So much of what passes for America’s Kulturkampf (culture struggle) consists of phony, made up, manufactured issues. Consider the following sign, sent to me by a friend as he toured the wilds of Pennsylvania:
It is supposedly “politically incorrect” to say Merry Christmas, to state the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God”), to salute the flag, and to thank the troops. Those who do all these things apparently take pride in their alleged outspokenness and their love of all things American.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s never been politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas. Virtually all Americans say they believe in God or some higher power. Nearly all Americans respect the flag (even those who kneel in protest, I’d argue), and America’s respect for the military has never been higher.
But this sign with its false narrative encapsulates much of the Republican/Trumpian message: We’re the real Americans. And anyone who says “Happy Holidays” or who suggests separation of church and state or who sees protest as legitimate free speech is obviously un-American and should leave the country.
I just wonder at all those Americans who buy signs like this, thinking that by doing so they’re showcasing their bravery at being non-PC and their pride in being so “American.”
One thing is certain: this manufactured culture war is a great way to distract and divide the commoners as the rich and powerful continue their looting of America.
Weekends are a good time to sit back, reflect, and think. Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:
1. Remember 9/11/2001? Of course you do. Almost everyone back then seemed to compare it to Pearl Harbor, another date that would live in infamy — and that was a big mistake. In 1941, the USA was attacked by another sovereign nation. In 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists. But international terrorism was nothing new, and indeed the U.S. was already actively combating Al Qaeda. The only new thing was the shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks — especially the images of the Twin Towers collapsing.
By adopting the Pearl Harbor image, our response was predetermined, i.e. the deployment of the U.S. military to wage war. Even that wasn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, if we’d stopped with Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. But, as Henry Kissinger said, Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Someone else had to pay, in this case the unlucky Iraqis. And then the U.S. military was stuck with two occupations that it was fated to lose. And millions of Afghan and Iraqi people suffered for our leaders’ mistakes.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 9/11 was how no one in Washington took the blame for it. I don’t recall any high-level firings. The buck stopped nowhere. Same with torture. The buck stopped nowhere. Officialdom looked the other way, including the next administration under the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. He changed nothing in this area. His mantra about “looking forward” meant learning nothing from history.
It’s this lack of accountability, perhaps, that made Trump possible. He lies constantly and blunders and blusters, yet (so far) there’s no accountability for that either. People just expect our government to be composed of con men and serial liars, so why not just elect one as president?
No accountability after 9/11 and torture led to “no accountability” Trump.
2. Another thought on 9/11: The 9/11 war-driven response was part of American exceptionalism. What I mean is this: America is not supposed to be on the receiving end of “shock and awe.” We are supposed to be the givers of it. As Americans, we were totally unprepared, psychologically, for such a blow. (A Soviet nuclear attack, a million times more devastating, would have made more “sense” in that the danger was drummed into us.) An attack by hijacked airliners, a mutant form of airpower? Well, America is supposed to rule the skies. We bomb others; they don’t bomb us. Right?
It was all so shocking and destabilizing, hence the “rally around the flag” effect and the blank check issued by Congress to Bush/Cheney for what has proved to be a forever war on terror — or something. And now, with Trump and crew, is the new “something” Iran?
3. In our military-first culture, projects like the B-21 stealth bomber are just accepted as business as usual — the cost of keeping America “safe.” We had more debate about weapons systems during the Cold War, when we truly faced an existential threat. Now, weapons ‘r’ us. It’s a peculiar moment in American history, a sort of cult of the gun, whether that “gun” is a bomber, missile, aircraft carrier, etc.
Put differently, our personal insecurities (due to debt, health care, jobs, weather catastrophes, fear of immigrants, etc.) have driven a cult of security in which guns and related military technologies have been offered as a palliative or even a panacea. Feel secure — buy a gun. Feel secure — build a new stealth bomber. Stand your ground — global strike. The personal is the political is the military.
4. If Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” Yes — it’s a good thing that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, but his recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, large in image, was short on substance. Will those verification details be worked out in the future? Do the North Koreans have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? Both are doubtful. So, does Trump deserve a Nobel peace prize? About as much as Obama did.
5. I’ve never witnessed a man destroy a political party like Trump has taken apart the Republicans. It’s a remarkable achievement, actually. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I was once a Gerald Ford supporter in the 1976 election, and I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. (We make mistakes when we’re young; that said, Walter Mondale was an uninspiring Democratic candidate.) I thought the Republican Party had principles; I think it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the only “principles” are money and power, as in getting more of both. If that means kowtowing to Trump, so be it. Kneel before Zod, Republicans!
That’s enough for my Saturday afternoon. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
I used to think the Republican party had principles of substance. I supported Gerald Ford in 1976 and found common cause with Ronald Reagan during the early ’80s. Ford was a decent man, a moderate Republican (imagine such a thing in 2017!), and people forget that Reagan worked with Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Today’s Republican Party? The only “principles” they seem to have are driven by profit and power. When you sell people’s privacy, conspire to deny them health care, and authorize projects that threaten the very air they breathe and the water they drink, you are the antithesis of public servants.
President Trump, of course, is partly to blame, but he’s often little more than a blustering figurehead. Republicans in 2017 would be seeking to gut Obamacare, rape the earth, and sell everything in and out of sight regardless of which of their candidates had won the presidency. Would it really be much different under President Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Jeb! Bush?
Who’s to blame? It sure isn’t the Russians or Comey at the FBI. You might blame Hillary Clinton in part for running a horrible campaign. And surely the Democratic Party for favoring her over Bernie Sanders. I’d also blame all those who voted for Trump and who were driven to do so for their own unprincipled reasons.
America is already paying a high cost for Republican rule. Lindy West at the Guardian puts it well: “America has never seen a party less caring than 21st-century Republicans.”
As she explains:
I don’t know that America has ever seen a political party so divested of care. Since Trump took office, Republicans have proposed legislation to destroy unions, the healthcare system, the education system and the Environmental Protection Agency; to defund the reproductive health charity Planned Parenthood and restrict abortion; to stifle public protest and decimate arts funding; to increase the risk of violence against trans people and roll back anti-discrimination laws; and to funnel more and more wealth from the poorest to the richest. Every executive order and piece of GOP legislation is destructive, aimed at dismantling something else, never creating anything new, never in the service of improving the care of the nation.
Contemporary American conservatism is not a political philosophy so much as the roiling negative space around Barack Obama’s legacy. Can you imagine being that insecure? Can you imagine not wanting children to have healthcare because you’re embarrassed a black guy was your boss? It would be sad if it wasn’t so dangerous.
A close friend put it well: “I think much of it is about spite — let’s take away whatever Obama did just because we hate him and because we CAN. Whatever he did must be wrong. Have they [the Republicans] done anything or passed any regulation since they took office that actually benefits anyone other than big business (and maybe coal miners)? I honestly can’t think of anything! Isn’t [Steve] Bannon’s philosophy to deconstruct and destroy the government? I’d say he’s succeeding.”
Yes, it’s always easier to destroy than to create. And when you destroy, there’s money to be made from the wreckage.
Behold, I give you today’s Republican Party, a party of wreckers.
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.
You’ve seen the headlines: Can Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton?
The short answer: Of course he can. And so can she beat him.
It’s a long time until November, and so much can (and will) happen between now and then. But some obvious points about the volatility of this year’s presidential race:
1. Both candidates have high negatives. An NBC/Wall Street Poll suggests that 68% of voters doubt whether they could vote for Trump – and 58% of voters doubt they could vote for Hillary. High negatives suggest lack of enthusiasm as well as antipathy. Turned off by the candidates, many voters may simply stay home in November. And that makes for a volatile race.
2. Trump is prone to gaffes. The man will say almost anything: Women seeking an abortion deserve to be punished. Women reporters who challenge him are cranky from their period. Mexican immigrants are thugs and rapists. Muslims must be banned from the U.S. Terrorists’ families should be hunted down and killed. Protesters at his rallies should be punched and thrown out. And on and on. So far, Trump has been a Teflon candidate: His outlandish statements have not harmed him appreciably. But how long before he says something equally offensive, or worse, as we head toward the general election this fall?
3. Trump’s business record. Trump University, anyone? That trial should be interesting. As lawsuits stalk Trump, how long before some past deal, either dodgy or dishonest, blows up in his face?
4. Hillary’s political record. Benghazi, anyone? But potentially worse than Libya is the ongoing FBI investigation into Hillary’s emails. Perhaps she’ll be cleared of wrongdoing, but the taint of wrongdoing will remain. Indeed, a hint of scandal has always surrounded the Clintons – and it’s not just because of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
5. Hillary’s lack of political acumen: It’s hard to get enthusiastic about Clinton. Other than the fact she’d be the first female president (a big milestone, of course), there’s nothing new about her. Consider her race against Bernie Sanders. It was Bernie who drove the narrative. It was Bernie who won the vote among the young, both male and female. Hillary is the staid old establishment. When she raves, it’s about continuity. But who wants continuity in America today? What American is truly happy with the status quo (besides members of the establishment, of course)?
6. Wildcard events: Another 9/11-like attack. A bear market on Wall Street. Wider conflict in the Middle East. An incident with China in the Pacific. A Russian move against Ukraine. Will a crisis favor the “experience” of Clinton, or will people prefer Trump because “he gets things done” or “puts America first”? As Yoda the Jedi Master says, “Difficult to see. Always in motion the future.”
7. Finally, consider the fact that Bernie Sanders has run an issues-oriented campaign against Clinton. He hasn’t attacked her on her emails. He’s left Bill Clinton’s past behavior out of the mix. But just wait until the fall when the Republican attack dogs are unleashed. Hillary is fond of saying she’s seen it all from Republicans, but with the stakes this high, I’m guessing there’s much she hasn’t seen.
So, yes, Trump can beat Clinton, and vice-versa. The sorry fact is that regardless of which candidate wins, the country will be left with a deeply flawed leader who’ll be despised or disliked by more than half the electorate.
Last night’s Republican Presidential Debate in Texas would dismay almost anyone interested in debates or politics. Insults flew. Boasts filled the air. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio postured about which could be meaner toward “illegals” (undocumented workers). There was more talk of border walls, of higher defense spending, of cutting taxes, of eliminating Obamacare, of reanimating Antonin Scalia and restoring him to the Supreme Court (think of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” but retitled as “SCOTUS Sematary”) — OK, that last one I made up, but if they could, they would.
I took a high school course on “debate and discussion,” and later as a professor I graded my students on debates. Remember rules like staying on subject? On following the rules? On keeping to the time allotted, on being civil to your opponent, on sticking to facts, on relying on evidence? If you don’t recall those criteria, join the club of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.
Almost any objective observer of the debate would score a win for John Kasich, the governor of Ohio. He was clear, passionate, and stuck mainly to the subject. He stressed his executive and governmental experience, spoke in complete sentences, and avoided insults and sound bites. I don’t agree with much of what Kasich advocates, but he has the temperament and qualifications to make him a sound choice for the presidency.
Trump, of course, plays up his business acumen as preparing him for the presidency, and his argument against bickering politicians like Cruz and Rubio is compelling. But let’s face it: watch the debates for just a few minutes and you realize Trump is a bully whose main attribute is bombastic self-confidence. By temperament he is unsuited to be president. The grim reality is that Republicans appear to have no answer to him.
This is partly because the debates are about issues only in passing. They’re mainly about show, and “The Donald” knows how to put on a show. As Cruz and Rubio split the vote, and Kasich and Carson slowly fade, Trump tightens his grip on the delegate total needed to grab the Republican nomination.
The amazing thing is this: It’s now quite conceivable that come January 2017, we will see Donald Trump inaugurated as president.
One word describes last night’s Republican debate from South Carolina: nasty. That’s the word Donald Trump used to describe Ted Cruz (transcript here), and that’s the word that best describes the tone of most of the debate. Ben Carson and John Kasich, as usual, tried to take the high road, but Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush joined Trump and Cruz in the mud-slinging, tossing accusations about who’s lying and who isn’t, who’s insulting whose family, ad nauseam. (According to the LA Times, the candidates together made 22 accusations of lying; all that was missing was the old expression we used as kids, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!”)
As far as content, there wasn’t much new. The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia touched off a dishonest discussion as to what President Obama should do about his empty seat. Pretty much all the candidates suggested the “lame duck” president should not nominate a replacement for Scalia (thereby abdicating his Constitutional duties). According to them, Obama is such a polarizing figure, and so untrustworthy, that he should leave to the next president the duty of nominating a new justice. It was all nonsense, but it illustrated the patent dishonesty of politics as practiced in America today.
As I listened to the debate, the content and tone reminded me of the mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion. Again, there was much talk of deporting illegal immigrants, of blowing away our enemies (especially the Islamic State), of protecting gun rights, of ending Obamacare, of lowering taxes on the rich, all to be done in the name of our Lord.
Some media headlines from the debate coverage: “Jeb Bush attacks Donald Trump” (New York Times); “Sparks Fly at Rowdy Republican Debate” (NBC News); “The Gloves Come Off” (CBS News). Yes, much heat was generated, but precious little light. A dispiriting exercise, the debate illustrated the bad faith of the leading Republican candidates, as well as the rot within and across our entire political system.
If you missed the debate, consider yourself fortunate.