaign/DNC. (Journalist Joshua Green has made a point both online and in print of how important Bannon’s Clinton Cash was to the characterization of Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.”) The Democrats’ attempts to appeal to what they perceive as widespread patriotic support for the “intelligence community” against Trump only plays into the fusion of libertarianism, paleoconservatism and some strands of the left.

Activists who later helped to found Three Way Fight warned of the dangers of any temporary alliances with economic nationalists during the “Battle of Seattle” in the 1999 Anti-Globalization movement in My Enemy’s Enemy and Confronting Fascism. Today, the danger of fusing left and right populism appears much stronger because of the added international dimension as well as the new media environment.

Now, those who ignored this worry and allied with paleocons and libertarians describe the Never-Trumpers to be acting entirely in bad faith. In doing so, they ignore what Hawley explains has been a long-term transformation in the boundaries of acceptable conservative discourse, as neocons rejected overt racism and exiled the conspiratorial right from respectability. In this way, the neoconservatives can be understood as serving a similar centrist function in silencing and coopting right wing opponents just as the neoliberals of the Democratic Party have marginalized the left. In the meantime, courting those remnants to the right of the neocons has not led to any left victories, and from the perspective of larger dynamics, has added the voice of the left to the far right’s argument that the Democratic center is in fact the greater, rather than the lesser evil. Slavoj Zizek took this logic furthest when he argued that Sanders supporters should seek to organize Bannon supporters for a joint fight against global capitalism.

Three political currents forming
What seems to be happening as a fall-out of a vastly unpopular war, increased anxiety about state powers of surveillance, the Great Recession, and the opening up of media through the internet is a crisis shaking both parties’ centers of power. We can currently see in formation three separate political orientations: a broadly centrist interventionist neoliberalism created by the fusion of neoconservatives located at the National Review with the Clinton/Obama position represented by the New Republic; a right-wing economic nationalist and hard-racist position similar to the position of Buchanan which seemed to be coalescing at Breitbart; and a fragmented left that fails to create a meaningful power bloc because of sectarian conflict, branches of which will continue to advocate strategic alliances with the center or the anti-interventionist right depending on who they think represents the bigger immediate threat. (Following the Mercers’ loyalty to Trump and ouster of Bannon from Breitbart it’s not clear where the new center of the paleo-right will be. Also, where the alt-right will end up in the framework is not clear to me at this point, but they continue to build the base for the broader Breitbart “alt-light” wing, despite their own declared opposition to many of the particulars of alt-light politics.)

There is no current central representative of left opinion, but representative centers of gravity are the DSA/Bernie activists; Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March, though all these groups may at times accuse the others of being in alliance with one of the other two power blocs. The failure of the left to organize across cultural and sectarian boundaries within the US was exemplified in the contribution by some well-placed left media figures to articles about campus activists in 2015 that fueled a national moral panic about free speech on college campuses. These attacks on intolerant campus leftists ultimately fed Trump’s support — even as figures on the alt-right were playing up the same campus conflicts.

Leftists minimizing the far right threat
What appears currently to be the most dangerous formation on the left is the long-term result of what was initially described as a temporary strategic, issue-specific alliance between the anti-war left with libertarians and paleoconservatives, who have in the last several years been actively courted by the Russian state, as conservative journalist James Kirchik has chronicled. The recent investigations by CounterPunch of the personas “Alice Donovan” and “Sophie Mangal,” whose attack pieces on the Syrian opposition and praise for Bashar Al-Assad were published by both left- and right-leaning media outlets, indicates the extent to which the left is vulnerable to the same courtship when it fits their existing biases. CounterPunch had the decency to admit that they had been played by a foreign intelligence service. Those on the left who continue to dismiss all mention of Russian intelligence efforts in the US, whether they target left media or elections as “McCarthyism,” fail to understand the ideological connections of international right-wing populist movements. It is not a “made up” story that alt-right activists chanted “Russia is our Friend” in a recent Charlottesviille march, or that Eurasianist ideologue Aleksander Dugin is often featured on Richard Spencer’s website, or that Pat Buchanan has claimed Putin for the paleoconservative cause.

"Censorship is for losers. @WIkiLeaks is offering a job to fired Google engineer James Damore."
Assange offers job to ex-Google engineer who claims
gender gap in IT reflects innate biological differences

If the far right loves Putin for his authoritarianism, “traditionalism” and nationalism, some on the left continue to follow Russian media because they like the criticism of US intervention and buy uncritically the description of all the regime’s opponents as fascists or the product of CIA manipulation. In a few notable cases, leftists have spoken about the Russian government offers of material support to struggling left organizations, as Micah White did in the Guardian. The most extreme exemplar of left-right fusion connected to the influence of Russia in US left politics is the current public support for Vladimir Putin by former Workers World Party activist Caleb Maupin, who has praised Putin on Sputnik as similar to both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But the more widely known figure supported by left-right alliance is Julian Assange, whose supporters on the left continue to overlook his overt statements of racism and sexism on social media because of their alliance with his position relative to the US security state.

While the Democratic Party is certainly largely responsible for the current situation, this exclusive focus on the wrongdoing of the DNC by some on the left minimizes the meaningful threat of the populist and white-nationalist right within the conservative movement, including longer term GOP projects of racial gerrymandering and voter suppression. This particular part of the left is much too sanguine about the hegemony of the multicultural neoliberal order. The contradictory nature of this position is apparent in the treatment of near-wins by Corbyn or Sanders as harbingers of neoliberalism’s near death, in combination with the surprise with which this faction has greeted Brexit, Trump’s election, and each sickening right-wing turn, such as the seating of large numbers of right-wing parties in European parliaments. No matter how often they come, right-wing populist victories are treated as “aberrations” and “flukes” that will be corrected and controlled by the centrist power bloc.  Meanwhile, we are to believe, the real danger to the left comes from the writing of Black progressive Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The mistaken theory has been that the centrist power bloc would never compromise with the Trump-Bannon side of the right wing, largely based on an understanding of the US deep state as inherently neoliberal, and by a mapping of European party dynamics from the 1930s onto the US in the 2010s. Despite the continuing evidence that their predictions have been entirely mistaken, these left opinion makers continue to deny that Trumpism represents a serious break in hegemonic influence of the political center, even as they anticipate its imminent overthrow by the Sanders/DSA current. However, elements of the security establishment in the US are themselves divided and partisan, and it is not at all clear that these forces are universally neoliberal. Indeed, it is common for some anti-interventionist media to feature ex-intelligence operatives or intellectuals whose opposition to US intervention was or is currently based in paleoconservatism.

It’s also worth noting that the behavior of US political parties is different from those in 1930s Europe precisely because of the all-or-nothing stakes of the US election system. As a result, we have in the US neoconservative Republicans who may be horrified by Trumpean rhetoric, and yet continue to make compromises for the sake of the party’s long-term survival, which they believe is seriously threatened by the demographic changes in the US. Among the dynamics that these critics of anti-Trumpist resistance fail to understand is the entryist strategy of the white nationalist right into youth groups through College Republican and libertarian organizations, a strategy that may have long-term impact on both the current structure of universities, and the center of political gravity within the GOP itself. The left understands that the parties are themselves powerful institutions with massive material assets. Keeping control of the electoral apparatus and retaining political bases in their support has become a desperate struggle that will lead to all manner of moral compromise and self-justification by neoconservatives with Trumpism, as we have already seen with the recent tax bill. Even Steve Bannon’s recent fall from grace was about personal disloyalty to Trump and failure to deliver electoral results, rather than a moral repudiation of his putrid ideology.

Banner reads "Carolina Anti-Racists" and shows burning Confederate battle flag and burning U.S. flag.
Left against right and center

Toward an alliance of leftists against center and right
The liberal welcoming of neoconservatives to the “resistance” against Trump is of course also short-sighted, and will likely result in the continuing rightward slide of the center. The most feared outcome of the current tactics of the #Resistance for the left is that, just as with the opposition to the Iraq War, engaging with the current mass resistance to Trump will produce more of the same: the sidelining of genuine left opposition as “wanting a free pony,” while continuing to cede all populist ground to the right. This dynamic has ever been the danger of popular fronts. However, as I hope I have explained above, the anti-anti-Trump position comes with equally problematic entanglements.

Rather than continuing to play this game, we on the left would do well to think about how our own divisions continue to push us into alliances with what we perceive as less evil but stronger forces from the center (for progressives focused on domestic inequality) or the isolationist/Russophilic right (for the anti-interventionists). Rather than seeking among our opponents for strategic allies, it would be much better to think in the long term, seeking a principled alliance across the left to create a strong center of gravity from which to fight both the center and the right.

Works cited:

Photo credits:

1. Million Mask March, Boise Idaho, 5 November 2013. Photo by User:Bastolio (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Screenshot of Julian Assange tweet, 8 August 2017, 1:16 a.m.
3. Banner by Carolina Anti-Racists protesting Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, 12 August 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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