The Left gets Hoped and Changed
One of the more insidious aspects of contemporary American mass culture is how it is celebrated as something so progressive at a time when it is more reactionary than at any point in living memory. Look at the spectacle around Black Panther from last year—a film that features a black hero teaming up with the CIA to kill African radicals. Black representation on film is actually much worse than it was 20 years ago, although we’re told it’s becoming better than ever. In the early 1990s, it was probably more common to see movies and TV shows with mostly African-American talent in front of and behind the camera. More importantly, the messages were mostly better, too. In New Jack City, for one, the villain, a drug lord played by Wesley Snipes, even explains that he’s just a pure expression of capitalism. It’s a similar story with the case of Dead Presidents, which told the somewhat sanitized story of a black guerrilla gang and contained the message that Vietnam was “not our war.” The first Marvel superhero blockbuster, 1998’s Blade, actually featured two black leads, but it wasn’t a grand progressive event because media consumption had yet to be remade as political praxis.
To return to the example of JFK which Chomsky so dislikes, Roger Ebert called JFK the best film of 1991, while his successor Richard Roeper called it “utterly crapola” and “journalistically bankrupt nonsense.” Roeper had nothing but good things to say about American Sniper, which unlike JFK actually is journalistically bankrupt nonsense and utter crapola, in addition to being genuinely boring and as hokey as a Hummel figurine. To use another example from the film industry, director Jonathan Demme used the Portuguese expression A luta continua as the motto of his production company. “A luta continua” was a motto of various Marxist-Leninist liberation groups in Lusophone Africa, including Mozambique’s FRELIMO and Angola’s MPLA. Demme got it from making music videos for Artists United Against Apartheid, and it appeared in the credits of several of his films, including Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, into the mid-‘90s. It’s very hard to imagine Damien Chazelle sticking a labaykh ya Nasrallah at the end of First Man.
The TeleCommunications Act of 1996 bulldozed most of the heterogeneity that existed in American media up to that point, but before that, you could still occasionally see things like Montel Williams giving airtime to Gary Webb and Ricky Ross to talk about CIA drug-running, or a local CBS affiliate inviting Huey Newton and Ishmael Reed to talk about black masculinity and the media. More in keeping with what people are told today, an NBC News piece on Trevor Noah’s debut as host of The Daily Show, which pointed to the use of a Kanye West song to connect the program to the legacy of Malcolm X and call it “the most racially and politically radical debut in Late Night TV History,” omitting the fact that the actual Malcolm X used to appear on TV. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, a comic book company in California named Eclipse Comics enlisted some big names like Alan Moore, Joyce Brabner, and Bill Sienkiewicz to release anti-war comics and “trading card” sets on US-backed dictators, Iran-Contra, and the JFK assassination conspiracy. Moore and Sienkiewicz did an awesome single-issue detailing the history of CIA covert actions, coups, and killings. This is the sort of radical work that’s unimaginable today; these days, issues-oriented comic fare is mostly regime change-friendly “creative nonfiction.” The left-liberal milieu in academia, publishing, and law was still substantively radical enough that people like William Kunstler, Michael Ratner, Christopher Simpson, and Frank Donner were still doing great work into the 1990s.
In a 1989 interview, Angela Davis sounded an optimistic note about the upcoming decade (which sounds like the sort of thing someone might say today):
“Young people who were hardly born in the late ’60s seem to be not only concerned about racism, sexism, issues affecting working people” but want to act on those concerns.
Sure, they also want to get their MBAs and get on with the business of making money but that, says Davis, is nothing new.
In the ’60s, she says, “white students would come out en masse around issues related to the war in Vietnam. They would not come out en masse to defend black political prisoners or associate themselves with the Black Panther Party.” Today, she believes, white students understand that fighting racism is not an act of charity but is very much in their self-interest.
Back in 1992, “we were transferring black rage to white kids and white kids were mad at the same stuff that black kids were mad at,” said artist Ice-T last year. Today, “these kids are soft. Right now there is no rage. We are dealing with a very delusional state of the world and the only thing that woke the world up is Donald Trump’s maniac ass… I’ve been calling it a pop bubble of bullshit.”
I’ve shared this video of Richard Pryor explaining the persistence of racism before, and it’s worth highlighting for 2 reasons. First, there is the fact that a comedian and celebrity could explain the fact that white supremacy is not the result of confusion, stupidity, or myopia: it exists primarily because it is profitable. The second reason, though, is the commentary beaming that “Richard Pryor nails the connection between racism and capitalism 40 years ago!” It’s great that people are able to discover the ideas of the radical heyday. But the fact that these insights seem so astonishing today shows how effective the effort to erase connections with the revolutionary activism of the past has been. Organic radical thinking like that shown by Pryor wasn’t a rare bolt from the blue 40 years ago; it was more of the norm.
Though Trump took some of the gild off the lily, the idea that progressivism was surging in Obama era America after some moribund decades was an inversion of the truth. The proximity to the revolutionary high tide meant that the political culture even during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush years was much better in general—the content of the “Left” was more substantively progressive, the liberals were actually a lot more “woke,” politics was more political and less religious, and so on.
Over the years, there have been plenty of reactionary “movements” or ideologies which use a progressive veneer to shift people rightwards. Zionism has been one of these: during the first decades of the Zionist entity’s existence, there was quite a successful effort to present the state of Israel as an exciting experiment in socialism, and to frame Arab nationalist resistance as the genocidal heir to European Nazism. “Hanoi” Jane Fonda achieved American infamy for doing one of the greatest things a Hollywood celebrity had ever done; namely, going to Vietnam during the war and expressing solidarity with people valiantly resisting extermination. By the early 1980s, Western audiences had been subjected to years of media conditioning about Israel as a bastion of democratic freedom on a frontier populated by violent savages. In 1981, promoting the Israelis vs. Arabs thriller Rollover, Fonda warned that “If we aren’t afraid of Arabs, we’d better examine our heads. They have strategic power over us. They are unstable. They are fundamentalist, anti-woman, anti free-press.”1 She has spent the subsequent years apologizing for her Vietnamese anti-aircraft photo-op. Israel is also the major connective tissue between 2012 Green Party-Roseanne Barr and 2016 Donald Trump-Roseanne Barr.
Speaking of anti-Arab sentiment: Islamophobia, particularly after 9/11, is another one of these levers. 9/11 was the pretext for people like Christopher Hitchens to switch rhetorically from liberalism or Trotskyism to neoconservatism, much like fear of the radicalism of the 1960s turned many liberals and Trostkyites into the nucleus of the future neoconservative movement. There’s a straight line from Sam Harris believing that Muslims have to be mass-surveilled, racially profiled, and tortured for the good of Western civilization to now promoting Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson. You could consider “humanitarian intervention” discourse to be another one of these levers, which turned so many liberals into frothing hawks in the 1990s. The current mainstream anti-Trump campaign is one, too: it’s so suffused with Orientalist racism, anti-Semitic tropes, and Nazi-originated anti-Communism that most Democrats now sound like Birchers and show no signs of the fever breaking.
Obama’s legacy includes many parts, including solidifying a new Gilded Age and generally arrogating to the president the power of a king. Although it’s hard and maybe impossible to quantify, his ascendancy looks like it made liberal politics much more religious in general. We can see this manifested in the way that the consumption of major media products like Hollywood blockbusters has become a referendum on the virtue of the consumer. Think of how the release of a Disney Corporation movie is treated as an event with political significance on par with the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Obama’s status as an individual who would obviate racism by his own personal magic surely made it easier to turn brands—as he himself was—into things with metaphysical progressive powers.
These reactionary levers work like they do because they are modeled after liberal-sounding ideologies. Zionism was sold as a “civilizing mission” in the style of European colonialism, which later took on the dimension of being reparations for the Holocaust. Bill Maher-style Muslim-bashing purports to be a defense of Western democratic values from barbaric Oriental tyranny. Brand Obama, for its part, was explicitly constructed to resemble the progressive mass-movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with elements of religious evangelism in service of a right-wing corporate agenda.
The man himself established the tone for his future presidency during his 2004 address at the Democratic Convention, which could be best summarized as a “woke” spin on traditionally über-patriotic American exceptionalism. “My father got a scholarship to study in a magical place—America—that is shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity,” he said. One Guardian write-up of the 2004 DNC speech noted at the time that it was ultimately more conservative bootstraps mythmaking: “He described his father’s struggle as a foreign student newly arrived from Kenya, and paid tribute to his white maternal grandmother’s work on a bomb assembly line during the second world war. But he shied away from explicit appeals for civil rights or racial equality, using his family history as a lesson in self-reliance.”2 At this point Obama had already been ordained by the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council; as soon as he joined the Senate he began currying the favor of the super-rich and the Pentagon. In 2005, Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Zelezny described how the freshman Senator was amassing “an army” of rich backers across the country, including billionaire investor Warren Buffet:
“I’ve got a conviction about him that I don’t get very often,” Warren Buffett explained later in an interview. “He has as much potential as anyone I’ve seen to have an important impact over his lifetime on the course that America takes.
By year’s end, Obama will have collected about $1.2 million as he builds a coast-to-coast army of backers. At a seafood lunch in Beverly Hills, Calif., a dinner in Austin, Texas, or through events in more than a dozen other cities, Obama is creating a network unlike any other freshman senator since Hillary Rodham Clinton.
[T]heir friendship has provided Obama entree into at least a slice of Buffett’s vast and influential circle, including a dinner this year with Bill Gates, a close Buffett friend. And among those in the Omaha living room was Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co.3
Obama’s “anti-war” credibility rested on his single 2002 speech about how the attack on Iraq was a bad idea, but once the war started, his campaign scrubbed the speech from his website and the candidate basically aligned himself with the Bush White House while issuing superficial complaints. He told reporters attending the 2004 DNC that “On Iraq… There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”4 That year, the freshman Senator told Charlie Rose that “I’m a hawk when it comes to defeating terrorism. I was strongly supportive of Afghanistan. I would have picked up arms myself to prevent 9/11 again.” A year later, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, whom The Atlantic once dubbed “perhaps the most influential U.S. senator in the realm of foreign policy since Scoop Jackson,” formalized Obama’s induction into the Pentagon priesthood by choosing the second most-junior Senator as a protégé (“I very much feel like the novice and pupil,” he said during a 2005 trip to Ukraine with Lugar.5
Other than calling the Iraq War “dumb” in 2002, none of this differed greatly from Hillary Clinton or John McCain. A progressive façade had to be manufactured out of a lot of strategic ambiguity and savvy direct-messaging to the liberal netroots. “One evening in February 2005,” according to the Chicago Tribune, “Senator Barack Obama and his senior advisers crafted a strategy to fit the ‘brand.’” It would be in keeping with his record in the Illinois State Senate (where he mostly voted “present”), which was vague rhetoric married to a corporatist agenda. Here again is the Tribune:
Throughout his time in the Senate, Obama has followed a cautious path, avoiding any severe political bruises. Even before the national mood was turning on Iraq, Obama was a critic of the war, but for most of his time in the Senate he was not a strong voice in opposition. Similarly, the former civil rights attorney and law lecturer did not take to the bully pulpit to speak out publicly on judicial appointments. His strategy called for him to turn away from the cameras when he might otherwise have been a resonant voice.
In 2006, the Tribune described some more of the Senator’s trademark strategic ambiguity:
From the moment he arrived here, Obama has been the object of much affection, particularly among Democrats who viewed him as a beacon for the party’s future… While the newfound visibility has fanned speculation about his political ambitions, it also has spawned questions from a growing number of Democrats about how he intends to use his megaphone as he carefully navigates between the political left and the center. “Everyone has their hopes and dreams invested in him, but it will be more of a severe blow if he doesn’t do something to show results—not today or tomorrow, but soon,” said a Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Obama.
For all the publicity surrounding his entrance to the Senate, Obama remains largely undefined on a broad spectrum of issues. His carefully phrased criticisms of Republicans—and Democrats—allow supporters to find both sides of an argument in his words.
Obama’s balancing act was possibly the preeminent characteristic of his political career, and what made him such a uniquely skilled politician. One finds it in his tenure in the Illinois State Senate, and even back in his Harvard days. This is from a 1990 report on the future president’s election to the head of the Harvard Law Review:
Some of Obama’s peers question the motives of this second-year law student. They find it puzzling that despite Obama’s openly progressive views on social issues, he has also won support from staunch conservatives. Ironically, he has come under the most criticism from fellow black students for being too conciliatory toward conservatives and not choosing more blacks to other top positions on the law review.6
This blank-slate approach was a perfect canvas for reflecting the fantasies of disaffected progressives, who were invited to project onto him through appeals delivered via hipper new forums. “In addition to his book, rereleased after its original publication in 1995, he has embraced newly powerful forms of media,” Zelezny wrote in 2005. “Through weekly podcasts, Web logs and appearances on programs including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his exposure multiplies, and so do his investors… Beyond entertainment, Obama devotes considerable time to generating discussion among Democrats, particularly in grass-roots Internet venues. In the flourishing world of political debate on the Web, Obama is seen as almost a cultlike figure, with people praising him as the hope and future of their party.”7
The national campaign would require a twist on these existing elements. Harvard professor Marshall Ganz joined the Obama campaign in May 2007 and devised an innovative advertising scheme that would be the foundation for Obamania. The campaign came up with a series of marketing seminars called Camp Obama trainings, where activists studied the 2004 address and were taught “values” that he allegedly represented, which they would use to evangelize on the candidate’s behalf. Ganz explains that his feel-good storytelling techniques were modeled off of elements from the Civil Rights, feminist, and United Farm Workers movements of 50 years ago. Unlike these mass-movements, though, the campaign did not advance a collectively devised progressive agenda—it “focused mostly on storytelling, and dropped the other organizing skills. According to Aaron Schutz and Marie Sandy, the Obama election campaign resembled more an evangelical effort of conversion than an organizing campaign.”8*
Ganz describes the Obama marketing blitz as something which bolted the apparata of a mass movement—“‘lateral’ connections,” “volunteer engagement,” and “social capital”—onto an advertising campaign on behalf of billionaires and the Pentagon. Ganz claimed that the electoral effort would draw its strength from “values” rather than “ideas,” replacing “issues-based organizing” with “values-based organizing.” This all sounds very nice, but it’s unmistakably Madison Avenue rather than Mothers Against the War. An example of how the values-over-issues scam worked was Obama’s approach to executive illegality. He said in the abstract that “the era of Scooter Libby justice…will be over” once elected, but he specifically said that Bush did not commit any “serious breaches” of the law, and he voted to immunize telecom companies who had spied illegally after 9/11. The “values” are supposed to be justice and fairness, but on all the actual issues, he clearly supported the White House breaking the law with impunity. One can value peace in the abstract, but the way to achieve it is to shut down wars, otherwise the “values” are meaningless (“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?,” asks the Book of James, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Leave it to core politics to be more religious than religion). In contrast, appeals to universally loved values and positive vibes are how corporations compel consumers to sign up for an American Express card instead of a Visa. The emphasis on “values” meant the candidate could be all things to all people—who doesn’t like hope? Meanwhile, in real life, the man himself supported all sorts of issues and ideas, ideas which were very popular with the millionaires, billionaires, and right-wingers who came out in droves support him in 2008.
In a blog entry posted in March 2008 (and deleted, for whatever reason, about a year later), tech billionaire Mark Andreessen described how he came to support the Obama campaign after meeting the candidate privately in February 2007. Andreessen said that he was convinced Obama was several important things, including “not a radical.”
“This is not some kind of liberal revolutionary who is intent on throwing everything up in the air and starting over,” wrote the influential Silicon Valley oligarch. “Put the primary campaign speeches aside; take a look at his policy positions on any number of issues and what strikes you is how reasonable, moderate, and thoughtful they are.” Andreessen also praised Obama for abandoning what he saw as the baggage of the revolutionary era. “Most of the Boomers I know are still fixated on the 1960’s in one way or another—generally in how they think about social change, politics, and the government. It’s very clear when interacting with Senator Obama that he’s totally focused on the world as it has existed since after the 1960’s.”
Of course, despite repudiating radicalism, Obama saw enough to admire in these movements to poach their aesthetics in order to get elected. In 2007 Ryan Lizza wrote a typically reverent profile of the candidate in the New Republic, which demonstrates how successful Obama was at cloaking himself in the superficial trappings of the ‘60s while serving as an anodyne cipher who gave his fans warm-fuzzies: “Obama is linking himself to America’s radical democratic tradition,” wrote Lizza, a tradition whose practitioners “became famous in the ‘60s for the political theater championed by [Saul] Alinsky,” yet the “post-partisan consensus builder” [“consensus builder,” why does that sound so darn familiar?] nevertheless “gives the impression of being above the ideological fray” and “is a generation removed from the polarizing turmoil of the 1960s. The mirror he holds up is invariably flattering—reflecting back a tolerant, forward-looking electorate ready to unite around his consensus-minded brand of politics.” (Lizza also tells an incredible story of Obama dressing-down a panhandler, scolding the poor man about personal responsibility. Seriously.) The intended effect of all of this was to portray Obama as a figure who embodied the transformative progressive promise of the era’s radical movements, while at the same time transcending their excesses, rough edges, and controversies through his unique personal magic.
While much of Obamania’s deformative effect on the wider progressive culture is hard to trace, there are certain direct links. Ganz’s techniques in selling Obama were widely circulated to foundations, NGOs, and institutions like the Sierra Club and MoveOn. In this regard, the Obama campaign, which was so successful at defusing radical sentiment, fed back into the wider “nonprofit-industrial complex” that had been co-opting anti-establishment feeling for decades. One of the responses to the radical movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s was an explosion in funding for NGOs and foundations that would draw in resistance and steer it into acceptable channels—making activists beholden to the Ford Foundation instead of their communities. In 1974, activist/scholar Abdul Alkalimat (f.k.a. Gerald McWhorter) warned that the black liberation struggle was threatened by “the main agents of the imperialist system” like Richard Nixon, “all agencies that serve the ruling class” like the RAND corporation and the Council on Foreign Relations, and “philanthropic foundations like Ford and Rockefeller.” Alkalimat is another revolutionary of the era who was both a more prolific writer and more radical thinker than Chomsky, and yet he remained a relative unknown as the MIT professor was becoming a household name. 40 years later, he said:
The movement toward social equality by African Americans has been reversed and exists now for an ever smaller section of the Black middle class. The autonomy of our social justice movements, and movement for political empowerment has been replaced by state and foundation funded NGO’s who set the agenda and parameters for “radical discourse.” Voting rights are being eliminated state by state. Much of this is being implemented by a government led by Black people.
The ruling class could not rely on force alone, so “setting the agenda and parameters for radical discourse” was an essential part of remaining in power, as Richard Wright observed in 1960. That year, Wright somehow learned that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a CIA front—in 1950, the group had convened numerous Western intellectuals like Bertrand Russell to promote “intellectual freedom”; it was 100 percent CIA funded and its executive director, Michael Josselson, was an agent. “The Americans now do all their important work through the non-communist left,” Wright wrote to a friend, “an anti-communist left which they bought and they control.”9
Making activists beholden to big-business foundations was another way to recover lost ground: “Philanthropy suggests yet another explanation for the decline of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ protest movements,” writes Andrea Smith. “Radical activism often was transformed by grants and technical assistance from liberal foundations into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control. Energies were channeled into safe, legalistic, bureaucratic and, occasionally, profit-making activities.”10 The Obama campaign was an escalation of this, and truly represented a major coup. At least NGOs were nominally associated with causes and “issue-based organizing”—the campaign finally severed idealistic progressives from the world of “ideas” (to quote Ganz) and funneled them into a cult-like marketing campaign, with some grassroots trappings, on behalf of Wall Street. This is why his campaign won AdAge’s marketer of the year in 2008: every advertiser’s wildest dream is to convince the public to treat their product the way they would a religion or a social movement.
The effects of this billion-dollar marketing blitz have been profound. Obama had—and continues to have—a singularly powerful sway over the left-liberal ecosystem of which Chomsky is the pre-eminent luminary. This power is attested-to by how many of the prominent rebels of yesteryear made a journey over the decades through small businesses, foundations, and NGOs and into the Illinois Senator’s 2008 campaign.
Michael Klonsky of the SDS “today  supports Barack Obama so enthusiastically that until recently he was blogging on the Illinois senator’s campaign website. And boycotting this November’s election, Klonsky maintains, would be a ‘tragic mistake.’ He notes that Barack Obama isn’t Hubert Humphrey, 2008 isn’t 1968, and the strong movement he served back then is ‘relatively weak’ now. ‘My own support for Obama is…a recognition that the Obama campaign has become a rallying point for young activists and offers hope for rebuilding the civil rights and antiwar coalitions that have potential to become a real critical force in society.’”
Progressives for Obama resembles a Who’s Who of SDS luminaries. In addition to [Tom] Hayden, [Mark] Rudd, and [Carl] Davidson, the group includes Bob Pardun, SDS’s education secretary during the 1966–67 school year; Paul Buhle, a radical professor who has recently attempted to revive SDS; Mickey and Dick Flacks, red-diaper babies who helped craft 1962’s Port Huron Statement, a seminal New Left document; and SDS’s third president, Todd Gitlin.
But given the substance of his policies on the 2008 campaign trail, Barack Obama’s 1968 analogue was not Hubert Humphrey and certainly not Eugene McCarthy, it was Richard Nixon.
Despite the fact that Nixon was a product of the far-right political ecosystem, journalist William A. Reuben observed that the man who was at that point the Vice President owed much of his success to a lot of strategic ambiguity. “Nixon’s fabulous career is a triumph of modern-day sales, advertising and public relations techniques—and gimmicks.”
In the brief ten-year span of his public career, Mr. Nixon has been presented to the public in many guises. He has portrayed himself as a conservative, liberal, and middle-of-the-roader. He has had the support of many who believed him to be an isolationist and a conservative, as well as those convinced he is a liberal internationalist; he has been hailed as both pro- and anti-McCarthyite; and even he palmed himself off to unsuspecting voters of the 12th California Congressional district as a Democrat. On a matter of issues, he has managed to take a position at every step of the gamut.11
In 1969, President Nixon inherited a war that a significant portion of the ruling class had determined was doing more harm than good. Between 1967 and 1969, a majority of the public went from supporting the Vietnam War to opposing it. Protests were growing, and increasing numbers of people were sharpening their critiques into something against the capitalist system. The Nixon Administration responded by several means, primarily: 1) escalating secret police violence, 2) shifting towards bombing over boots-on-the-ground, 3) escalating terror in Southeast Asia through the CIA and Special Operations Forces, and 4) making certain concessions in order to cleave liberals away from the radical movements.
The Bush administration had enjoyed widespread bipartisan support for its Global War on Terror, but by 2005, resistance in Iraq and the disaster of Katrina had done serious damage to America’s reputation. Moreover, there were growing anti-war and immigrants’ rights movements to contend with even before the 2008 financial crisis, the latter of which made a major rebranding a necessity. At the end of the Bush years, Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized the sentiment of a majority of America’s ruling class when he complained that the President’s “Manichaean paranoia” had “squandered our credibility, our legitimacy, and even respect for our power.”
Like many, Brzezinski recognized that Hillary was too “conventional” to undo Bush’s damage and it was only Obama’s rhetoric and résumé which had the unique power to “change the nature of America’s relationship with the world,” as he explained when endorsing Obama in August 2007 and officially joining his campaign as its foreign affairs guru. As Ganz himself said, the Illinois Senator’s unconventional aesthetics were his single strongest selling-point. The “Obama campaign departed sharply from what had become the conventional way to run campaigns [and this] was a wise choice because for the insurgent Obama candidacy a conventional approach could only have strengthened the hand of the candidate with more conventional resources.” One tech executive said it best: “His unique life history arguably puts him in a better position than any other candidate to change the anti-American attitudes rife in many other countries. What other candidate could do that simply by being elected?”
Obama himself understood that this was his job: as he told reporters in 2004, “I am skeptical that the Bush administration, given baggage from the past three years, not just on Iraq… I don’t see them having the credibility to be able to execute [the War on Terror]. I mean, you have to have a new administration to execute what the Bush administration acknowledges has to happen.”12 If the big-business press was what it claimed to be, there would have been no surprise that Obama governed as a “Bush 2.0.” He said he would do just that, and he said so as early as 2004.
Much like Nixon, Obama stewarded the empire through the crisis by 1) escalating secret police powers (see the 2012 NDAA), 2) shifting towards drone strikes and local proxies over major invasions (echoes of secret wars past and “anything that flies on everything that moves”), 3) drastically expanding the scope of CIA covert actions and Special Operations Forces, and 4) causing the anti-war movement to evaporate. As far as a policy platform, Obama’s vague gestures towards anti-war sentiment most closely resemble Nixon’s “secret plans” to end the war in Vietnam. After the Tet offensive in 1968, the CIA escalated the notorious Phoenix Program, a project to subjugate Vietnam through the widespread use of torture, assassinations, and psychological warfare. In Doug Valentine’s The Phoenix Program, he quotes one Vietnamese author who describes Phoenix with words that could have been said about Afghanistan or Yemen post-2009: “Phoenix is a series of big continuous operations which, because of the bombing, destroy the countryside and put innocent people to death… In the sky are armed helicopters, but on the ground are the black uniforms, doing what they want where the helicopters and B-52’s do not reach… Americans in black uniforms are the most terrible.”
Of course, there were some major differences between the two presidents, beyond the superficial ones. After the invasion of Cambodia, hundreds of universities were shut down in May 1970, leading to shootings at universities in Kent, Ohio and Jackson, Mississippi. The protests were so widespread that Nixon became extremely alarmed, making an impromptu 5am visit to the Washington Monument to confer with anti-war activists. On the other hand, since would-be activists were encouraged to support and even love Obama, rather than see him as their enemy, the scaling-up of wars against countries like Pakistan and Yemen did not lead to the mass shutting-down of universities. Instead, the White House escalated imperialism and lawlessness, assassinating the first American citizens in 2011. A few years later, an alleged black extremist would be put to death via robot bomb in Dallas, bringing drone killings home for the first time. In order to hobble the anti-war movement, Nixon had to at least make changes like switching from a draft army to the all-volunteer force. In contrast, because progressive activists were encouraged to campaign for him rather than protest against him, Obama managed to cripple the anti-war movement mostly by just existing. As far as “just existing” is concerned, he is peerless—he even won a Nobel Prize for it.
It turned out that a candidate who told the Chicago Tribune editorial board in 2004 that he supported a pre-emptive strike on Iran, and said in 2006 that “I believe that US forces are still a part of the solution in Iraq” had very different goals than activists interested in “rebuilding the civil rights and antiwar coalitions,” as Klonsky put it. Consequently, perceiving him as anything other than an enemy made his campaign a “rallying point for young activists” in the same sense that a whale’s gullet is a “rallying point” for plankton and krill. But, as with so much else about his campaign, it was designed that way.
“Observers of the Obama campaign have noted that there was a concerted effort not to engage young people who were already organized into networks, which would require a higher degree of accountability from the president once in office,” writes Sujatha Fernandes. “Because they were not organized outside of electoral campaign networks, these volunteers were disempowered once the campaign was over, with few channels to press their concerns before and established administration.”13 Pushing activists out of movements and into an electoral campaign is inherently disempowering, because an electoral campaign offers them no leverage to get their demands met. “The Obama project co-opted that brewing storm from below,” writes William I. Robinson, “channeled it into the electoral campaign, and then betrayed those aspirations, as the Democratic Party effectively demobilized the insurgency from below with more passive revolution.”14
Since Obama so successfully captured the imaginations of people who would have protested the same policies coming from a Republican, he was able to be more reactionary than Richard Nixon—as both he and Chomsky have pointed out. Richard Nixon never told activists to “make him do it” because they were actually making him do things; Obama said “make me do it” because he knew activists had already surrendered that power.
By the president’s second term, even Angela Davis was defending Obama with the “make him do it” myth. In 2014, she was asked about black deaths at the hands of police, and said “people like to point to Obama as an individual and hold him responsible for the madness that has happened. Of course there are things that Obama as an individual might have done better but people who invested their hopes in him were approaching the issue of political futures in the wrong way to begin with–it’s always a collective process to change the world.” If the name “Obama” were substituted with “George Zimmerman” it would be correctly called bullshit of the highest order, but such is the previous president’s unique power. Obama was no more and no less individually responsible for American white supremacy than Ronald Reagan, and yet, observing that “life for many American blacks is worse now [in the 1980s] than in [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s day,” Davis said the Reagan administration “created a climate” that legitimized racism and made America “the most sexist, the most racist, the most warlike government in the entire history of our country.”
But if that was true about Reagan, what was black life like under Barack Obama? Black and Latino wealth plummeted under Obama much as it did under Reagan, with one 2015 report from the Boston branch of the Federal Reserve, Duke University, and the New School showing that the household median net worth of white families was $247,500 versus $8 for black families in Boston. One article from 2013 noted that corporate profits “are more than twice as high as their peak during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.” Obama repudiated the very concept of black America, saying in his 2006 speech at the Democratic Convention that “there is no white America, no black America, only the United States of America.” He praised Reagan frequently, saying during the 2008 election that unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan was a transformative figure. It’s easy to explain why various Republican policies look fascist, but Obama was very good at making things like the extradition of Assata Shakur, the assassination of Ferguson activists, or an anti-Russia campaign straight out of Nazi Germany look like something other than fascism.
Most Democratic politicians are whitewashed with the narrative that they don’t believe anything, but this is not true, as in the case of Obama’s rhetorical love of Reagan matching his zeal for Reagan-esque policies. Obama actually lived up to his word quite frequently, though you wouldn’t know it by reading Angela Davis. The effort to make Obama a blameless and agency-free figure was not only for the sake of his legacy, it was part of a campaign to undo the idea that political opinions should be situated in “issue-based” reality, rather than superficial “value-based” gestures and partisan affiliation. “Leftists” who insisted on factual analysis would be “purists”—if not even the President of the United States was accountable for his actions, who on Earth could be responsible for anything? The Team Good/Team Bad dichotomy between how Davis treats Obama and Reagan tells you this is religion, not politics.
Angela Davis and roughly one-third of the CPUSA began a new democratic socialist party after 1991. Known as the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CC-DS), the grouplet quickly became more inconsequential than even the CPUSA of 1992. If you go to the group’s website, they will tell you the following about Barack Obama:
The 2008 election was a blow against right-wing reaction that portends a left-center realignment of the nation’s politics. It was the response of a rising progressive majority that matured during eight years of neoconservative policies that represented the most reactionary sectors of US capital. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency is an historic affirmation of centuries of struggle against oppression and racism—a struggle that continues with new inspiration.
This is not the organization’s line from 2008, but today. It’s also pretty much what Davis’ previous outfit, the CPUSA, says. But again, such is his power. One of Mae Brussell’s acolytes, who had done a decade of great research during the administration of Ronald the fascist devil Reagan, nevertheless came to be very fond of Reagan’s future White House successor. While raising some great questions about the Ed Snowden scam, he nonetheless warned:
It is a safe bet that the resulting alienation of the young, idealistic voters who rallied to Obama in 2008 contributed to the low voter turnout in the 2014 off-year elections. That low voter turnout, in turn, contributed to the election of the pro-[David] Duke, anti-Social Security GOP.
The GOP is indeed hostile to social security, one of the last vestiges of the New Deal. But in 2012 President Obama said “I suspect that, on Social Security,” he and Mitt Romney have “got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan.” Yet another positive reference to Ronald Reagan, from a leader who never tired of praising Reagan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who founded the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation with the fascist Lev Dobriansky, officially joined Obama’s team in 2007. Yet even when Obama made good on Reagan’s promise to deliver Ukraine to the OUN-B, there were more exculpatory excuses like Republicans “pressuring Obama” to hand Kiev to Nazis. Team Good, Team Bad.
Even America’s most “uncompromising Marxist” professor feels compelled to lie about Obama’s political sympathies and whitewash the 44th president’s legacy. Another commentator said last year that “Obama’s greatest failing” is that “he didn’t clean out the DNC of the Clintonian neoliberals…and the Third-Way Democratic party policies still rule.” But lamenting that Obama didn’t clean out the Clintonite neoliberals from the DNC makes as much sense as lamenting the fact that Donald Trump didn’t purge racists from the GOP. Trump would never do that, obviously, because he is a racist and those are his friends and colleagues, just like Obama is a Clintonian neoliberal and those are his friends and colleagues. Even if someone didn’t cotton to that in 2008—when Obama had been anointed by the right-wing DLC, was Wall Street’s favorite candidate, and raced to defend the Senate seat of Joe Lieberman—surely it’s absurd for progressive commentators to make that mistake in 2017. But again, such is the unique power of Brand Obama.
The previous president’s effectiveness in this regard is particularly striking when one considers his effect even on those few left-liberal figures who had his number from day one, whose very small ranks include the MIT intellectual. Take this perceptive and lacerating deconstruction of the Obama marketing myth from the 2008 election:
Before watching the debate, I’d read about how electrifying and inspirational Barack Obama was supposed to be. I’d heard about the arenas jam packed with teary-eyed 20-somethings. I’d seen clips of a wild-eyed Chris Matthews salivating uncontrollably every time the word “Obama” was uttered, as if the slick Illinois senator was standing off-camera ringing a little bell. Indeed he’s got about half of the younger-at-heart media demographic responding to that little bell of his, even people that I know.
Now that I’ve watched Barack Obama debate, and beheld this modern-day Martin Luther King Jr., this Kennedy-meets-Lincoln-by-way-of-John-The-Baptist, along with his co-star in this miserable prime time drama, Hillary Clinton, I gots ta ask: how can you people stand it?
However, even on this foundation, a few years of Obama in the White House was enough to get withering skeptics misty-eyed about the Constitution and the American dream:
Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.
Now with a Republican in the office, it’s “Scratch an anti-Communist, find a fascist.” Good advice.
Paul Street—“Obama’s most prolific and early critic on the left“—produced some of the best analysis of what Senator Obama was actually saying and doing. Street looked at The Audacity of Hope and asked if Obama’s left-liberal fans “see the part where Obama relates youthful discomfort with his college roommates’ ‘irresponsible’ criticism of ‘capitalism’ and then confesses respect for Ronald Reagan’s supposed success in embodying what Obama calls ‘American’s longing for order’ (p. 31)?”
How about the part where Obama commends “the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections” for “prevent[ing] Democrats…from straying too far from the center” and for marginalizing “those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry” (p. 38) and “radical ideas” (like peace and justice)? Obama also praises fellow centrist Senators John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for “believing in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military” and embracing “the virtues of capitalism” (p. 38).
The Bush-Cheney gang-bangers are “possessed,” Obama says, “of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries as the rest of us.”
Then there’s the chapter (simply titled “Race”) where Obama tries to cover his ass with white America by claiming that “what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.” Equally soothing to the master race is Obama’s argument that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” (p. 247).
But Obama did enough right that even Street could say that Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar had convinced him to support Obama’s war on Libya in 2011. “The knee-jerk, almost self-caricaturing counter from some sides of the so-called radical left says that it’s all about Washington’s desire to grab Libya’s oil,” wrote Street, and “Washington’s claims of humanitarian concern should be taken with more than a grain of salt, of course.” But nevertheless, “Think like Obama from a realpolitik perspective on the potential deadly political consequences of letting Gadaffi move forward with a massacre: significant global and Western public outrage over standing to the side + a worsened economic situation exacerbated by an inevitable embargo = a no-brainer self-interested equation for ‘humanitarian intervention.’” It’s hard to think of anyone other than Obama making State Department lies look like “a no-brainer” to Street and his audience.
You could add Adolph Reed, Jr., who has the distinction of having had Obama’s number back in 1996. Despite saying he didn’t vote for him in 2008, Reed claimed that the president was worse than he’d imagined and yet he voted for him in 2012. In 2016 he said it “was important” for people to “vote for the lying neoliberal warmonger,” and even resurrected an anti-Communist smear which was most likely brought into the modern era by longtime Clinton hatchet-man Sid Blumenthal in a 2008 book.
Chomsky, too, was one of the very few people of any prominence to make accurate observations about Obama’s actual politics at the time when it mattered. Here is some analysis from October 2008:
I prefer that Obama be elected without any illusions. He is a centrist Democrat who will very likely back away from the more extreme, crazed elements of the Bush programs, but will go pretty much to the center… he had no principled criticism of the war. His only criticism was that it was pointless, silly, or waste of money.
Also from the same month:
When the German news magazine Der Spiegel asked him if he was fired up with the Democratic candidate’s slogan of “Change”, Chomsky said: “Not in the least. The European reaction to Obama is a European delusion.”
“That is all rhetoric. Who cares about that? This whole election campaign deals with soaring rhetoric, hope, change, all sorts of things, but not with issues,” said the world renowned linguist in the interview this month.
A few weeks after Obama’s election, it was more good radical commentary debunking the “hope” and “change” scam:
In an interview with an editor of the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel was asked what the Obama administration would do about “the Democratic congressional leadership, which is brimming with left-wing barons who have their own agenda,” such as slashing defense spending (in accord with the will of the majority of the population) and “angling for steep energy taxes to combat global warming,” not to speak of the outright lunatics in Congress who toy with slavery reparations and even sympathize with Europeans who want to indict Bush administration war criminals for war crimes. “Barack Obama can stand up to them,” Emanuel assured the editor. The administration will be “pragmatic,” fending off left extremists.
Obama’s transition team is headed by John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff. The leading figures in his economic team are Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, both enthusiasts for the deregulation that was a major factor in the current financial crisis.
Internationally, there is not much of substance on the largely blank slate. What there is gives little reason to expect much a change from Bush’s second term, which stepped back from the radical ultranationalism and aggressive posture of the first term.
Those are the actions, at the time of writing. The rhetoric is “change” and “hope.”
By 2012, having counseled his fans to vote for Obama twice, Chomsky observed with no apparent dissonance that Obama was both “pretty reactionary” on many issues and “in many ways he’s worse” than George W. Bush.
Part IV coming soon
* The campaign circumvented inconvenient facts about Obama’s actual record by employing what can only be described as the tactics of a cult. In a book discussing the 2008 campaign, Aaron Schutz and Marie Sandy describe what went on at Camp Obama trainings, where activists were “converted” into evangelists:
We use “conversion” purposefully, here, because the model Ganz developed was drawn directly from the evangelical religious tradition. The use of personal stories to encourage others to come over to a particular denominational point of view, to an acceptance of a particular religious figure (God, Jesus, Buddha, etc.), is a classic tool used by missionaries and others. In evangelical workshops members are given suggested structures for their conversion stories that look quite similar to those Ganz provided in his trainings. In fact, Ganz was quite clear that his inspiration from this approach came from these religious sources. In the training Exley attended, Ganz asked his audience several times, “Where does your hope come from?,” finally getting the answer he wanted, “Faith.” “Exactly,” Ganz responded, “That’s why faith movements and social movements have so much to do with each other.” In the workshops, volunteers were taught to tell the stories of their conversion to Obama, just as evangelicals tell about how they were “born again” to those they are seeking to bring into the fold.
Schutz and Sandy insist that what Ganz was running was not a cult because “volunteers didn’t have the enormous time required to brainwash anyone,” but this is irrelevant—Scientology is the same whether a punter gets a single E-meter reading or whether they clear the Bridge to Total Freedom. More importantly, they then describe classic brainwashing tactics:
At the same time, the particular practice the Obama campaign used, having volunteers retell their conversion stories hundreds if not thousands of times, seems likely to have only intensified their tendency to trust Obama. In their interactions with voters, volunteers were repeatedly telling a story about themselves, who they were, how they thought, and what they cared about. Telling this story with emotion (manufactured at times or not) would seem to be a powerful tool for magnifying commitment among canvassers, something Ganz acknowledged in his organizing course. “The significance of the experience [of moving from despair to hope],” he argued, is “itself strengthened by the telling of it.” Telling stories to others is also a form of public commitment making. It is probably harder to change one’s mind about something when one has emphatically stressed one’s commitment to others in such a public and emotional fashion than if one has simply made a private decision, or even if one has more casually mentioned one’s decision to a few others. They declared their “faith” in Obama and connected this to “who” they were.
Repeating an emotionally charged statement thousands of times is unmistakably a cult brainwashing technique. Ganz says outright that the extreme repetition was intended to create a deeply felt, irrational fervor: “The significance of the experience [is] itself strengthened by the telling of it.” Connecting one’s faith in the Messiah to one’s very self—“declaring their ‘faith’ in Obama and connecting this to ‘who’ they were”—is entirely religious and not even slightly political. What Schutz and Sandy benignly refer to as “public commitment making” in order to make it “harder to change one’s mind” is the classic method of using group pressure to ensure conformity by crushing critical thinking and skepticism. Schutz and Sandy describe the experience of a woman named Lori who received two canvassers, and it bears all the hallmarks of a visit from religious evangelists:
Two Camp Obama trained volunteers, the foot soldiers of this “movement” were at my front door yesterday. They “loved” Obama and wanted to make sure that I would vote for the man who is transforming politics from all the bitter fighting of the past. They urged me to read his book but couldn’t give me one reason why they thought his positions would be preferable to anyone else’s. In fact, the best they could do is point me to his website if I was really that interested in issues.
This is classic cult behavior: two people “love” their savior for his promises to elevate society beyond bad things, but they can’t explain how that would actually happen. When pressed for specifics, they can only point to the savior’s own words and refer the non-converted to their “movement’s” promotional literature. [Aaron Schutz & Marie G. Sandy, Collective Action for Social Change: An Introduction to Community Organizing, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011, pp. 119-20]
1. Michael Parenti, Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment, St. Martin’s Press, 1992, p. 30
2. “Barack Obama ‘we must be United’.” The Guardian, 29 Jul 2004, pp. 16. elibrary, https://explore.proquest.com/document/246191303. I got access to this media archive for free through my local library; it’s a fantastic wealth of information and I would highly, highly recommend getting a library card if you don’t already have one!
3. Jeff Zeleny, “Obama’s National Appeal Rallies an Army of Backers Series: SEN. OBAMA’S FIRST YEAR IN WASHINGTON: Fourth in a Series of Reports.” Chicago Tribune, 20 Nov 2005
4. David Mendell and, Jeff Z. “Democratic Keynote Speaker Says Bush has Lost Credibility.” Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, 26 Jul 2004, pp. 1. elibrary,https://explore.proquest.com/document/457124583?
5. Jeff Zeleny, “A Foreign Classroom for Junior Senator; Barack Obama Tours the Former Soviet Union, Monitors the Destruction of Cold War Munitions–and Takes Notes from a Senior Statesman Series: SEN. OBAMA’S FIRST YEAR IN WASHINGTON Third in a Series of Reports.” Chicago Tribune, 23 Sep 2005
6. Tammerlin Drummond Special to The Star, Los Angeles Times. “Cook’s Grandson Gets Top Legal Post.” Toronto Star, 18 Mar 1990, pp. D5. elibrary,https://explore.proquest.com/document/436151233.
7. Jeff Zeleny, Tribune, “Obama’s National Appeal Rallies an Army of Backers Series: SEN. OBAMA’S FIRST YEAR IN WASHINGTON: Fourth in a Series of Reports.” Chicago Tribune, 20 Nov 2005
8. Sujatha Fernandes, Curated Stories: the Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 32
9. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: the Life and Times, The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 519)
10. Andrea Smith, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Duke University Press, 2017, p. 121
11. William A. Reuben, The Honorable Mr. Nixon, Action Books, 1960. p. i
12. David Mendell & Jeff Z. “Democratic Keynote Speaker Says Bush has Lost Credibility.” Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, 26 Jul 2004, pp. 1. elibrary, https://explore.proquest.com/document/457124583?
13. Fernandes, Curated Stories, p. 32
14. William I. Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, 2014. p. 171