Dreaming of Camelot

Both Conservatives and Liberals are awash in nostalgia for days long gone. Trump Republicans long for the good old days when men were men and women and Blacks and Hispanics and gays and foreigners knew their place. Centrist Democrats dream of the glory days of Obama and Camelot. Or what might have been with Hillary.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is pouring money into entrepreneurs, ex-prosecutors, ex-security establishment, and ex-military for Congressional races that don’t challenge Democratic incumbents. Even in “safe” Congressional races, Democratic candidates still like to play up their national security bona fides, for example as Alexandra Chandler is doing in MA-03, or incumbent Bill Keating does at every opportunity in MA-09.

In a recent piece in Blue Mass Group, Chandler penned an essay that spelled out her vision for the proper use of American power. She didn’t challenge the misuse of that power, only that more of it should be in Congressional hands. Otherwise, Chandler argued for a return to a “rules-based international order,” return of a Cold War footing regarding Russia, strengthening of military and intelligence alliances, and defending spy agencies (even after learning of rogue torture, surveillance and rendition programs).

Like many Democrats, Chandler makes excuses for Israel’s murders of Gazan demonstrators while still managing to blame Hamas (“I am confident that given different orders and rules of engagement — for instance, not to use live ammunition and to use numerous specialized riot and border control tools at their disposal — they could have protected themselves, and the security of the Israeli-Gaza border, notwithstanding Hamas-directed provocateurs among the protestors.”) Chandler strongly touts her national security resume but has little to say about criminal justice or immigration reform. And not a shred of criticism of the super-predatory capitalism we experience in the 21st Century.

Chandler is the perfect example of Democratic nostalgia for the good old days when NATO and the G7, the IMF, the World Bank, and Western institutions and alliances could put the screws to Russia while still pursuing their own colonial interests. The good old days when America (together with allies who couldn’t say “no”) would throw around their weight with a higher class of people running the show. In this nostalgic Democratic daydream, as long as well-spoken men and women (not reincarnated P. T. Barnums like Trump) have the codes to nuclear footballs and are the ones spying on the citizenry for their own good, the world is in good hands. But Democrats forget that the Kennedys, Johnsons, Clintons, and Obamas were also frightening stewards of American military, surveillance, nuclear, and economic power.

Someone sent me a link to a piece from the Cato Institute perfectly titled “A World Imagined.” Libertarians are not clear-eyed critics of Capitalism but they do seem to have 20-20 vision when it comes to the defects of Neoliberalism. In this piece the author shows why we should not be so quick to embrace a lopsided world order long loved by Republicans and Democrats alike. The author argues convincingly that Trump’s polices and authoritarian inclinations are simple-minded exaggerations of the old realpolitik long practiced by Kissinger, Albright, Cheney, Bush, Kerry, Clinton, and their friends in the national security establishment. They embrace a world order based on American Exceptionalism, a world run by white men of privilege, with foreign and domestic policies ultimately resting on authoritarianism, austerity, and privilege. Trump’s only innovation is exulting in a widespread view that a master race deserves to run the world and make the country great again.

The other night I was watching “The Good Shepherd.” You might say it’s a movie about privileged white men keeping each other’s secrets — until they decide to betray one another. Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a Yale undergraduate inducted into the “Skull and Bones” society, who then becomes an OSS operative and later a CIA director. Wilson has a lot of blood on his hands — and not just for the Bay of Pigs but for sins much closer to home. Make some popcorn. The movie’s decent, if perhaps a bit too long.

At one point Wilson visits a mobster named Joseph Palmi (played by Joe Pesci), who controls criminal enterprises in Cuba. His character is based loosely on Sam Giancana and Santo Traficante, who Kennedy enlisted for the Bay of Pigs. Palmi agrees to help Wilson. At one point there is this exchange:

Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland; the Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Carlson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

The movie, of course, is fiction. But the scene nevertheless holds a very real truth. We shouldn’t become too nostalgic for the Kennedy years or the post-war “rules-based international order” and its domestic reflection in a segregated nation. The America of 1961 and an administration some still wistfully call “Camelot” bore all too many similarities to Trump’s America of 2018.