Mark Twain (presumably)* said that if one does not wish to appear foolish, it is best to keep silent rather than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Sound political advice as well. Advice far too many Republicans failed to take.
I say “failed” but really, they didn’t fail in this—to fail at something implies you tried to do something but just couldn’t make it work. No, they never intended to do anything else. They’ve been riding high on a rhetorical wave assuming their quasi-populist Everyman shtick would stand them in good stead with the voter, who they clearly believe is an idiot.
Trump appeared to be a godsend to a category of charlatan that believes the voter should be ignorant, unaware, preferably stupid, so that the voter will never interfere with what the charlatan intends to do. In this case, conduct business that excludes the average voter from any say whatsoever. Partly, this is a species of elitism, assuming the average person cannot possibly understand the things done at a high level. Mostly, this is a desire to act without oversight, rule without criticism, and enjoy power without accountability. Behind the screen Trump supplied, the GOP has become a party of clerics tending to the mysteries of the temple, jealous of their access to the secrets of state and success.
The average American, if I may speak generally, wants very simple things—security, a feeling of place, and access to degree of self-determination. It is, I think fair to say, a slate of expectations neither party has been adept at supplying, because the one thing that underlies all of this is a recognition of human equity and the rights incumbent thereto. Equity and rights, in the simplest terms, are power. And power is the one thing the powerful will not willingly share.
But we’ve been trying to move in that direction.
Since shortly after World War II, the powerful have been trying to maintain their privilege. They found a method and have been applying it consistently, basically fomenting resentments between groups of people in order to create the conditions whereby their mouthpieces could win elections and achieve positions from which to serve the powerful. Too abstract? Let me put it this way: the Koch Brothers and their associates have seeded resentments and aggravated disparities (many of which they themselves created) in order to achieve their tax agenda. They finally produced a block of Americans who consistently voted against their own best interests because they were convinced they were voting to preserve their “values” and their “country” and their “heritage.” All the powerful (i.e. the rich) wanted was lower taxes.
Which translates into power.
They probably did not wish to foment a rebellion. Rebellions are fickle things and as likely to get the powerful killed as anything else. No, they wanted to keep the country at a simmer, disrupting coalitions that might become effective counters to their agenda.
Now, this does not require conspiracy. All it requires is a set of common interests and goals. No secret meetings to lay out complex plans, just dinner and conversation and tacit agreement among equals, as it were. We tend to overcomplicate such things here as a matter of narrative consequence, that things which can unfold of their own accord must necessarily be done by the machinations of a cabal. The reality is more banal and harder to manage, which is the nature of institutional predisposition. This is the basis of institutional racism. Institutional sexism. Institutional classism.
They were managing. Since Reagan, the flow of wealth has gone pretty much in one direction, till today it is, without exaggeration, obscenely uni-directional.
But then it went a step too far. The simmer went to a boil and now we have a mess.
What we witnessed in the Capitol is the result of finally losing control of that narrative. In recent years we have seen a number of the primary movers pull back, deny they wanted this. Trump was supposed to be their puppet, but once off the leash, so to speak, he was anything but. And he fed the beast till it came to our political doorstep and demanded meat.
There are those who argue that this is all a matter of style—look at what he has accomplished rather than at the façade. Fair enough. But then we must take the next step and ask: have these accomplishments happened uniquely because of him? Would they have happened under anyone else? The hallmarks—his brag points—have been the Wall (failed), Muslim ban (mostly failed), the tariffs (not complete failures but hardly raging successes), and the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. Did any of these depend wholly on him?
A response to China has been in the works for a long time. The hammer blow he brought down did as much harm as good. But any president with congressional support could have begun this. He started a trade war which has had, at best, mixed results. The Wall was one of the most ill-advised acts in recent memory and served nothing but to feed the resentments and prejudices of his base, at exorbitant costs, diverting moneys in possibly illegal ways from other projects that would have had more efficacy. It will fall down of its own (sections of it already have) and overall fail to address a problem that has been allowed to fester because of the optics and campaign material. Withdrawing from the Middle East has become fraught with ethical and moral peril, but again, the draw-down was begun by Obama. The ban on Muslims….well, that was simply pandering.
Everything else, most of which goes on beneath the surface of the public gaze—not because it is secret but because it is complicated and not very sexy and only bores people—in any administration, depended on a civil service that he has decimated by categorical firings, departmental closures, and the appointment of sycophants who have no clue how to run the bureaus they have been charged with overseeing. Betsy De Vos? Her entire purpose was to hamstring the Department of Education and lay the groundwork for private education for profit. Why is this bad? Because the one place where some kind of egalitarian recompense can start and possibly succeed is public education. Private education doesn’t care about that, whether admitted or not. It cares about who can afford it, which is by definition anti-egalitarian.
In summary, the only thing that has made Trump unique is his vitriol and his “populist” cheerleading of the worst aspects of our culture. The proof is in what has happened in the Capitol. He egged them on with false claims of voter fraud (the most debunked lie of recent times) and when it got out of hand he urged them to go home with a familial “We love you.” We love you? Who, may I ask, is this “we” of which he speaks?
Trump has always been about the brand, the optics, the soundbite, and the ratings. He has run his office like the set of a reality television show and as long as the news was covering something that was consequent upon his actions, this was success. It didn’t even have to be favorable coverage, in line with the old adage that even bad press is good. Armchair diagnoses abound regarding his personal problems—sociopath, narcissist, what have you—but it all comes down to someone who cannot abide being ignored. The price we’re paying for his insatiable need for attention is an unstable union, an endangered democracy, the humiliation of the country in the eyes of the world, and the highest debt in history.
And at the end of the day, he is the de facto leader of a cult that has no point. The mob broke into the Capitol, drove congress out, did some pillaging, and then…what? They had no plan, no goal, no end game. Nothing but the clichéd rantings of the self-afflicted burdened with illusions of oppression. Like their idol, all they seem to want is to be noticed.
I knew a man once who before our eyes became a Nazi. He had stepped onto the path of conspiracy-driven alternate-history myth and little by little it ate into him. He could not seem to grasp where the lies and reality parted. He was not unintelligent. In fact, he had gifts and had he applied himself in more productive pursuits he could have been a success at life. But he chose a path that for some reason fed his insecurities, teased his suspicions, and made him feel, however absurdly, that he Knew The Truth. It empowered him in a way he could not reject, like a drug addiction. Going any other way would have meant…I was never sure, but perhaps dealing constructively with reality was simply too mundane. It would not have made him feel special. Finally, his wife left him, took the children, he lost his home, and the last I saw of him he was handing out Nazi pamphlets outside a Steak’n’Shake poorly-dressed and wearing an armband with a swastika.
Such delusions eventually empty the soul. Like a narcotic, they seem to make the user feel wonderful, in control, superior. Then slowly it becomes apparent there is nothing to sustain the user and little by little vacancy supplants substance, stupor replaces awareness, and decay overcomes growth.
Listening to the “protestors” it is clear they have nothing but the moment.
It would be easy to see them as victims, but we should not. Victims have no choice, their circumstances overwhelm their will. These people chose this path.
False comparisons abound. Blame is being heaped on Antifa, BLM, all the social justice movements. This will not stand scrutiny.
But scrutiny is being assiduously avoided.
We have tolerated a condition wherein legitimate authority has been conflated with demagoguery, disinformation, and jingoism, to the point where we see that a significant part of our society has simply been allowed to reject reality in the name of their well-nurtured grievances and unexamined prejudices. We have seen idiocy and delusion take the stage with reason and responsibility as if they are equal. We have primed ourselves for this moment, perhaps thinking that somehow in the contest, that which is worthy of trust will somehow emerge, like a boxer from the ring. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Left to its own, idiocy and delusion can outpace and overwhelm reason and, for a time, displace reality, unless we choose the latter and confront the former.
Finally, Trump, in my view, represent—embodies—everything we must stop admiring and see for the destructive perversion of American values he is.
With that said, I believe he should be forthwith removed from office and his enablers stripped of their powers and charges of insurrection and sedition be made against the perpetrators of the four year fraud we have lived through.
And those who turned out in record numbers to vote this election cycle, do not ever fail to show up again. This has been enabled as much by the apathy of the voter as by anything else.
Have a better 2021.
- My mistake. Abraham Lincoln said this. But I will leave the original as an example of what to do when one misspeaks.