Clinton, Trump, and the Cynicism of American Politics

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The best we can do?

Chris Hedges.  From Truthdig.

Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading Chris Hedges since his fine book, “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.”  In this article, Hedges explains the cynicism of the U.S. political process, pinning the tail on the Democratic donkey even as the Republican elephant remains looming in the room.  The Democrats, by moving to the right and by encouraging the rise of “fringe” candidates like Trump, have created a system that has alienated large swathes of the American electorate.  Many of these people have embraced Trump, a political outsider with major, probably fatal, flaws.  It’s what happens in the aftermath of Trump’s probable defeat that worries Hedges — as should it worry all of us.  

Americans are not offered major-party candidates who have opposing political ideologies or ideas. We are presented only with manufactured political personalities. We vote for the candidate who makes us “feel” good about him or her. Campaigns are entertainment and commercial vehicles to raise billions in advertising revenue for corporations. The candidate who can provide the best show gets the most coverage. The personal brand is paramount. It takes precedence over ideas, truth, integrity and the common good. This cult of the self, which defines our politics and our culture, contains the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and incapacity for remorse or guilt. Donald Trump has these characteristics. So does Hillary Clinton.

Our system of inverted totalitarianism has within it the seeds of an overt or classical fascism. The more that political discourse becomes exclusively bombastic and a form of spectacle, the more that emotional euphoria is substituted for political thought and the more that violence is the primary form of social control, the more we move toward a Christianized fascism.

Last week’s presidential debate in St. Louis was only a few degrees removed from the Jerry Springer TV show—the angry row of women sexually abused or assaulted by Bill Clinton, the fuming Trump pacing the stage with a threatening posture, the sheeplike and carefully selected audience that provided the thin veneer of a democratic debate while four multimillionaires—Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Clinton and Trump—squabbled like spoiled schoolchildren.

The Clinton campaign, aware that the policy differences between her and a candidate such as Jeb Bush were minuscule, plotted during the primaries to elevate the fringe Republican candidates—especially Trump. To the Democratic strategists, a match between Clinton and Trump seemed made in heaven. Trump, with his “brain trust” of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, would make Clinton look like a savior.

A memo addressed to the Democratic National Committee under the heading “Our Goals & Strategy” was part of the trove of John Podesta emails released this month by WikiLeaks.

“Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to the majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …,” it reads.

The memo names Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson as candidates, or what the memo calls “Pied Piper” candidates who could push mainstream candidates closer to the positions embraced by the lunatic right. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”

The elites of the two ruling parties, who have united behind Clinton, are playing a very dangerous game. The intellectual and political vacuum caused by the United States’ species of anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics,” leaves candidates, all of whom serve the interests of the corporate state, seeking to exaggerate what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.”

However, this battle between small differences, largely defined by the culture wars, no longer works with large segments of the population. The insurgencies of Trump and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a breakdown of these forms of social control. There is a vague realization among Americans that we have undergone a corporate coup. People are angry about being lied to and fleeced by the elites. They are tired of being impotent. Trump, to many of his most fervent supporters, is a huge middle finger to a corporate establishment that has ruined their lives and the lives of their children. And if Trump, or some other bombastic idiot, is the only vehicle they have to defy the system, they will use him.

The elites, including many in the corporate press, must increasingly give political legitimacy to goons and imbeciles in a desperate battle to salvage their own legitimacy. But the more these elites pillage and loot, and the more they cast citizens aside as human refuse, the more the goons and imbeciles become actual alternatives. The corporate capitalists would prefer the civilized mask of a Hillary Clinton. But they also know that police states and fascist states will not impede their profits; indeed in such a state the capitalists will be more robust in breaking the attempts of the working class to organize for decent wages and working conditions. Citibank, Raytheon and Goldman Sachs will adapt. Capitalism functions very well without democracy.

In the 1990s I watched an impotent, nominally democratic liberal elite in the former Yugoslavia fail to understand and act against the population’s profound economic distress. The fringe demagogues whom the political and educated elites dismissed as buffoons—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—rode an anti-liberal tide to power.

The political elites in Yugoslavia at first thought the nationalist cranks and lunatics, who amassed enough support to be given secondary positions of power, could be contained. This mistake was as misguided as Franz von Papen’s assurances that when the uncouth Austrian Adolf Hitler was appointed the German chancellor in January 1933 the Nazi leader would be easily manipulated. Any system of prolonged political paralysis and failed liberalism vomits up monsters. And the longer we remain in a state of political paralysis—especially as we stumble toward another financial collapse—the more certain it becomes that these monsters will take power.

Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.

Many of these ideological elements are already part of our system of inverted totalitarianism. But inverted totalitarianism, as Sheldon Wolin wrote, disclaims its identity to pay homage to a democracy that in reality has ceased to function. It is characterized by the anonymity of the corporate centers of power. It seeks to keep the population passive and demobilized. I asked Wolin shortly before he died in 2015 that if the two major forms of social control he cited—access to easy and cheap credit and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer products—were no longer available would we see the rise of a more classical form of fascism. He said this would indeed become a possibility.

Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.

The Democratic and Republican parties may be able to disappear Trump, but they won’t disappear the phenomena that gave rise to Trump. And unless the downward spiral is reversed—unless the half of the country now living in poverty is lifted out of poverty—the cynical game the elites are playing will backfire. Out of the morass will appear a genuine “Christian” fascist endowed with political skill, intelligence, self-discipline, ruthlessness and charisma. The monster the elites will again unwittingly elevate, as a foil to keep themselves in power, will consume them. There would be some justice in this if we did not all have to pay.

4 thoughts on “Clinton, Trump, and the Cynicism of American Politics

  1. Chris Hedges has written a number of important books, such as Death of the Liberal Class, Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, and American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America. In this article, he leans heavily on Professor Sheldon Wolin’s outstanding book: Democracy, Inc., Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism in my opinion one of the best books on political philosophy ever written. For those unfamiliar with Professor Wolin’s thinking, I recommend the eight-part (three hour) interview with him conducted by Chris Hedges on the Real News Network, entitled “Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist?”. Well worth the time spent watching it, either in pieces or in its entirety.

    I took some notes and at the 1:28:31 mark Hedges reminds Professor Wolin that “Bill Clinton turned the Democratic Party into the Republican Party and forced the Republican Party to become insane.” Hedges makes the same comment in this article. For his part, Professor Wolin agreed and added that “in order to compete with the Republicans there will be every temptation for the Democrats to emulate them.” I have always maintained that the old Clinton slogan “two for the price of one” in reality meant that the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy could buy two Clinton democrats for what they used to pay for only one Republican. Competition and emulation indeed. As the old saying goes: “Immitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And do those Clinton democrats ever know how to flatter Republicans. They have become indistinguishable from them.

    This essential merging of the ostensibly separate Republicans and Democrats has not gone unnoticed by others besides Chris Hedges and Professor Sheldon Wolin. Dr. Paul Craig Roberts says that “America now has two Republican parties,” and Gore Vidal said long ago that “America has only one political party, the Property Party, and it has two right wings.” In any event, as Professor Wolin wrote in Democracy Inc., “no meaningful politics left of right any longer exists in America.” Americans now have only Mordor’s proffered “choice” between two indistinguishable right-wing factions hysterically fighting over the Ring of Power like Frodo and Gollum on the edge of the Crack of Doom (if I can crib an image from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). As we all know, things didn’t work out too well for the “winner” who for some reason reminds me so much of You-Know-Her.

    Again, a very good article by Chris Hedges. I found especially interesting that “Pied Piper” metaphor as employed by the Clinton minion John Podesta: typically cynical, yet so superficial and ignorant of the actual German folk tale as to merit a detailed rebuttal and analysis. But that will take more time than I have available now. Perhaps later.

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  2. I picked up a hitch hiker today – one of the drop outs of society by choice. He goes down to Mexico every winter to surf and in the summer he comes up to BC in Canada. So I asked him how he felt or what he knew about the drug gangs in Mexico. He said, ” I go into the village or town and started gently asking if any of the cartels are here and if the answer is yes, I’m down the road.” He told me the story of some friends from Austria who he was surfing with and had known from previous years. He said he heard the cartels were around and he advised his friends to go to another place. They laughed as they had been coming there for years! Still, they were rounded up at gunpoint by cartel members and forcibly held for two days, not knowing if they would be shot or let go. They were let go.

    My hitch hiker said he then flew to LA as to see his ill father. He said the airport was like an armed camp filled with security guards, US Marshals and police. He said it felt more dangerous in LA than in Mexico and he couldn’t wait to leave as he felt it was ready to explode.

    Well, this is just a first person story – nothing to think about here, just move along please and you won’t be noticed by the bad guys or the good guys. “It’s great to be back in Canada” he said.

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  3. “Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.”

    Simply the most profoundly true and succinct statement of who the Clintons are I have ever come across. Outstanding article.

    The Jerry Springer Show…now that’s the simile for the “debates” I’ve been looking for. What a disgrace that our political culture has come to this.

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  4. Hedges diagnosis the problem but fails miserably in offering a
    “Prescriptio”. In addition, he presents his thesis in such didactic terms that it significantly
    ” delutes” his argument… his rhetoric overwhelms & distracts
    even sophisticated/knowledgable
    readers.
    Lastly, Hedges fails to present
    his analysis in the context of the
    “real politic” of America today &
    HOW it is fast- morphing into
    AmeriKa. While I agree that both parties are totally committed to the capitalist model he identifies,
    the ” clintonite” model is much more susceptible to pressure that can lead to change & move toward a more equitable capitalist model. It is the height of naivity (and in my mind counter -productive to believe that American capitalism can be replaced as an economic &
    social system as long as the deeply ingrained myth in the American Psyche that under our system “anyone can make it;
    If only… . ( fill in the blanks) ”
    Unless we or existential catastrophes occurr the best we can do is to continue to modify. The fundamental result of this myth, acted out, and “believed in” by millions upon millions of “decent” Americans , is why they vote against their best interests.
    Another factor, rarely mentioned,
    Is that the USA is so huge a land mass & therefore geographically diverse that cultural ( in addition to other demographic diversity)
    creates major barriers to political unification. To assert, as Hedges does, that the ” Capitalists” have ” “brain-washed” Anericans to believe this is a dangerous piece of rhetoric that is counter-productive to crafting stratigies
    & tactics that will enable us to
    overcome the “”REAL POlITiC”
    Which characterizes America today. Stemming the tide toward
    a FASCIST AMERIKA will take time and carefull assessment
    of what is doable and how, what we do now, can enhance our goal to create an Anerica free of capitalism. We must push the envelope and LEAD; but we must always keep in mind where
    “!Vox Popular” is at. Otherwise any movement toward our goal will abort as so many of these attempts have in the recent past:
    Think the ” Wall Street”movement & even more recently,the pending demise of the nascent ” Bernie or Bust” promising movement for change.
    Bottom line Hedges needs to “grow up” Rhetoric is of little value in this struggle. Short -term sttategies & tactics , combined & coordinated with well-planned, flexible objectives & goals is the formula for success. Whether or not we who are committed can pull it off, is a question that ( to
    Quote this yrs NOBEL prize winner, BOB DYLAN:
    ” The Answer My Friends Is
    Blowin’ In The Wind”

    While we can

    only

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