[This is a continuation of the preliminary set of notes called “Trump and Bannon Alone Are NOT the Problem” – if you wish to read that, it is here: http://www.richardvaningram.com/?p=473
However, there is no necessity in doing so to understand what I will say here. Clarity will be my aim.]
“You know we got to sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many live
To see it really end
‘Cause the fire in the street
Ain’t like the fire in the heart
And in the eyes of all these people
Don’t you know that this could start
On any street in any town
In any state if any clown
Decides that now’s the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right
And if a million more agree
There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
And the law refuses to see
If all that you can ever be
Is just a lousy janitor
Unless your uncle owns a store
You know that five in every four
Just won’t amount to nothin’ more
Than watch the rats go across the floor
And make up songs about being poor…”
Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention
from “Trouble Every Day,” 1966
How did Donald J. Trump wind up in office?
The American voters put him there.
Yes, he lost the popular vote by 3 million; but our system is not a direct democracy. Because he won the states with the most Electoral College votes,
he wound up in the White House.
Never mind the Russian espionage that greased the tracks and slid him in. Never mind he and his administration and untold numbers interacted with and collaborated with Putin and his mobster oligarchy to achieve this end. Never mind that US Americans were bombarded with literally unbelievable propaganda across social media and through actual, legitimate news services that did not perform due diligence concerning the truth of the information and stories they spread.
No, shift your attention to the very people who read, saw, and believed the unbelievable: The voting public. And of that public, only 25% or so bothered to go to the polls; some gave up on the process; some refused to vote for Trump but would not vote for Clinton – meaning, they did not see Trump as any sort of genuine threat. And plenty believed and continue to believe whatever, whichever story — wholly fictional — that appealed to their gut beliefs and unexamined prejudices.
How is this situation a new thing in the world? — in the USA, at any rate.
It isn’t. It is not new, simply qualitatively worse.
Historically, as time and human affairs are a continuum, more akin to a river than a string of pearls, each isolated and distinct, it is a difficult thing to point to any particular region of events and say, “Ah! There. It began there.” It is possible to unravel strands of events back to momentous changes, though usually small and unnoticed at the moment they occur. “There,” we say, “is the cause.”
Yet this is problematic. It seems that human affairs (if not all affairs in this world) are the outcome of multiple causes — some more important, perhaps, than others, but all play some role; and which perspective one chooses, what questions one asks will tend to reveal a cause or cluster of causes while obscuring or hiding the others… allowing us to pretend “as if” they are not there.
(But that is another, epistemological and ontological, tale. I mention it simply to put the reader on guard against overly simplified explanations of this and any phenomenon.)
Where did the public, the citizenry of the USA go wrong? They did go wrong — I take this as given seeing what is running this country now and how it got into power. There was no coup, no military takeover, nothing akin to these. Instead, liberal democracy was employed to defeat the very idea of liberal democracy.
When Stephen Bannon says, in his pseudo-intellectual way, that he is up to “dismantling the administrative state,” he means: “destroying liberal democracy” – our republic, the res publica, the “public thing” of law, of civil liberties and civil rights, of protection of the minority against the unbridled will of the majority, whatever that “minority” may be: intellectual; non-European ethnic; non-fundamentalist Christian religious; non-wealthy white male; non-Eurocentric cultural.
He and the Trumpists are up to wrecking the notion of responsibility, social and political. And every other virtue… which, oddly enough, are the heart of the good inheritances preserved within Western culture.
Trump himself (more on this later) could probably care less one way or another about this. Playing on the prejudices of the white population got him power. Being a cheap nihilist who values nothing except self-aggrandizement by any means necessary, Trump was happy to appeal to neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, neo-Klan, and other “alt right” groups as represented by Bannon. He also appealed to as many other groups and their particular hopes and fears as well, some (if not many) diametrically opposed to one anther.
The people bought it. They each heard what they wished to hear, ignored everything else.
One can and should see Trump as a sort of screen upon which each group projected whatever they wished for most fervently. In return, he and his spokespeople reinforced the diverse and opposed wishes by speaking vaguely, lying outright, and by reinterpreting what was said and claimed to match each groups’ desires.
In return, each group paid attention to whichever messenger told them what they wished to hear and blocked out the messengers and interpreters who presented an opposed message to a differing group. Everyone was promised whatever they wanted, no matter how impossible, within very few limits.
That was the activity; I think it is well-established now and noticed even by traditional political commentators from both American right and left.
How, then, did the public become disoriented in this fashion, to the point they put the most incompetent, careless candidate possible into office?
Could be that the set of moments we are looking for as a starting place (but not origin) occurred a bit before or after ’75, but 1975 will do.
By 1975, the Baby Boom came of age and the Boom outnumbered their earliest children, Generation X, tremendously; and Gen X was still underage, in control of nothing.
Those in control were mainly of the now so-called Greatest Generation which, at the time, the Boom could not hold in lower esteem. This changed, but at that moment, the Boom lost all faith in most things the WWII Generation valued, good or bad.
Among these things was government in general and the Federal Government in particular, and not without reason.
I could talk about domestic spying by the FBI and CIA in the 1960s and early ’70s. I could talk about the Vietnam War and the lies that escalated it and were tied up in keeping it running… for what, in the end, turned out to be no real purpose whatsoever. When Vietnam fell to the NVA, no other “dominoes” followed. Except in the ruins of Cambodia, which were ruins because of our illegalities in Vietnam, opening a vacuum to be filled by the insanities of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, and their “Year Zero” which we conveniently ignored.
No, the obvious place to look is Richard Milhous Nixon, the paranoid bully, and his administration that rigged the 1972 election, among other things. Chased from office under an inevitable impeachment and prosecution, his vice-president, Ford, immediately pardoned him, placing him simultaneously in the category of guilty by admission and untouchable by law.
Now, here the people, the majority of whom still supported Nixon even as he left, saw their “hero” brought low ostensibly by leaks, the legitimate media (which began to be called “liberal,” as in politically slanted to the left), and “radicals.” So the right wing went further right and saw that even the conservatives in Congress turned on their hero, in the end — there came the loss of faith in Congress.
The left and liberals lost faith in government down the line — governmental power was used, illegitimately , to lie to the people, oppress protesters and minorities, and send an entire generation off to die for no good reason.
As a whole, the Boomers “dropped out” again. Became egocentric. Stopped caring for the country in general, taking responsibility for it. Every evil or failure was the failure of someone or something else — usually called “government.” The hippies became the Me Generation devoted to the Hustle (in every sense) and an extreme sort of hedonism and consumerism.
By 1980, they voted Ronald Reagan into office. Reagan who, as governor of California, hammered away at “hippies.” How strange!
But not really — Reagan told them what they wished to hear: “Government is not the solution to our problem government IS the problem.” He announced this as his administration began dismantling all the governmental programs and regulations that made the Boom the most privileged, healthy, and educated in our history. The Boom, in turn, was more than happy to give up on the future of anyone besides themselves.
The Me Generation became Yuppies and began chasing the almighty buck. They moved into management. As a group, they became the “I got mine, fuck you” generation — the children of Ayn Rand and other pop-philosophy, pop-psychology, fundamentalist religious movements. With the advent of the commercial internet, the Californian Ideology emerged, again, heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. The belief was that, using the web, atomistic egos, each motivated by her own utterly selfish interests would cause order to spontaneously erupt, making government obsolete.
This was “The Invisible Hand” of Adam Smith and laissez-faire capitalism turned into an absolute principle of human and political reality, not simply economics (where it isn’t true, either, in any case).
2001, 11 September, New York.
On this day, after America watched a terrorist attack live on television, complete with unedited footage of desperate human beings hurling themselves out windows of the World Trade Center and exploding on the concrete below. Then the things collapsed — something that they were allegedly designed against.
This gave rise to several things:
1. The USA abandoned its commitment to civil liberties and rights in the name of “safety,” which is a myth of the worst sort.
2. Right-wing hate radio began spreading rumors about 9/11 being an “inside job” of some sort; “Truthers,” as they became called, spread baseless rumors that the government blew up the World Trade Center, not the jets and terrorists. Further, they began saying no Jews died — they were warned not to show up to work that day, which is factually untrue and ridiculous. The intention of this latter lie being to spread the neo-Nazi paranoid message that “The Jews” control world history and power — a conspiracy theory contained in the Czarist Russian forgery, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”, a booklet from about 1900 that has been proven many times to be utterly false but which always has an audience with the fearful, prejudiced, and propagandized.
This was the beginning of a new era of conspiracy theorists and propagandists such as Infowars and Breitbart… but the internet was soon swarming with lesser known neo-fascist, Klan, and Nazi speakers smelling their moment for a power grab.
3. It was declared by the American right-wing that history had changed — that we are in a “new world” calling for a “new approach” that includes declaring wars before the fact of threat, kidnapping, illegal indefinite imprisonment, torture, murder, spying on US citizens with or without legal permission, and other acts contrary to the spirit and letter of The Constitution, Bill of Rights, Common Law, and over 200 years of interpretation and application of law in our country.
“Safety” not law, not effort, not responsibility, and never virtue. The ends justify any means.
The majority of the people enthusiastically and angrily went right along. They threw away their liberties, protections, and those of others without a second thought and attacked and marginalized anyone who spoke out to the contrary.
“You are either for us or against us.”
About 72% of Americans supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 23% opposed it, according to some polls. Of that 72%, about 52% now claim they were part of the 23% in 2003, oddly. Americans, it seems, cannot even own a mistake, even a massive one — they rewrite their own personal histories. Example:
The “housing crash,” which was the outcome of 37 years of market deregulation, Ayn Rand/libertarian belief in an infinitely expanding, self-regulating market, and fraudulent banking practices on a nigh universal scale.
Common people were left holding the bag, including ownership of houses beyond their means to afford without credit, loss of employment, and being stuck with paying off multi-billionaires and millionaires on Wall Street with tax money to keep the banks solvent and market running. No real conditions to help homeowners or people who lost everything in the stock market crash (after decades of being forced to place retirement funds in 401K stock investment schemes) were placed on the bail-out. So no help was forthcoming.
This was the conservative farewell of the Bush Administration… yet people largely blamed the next president, Barack Obama as the racist reaction to the election of a “black man to the White House” began.
Donald Trump jumped on this bandwagon, fueling the “Birther” conspiracy movement — the groundless assertion that President Obama was not born in America, not an American, and so Constitutionally, an illegitimate president. All nonsense, proven to be so again and again.
But plenty of people, white people, Boomer white people, preferred that tall tale to the prosaic reality and their elected officials on the right and harder-right got into office feeding the overt and covert racism. Pure, hateful fiction replaced reality — and the people, having lost all faith in liberal democracy, government, law, helping one another, and half-terrified of nigh everything put the most ridiculous collection of politicians into office in 2010, 2012, and 2016. The unifying theme: We will destroy the federal government and give the power to the states. Pure Klan-secessionist nonsense we fought a Civil War over in the 1860s and definitively settled… for awhile.
The capstone was the election of Trump. The ultimate representative of the nihilistic, xenophobic, immigrant-hating, ultra-nationalistic, white racist streak that feels free to walk about in public again in all states, not just the Deep South. Some think this is the “last gasp” of the old disorder, the end of the rule of a majority white, European, nominally Christian upper class. I think this judgment is premature in the extreme.
Beginning in the 1980s, our public education system was slowly dismantled. The general education required to raise a minimally responsible set of citizens to, at the very least, vote responsibly and informed was wrecked. Vocational, overly specialized education for “useful employment” became the order of the day, not an education geared for historical background knowledge, clear thinking, judgment, and distinguishing false from true, doubtful from trustworthy.
It is no wonder to me that the vast majority of students who come to even good colleges and universities have absolutely no knowledge of history, even recent history. Math, yes. Some science, maybe. But plenty of them are functionally illiterate — they can read a page out loud perfectly well, but as for interpreting it meaningfully, not so much. Nor do they care or believe such is important. The function of their hoped-for degree is an entrance ticket to a good, high-paying job, and that is all.
And the average attention span is next to nonexistent if the classroom is not kept as entertained as possible and everything broken down into bits than can be regurgitated on a test… preferably multiple choice.
The rest of the citizenry cannot get into college; hardly anyone can afford it with the destruction of the Federal Grant programs. So they pick up their education off mass media — whatever mass media repeats the rumors that square up with their ingrained prejudices and never challenges them to doubt themselves and their beliefs.
A “self-organizing” populace, indeed:
…Otherwise known as a “mob.” And all a mob can do is go along in the general direction everyone else is going because “they” say to do so. Who are “they”? No one in particular. Common opinion. Yesterday “they” loved the Iraq War; today “they” hate it and even lie about their support for it. Because it’s “the thing to do.”
Not following along makes one seen as an “outsider,” even an “outlaw,” Dangerous. Perhaps such a person is a threat to our safety, is the general thoughtless thought. Isolate them, ignore them; eventually, doubtless, attack them. Direct action — violence, the “solutions” of fascism — not indirect action and tolerance, which are the values of civil society and liberal democracy… which are quaint, delicate things we can no longer afford in this new, muscular age of action and destruction.
Donald J. Trump and Company are simply the utterly common, vulgar, valueless destructive mob writ large. “He speaks his mind!” — as if he has a mind or clear thoughts. “He sounds like one of us!” — which is absolutely true — and the sure sign we are as deep in trouble as a society and people as we have ever been. He and they (the GOP and the people who support them) are here to destroy, not create, not preserve, and certainly not to learn.
Do not look to me for answers beyond this point.
Not that I don’t have suggestions or some understanding. But no one is listening. People do plenty of talking and hearing; but there is precious little consideration and listening, My voice, added to that cacophony, will be just one more noise added to the din at this moment.
“People say,” “they say.” This is an age of gossip and lies and the cheapest of fictions substituted for truth. And of a populace unequipped to preserve or even value a constitutional republic, a liberal democracy: the default preference is for action based on gossip and lies that sound pleasant, for cashing everything in right now; not for the effort required to truly be a citizen, an individual apart from, yet a part of and responsible for her community both now and for a future she will never see.
Nothing I say will matter in the face of that. So, I do more showing than telling.
25-25 July 2017
Richard Van Ingram