Clinton, Trump, and the Cynicism of American Politics

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The best we can do?

Chris Hedges.  From Truthdig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump and American Fascism?

The Donald: Easy to make fun of ... too easy
The Donald: Easy to make fun of … too easy (AP/Seth Wenig)

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to me this morning about Donald Trump and American fascism.  Is Trump, with his anti-immigrant posturing and his generally bombastic demeanor, tapping into a “fascist spring” in America?

The question seems unduly alarming as well as absurd.  But let’s pause for a moment.  I recently saw on TV the results of a poll in which Americans were asked, “Which presidential candidate would best revive the American economy?”  The clear winner: Donald Trump. Yes, maybe it’s just name recognition or an association of Trump’s name with money-making, but the result was nevertheless disturbing.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to view Trump as a joke.  His bad hair.  His vulgar manner.  His obvious bombast.

But guess who else was dismissed as a joke?  Adolf Hitler.

Before he got his grip on power, many in Germany thought that Hitler was a joke: bad haircut, ill-fitting clothes, vulgar accent. Hitler was known as the “Bohemian Corporal,” a euphemism which in colloquial American English translates to “Hillbilly Grunt.”  As a result, “good” Germans just couldn’t take Hitler that seriously.  They underestimated him — and when they tried to move against him, it was far too late.

Of course, I’m not saying that Trump is some kind of Hitler.  What I am saying is that popular demagogues are easy to make fun of — easy, that is, until they gain power.

Sinclair Lewis had it right: It Can Happen Here.  All it takes is a megalomaniacal and messianic leader, a crisis to make the people desperate (such as the Great Depression that facilitated Hitler’s rise), various elites who cynically and opportunistically throw their support behind the “great leader,” and enough of the rest of us who choose, out of fear or indifference or ignorance, to do nothing.

Update (8/23/15): The Donald is still gaining in the polls, notes the New York Times, despite (or rather because of) the outrageous things he says:

In poll after poll of Republicans, Mr. Trump leads among women, despite having used terms like “fat pigs” and “disgusting animals” to denigrate some of them. He leads among evangelical Christians, despite saying he had never had a reason to ask God for forgiveness. He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters. He leads among the most frequent, likely voters, even though his appeal is greatest among those with little history of voting.

One thing is certain: Trump draws support from people who are simply tired of traditional candidates like Jeb Bush.  But does Trump stand for anything other than himself?  He’s notably vague on the issues, perhaps learning from the Obama Campaign in 2008 that it’s far better to sell vague slogans like “hope” and “change” to the American people.  Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again!” — and that may be all that many Americans want to hear.

The National Security State’s Tentacles Are Strangling Our Lives

Those tentacles are reaching everywhere, America
Those tentacles are reaching everywhere, America

By the Editors

Dan White’s article on Admiral (retired) McRaven’s new job as Chancellor of the University of Texas system provides a warning that must be heeded.  There is dangerous intent behind the appointment of military flag officers and national security operatives to leading public college and university leadership positions. The political elites, who usually appoint their like-minded allies to the governing boards of these institutions, see students in these public institutions of learning as potential activists against the status quo (as they were during the Vietnam War era). The governing boards usually vet the candidates for this office and thus want the candidate to mirror their own views of “national interests.” Those “interests” don’t include critical thinking or the idea of questioning authority.

Appointing a proven supporter (like McRaven) of the elites’ view of “national interest” in times like these, when their “interest” involves issues at variance with the common good, is looked at as a judicious decision. That means putting people into these offices who support the Patriot Act and its assault on citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly. It also means appointing people who support the government in its pursuit of perpetual war.

McRaven’s appointment to the University of Texas and the ridiculous appointment of Janet Napolitano, former head of the police state agency known as “Homeland Security,” as President of the university system of California are prime examples of this tendency. These selections show absolutely no interest in education but rather in administering and enforcing a sheep-like faculty and student body in these important institutions that otherwise could and should foster the serious questioning of our government and our oligarchical elites.

The elites know that stuffed shirts like McRaven and Napolitano can be counted on to foster bland conformity and blind compliance. That’s exactly why they’re hired for these offices. They work to ensure the subservience of higher education to the national security state. California and Texas are two of the biggest public university systems in the country.  Is it any accident they are controlled by Napolitano and McRaven, both former operatives and enforcers in the national security state?

Not only does the national security state conspire to control higher education but national sports as well. Consider the recent revelation of Department of Defense payments to NFL teams for on-field ceremonies in honor of the troops. These ceremonies, used for recruitment and propaganda purposes, were meant to seem free and spontaneous on the part of the participating football teams, even as behind the scenes the Department of Defense was feeding the teams taxpayer money in the millions for these ceremonies. It’s all about extending the reach of the national security state into all realms of life, to include sports.  That’s the real NFL scandal of today, not Tom Brady’s “Deflategate.”

Be afraid, America, as the national security state reaches out to control the message of higher education as well as professional sports.  High culture, low culture, it doesn’t matter.  The power elites want to control it all.

Awaken, patriotic American citizens, and resist.  Don’t let the national security state’s tentacles reach into more and more aspects of your and your children’s lives.

“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.