I saw this headline and story at the Guardian today: “Pandemic and protests spur Americans to buy guns at record pace.”
And it just made me sad. Sad because Americans see guns as a security blanket. Sad because guns are so expensive and also so easily misused. Sad because more guns is really not the answer to anything. Certainly not a pandemic.
Consider the sheer expense of guns. A decent revolver, ammunition, a cleaning kit, and a few hours at your local gun range will likely cost at least a grand ($1000) at a time when almost half of Americans can’t meet an unexpected expense of $400. Yet people find solace in a gun, a form of mental comfort, a sense of “I’m prepared.” For Covid-19? For peaceful protesters? For the Purge? Who knows?
It’s sad as well to recognize a gun in the home raises the risk of suicide by gun, and of course of accidental shootings. Too many people buy a gun without knowing much about them — and how important it is to keep them secure, especially from children.
Look: I’ve owned guns and have shot everything from pellet pistols and rifles to Dirty Harry’s famed Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. I can even cite Harry’s “Feel lucky, punk” line from memory. I’m not anti-gun, but I am anti-hysteria.
Too many Americans are looking down the barrel of a loaded pistol for answers — and that’s neither the wisest nor safest place to look. We need to strengthen our communities, not fortify our bunkers. Buying more guns only does the latter.
While the mainstream media focuses on alleged threats from without, the most insidious dangers are those from within America, as I argue in my latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:
Killing Democracy in America The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore
The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going — until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.
I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence — and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to — dare I say it — in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).
Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.
You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong
To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.
Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.
As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening — that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.
In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).
The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be — the dream of the Vietnam era — fought in a “limited” fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).
More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying “collateral damage” — that is, dead civilians — from it.
Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.
When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spend significantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy — the Taliban continues to gain ground — yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.
Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?
The Bible tells us that all is vanity, and that’s most certainly true of the Trump campaign and its search for donors. A friend of mine sent me the following come-on from Trump/Pence 2020:
“I’ll admit I’m disappointed [that you haven’t contributed as yet], but I know you have it in you to be one of my STRONGEST supporters, which is why I’m reaching out with a one-time offer in the hope that you’ll join me in making history.
When you make your FIRST contribution of ANY AMOUNT, you’ll instantly join the ranks in the Trump Donor Hall of Fame. This prestigious group will be remembered forever as the Patriots who won us the 2020 Election, and I’m offering YOU a spot. The Trump Donor Hall of Fame is very competitive and your offer is only available for the NEXT HOUR. After that, I’ll be forced to reach out to the next Patriot.Please make your FIRST contribution of ANY AMOUNT IMMEDIATELY and you’ll automatically get your name cemented in the Trump Donor Hall of Fame.”
Now, tell me, dear reader, who could refuse such an offer? A chance to be enshrined (or “cemented”) in the “Trump Donor Hall of Fame.” And all you need to contribute is a dollar — or even a penny! Not only that, but you’ll gain personal recognition from one Donald J. Trump. According to the ad:
“I’ll be walking through the Hall of Fame later today and I’ll be looking for your name. Make sure I see it.”
Donald Trump — walking? Well, it’s nice to see him getting some exercise.
This come-on reminds me of Trump University, where you were guaranteed to meet Trump and get a photo with him. Turns out that guarantee was bogus (like most of Trump’s presidency, and his businesses for that matter), but some people did get a photo with a cardboard cutout of Trump.
Trump has a keen sense of human vanity, powered as it is by his own bottomless vanity and venality. But will it be enough to get him reelected? (Along with the usual fear-mongering, race-baiting, flag-waving, and the like?) Stay tuned.
Killer robots! How many “Terminator” movies do we have to see before we conclude this is not a good idea?
You guessed it: the U.S. military is at it again. Awash in cash, it’s investigating killer robots in earnest, striving for ever more “autonomy” for its robots, thereby reducing the need for humans in the loop. Part of this drive for robotic warfare comes from the Covid-19 pandemic, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com. America’s tech-heavy approach to warfare puts lots of people in close proximity in confined spaces, whether on ships and submarines or in planes and tanks. “Social distancing” really isn’t practical even on the largest ships, such as the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, briefly put out of commission by the pandemic. So why not build ships that need few or no people? Why not build autonomous killer robot ships?
Obviously, the Pentagon thinks that movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” among so many others that warn about humanity’s overreliance on machinery and the possibility the machines themselves might become conscious and turn on their creators, are just that: movies. Fantasies. Because technology never has unpredictable results, right?
So, killer robots are on the horizon, making it even easier for the U.S. military to wage war while risking as few troops as possible. I’m sure once America invests billions and billions in high-tech semi-autonomous or fully autonomous killing machines, we’ll keep them in reserve and use them only as a last resort. Just like we do with our big bombs.
To read Michael Klare’s piece on killer robots, follow this link.
Who’s going to win the 2020 election? I can already tell you who’s won: the military-industrial-congressional complex. With broad bipartisan support, the next Pentagon budget will be $740.5 billion, and that’s just for starters. Congress has also acted to thwart troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, because fighting a devastating war for 19 years and counting isn’t enough. (See this excellent article and video by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept.) We must keep fighting that war because — well, reasons. You can insert various phony reasons here: we must support our Afghan allies; we must combat terrorism; we must stay loyal to the Nato allies we dragooned into the war; we must continue fighting or else Russia wins because … bounties? Putin?
The real reasons: profit. Bases. Resources. And a total lack of sense and fortitude within the Washington Beltway.
It’s deja vu all over again, because in 2012 I wrote the following article on how the Pentagon had already won the election irrespective of which candidate — Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — prevailed. And so it proved.
Even during a pandemic, even during a recession, even when American workers and our armies of the unemployed need all the help they can get, the Pentagon budget reigns supreme. War and weapons are truly the health of the state here in America, uniting Democrats and Republicans in a form of militaristic bliss. But fighting and containing Covid-19? Helping the needy? Not so much.
The National Security State Wins (Again) Why the Real Victor in Campaign 2012 Won’t Be Obama or Romney
By William J. Astore
Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the media is already handicapping the presidential election big time, and the neck-and-neck opinion polls are pouring in. But whether President Obama gets his second term or Romney enters the Oval Office, there’s a third candidate no one’s paying much attention to, and that candidate is guaranteed to be the one clear winner of election 2012: the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state.
The reasons are easy enough to explain. Despite his record as a “warrior-president,” despite the breathless “Obama got Osama” campaign boosterism, common inside-the-Beltway wisdom has it that the president has backed himself into a national security corner. He must continue to appear strong and uncompromising on defense or else he’ll get the usual Democrat-as-war-wimp label tattooed on his arm by the Republicans.
Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him — so goes American political thinking — candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising, a hawk among hawks. Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neo-conservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.
Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more. More ships for the Navy. More planes for the Air Force. More troops in general — perhaps 100,000 more. And much more spending on national defense.
Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes.
Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war. Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgets, forever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status. In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power. Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.
To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities — real or perceived — on military issues. Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap. As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record (during the Republican presidential debates) as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran. A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.
Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit. These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles. Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials. Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.” Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.
Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons. It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service. Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing an invaluable national service by helping him get elected.
An old American upper class sense of noblesse oblige, of sons of privilege like George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy volunteering for national service in wartime, has been dead for decades in our otherwise military-happy country. When it comes to sending American sons (and increasingly daughters) into harm’s way, for President Romney it’ll be another case of chickenhawk guts and working-class blood.
For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted). As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex — and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.
Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense. Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style. He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya; expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process. America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty. Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.
The political reality, of course, is different. Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel. (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?)
The president and his campaign staff are no fools. Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightwards on military issues and national defense. As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex. In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.
So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall? Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state. Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.
Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so. Come January 2013, regardless of which man takes the oath of office, we’ll remain a country with a manic enthusiasm for the military. Rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.
For all the suspense the media will gin up in the coming months, the ballots are already in and the real winner of election 2012 will be the national security state. Unless you’re a denizen of that special interest state, we know the loser, too. It’s you.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses how the two presidential candidates are sure to out-militarize each other in the coming election campaign, click here or download it to your iPod here.
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As a social scientist living through horrific political, economic, and public health crises, I should be embracing with all my might philosophical materialism, the epistemological model behind science. That I don’t could cost me personal and collegial respect, not to mention friendships. So, what exactly is philosophical materialism, and why do I find it ultimately non-collegial?
Philosophy precedes science. It’s impossible to have science (or the sciences) without a presupposition about what is real, which is the arena of philosophy. Philosophical materialism says that all that is real or factual is material or physical in nature. And I find this too limiting.
I am more attuned to the Eastern philosophical model, intellectually supported these days by quantum physics, particularly the early 20th-century German physicist Werner Heisenberg. It holds that non-material phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations, are as real as physical phenomenon such as rocks and rivers, in one sense, even more real. (My dream is a reality sui generis. It is not electrochemical activity in my brain.) What’s more, all material and non-material phenomena come into existence from individual conscious intention and belief; there is no truly independent universe out there.
The good philosophical news here about the anti-materialist epistemological model is the plausibility of a multi-world or multi-dimensional universe. If reality is a product of consciousness, rather than the other way around, it seems to me Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s claim that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is really possible. In fact, the psycho-therapeutic value of that statement is considerable.
But what do I do with my propensity toward progressive activism? And what do I do with those great discussions I have with my friends on how disgusting and horrible the Trump administration is? Can I have both perspectives at the same time? Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And it seems counterintuitive to be, following the Bible, “in the world but not of the world,” to see everyday life as play, as a sort of game created by me and only for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing for “alternative facts,” as the supporters of Trump do. I’m not denying science or the dangers of Covid-19. When I go out, I social distance and wear a mask as needed. But I also believe there is a reality outside of rocks and rivers, so to speak, a reality created by my consciousness, an immaterial realm that has its own existence, whether for me or for all of us. Some might call this a “higher” realm; I prefer to see it as linked to the material, for I myself am both physical and mental, both material and immaterial.
Those epistemological paradigms, material and immaterial, provide me with solace in these dark days. Not everything is controlled by others, and especially not by the Cult of Trump. I decide. And for me that’s an empowering thought at a time when power is being actively denied to so many of us.
Richard Sahn is a retired sociology professor and a regular contributor to Bracing Views.
While castigating the “radical left” in his latest vitriolic speech before Mount Rushmore, Trump proposed a new garden of heroes to celebrate meaningful Americans. Naturally, that list has generated controversy. As others have noted, Native Americans are absent from the list; so too are Hispanics; and so too are Democratic presidents.
Here’s a look at Trump’s “heroes”:
John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
It’s easy to pick apart any list. Why this person and not that one? Or why not this person and that one? For example, why not MLK Jr. and Malcolm X? Why not Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali? Is it because MLK Jr. and Jackie are considered safer, or less controversial, or more American because they were “less angry”?
Among other absences, there’s another I’d like to highlight: Any person dedicated to the cause of peace.*
Again, looking at Trump’s list, what struck me was the predictable worship of military men, not just Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Civil War or Audie Murphy from World War II but the usual generals Trump professes to love, Patton and MacArthur. Two vainglorious wannabe Caesars, the very opposite of America’s citizen-soldier ideal, are Trump’s idea of America’s noblest generals. Not George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley, also of World War II fame, and both more deserving of acclaim, and more suited to America’s military traditions. Or how about General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, who became an outspoken critic of war after his retirement?
What also struck me was the presence of “the usual suspects” in the list. Do we really need yet another statue to George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Benjamin Franklin? Can’t we come up with some lesser known heroes worthy of acclaim, perhaps someone like Prudence Crandall, a schoolteacher who established the first school for African-American girls in New England, and who faced mob violence as she fought to keep her school open. Or how about Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith, who fought so hard in antebellum America against war. America has a wealth of unsung heroes; why not take this chance to celebrate “ordinary” Americans doing extraordinary things?
Notice, naturally, the deep bow to conservative icons such as Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia. An evangelist, a president, and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively. So how about Dorothy Day, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Blackmun to balance the partisan ledger?
Some science might be injected with Carl Sagan or James Watson. Some environmentalism with Rachel Carson. During a pandemic, why not Jonas Salk? And why is America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, not on this list? Of course, you could go on almost endlessly here.
Perhaps what amused me most was the stipulation the statues have to be lifelike or realistic, not abstract or modernist representations. They are to be “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal,” per Trump’s executive order. This rejection of abstract or modernist representation put me to mind of Nazi Germany’s rejection of so-called degenerate art. The Nazis preferred art that celebrated uncontroversially the heroism of Germans and the human form: art that was open only to the most obvious interpretation. As a good friend put it, “Combine Trump’s classical garden of heroes with his edict that public buildings be made ‘beautiful again’ in a neoclassical style and all he’s missing is a catchy antisemitic drinking song.”
In other words, Trump wants a garden of heroes in which we’re expected to bow our heads in awe, rather than hold our heads in thought. Awe is befitting to a dictatorship, but thought is becoming to a democracy.
* I’ve applauded MLK Jr.’s efforts to end the Vietnam War; he deserves to be recognized as a peace activist, but of course he’s on Trump’s list for his civil rights record, not his critique of America as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. One name I’d love to see added to the list is Daniel Ellsberg, who risked everything to expose American lies with the release of the Pentagon Papers.
President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power. Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics. Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed. He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.
Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting. The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.
Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.
Why? Because Trump has nothing real to run on. His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans. When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say. No policy goals. Nothing. The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.
If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.
Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist. It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy. For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers. Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.” Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.
Truly, these are bizarre times. Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals. As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated. Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.
Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost. Why? Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects. And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy. A sucker. And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.
Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power. Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.
Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America. Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer. Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.” He wants to keep it servile to him. He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.
Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?
Today, the 4th of July, reminds us of our independence but not of its universality or equity. Frederick Douglass famously called attention to America’s hypocrisy in his 4th of July speech in 1852. Recently, his descendants read portions of his speech, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBe5qbnkqoM
As Davout says in his powerful article, Douglass called for a better America, one that would move beyond empty patriotic gestures. It’s a message that’s even more urgently needed today.
A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem. Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.
Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852
Trump isn’t a politician — he’s a brand. What he wants more than anything is brand loyalty. So he plays to his base as much as possible, maintaining their loyalty by hitting “hot button” issues like immigration, abortion, white power, guns, Confederate generals, standing for the flag and the national anthem, the bible (while gassing peaceful protesters), and so on.
Obama was also a brand — but he arguably gave his most fervent supporters much less than Trump. What I mean is this: Obama posed as a progressive but ruled mostly as a corporate Republican-lite, taking his base for granted, figuring quite rightly they had nowhere else to go. What that meant in practice was a feckless administration that led to disillusion, setting the stage for another, much less moderate, brand name: Trump.
Early in 2010, I was flummoxed by Obama and his feckless leadership. Tapping into my affection for science fiction and “Star Trek,” I wrote the article below on how Obama had to “Learn from Mr. Spock” and take bigger chances. Of course, Obama had no interest in going big — he much preferred to cash in and go home. And so he has.
Trump and Obama: well-known brand names, but one has served his base more loyally than the other. Guess which one? Hint: It’s the one who overacts, much like William Shatner playing Captain Kirk.
President Obama: Learn from Mr. Spock! (Posted 1/27/2010)
President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s. Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya. Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.
Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience. Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer. An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair. Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator. Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.
Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command. In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.” His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.
To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet. As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids. While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that. He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.
Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions. He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them. Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire. Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position. The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.
What went wrong? Spock doesn’t know. Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew. But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally. Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.
While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings. A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.” Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.
Now, let’s turn to Obama. Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental). Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.
What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots. Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options. By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.
How does Spock recover and save the day? By gambling. As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it. Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry. But the desperate gamble works. Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet. Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.
The lesson? Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds. Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it. He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it. In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.
So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command? That we could use a little inspiration. That we want less analysis and more action. That we may even need a game-changing gamble.
C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it. Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.
Postscript (7/1/20): Obama never took command. He never took risks on behalf of progressive principles. (Perhaps he just didn’t have any.) The emptiness of his brand enabled Trump. Will Trump’s emptiness enable more fecklessness in the name of Joe Biden?