Donald Trump and America’s Confused Values

The 2016 presidential election posed a grim choice: “I’m with her” Hillary (note how her slogan was not “She’s with me,” because she wasn’t), and Donald Trump. I chose neither.

The best descriptor of our current president is Joe Bageant’s: “a careening set of brainless balls.” (Joe wrote this long before Trump became a candidate.) Lately, those brainless balls have been careening ever more violently into racist territory, yet his support seems as strong as ever. Something is rotten in the State of America, and it won’t be cleaned up even when Trump is gone. As I argued in this post from May 2017, America’s values are seriously screwed up. With allegedly devout Christians embracing Trump as some sort of prophet if not savior, you just know all of this is not going to end well.

Bracing Views

Better days are here, for some of us.

W.J. Astore

Joe Bageant was a remarkable writer, the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus” as well as “Rainbow Pie.”  A self-confessed “redneck,” he worked his way into the middle class as an editor, but he never forgot his roots in Appalachia and the subsistence farming of his Scots-Irish family. Bageant had a brutally honest and unadorned way of speaking and writing, and also a great affection and deep respect for traditional communal values in America.

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The other day, I was reading an old essay Bageant wrote, “Live from Planet Norte” (June 2010), long before Donald Trump was even remotely considered to be presidential material.  As usual, Joe nailed it:

[I]n the process of building our own gilded rat-cage, we have proven that old saw about democracy eventually leading to mediocrity to be true. Especially if you keep dumbing down all the rats. After all, Dan Quayle…

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Trump’s True Treason

Donald Trump Holds "Keep America Great" Rally In Greenville, NC
As long as enough Americans keep cheering, Trump will keep ruling through denunciation, disdain, and divisiveness (but note the guy next to Pence, covering his face with his hand, hopefully in disgust)

W.J. Astore

Robert Mueller testified before Congress today (7/24), the big takeaway being that his report didn’t exonerate Trump of, well, something.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence that proves Trump colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election in 2016.  There is evidence Trump tried to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry, but his own subordinates disobeyed or ignored him, thereby protecting him from his own stupidity.

So, Trump didn’t collude with Russia and Mueller was able to complete his investigation, therefore Trump is essentially in the clear, especially on the damning charge of treason.  Right?

Not so fast.  I recently read Sebastian Junger’s fine book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016), and the following passage resonated:

“politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so disruptive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason.  It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this.  In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon.  It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”

Junger nails it.  Accusing your political rivals of deliberately trying to harm America, which Trump routinely does when he denounces Democrats at his rallies, could be construed as a form of treason.  Seeking to divide Americans on the basis of race, religion, and other qualities, which Trump also routinely does, is another behavior that could be construed as treasonous to American ideals and treacherous to our ability to come together and govern ourselves.

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Trump’s treason (if you want to call it that) is in plain sight.  It’s in the way he divides Americans and denounces his opponents as putting America (and Israel!) in danger.  His treachery is blatant.  The problem is that roughly 40% of Americans seem willing either to follow Trump or to look the other way as he rules through denunciation, disdain, and divisiveness.

Trump will use any tactic to protect his power and privilege.  He is an unprincipled and rank opportunist who works for his own self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps that’s not the legal definition of treason, but it is the defining characteristic of a man who should be voted out of office in 2020.

U.S. Folly in Afghanistan and Media Complicity

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Gen. Mark Milley argues America’s Afghan War has been “successful to date”

W.J. Astore

On NBC News today, I came across the following, revealing, headline:

The U.S. is eager to end its longest war. In interview, Taliban gives little sign it’s ready to change.

Aha!  The U.S. military is allegedly seeking an end to its Afghan war, but it’s being stopped in its tracks by stubbornly uncompromising Taliban forces.  So, it’s not our fault, right?  We’re trying to leave, but the Taliban won’t let us.

I’ve been writing against the Afghan war for a decade.  It was always a lost war for the United States, and it always will be.  But the U.S. military doesn’t see it that way, as Andrew Bacevich explains in a recent article on America’s flailing and failing generals.  These generals, Bacevich notes, have redefined the Afghan war as “successful to date.”  How so?  Because no major terrorist attack on America has come out of Afghanistan since 9/11/2001.  As Bacevich rightly notes, such a criterion of “success” is both narrow and contrived.

So, according to Mark Milley, the most senior general in the U.S. Army, soon to be head of the Joint Chiefs, America can count the Afghan war as “successful.”  If so, why are we allegedly so eager to end it?  Why not keep the “success” going forever?

Back in November of 2009, I wrote the following about America’s Afghan war.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

Pulling out an old encyclopedia, I then added a little history:

Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win.

I stand by that last sentence.  Your “successful to date” war has been nothing but folly, General Milley, a reality mainstream media sources are determined not to survey.

Yes, Trump is a Racist

Donald Trump Makes Announcement At Trump Tower
Trump on the down escalator toward American carnage, 2015

W.J. Astore

Yes, Donald Trump is a racist.  His attacks on four Democratic Congresswomen of color are only the most recent illustration of this.  Trump, of course, is also an opportunist.  A conniver.  An exploiter.  Unless it backfires, he’ll keep using racism.  It fires up his “base” and distracts from the looting his family and administration are actively engaged in.

Trump intuitively grasped a painful reality that Norman Mailer wrote about in 1968.  Inspired by Richard Nixon’s campaign, Mailer wrote that “political power of the most frightening sort was obviously waiting for the first demagogue who would smash the obsession and free the white man of his guilt [of slavery and racism and their legacies].  Torrents of energy would be loosed, yes, those same torrents which Hitler had freed in the Germans when he exploded their ten-year obsession with whether they had lost the war [World War I] through betrayal or through material weakness.  Through betrayal, Hitler had told them: Germans were actually strong and good.  The consequences would never be counted.”

Immediately after writing this, Mailer said:

“Now if suburban America was not waiting for Georgie Wallace, it might still be waiting for Super-Wallace.”

Enter Candidate Trump on his escalator, railing against Mexicans as rapists and killers.  Stoking fear and bigotry against people of color.  He did it, guiltlessly, because it worked.  And it proved a balm to so many in his base, who could now vent their racism because a rich White man like Trump had given them cover, permission, even a mandate.

Recall Mailer’s words: “The consequences [of unleashing guilt-free racism in America] would never be counted.”  We’ve been experiencing these consequences since Trump rode that escalator down and unleashed his own brand of American carnage.  We will continue to experience them even when Trump is finally out of office and long dead.  Because Trump isn’t guilty alone.  He needs followers willing to embrace his lies, his vitriol, his hateful speech.

Isn’t it time we rejected Trump, and all his words and works, and all his empty promises?

Stop Exporting Violence, America

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W.J. Astore

The USA is a violent land.  And perhaps that might be OK, if we limited the violence to us. But we’ve become the world’s leading exporter of deadly weaponry, a fact I was reminded of this morning as I read William Hartung’s latest article on the military-industrial complex at TomDispatch.com. In detailing the ever-growing power of the Complex, Hartung had this telling sentence:

When pressed, Raytheon officials argue that, in enabling mass slaughter, they are simply following U.S. government policy.

Tragic as that statement is, it’s also true.  As I’ve written about before, weapons ‘r’ us.  Our so-called peacetime economy is geared to war, homeland security, surveillance, and other forms of violent and coercive technologies and products.  Even as America seeks to prevent other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we’re actively seeking to sell WMD to others, as long as those weapons are Made in the USA and go to “allies” that pay promptly, like the Saudis.

Being the world’s leading purveyor of violence can only lead to America’s spiritual death, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued so eloquently a half-century ago.  As MLK’s words show, this tragic reality is nothing new in America.  As Senator J. William Fulbright noted in 1970, the U.S. emerged after World War II to become “the world’s major salesman of armaments.”  Fulbright went further and quoted Marine Corps General David M. Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient, and Shoup’s conclusion that “America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation.”  Remember, this was fifty years ago, when the U.S. at least faced a real threat from Communism, no matter how much we inflated it.  We face no equivalent threat today, no matter how much the Pentagon hyperventilates about China and Russia.

Returning to Hartung’s article, I like his title: “Eisenhower’s Worst Nightmare.”  Indeed it is, in the sense that the military-industrial complex is, ultimately, an American complex.  Which makes me think of another Eisenhower sentiment: that only Americans can truly hurt America.  That our biggest enemy is within our borders: our own violence, aggression, fear, and hatred, especially of others.

Ike was right about the Complex, and he was right about how America would truly be hurt and defeated.  The enemy is not from without.  No walls will keep him out.  No — the enemy is within.  And it won’t — indeed, it can’t — be defeated by weapons and violence.  Indeed, more weapons and violence only make it stronger.

Be an indispensable nation, America.  Be exceptional.  Be great.  As Melania Trump might say, Be Best.  How?  Stop exporting violence.  And stop the hurt within.

The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders at George Washington University: Reshaping America’s political language

M. Davout

In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”

With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.

Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”

While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018.  Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.

And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.

In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

American Militarism Is Riding High

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I again turn to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, inspired by a critique written by J. William Fulbright almost a half-century ago.  Given the murderous and disastrous war in Southeast Asia of Fulbright’s time, many Americans back then were willing to be highly critical of the military, especially with a draft still in force.  (A draft that privileged men like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump managed to avoid.)  Nowadays, of course, Americans are encouraged to venerate the military, to salute “our” troops, to applaud as various warplanes soar overhead, as they did during Donald Trump’s recent militaristic July 4th ceremony.  What we’re not encouraged to do is to criticize or even to question America’s vast military establishment and its enormous power, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about that establishment in his famous farewell speech in 1961.

It’s high time we Americans listened to Ike as well as to J.W. Fulbright.  Let’s give the latter a close listen, shall we?

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Because nothing says “America” like tanks, fences, barriers, police, and a sign saying the way is closed to the “left”

A while back … I stumbled across Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1970 book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine and, out of curiosity, bought it for the princely sum of five dollars. Now, talk about creepy. Fulbright, who left the Senate in 1974 and died in 1995, noted a phenomenon then that should ring a distinct bell today. Americans, he wrote, “have grown distressingly used to war.” He then added a line that still couldn’t be more up to date: “Violence is our most important product.” Congress, he complained (and this, too, should ring a distinct bell in 2019), was shoveling money at the Pentagon “with virtually no questions asked,” while costly weapons systems were seen mainly “as a means of prosperity,” especially for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. “Militarism has been creeping up on us,” he warned, and the American public, conditioned by endless crises and warnings of war, had grown numb, leaving “few, other than the young, [to] protest against what is happening.”

Back then, of course, the bogeyman that kept the process going was Communism. America’s exaggerated fear of Communism then (and terrorism now) strengthened militarism at home in a myriad of ways while, as Fulbright put it, “undermining democratic procedure and values.” And doesn’t that ring a few bells, too? Complicit in all this was the Pentagon’s own propaganda machine, which worked hard “to persuade the American people that the military is good for you.”

Perhaps my favorite passage from that book was a message the senator received from a citizen who had attended a Pentagon rah-rah “informational seminar.”  Writing to Fulbright, he suggested that “the greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion-dollar existence.”

In a rousing conclusion on the “dangers of the military sell” that seems no less apt nearly a half-century later, Fulbright warned that America’s “chronic state of war” was generating a “monster [military] bureaucracy.” Citing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he noted how “the mindless violence of war” was eroding America’s moral values and ended by emphasizing that dealing with the growth of immoral militarism was vitally important to the country’s future.

“The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy,” he noted, citing the dissenters of his day who opposed America’s murderous war in Southeast Asia. And he added a warning no less applicable today: Americans shouldn’t put their faith in senior military men whose “parochial talents” were too narrow “to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society.”

Reading Fulbright today, I couldn’t help but recall one of my dad’s favorite sayings, translated from the French: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the weaponry may be upgraded (drones with Hellfire missiles rather than bombers dropping napalm); the names of the countries may be different (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia rather than Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); even the stated purpose of the wars of the moment may have altered (fighting terrorism rather than defeating Communism); but over the last 50 years, the most fundamental things have remained remarkably consistent: militarism, violence, the endless feeding of the military-industrial complex, the growth of the national security state, and wars, ever more wars, always purportedly waged in the name of peace.

Sometimes when you buy a used book, it comes with a bonus. This one held between its pages a yellowed clipping of a contemporary New York Times review with the telling title, “O What a Lovely Pentagon.” In agreeing with Fulbright, the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang, himself a veteran of World War II, wrote:

“To keep up the [Pentagon] budgets, all three services compete for bigger and better armaments in coordination with the publicity salesmen from the major corporations — for whom retired generals and admirals serve as front men. Thousands of uniformed men and millions of dollars are involved in hard-selling the Pentagon way of life.”

Change “millions” to “billions” and Mitgang’s point remains as on target as ever.

Citing another book under review, which critiqued U.S. military procurement practices, Mitgang concluded: “What emerges here is a permanent floating crap game with the taxpayer as loser and Congress as banker, shelling out for Pentagon and peace profiteers with an ineptitude that would bankrupt any other business.”

Spot on, Herb Mitgang, who perhaps played his share of craps during his Army service!

As I read Fulbright’s almost 50-year-old polemic and Mitgang’s hard-hitting review, I asked myself, how did the American people come to forget, or perhaps never truly absorb, such lessons? How did we stop worrying about war and come to love the all-volunteer military quite so much? (Thank you for your service!) So much so that, today, we engorge the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state with well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars annually — and the power to match…

Read more of my essay here at TomDispatch.com.

Addendum: Along with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Trump’s July 4th ceremony turned into a military air show of sorts.  When you read the Declaration of Independence from 1776, you’re reminded that the colonists wanted to be free of the King’s wars and their high costs.  Now, on Independence Day, we celebrate our military weaponry without mentioning the high costs, even as we ignore our unending wars.

It’s time for another political revolution against the king’s wars and their high costs.  It’s time to throw off the heavy yoke of militarism in America.