America, America

By Jonathan Kirshner

Appalled by the state of affairs, realizing the greatness and the nearness of the danger . . . and thinking, as men are apt to think in great crises, that when all had been done they still have something left to do, and when all had been said they have not said enough, again called on the captains one by one . . . he reminded them of their country, the freest of the free, and of the unfettered discretion allowed to all in it to live as they pleased.” [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 7.69.2]

Everything ends. I know some of you have reservations about America — a Republic founded on the bloodstained hands of ethnic cleansing and the monstrous crime of slavery (the enduring legacies of which it has not yet escaped); invariably imperfect, occasionally murderous, often disappointing — but I’ve always been quite fond of it, despite the fact that I have spent most of my life in pitched opposition to its leadership. Ours was an audacious experiment in self-government forged by an extraordinary (if flawed, as we all are) cohort of founding fathers — an attempt to build a land of unprecedented freedom and opportunity which, especially in its best moments proved much better than anything else going. And even though the arc of history does not bend in any particular direction — it wobbles rather indifferently to the dignity of mankind — measured by the scores of years, until very recently, at any given moment America was better at that time than it had been 20 years previously.

To mourn for America is not my style. In fact, I have rarely mustered much enthusiasm even for my own team. Johnson (before my time), I could never forgive; Carter was not the kind of guy who inspired; Clinton, who I voted for over and over again, always struck me as a shallow opportunist — a view his undignified post-Presidency has only reinforced. And those were the wins. Then consider Nixon, a paranoid schemer whose self-appointed enemies were my heroes; Reagan had more substance than his detractors like to think, but he played the race card, and his policies were not my policies. As for Bush the younger — he quite irritated me. At least Nixon and Reagan were self-made, whereas “W,” an undistinguished fellow, emerged from the halls of privilege.

The point is, what we have here is quite a different thing. This is not about partisanship — I have lost more than my share of elections. And if a conservative Republican like John Kasich, or, help us all, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, had won the Presidency, I would have been terribly disappointed. My side would have lost, my policies would have been abandoned. But such things happen in the normal course of events. Nor is this about politics more generally, which on a good day is an exercise in imperfection and compromise. Truman and Eisenhower each presided over shameful acts, more than once. It’s hard to be a saint in the city.

No, this is about our very capacity for self-governance, which is a fundamentally different beast, and no small thing. Perhaps you are inclined to tell yourself stories about Trump’s huge loss in the popular vote, how but for a few thousand ballots here or there and the quirks of the Electoral College, he would not be President. But you’d be wrong. Even if he lost, that he could get so close exposed the ruin of our political parish. From day one of the election campaign — that Mussolini on-an-escalator gesticulating incoherently about Mexican rapists — Trump ought to have been booed off the stage 20 times over. The list of should-have-been disqualifying moments is too long and too familiar to rehearse, but some of the highest crimes still linger: mocking heroes, banning Muslims, gleefully consorting with white-supremacists and anti-Semites (you name them, he retweeted them), more generally parading dangerous ignorance (about things like nuclear weapons) as if it was a virtue, showering praise on murderous authoritarian enemies of America, and conducting his affairs more broadly as if he was an incurious, spoiled game-show host surrounded by sycophants — this is the man that has been chosen by the people to lead us.

One of the most alarming aspects of the rise of Trump is (or should have been) his embrace of the Orwellian lie. This also cannot be normalized with a comforting “all politicians lie.” Of course they do. Lying is not telling the truth, or shaping a version of events with the intent to deceive. These things happen. Jimmy Carter promised he would “never lie to us.” Great. Nixon told so many lies it’s amazing he could keep track of them. But we are not talking about garden variety lying here — we are talking about the totalitarian lie: lies told, repeatedly, loudly and insistently, in direct confrontation with the indisputable truth. Lies purposefully designed to undermine the very capacity to make truth claims. Orwell was right to warn of this. But here we are.

Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within. We are Athens, we are Rome — we are, more than anything, Paris in the 1930s, another society divided against itself, living in what one historian described as “the age of unreason.” France then boasted the mightiest army on the continent, but the country was so hollowed out it simply collapsed when placed under stress, leading to defeat, occupation, humiliation. “Better Hitler than Blum,” many on the French right muttered, faced with the prospect of a Jewish Prime Minister — is “better Putin than Hillary” the 21st century equivalent?

We will now find out. The social experiment on which we are embarking is a treacherous one, from which it will not prove easy to recover. Trump promises a revolution — empty rhetoric of course — the promise actually on offer is what inter-war French reactionaries also dreamt of, a restoration of the 19th century order, when the mighty industrial trusts raped the poor and raped the land, and kept workers in line by convincing them that dirty foreigners (then Irish, Italians, and hordes from East Asia) were stealing their jobs — and when that wasn’t enough, the iron fist of strike-breaking, storm-trooping law-and-order would do. Still, even the rhetorical invocation of “revolution” is yet another in an overflowing field of red flags about the danger to our democracy. Americans can have a soft spot for “revolution,” since our war of independence from the British Empire was so nifty. But most revolutions are not. They are usually overtaken by their most extreme elements, spiral beyond the control of the principled, and lead to the collapse of social order and gratuitous and senseless bloodletting. “Reckless audacity came to be understood as the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice,” Thucydides described, recounting conditions on the eve of the corpse-strewn Corcyraean Revolution. “In this contest the blunter wits were most successful.” Thucydides, in his commentary regarding the deterioration (and ultimate collapse) of Athenian democracy, hits too close to home: “Men now did just what they pleased, coolly venturing on what they had formerly done only in a corner” — this, more than anything, seems like the hallmark of the emerging Trump regime, replete with norm-trampling transgressions. We are in the hands of an ignorant, amoral, petulant authoritarian who has been handed the keys to the most powerful office on the country, and the world.

How did it come to this? To begin with, two things Trump (and many others) have observed are correct. It has indeed been a dispiriting few decades for the middle class and the poor, and especially so for the less-educated working class. By no fault of their own and due to no lack of effort or diligence, globalization, technological change, and automation have tilted the playing field against them. Middle class wages have been long-stagnant at best, opportunities for advancement increasingly slipping out of reach, and the idea that one’s hard-working children will find a better life rings increasingly hollow. Moreover, those who have prospered slip between their satin sheets each night, telling themselves sweet lies that everybody gets what they deserve because the “invisible hand” of market efficiency assures that factors of production are rewarded according to their marginal benefit to society. But how many of them have read The Wealth of Nations, the magisterial treatise where Adam Smith coined that phrase? (It’s more than a thousand pages long — that’s a lot of tweets.) They ought to, because they might learn that a hedge-fund manager who makes a billion dollars a year is not really 10 times more productive or socially beneficial than the less clever duffer who only takes in $100 million annually. Similarly, increased productivity, genius, or scarcity simply cannot account for the extent to which the pay-packets of CEOs have soared, in both an absolute sense and relative to their employees, over the past few decades. Those rewards have more to do with the pathologies of the executive compensation process and the socialized risk and dysfunctional incentive structures found in the financial sector. Adam Smith and the classical economists would have recognized these as “market failures” — a technical term applied for those exceptional circumstances where the magic of the market does not apply. In Wealth of Nations, for example, Smith favored things like public education and called for regulation of the financial sector, which, he thought, if left to its own devices would encourage ruinous speculation. But in today’s America, the glaring market failures that make the rich richer are not much fretted about — better to save such concerns, it seems, for the potential inefficiencies attendant to making the minimum wage a living wage.

Second, not only is contemporary American capitalism indifferent to its injustices, the system is, indeed, rigged. The wealthy have access to power; our representatives are beholden to the special interests they are supposed to protect us from. It is a plain fact that our political system is compromised. Nowhere is this more evident than in the financial sector and its (non-) oversight, a bipartisan catastrophe two decades in the making, when Bill Clinton’s New Democrats joined the Republican Party in their full-on embrace of Wall Street. Revolving door, crony-capitalism, fox guarding the henhouse — these old tropes, all accurate, fail to capture the full extent of the intimate ideological and financial enmeshment of the Wall Street-Washington axis. Friend-of-finance Phil Gramm, Senator from Texas, spent years shepherding conflict-of-interest riddled legislation from his perch as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee before flying off to join banking giant UBS. Alan Greenspan spent his entire career in the company of bankers, and, when dispensing his public obligations as the nation’s chief financial regulator, could not possibly have been finance’s more faithful servant. But it was not just our Republican friends who fed lustily at this trough. Larry Summers (he who saved derivatives traders from oversight and regulation) subsequently raked in millions a year as compensation for his part time job at a hedge fund, and was paid $135,000 for a speech he delivered to Goldman Sachs (not Hillary money, but still, that must have been a hell of a speech) just a few months before joining the Obama Administration, where he would be an influential voice in decisions about how best to deal with the financial sector. And let’s not forget Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, who oversaw the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, something that made it possible for Citibank to become Citigroup — an outfit Rubin joined immediately upon leaving the Clinton Administration. Handed the title “Chairman of the Executive Committee” (a position the responsibilities for which the Wall Street Journal could not quite ascertain), Rubin was paid over $125 million for his efforts — and he must have been worth every penny, or the free market would never have so compensated him. Curiously, he did urge Citi to bet heavily on Collateralized Debt Obligations, a reckless gamble that came within an eyelash of ruining the venerable 200-year-old firm during the financial crisis.

In retrospect it was after the Global Financial Crisis when push came to shove — the straight line from that economic upheaval to this political catastrophe is now plain enough to see. We had no choice but to save the financial system; without the extraordinary measures taken by the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration things would have been worse — much, much worse. But the irresponsible recklessness of the unregulated financial sector and the government that was derelict in its duty to supervise it led to the financial crisis, and the financial crisis led to the Great Recession, a nasty and stubborn affair that exacerbated the troubling economic trends of the previous few decades. And the bankers went into full “let them eat cake” mode — not just unrepentant, but beyond arrogant, failing to recognize the extent to which as “well-connected insiders” as Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf put it, they are “shielded from loss but impose massive costs on everybody else.”

So yes, the system is rigged (I’m going to credit this idea to Bernie, though), and President Hillary Clinton would not have changed that. It did not seem to even register with either Clinton that former and aspiring public servants ought to conduct themselves with a modicum of propriety. But however reprehensible (and I was not a fan), compared to Trump’s conflicts of interest (about which, invoking the King’s prerogative, he has refused to provide the relevant information), Clinton’s labile ethical standards are like texting at the dinner table — outrageous and to be condemned — but not the end of the world. There is a swamp out there, but it is madness at best to think that Trump might drain it. More likely, soon enough there will be a giant TRUMP sign affixed to the entrance of the place.

Bitterness about the status quo, then, and demands for change, are thus more than understandable. But in the words of Garrison Keillor, “Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity.” And the argument that many were voting for “change for change’s sake” is, in a word, idiotic. It is also disingenuous in whole cloth. Voting for Louis Farrakhan for President would also have represented a radical break with the past. If the goal is to bring about radical change, regardless of nominal policy content, the sort of knock-the-table-over housecleaning that only an outsider can deliver, well then Farrakhan is your man (and as plausible, and as qualified). But how many Trump supporters would have pulled the lever for Farrakhan? Right. So spare me the “any change is better than this” nonsense. There are very few instances where the Dylan doctrine does not apply (“think you’ve lost it all/there’s always more to lose”). Times may be tough, but the contemporary United States does not come close to being an exception to that rule.

Consider what it took in Germany to bring about a Hitler. That country fought — and lost — The Great War (World War I), a conflict that left two million soldiers dead and five million more wounded from a country of 65 million (in the contemporary US that would be the equivalent of about 10 million dead and 25 million wounded). Held under blockade and facing starvation, Germany had little choice but to sign the vengeful peace treaty imposed upon it, one that left the country demilitarized, dismembered, stripped of assets and forced to pay reparations. Amid the ruins of millions of disabled veterans and countless orphans and widows (and women who would never marry given the decimation of a generation of men), in the early 20s Germany’s fragile social structure was further disordered by high inflation which devolved into hyperinflation (prices rose hourly, and the currency presses were so busy trying to keep up eventually they only printed the notes on one side) that wiped out savings, impoverished workers, and abetted the rise of shadowy, once disreputable opportunistic operators. Then came the Great Depression, which saw unemployment, already high, soar to 25% in 1932. That’s what it took to bring a Hitler to power. After two decades of world war, total ruin, national humiliation and widespread misery, the Nazi party was able to claim 33% of the vote in 1932, running on its promises to ferret out and crush enemies within and restore German greatness. As a nation we’ve never faced a test of our national character as daunting as that, but we have faced plenty worse than what we’ve got today, and until now had never thrown in our lot with the first demagogue that came along.

There is more going on here than resentment about tough economic times — especially because Trump’s economic policies, to the extent that they are comprehensible, are almost certain to leave the working class even worse off. It took more than the long-term secular stagnation of median household income in a prosperous and secure nation to bring us to the age of Trump. It is simply not possible to shy away from the ugly fact that racism was an essential ingredient to his election. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, but pretty much every racist did, and that mattered. Moreover, things are not that simple. Trump’s unmediated racism warmed the hearts of once-shadowy white supremacists (one pines for the days when politicians felt the need to couch such appeals in coded language), but many people who would self-righteously disavow the David Dukes of the world nevertheless felt, and articulated, what can only be described as “white resentment” — and this emotion informed their votes. Scratch at the arguments of a Trump voter, and too often you’ll find white resentment close to the surface. This is disheartening, of course, but it also raises questions about the future of the Grand Old Party. The ability of Trump, against every expectation, to cruise to the Republican nomination, suggested that the party’s traditional coalition: social conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and tax averse, welfare-state-opposing well-off individuals and business interests, is no longer viable. What then? Something has to hold the party together. Will the Republicans become a nativist, white-nationalist party, similar to those miscreants we see on the rise in Europe? Throw in some tax cuts and conservative appointments, and that coalition could hold — and rule. Now that Trump — George Wallace with less charm and experience — ran, and won, on a campaign imbued with naked racism, it would be naïve to think that Republican politicians would not reach for any effective lever that might keep them in power.

The rise of an Angry White Party would be more than disturbing, of course, but it is way too easy to shout racism and call it a day. Racism is nothing new in America, and decade-by-decade we have made real progress (which may have precipitated the current backlash). And it’s not like the Presidency was there for the taking by any white nationalist who wandered by — indeed, most have been soundly rejected. Trump is different. He is a featherweight, famous for his fame. He is Zsa Zsa Gabor, he is Khloe Kardashian.

That Trump was ever even taken seriously as a candidate for President of the United States (he was understandably viewed as a carnival freak-show by his adversaries and the media, each of whom hoped to fleece the suckers that gathered while the circus was in town — this too abetted his improbable rise), suggests that we have exposed the limits of our ability to competently govern ourselves.

Have we really gotten that much stupider? Probably not. More likely, as with the economic changes wrought by globalization and automation, we are more or less the same, but the playing field has changed, empowering some actors at the expense of others. Or put another way: no internet, no Trump. Just as some people are much better at playing basketball than baseball, the nature of media environment primordially shapes the way in which information is disseminated, processed, and understood. As a technical economic issue, the collapse in the price of entry (manifested most dramatically in the staggering rise of social media) has undermined the practice of reasoned discourse. A now-quaint allegory for the pathologies of the internet culture can be seen in the emergence of cable television, as falling costs of production and a multiplicity of viewing options led to smaller audiences and an even more intense fight for ratings shares, an environment which encouraged attention-getting outrageousness. The internet is exponentially more pernicious: entry is free, accountability is absent, and — here we are more stupid — the ability of people to distinguish between fact and fiction has virtually vanished. We are living in a post-fact, post-rationalist, post-deliberative society, in which people believe what they want to believe, as if they were selecting items from different columns of a take-out menu. This is an environment that plays to the strengths of a media-savvy celebrity demagogue, who, even when not purposefully trafficking in Orwellian lies, has shown an utter disregard for the known truth regarding events large and small, from claims of witnessing non-existent crowds of Muslims cheering the collapse of the twin towers to planting golf-course plaques commemorating imaginary civil war battlefields.

There is no happy ending to this story. It is not “just one election.” Yes, in theory, most domestic policy blunders can be reversed at a future date. But best case scenario, brace yourself for a horrifying interregnum. The fantasy that the Republican Congress might serve as a check on Trump’s power is just that — a fantasy. Congress does have considerable authority, but mostly regarding those things that they agree with Trump about: slashing taxes on the wealthy, gutting environmental regulations, pretending climate change doesn’t exist, overturning Obamacare, appointing very conservative judges. Moreover, the internet culture is not going away, so don’t imagine that there is a silver lining to be gleaned from the looming policy disasters that we will all suffer through. If enough people enjoy watching the reality TV of the Trump Presidency, they will renew it for another four years. Nor should it be assumed that the Democratic Party, flat on its back, is poised for a comeback. The American left has its own deep divisions to tend to — largely along generational lines, as the young and the old articulate very different interpretations of the core principles of liberalism — which will not be easily papered over.

Worse still, even if we manage to endure the next four years and then oust him in the next election, from this point forward we will always be the country that elected Donald Trump as President. And as Albert Finney knew all too well in Under the Volcano, “some things, you just can’t apologize for.” This will be felt most acutely on the world stage. Keep in mind that in those areas where Trump departs from traditional Republican positions, such as those regarding trade and international security, Congressional power is much weaker. Trump can start a trade war or provoke an international crisis just by tweeting executive orders from the White House. And that damage will prove irreversible. Because from now on, and for a very long time, countries around the world will have to calculate their interests, expectations, and behavior with the understanding that this is America, or, at the very least, that this is what the American political system can plausibly produce. And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

We have lost, we are lost. Not an election, but a civilization. Where does that leave us? I think the metaphor is one of (political) resistance. They resisted in occupied France, they resisted in Franco’s Spain. Even in the twilight years of the 1930s, times considerably darker than today, regular men and women stood up against much graver dangers and longer odds than those we now face. They did not resist, necessarily, because they thought they would win, they resisted because they simply could not imagine collaborating, even passively. And for us, even now there are oases of hope in our sea of despair — Trump did indeed lose the popular vote by a wide margin, and there are powerful states and municipalities that might protect many of the most vulnerable from the coming federal onslaught. But we will face a great moment of crisis, after the next major terrorist attack in the U.S. (something no American President could prevent), which will present something like a perfect storm: a thin-skinned, impulsive leader with authoritarian instincts, a frightened public, an environment of permissive racism, and a post-fact information environment. In such a moment basic civil liberties will be at risk: due process will be assailed as “protecting terrorists”; free speech will be challenged as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And that will be the moment when each of us must stand up and be counted, and never forget Tolstoy’s admonition: “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.” Our portion is to make sure that never comes to pass.

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