I can claim no originality here, since this post is an extended quote from Chris Hedges. The problem is to understand President Trump.
Despite allegations of Russian interference – and why would not there be given the situation on the Ukraine border – the real issues arise from the American electoral system, including simple plurality and voter suppression, and not excluding the Electoral College, which if the allegations are correct was subject to very clever manipulation through Facebook and Cambridge Analytica that turned 77,000 key votes. It is interesting to reflect that 27.2% of recorded voters voted for Trump and 28.5% for Clinton, which probably means that about 43% of potential voters failed to cast a ballot.
So that is the surface of the problem. What is really going on? Chris Hedges is pausible in suggesting an answer:
Once democratic institutions are hollowed out, a process begun before the election of Trump, despotism is inevitable. The press is shackled. Corruption and theft take place on a massive scale. The rights and needs of citizens are irrelevant. Dissent is criminalized. Militarized police monitor, seize and detain Americans without probable cause. The rituals of democracy become farce. This is the road we are traveling. It is a road that leads to internal collapse and tyranny, and we are very far down it.
The elites’ moral and intellectual vacuum produced Trump. They too are con artists. They are slicker than he at selling the lies and more adept at disguising their greed through absurd ideologies such as neoliberalism and globalization, but they belong to the same criminal class and share many of the pathologies that characterize Trump. The grotesque visage of Trump is the true face of politicians such as George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Clintons and Obama, unlike Bush and Trump, are self-aware and therefore cynical, but all lack a moral compass. As Michael Wolff writes in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” the president has “no scruples.” He lives “outside the rules” and is “contemptuous of them.” And this makes him identical to those he has replaced, not different. “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not,” Wolff writes.
Trump, backed by the most retrograde elements of corporate capitalism, including Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Sheldon Adelson and Carl Icahn, is the fool who prances at the front of our death march. As natural resources become scarce and the wealth of the empire evaporates, a shackled population will be forced to work harder for less. State revenues will be squandered in grandiose projects and futile wars in an attempt to return the empire to a mythical golden age. The decision to slash corporate tax rates for the rich while increasing an already bloated military budget by $54 billion is typical of decayed civilizations. Empires expand beyond their capacity to sustain themselves and then go bankrupt. The Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Khmer, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires all imploded in a similar fashion. The lessons of history are clear. But the illiterate charlatans who seize power in the dying days of empire know nothing of history. They are driven by a primal and inchoate lust for wealth, one that is never satisfied no matter how many billions they possess.
The elites in dying cultures turn everything into a commodity. Human beings are commodities. The natural world is a commodity. Government and democratic institutions are commodities. All are mined and wrecked for profit. Nothing has an intrinsic value. Nothing is sacred. The relentless and suicidal drive to accumulate greater and greater wealth by destroying the systems that sustain life is idolatry. It ignores the biblical injunction that idols always begin by demanding human sacrifice and end by demanding self-sacrifice. The elites are not only building our funeral pyre, they are building their own.
The elites, lacking a vision beyond satiating their own greed, revel in the intoxicating power to destroy. They confuse destruction with creation. They are agents of what Sigmund Freud calls the death instinct. They find in acts of national self-immolation a godlike power. They denigrate empathy, intellectual curiosity, artistic expression and the common good, virtues that sustain life. They celebrate a hyper-individualism embodied in celebrity, wealth, hedonism, manipulation and the ability to dominate others. They know nothing of the past. They do not think about the future. Those around them are temporarily useful to their aims and must be flattered and rewarded but in the end are ruthlessly cast aside. There is no human connection. This emotional numbness lies at the core of Trump’s personality.
“[Stephen] Bannon described Trump as a simple machine,” Wolff writes. “The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”
The elites in a dying culture confuse what the economist Karl Polanyi calls “real” and “fictitious” commodities. A commodity is a product manufactured for sale. The ecosystem, labor and money, therefore, are not commodities. Once these fictitious commodities are treated as real ones for exploitation and manipulation, Polanyi writes, human society devours itself. Workers become dehumanized cogs. Currency and trade are manipulated by speculators, wreaking havoc with the economy and leading to financial collapse. The natural world is turned into a toxic wasteland. The elites, as the society breaks down, retreat into protected enclaves where they have access to security and services denied to the wider population. They last longer than those outside their gates, but the tsunami of destruction they orchestrate does not spare them.
As long as Trump serves the interests of the elites he will remain president. If, for some reason, he is unable to serve these interests he will disappear. Wolff notes in the book that after his election there was “a surprising and sudden business and Wall Street affinity for Trump.” He went on: “An antiregulatory White House and the promise of tax reform outweighed the prospect of disruptive tweeting and other forms of Trump chaos; besides, the market had not stopped climbing since November 9, the day after the election.”
The worst thing to do is look at what is happening in the US and believe that it is not possible, that same forces are not in play. This analysis does not specifically mention media. Traditional media concentration is a characteristic of the Australian political landscape, and is increasing. Paradoxically, despite the many problems of social media, it may be a saving factor. We have the same elite behavior, exemplified by the criminal neglience with regard to climate change.
We have the same inertia regarding Constitutional Change, although the founders left the referendum mechanism, which might be significantly improved. The recent election on Super Saturday were evidence of profound democratic failure rather than democratic realization. Let us not forget, while it may be elected by the very democratic proportional representation system, is not by that reason a democratic body representing the plurality of the voters of Australia. Still, at least in NSW, there is hope on the Local Government level.
Since, as Chris Hedges would have it, we cannot trust the elites, we will just have to trust the common citizens – what an idea! Although, in fairness, the notion of elite has been used prejoratively.