The Bernie Sanders meme has been good fun over the last few days. At an inauguration ceremony where everyone was dressed to the nines, like the rulers of the Capitol in “Hunger Games,” Bernie looked like one of the downtrodden from the districts. He looked like one of us. A no-frills man of the people. And so the photo of him with his practical coat and handmade mittens has caught on exactly because it was real. As Caitlin Johnstone put it,
“This is why something as simple as Bernie Sanders turning up in mittens captured everyone’s hearts and imaginations. It was such a glitch in the whole phony performance and such a nice break from being lied to all the fucking time. We need to give people that experience way more.”
Bernie has already been pushing and pressuring the Biden administration to be more aggressive in helping people suffering in the districts, to use “Hunger Games” terminology. (We’d say “flyover country.”) Meanwhile, back in the Capitol, people were gushing over Michelle Obama’s fashion sense, or Lady Gaga’s inaugural outfit, with its huge golden bird that truly echoed the privileged getups of Capitol denizens (credit to Ron Placone for the Gaga/Hunger Games reference).
“In this moment of unprecedented crises, Congress and the Biden administration must respond through unprecedented action. No more business as usual. No more same old, same old.
Democrats, who will now control the White House, the Senate and the House, must summon the courage to demonstrate to the American people that government can effectively and rapidly respond to their pain and anxiety. As the incoming chairman of the Senate budget committee that is exactly what I intend to do.”
Good luck, Mitten Man. We need you now more than ever.
A Few Heretical Thoughts as America Celebrates Itself
Back in the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, most Americans took pride in not being like the USSR, or our image of the USSR. We, the USA, were not a militaristic empire. We, the USA, didn’t have state propaganda. We, the USA, took in Soviet dissidents who spoke out against state abuses of power and for personal freedoms. We, the USA, didn’t have old sclerotic leaders who were simply figureheads for elites. We, the USA, didn’t have military forces in the streets to maintain order. And so forth.
I was thinking about this today because Trump didn’t pardon Edward Snowden, whose only sanctuary is Russia. I was thinking about this today because some of the more interesting shows with critical coverage of the USA are on RT, a Russia-owned network. (I’m thinking here of shows hosted by Jesse Ventura and Chris Hedges. Their outspoken criticism and honesty is rarely heard on America’s mainstream media networks.) I was thinking today of a mainstream media that’s celebrating the inauguration of an aging man, Joe Biden, who’s visibly in decline and who is a tool for the establishment. I was thinking today of the nation’s capital that resembles an armed and fortified camp for a “peaceful” transference of power.
These are uncomfortable thoughts, I know.
Similarly, my wife and I were joking this morning about what the Washington Football Team should call itself, now that the “Redskins” has finally been rejected as impolitic and inappropriate. An innocuous name like the Washington Monuments came to mind. But if we wanted to be more honest, how about the Washington Lobbyists? The Washington Bullies? Or the Washington Awesome Splendor of Timeless Exceptionalism (WASTE)?
The idea for the latter name came from a recent statement the Trump administration released in support of a “Garden of American Heroes.” Here’s a sample of the rhetoric:
The garden’s purpose is “to reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism.”
The garden of heroes “is America’s answer to [a] reckless attempt to erase our heroes, values and entire way of life. On its grounds, the devastation and discord of the moment will be overcome with abiding love of country and lasting patriotism. This is the American way.”
A garden of heroes is a perfect antidote to “a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions and very identity.”
So, what Trump was saying is that America’s main enemy is “a dangerous anti-American extremism” that’s seeking to destroy our very identity. Meanwhile, anti-Trump forces are similarly arguing that Trump and his minions represent a dangerous anti-American extremism that’s out to destroy our way of life. Not much room for compromise and unity here, is there?
The Soviet Union collapsed in part due to internal tensions and disorder, massive military spending, and lost wars. A sclerotic leadership was incapable of changing course, and by the time the empire attempted to change course with Gorbachev, it was too late for restructuring and openness.
Is it already too late for the USA? Or does today’s pomp and ceremony promise a new beginning? Readers, what do you think?
I’ve heard a lot of words and historical analogies applied to the Capitol riots. Was it a coup, an insurrection, a putsch? Was it like Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923? Or was it much more American, an exercise in White supremacy, more like a lynch mob, perhaps? M. Davout asks us to think more deeply about the past, as the Founders did, and turn to the Roman Republic and its own issues with mobs. Read on! W.J. Astore
Friends, Romans, Countrymen…Rioters?
In the days since the Capitol riot on January 6, pundits, politicians, and journalists have been underlining the shocking nature of the events of that day by comparing them to the sacking and burning of the Capitol by British troops during the War of 1812. Perhaps it is too big a stretch to compare the outcome of a military raid by a hostile foreign power to an attempt by a mob of US citizens to overturn a presidential election. A different historical precedent was suggested by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (D) in the hours after the Senate reconvened to finish its work of certifying the 2020 Electoral College vote. (The entirety of his remarks can be found between time signatures 27:49 and 33:15 here.)
A visibly shaken Bennet, who at one point in his remarks notes that, “there is a tendency around this place …to always believe that we’re the first people to confront something,” starts off by suggesting that when the Founders wrote the Constitution they were thinking about “what happened to the Roman Republic when armed gangs, doing the work of politicians, prevented [Roman citizens] from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators. These were the offices in Rome and those armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from even being called, and in the end because of that the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place. And that was the end of the Roman Republic or any republic until this beautiful Constitution was written in the United States of America.”
Putting aside some historical inaccuracies (e.g., Roman senators were not popularly elected), Bennet’s point about the importance of Roman precedent for the drafters of the Constitution and their concern about the destabilizing effects of popular mobs is largely right.
However, the lesson that Roman mobs would teach us in our contemporary moment is more complicated than warning of the threat mobs can pose to a constitutional order.
In the late Roman Republic, mobs were indeed politically mobilized against the constitutional order but oftentimes in pursuit of opening that constitutional order to the interests of the common people. Noted ancient historian Moses Finley wrote that, “it would not be far from the truth to say that the Roman populus exercised influence not through participation in the formal machinery of government, through its voting power, but by taking to the streets, by agitation, demonstrations and riots…” It is no small irony that the most (in)famous example of mob action in the Roman Republic was arguably in defense of the constitutional order when the populist tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and then his brother, Gaius, were defeated and killed by mob violence carried out at the instigation of Roman senators who felt their economic interests threatened.
When the histories of this time are written, will the attack on the Capitol be considered completely sui generis, unique and incomparable to other recent episodes of populist uprising? To be sure, the rioters in the Capitol were motivated by an unhinged demagogue telling a lie, unlike the BLM protesters against an unjust criminal justice system of last summer, or even the 2011-2012 Occupy Wall Street protestors against accelerating levels of politically dangerous social inequality. However wrong and pernicious the rightwing paranoia about the presidential election results was and is, it may become clear from an historical distance that the current instability of our constitutional system has as much, if not more, to do with the corruption of our political representatives by economic elites content to pile up obscene levels of wealth at the expense of the well-being of the rest of us.
Under the continuation of such a corrupted constitutional order, we can expect more popular uprisings, whether rationally motivated and aimed at reforming that order, or cynically incited and aimed at its overthrow. Only time will tell whether such protests, uprisings, and mobs will be in service of the Republic or of elites whose interests are contrary to those of the people.
M. Davout, an at-large contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the Deep South.
Combat myths matter to more than just military members. So do their ramifications.
I don’t have any personal war stories to tell. In my twenty years in the U.S. Air Force, I never saw combat. I started as a developmental engineer, working mainly on computer software, and morphed into a historian of science and technology who taught for six years at the USAF Academy. I worked on software projects that helped pilots plan their missions and helped the world to keep track of objects in Earth orbit. I taught military cadets who did see combat and served as the dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where I saw plenty of young troops cross the graduation stage with language skills in Arabic and Pashto and other languages as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But no combat for me.
I got lucky. As one friend, an Army colonel, told me: any day you’re not being shot at is a good day in the Army. The result, however, is that I can’t tell exciting war stories that begin: “There I was” in Baghdad, or Kandahar, or Fallujah, or the Korengal Valley.
But I was involved in computer simulations (“war games”) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado near the end of the Cold War. The one I remember most vividly ended with a Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States. As I watched the (simulated) missile tracks emerge from Soviet territory, cross the Arctic circle, and terminate in American cities, I had a momentary glimpse of nuclear terror. What if I ‘d just witnessed the death of millions of Americans on a monochrome computer screen? That’s a “war story” that’s stayed with me, and so I’m a firm supporter of eliminating all nuclear weapons everywhere.
That’s my “there I sorta was” story. Yet, whether you’ve served in the military or not, all Americans tell themselves war stories, or rather stories about America’s wars. The basic story most tell themselves goes something like this:
America is a good and decent country, our troops are heroes, that we wage wars reluctantly and for noble causes, and that our wars are almost exclusively defensive or preventive. We tell ourselves we don’t want to be bombing and killing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere, but we have to be. Bad people are doing bad things, and we need to fight them over there else we’ll have to fight them right here.
Yet what if the stories we tell ourselves are all wrong? What if we are the bad people, or at least the ones doing much of the bad things? And, even if those stories aren’t always wrong and we aren’t always bad, what are the costs of permanent war – all those “bad things” associated with war – to our democracy, what’s left of it, that is?
A book I return to is Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War, by Megan Stack. Stack was a war correspondent who witnessed the effects of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. She focuses not on strategy or tactics or weaponry or combat but on the impact of war on people. And in her chapter on “Terrorism and Other Stories,” she reaches this powerful conclusion:
It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are. The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again. They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf…
We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity. We become what we do. You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there … All of that poison seeps back into our soil.
Nothing has changed since Stack’s book was published a decade ago. U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, still fighting that word, terrorism, even as there’s renewed talk within the Pentagon of a new cold war against Russia and China. A reboot of that Cold War I thought I’d witnessed the end of thirty years ago. (I even got a certificate signed by President George H.W. Bush thanking me for helping to win that war.) Could it be that real enemy doesn’t reside in Moscow or Beijing, but in us? As Stack continued:
And it makes us lie to ourselves, precisely because we want to believe that we are good … we Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators. And we say this word, terrorism, because it has become the best excuse of all. We push into other lands, we chase the ghosts of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our own hearts and blood is on our hands.
As Americans we need to stop telling ourselves self-serving war stories and start telling much tougher ones about working for peace. We need to stop telling (and selling) stories about a new cold war and stop “investing” a trillion dollars in new nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines. I’ve seen those simulated nuclear missile tracks crossing the pole and ending in American cities; that was scary enough. The real thing would be unimaginably terrifying and would likely end life on our planet.
What mad story can we possibly tell ourselves to justify the continued building of more ecocidal and genocidal weapons?
We humans are great storytellers but we’re not smart ones. Perhaps it’s the power of our stories that has led us to be the dominant and most destructive species on this planet. The problem is that we still tell far too many war stories and value them far too highly. Peace, meanwhile, if mentioned at all, is dismissed as fantasy, a tale to be told to children alongside stories of unicorns and fairies—which, to the first generation of voting age adults never to have known it, it sort of is.
Unless we smarten up and grow as a species, our collective war stories will likely be the death of us.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007. I really thought I had one article to write, focusing on the disastrous Iraq War and the way in which the Bush/Cheney administration was hiding its worst results behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus. Here we are, in 2020, and my latest article is my 75th contribution to the site, which truly amazes me. Special thanks to Tom Engelhardt for publishing my first piece back in 2007 and for setting a stellar example of what alternative freethinking media can be.
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
Channeling Lloyd Bentsen
As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.
In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.
Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.
Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.
And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.
A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.
Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.
It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.
Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.
If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”
Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?
A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends
What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.
And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.
And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.
One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.
Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.
About forty years ago, I took undergraduate courses in U.S. History, where I first learned about “normalcy.” Normalcy came from the (successful) presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding in 1920. After World War I’s devastation and Woodrow Wilson’s attempt at internationalism, what Americans wanted most of all, according to Harding, was a “return to normalcy.” Harding, running against Wilson’s record though not Wilson himself, won the presidency.
Wilson himself favored a sort of high-minded preaching when he addressed Americans; in his own way, he may have been as narcissistic as Trump, and probably more racist. Again, while Harding didn’t run against Wilson, he did run against his legacy, and to many Americans he seemed like a good and decent man and was considered handsome to boot.
Another word associated with Harding’s campaign a century ago was “bloviate,” which basically means BS. A quick Google search confirms that bloviation is “a style of empty, pompous, political speech which originated in Ohio and was used by US President Warren G. Harding.” I guess I did learn something in those history classes.
I mention these two words, normalcy and bloviate, because in many ways they sum up Joe Biden’s strategy in 2020. He’s promised a return to normalcy, i.e. a return to the Obama/Biden years, and this does hold some appeal to Americans who are sick and tired of Trump’s lies and incompetence. But Biden himself has told us little about what he hopes to achieve, preferring to bloviate, which suggests he won’t be doing much to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans, assuming he wins.
The presidency of Warren G. Harding was an ill-starred one. He surrounded himself with corrupt cronies and was humiliated by the Teapot Dome Scandal. Harding died at the comparatively young age of 57 in 1923; his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took over and led the country until 1928. Interestingly, Coolidge had made his reputation putting down the Boston police strike in the name of preserving “law and order” during the Red Scare of 1919. Perhaps his most famous sentiment as president was the idea that the business of the American people is business. It seemed to make sense during the Roaring Twenties until the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
History, as they say, doesn’t repeat itself but it does echo. Biden/Harris in 2020 is a little like Harding/Coolidge in 1920. Biden is the normalcy guy who bloviates; Harris is the VP who may well have to step in as president, but who as a “top cop” in California was no friend of labor but very much pro-business. Naturally, judging by our history, whether in 1920 or 2020, you can forget about any progressive policies unless and until we experience a cosmic crunch like the Great Depression of 1929. Even then, FDR and the New Deal didn’t come along until 1933.
History can be a depressing subject to take — a record of crimes, follies, and disasters of the past. We’re supposed to learn from it so as to avoid repeating the same. Assuming Biden/Harris win this week, we shall see if there’s any substance to them, or whether it’s just normalcy, bloviation, scandal, and business-friendly policies all over again.
Neither candidate, Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, inspires confidence, and their final debate performance highlighted their flaws.
First, Donald Trump. He remains the narcissist-in-chief, in which everything is about him except when it reflects poorly on him, in which case scapegoats are found. Trump talks about Covid-19 deaths always in the abstract, except when he talks about himself getting the virus. Then he boasts about his quick recovery and how he’s now immune to it. Trump is always the best at everything. He’s the best president that Black people have ever had, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. He’s the least racist man in America. The usual BS.
Muted microphones kept Trump’s worst impulses in check. You could see him wanting to butt in, to interrupt, and then he would check himself. It’s rather amazing that the only way America could have the semblance of a debate was through muted microphones and repeated warnings from the moderator.
What strikes me still is Trump’s laziness and lack of discipline. He really should dominate Biden quite easily. When Trump focused on Biden’s record, when he called him out for not doing anything of note in his eight years of being Obama’s VP, when he attacked him as another promise-breaking politician, Trump scored points. But Trump couldn’t focus his attack. He kept returning to Hunter Biden and the kind of Washington in-fighting that turns most people off.
For an America in despair, Trump simply promised more jobs, cheaper gas, and higher Wall Street profits. There was no vision, no hope, and most certainly no solace offered by this president. There’s no poetry to Trump, and only martial music. Even in militarist America, the Trump drumbeat is growing tiresome.
Turning to Joe Biden, he had a good night for Joe Biden. Good as in he remained vertical and mostly on target throughout the debate. Biden was strongest when he addressed the American people directly: when he showed empathy and talked about the pain and despair Americans are feeling. I did catch Biden looking at his watch once, but I’ll cut him some slack because I wanted the debate to be over as well. Overall, I don’t think Biden’s performance in this debate moved the needle in this election.
With regards to national security, naturally there were no questions about ending our wars, or reducing the Pentagon budget, or downsizing nuclear arsenals, or anything like that. “National security” focused on alleged Russian and Iranian interference in our elections and the small nuclear arsenal of North Korea. Of course, the best people at mucking up our elections aren’t Russian or Iranian, they’re American. From gerrymandering to voter intimidation to closed polling sites and lengthy lines in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Americans need no help from foreigners to interfere with our “democracy.”
For a country in despair, a country suffering from a pandemic and from a loss in confidence, neither candidate offered a clear vision for a better tomorrow. Perhaps it simply doesn’t exist in their minds. They are both remarkably limited and flawed men. One is almost certainly a sociopath in which all human relations are transactional, the other is a muddled functionary who’s been wrong more often than he’s been right.
More than microphones were muted in this final debate. Fresh thinking was muted. Inspiration was muted. Generosity was muted. And, dare I use the word, grace was muted.
Treachery and politics fit like hand-in-glove in today’s America. Donald Trump is now calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in the next two weeks. Along with blanket support of corporations, big finance, the military-industrial complex, and other privileged elites, the Republican and Democratic parties share a predilection for treachery. But is such treachery more common today among liberal elites than conservative ones? Such is the provocative question raised by Tom Osteen in this essay, his first for Bracing Views. W.J. Astore
T.J. Osteen on Treachery in America
The recent Biden corruption bombshells are not surprising. That Hunter is alleged to have peddled influence on behalf of Burisma, a Ukrainian company, in return for a no-show “job” that paid $50,000 a month, implicating his father, who was then America’s vice president, is disturbing on its face, but it has also served up collateral damage, putting on full display the alarming problem of censorship by the media.
Censorship by the media has increased dramatically in recent years, whether it be by Facebook, Twitter, or the mainstream media. In this case, Twitter and Facebook initially worked to limit the Biden corruption story; other mainstream outlets ignored it or dismissed it as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This is more than censorship: it is election interference — in a word, cheating. Other examples arrive daily, including (even more recently than the Biden fiasco) Amazon’s rejection of the Who Killed Michael Brown documentary. Per the Wall Street Journal, this was because the documentary did not fit the dominant narrative of White police officers killing young Black men because of systemic racism.
Why the increase in censorship? Because it is a symptom of something even more ominous. Rather than splitting hairs over the definition of censorship, or what Freedom of Speech means, let’s look at the root cause: the new Culture of Treachery in America.
American culture has evolved from honor-based to dignity-based, and more recently to victim-based. Some quick background on those concepts, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“Honour cultures, often called honour-shame cultures are cultures like that of the American West or Europe in the era when dueling was common. In such cultures, honour is paramount and when it is infringed upon the offended party retaliates directly.”
“A dignity culture, according to Campbell and Manning, has moral values and behavioral norms that promote the value of every human life, encouraging achievement in its children while teaching that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’”
“According to Campbell and Manning, victim-based culture engenders ‘competitive victimhood,’ incentivizing even privileged people to claim that they are the victims of, for example, reverse discrimination. According to Claire Lehmann, Manning and Campbell’s culture of victimhood sees moral worth as largely defined by skin color and membership in a fixed identity group.”
Just like the rapid news cycle that we now live with, we are already starting to move into a new cultural phase: the American culture of treachery is upon us. The culture of treachery promulgates a “succeed at all costs” mentality and celebrates the destruction of perceived enemies through power. Traditional values have no place in a culture of treachery. Likewise for liberty and justice. The only value is power: the ability to impose one’s will on another, by any means necessary.
Censorship is just one of the many aspects of a culture of treachery. Others include intolerance, deception, manipulation, and hate. The evidence is all around us now, whether it be “cancel culture” or the Russia hoax embraced by the Democrats in their failed attempt to overturn a presidential election.
So where is the source of the treachery in our society? Often the media focuses on Donald Trump and his circle, but we need look no further than who is doing the censoring. Big Tech, the mainstream media, academia, and Hollywood.
But why? These groups have several things in common. They all lean left, they all deal in power, and they all believe they have the answers. So here is the rub: Treachery arises here because liberals are just as likely to act unethically than conservatives to gain or preserve power. When presented with the opportunity to modify a search algorithm or filter information, a liberal (again in general) will do it just as readily as – or even more eagerly than – a conservative.
A so-called liberal value set makes it acceptable to manipulate search results, indoctrinate young minds toward personal political views, cancel those who have different views, or spin news stories while ignoring the truth. Far too often, it is Fox News and other conservative outlets that are condemned for malfeasance and malpractice when it’s liberal sites and power centers that are the true masters of manipulation.
So it comes down to values. Censorship is cheating. Cheating is treachery. Treachery has become as much a “value” of the Left as it is of the Right, and indeed more so as election day approaches.
The coming election and the divide in our country is not solely about policy and differing points of view. At its core, it is about whether we are going to become a Culture of Treachery or whether we are not. Culture comes from the heart. Only an across-the-board rejection of treachery will allow us to enter a productive new era of American culture and restore America to something approaching greatness.
Tom Osteen is a career technology executive and former military officer. He holds degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Southern California. An avid surfer, Tom also writes/speaks on Leading with Honor and Honor in the Workplace.
The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.
My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)
Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.
When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.
Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?
What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?
I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.
Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.
There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!
Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.
Whenever I teach Introduction to American Government, a course for freshman, I give a lecture on the notorious Bush v. Gore 2000 presidential election and use the Florida recount story to teach a basic lesson about U.S. politics: elections are not an exact science because vote totals in any given election are always only approximations. In the period leading up to the 2000 fiasco, in typical nationwide elections upwards of a million votes were tossed as uncountable for various reasons.
The reasons for the imprecision of election tallies are several but the three that I highlight to my students are: (1) the wide variation across jurisdictions in the kind, quality and age of voting technology and in the reliable application of procedures and standards (as evidenced in 2000 in the faulty punch hole devices in South Florida that resulted in many thousands of uncounted ballots); (2) the amateur status of poll workers (an hour or two of “training” qualified me to serve at a polling station during my graduate school days); and (3) the partisanship of election officials (as notoriously exemplified in 2018 by Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s contested “oversight” of the close election that resulted in his election as Georgia governor). Since 2000, many states adopted computerized voting systems in what turned out to be the false expectation that precision in voting tallies could be achieved through digitization.
We have gotten past presidential elections only approximately right and we can expect this upcoming one to be no more than approximately right. And given the unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots, state and county switches to mail-in balloting systems during this pandemic, slow-downs in mail delivery engineered by Trump’s postmaster general, and Trump’s unrelenting campaign to de-legitimize absentee and mail-in ballots, the likelihood is that the tally of uncounted ballots will be higher than ever this November. As a longtime absentee ballot voter, my recent experience with both the local election board and local mail delivery service does not give me confidence.
I mailed my absentee ballot request for the November 3 election in mid-August and was still waiting for a ballot in late September. I emailed the local election board and was told that they couldn’t find my paper ballot request (curiously, my wife’s request, which had been dropped off in a separate envelope with mine, was processed). I was instructed to file another request, this time electronically, which I immediately did. Notified by email that my absentee ballot was mailed October 1, I am still waiting for its arrival two weeks later. Meanwhile, I did receive an absentee ballot by mail but it was my neighbor’s and this botched delivery only increased my unease.
When I think of the many voters across the country who might encounter similar problems and have less time and energy than I have to follow up on undelivered or delayed absentee ballots, I begin to wonder if the imprecision of November’s tallies will be on such a scale as to change the outcome. And, if not change it, then leave it open to dispute, a dispute to be settled by a Supreme Court with justices who are increasingly conservative and in three cases beholden to the man who nominated them. It’s what Trump is counting on for “victory.”
M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the Deep South.