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Wack Political Economy

The Sessions-Trump divide

Back in the day, a book by Carl Oglesby (1935-2011, R.I.P.), once a president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, anti-bombing faction) intrigued me. He envisioned a split in the capitalist class between “old money” Yankee Brahmins and arriviste “cowboy capitalists” of the South and West.

The old money was concentrated on the East Coast and typified by politicians like former New York governor and vice-president Nelson Rockefeller. The cowboys’ wealth was based on oil and gas extraction (as indeed, was the Rockefellers’, but way back). They were anti-Rockefeller, though I don’t recall whom Oglesby thought they liked the most. Perhaps Reagan, who was emerging by 1976; Nixon was toast by then. (Oglesby also edited an anthology, The New Left Reader, that I devoured. Its authors included heavyweights like C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, André Gorz, Frantz Fanon, and other left-wing celebrities.)

Oglesby’s thesis was that the cowboys were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I propose no conspiracy theories. But the sociological contrast was interesting at the time and still is.

I refer back to this because a new sort of rivalry looks to be brewing. This is a purely speculative exercise. I’m just shootin’ the shit here, like the “game theory” guy on Twitter, but hopefully with less stupid.

The old money kept their money but lost their political leaders, a largely extinct species known as “Republican moderates.” They seem to have more ties these days to Democrats—dare I say, to the Clintons and Obamas, who raised oodles of money from Wall Street. Still, that did not prevent them, if we could say there is a “them,” from insinuating a pack of Goldman Sachs alumni into the commanding heights of what we laughingly call the Trump Administration.

Under what is called “financialization,” the financial sector has expanded greatly at the expense of others, such as manufacturing. For these folks, typified by Goldman Sachs, it’s always heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. As long as they keep enriching themselves, they care little about how the country is governed.

The real conflict is the remarkable tussle between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions.

A similar indifference might apply to the military, which now holds three top positions in the administration, now that Priebus has been replaced by General John Kelly. As long as the military controls military stuff (inevitable since Trump and Bannon are complete dunderheads on all things foreign policy), and as long as Trump inflates the defense budget, they have good reason to not otherwise make waves. Like the Goldman Sachs crew, they’ll also be around after he’s gone.

It seems likely, based on the evidence of the blindingly brief career of Scaramucci, that Kelly will shake off the other oddballs in the White House the second any of them step out of line. Bannon, Miller, Conway—he has no use for them. As Trump is increasingly isolated, with nobody but his family around him, the military people will just mind the store until outside forces finally congeal to force Trump out of office.

The main rivalry I have in mind does not include “Wall Street” in the ordinary sense. The financial people are useful tools for Trump and do stuff he doesn’t much know or care about, and they don’t give him any grief. The real conflict that is more visible is the remarkable tussle between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Behind Sessions is a legion of wingnut institutions and personalities, including Breitbart and Drudge. The infamous Steve Bannon is with them too. Defending Trump are Kushner, Melania, and the late, unlamented Mooch. My view is that behind them and Trump himself is the intertwined Russian mafia and Russian kleptocratic state.

The Sessions side is the old (relative to the 2016 primaries) Republican Party, which maintains a full-spectrum menu of vile, ultra-rightist objectives, economic and social. With the rubbishing of Reince Priebus (including at Melania’s urging), Trump is pushing them away.

My view is that Trump doesn’t personally care about conservative axioms. He has a few pet peeves in the policy arena—trade, crime, terrorism, and immigration—things he talks about but knows nothing about. His main priority is self-aggrandizement, financially and psychologically.

Trump’s mobbed-up associates don’t have much in the way of domestic policy preferences either, witness many prior departures from conservative tenets, from the Mooch and from Trump himself. Of course, they are out for money, so they are in accord with the usual clichés about tax cuts and deregulation. But mainly they want to protect their meal ticket, Trump himself.

On foreign policy, the hand of Putin has been hypothesized. Ironically, all the uproar about Russia makes it more difficult for Trump to actually tilt towards Russia in explicit, visible decisions, especially when the Senate votes 98-2 for more Russian sanctions. Still, what he doesn’t do can matter as much as what he does do, or might have done. So Trump has been a good investment for Putin from a foreign policy standpoint.

The financial people and military are both unleashed, free to manipulate the easily-gulled president.

The Republicans don’t need Trump. If he goes they have an ideal stooge in Pence, and possibly a more effective governing coalition. That’s why Sessions is hanging on to his Cabinet position for dear life. He can see a life after Trump. The Republicans don’t have any connection to Russians that I’ve seen, and their historic anti-Sovietism precludes much in the way of Russophilia.

A wrinkle in this dichotomy is the ethno-nationalism that is visible in Trump himself and in his Rasputin, Steve Bannon. Sessions’s racism and xenophobia complement Bannon’s neo-fascist views on “Western civilization.” I have my doubts that the exotic ideology of anti-globalism runs deep in Trump. He could have seen it as a convenient extension of his vicious, garden-variety racism. It may be an ideology that he entertains, akin to a suit that he could tire of, and easily discard. A more energetic revolt by the Republican Congress that is widely hinted at, in the wake of Priebus’s ouster, could push Trump closer to what the wingnuts call the Democrats in his White House. Bannon’s days would be numbered. They may be numbered now. As noted above, Kelly doesn’t need him.

None of these choices are digestible. The conflict adds instability to an already volatile ruling regime. The financial people and military are both unleashed, free to manipulate the easily-gulled president. The temptation to seize on terrorist provocations, to use lethal force on some vulnerable foreign victim are nothing to celebrate. As the old saying goes, with crisis comes opportunity. The crisis is serious; may the opportunity be successfully exploited.