Early one morning a dirty but originally silver oil tanker on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California, near the busiest traffic intersection in the world could be seen with this message painted on its oval back:
John 3:18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Minutes later, a plumber’s van overtook that tanker. Proudly painted on its side was this trade slogan:
We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you
Instead of hard news, this month’s Notes from the US analyses what is happening in the country since Trump was elected president; and why.
That the tanker, supplying fuel to weapons of mass destruction (cars), was carrying such a message of all-or-nothing condemnation for the chosen few explains a lot about the United States today. Indeed, the inference of both messages can hardly be doubted. Pull one over on a fellow human being! It’s a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s smart and it’s broadly approved of by many.
Such an approach to public life is also typical of what Eve Ensler defines as rape culture: See what you want and grab it regardless of the consequences or effect on the other woman, child, man … or on the planet. But what has caused the abandonment of human decency in favour of such a vicious state of affairs? And why has a bullying, blustering, ignorant, petulant, failed business-person managed to gain the support and admiration of such a large portion of voters in the United States?
To small bands of (largely fugitive) explorers and frontiers-people in the Early Modern period, it may well have been (or at least have seemed to be) a huge liability not to be tough … “we won’t survive in the wilderness if we’re compassionate. It has to be everyone for themselves.”
By the same token, the first white Americans must have had their backs to the wall at times; and clearly had to struggle for everything. This could help explain the logic of materialism in the United States: “We need goods to survive in a harsh new land.” But sooner or later hanging onto materials led to the kind of conflict from which “Yankee belligerence” has almost inevitably followed.
Further, it can be argued that the pressures of living on the edge (in the colonial and pioneer periods) created and enhanced the tendency to rank, to compare, to categorise, to put in hierarchies. It became important to understand and appreciate what seemed necessary in order to survive as opposed to what was either familiar, desirable, or dangerous etc. To have skills at ranking also makes it easier, makes it seem more justified, for US whites to place themselves “above,” say, Moslems and Latinos; not to mention the rest of the environment, which must be tamed for it to be valid.
From there it’s a short step to believing that ends justify means; and that those in office always know best for the rest of us simply because they are in office. They may, can and should use any means to get their agenda through. Equally insidious is the (perceived) need to believe in a common enemy. To assert that most points of view are only ever either “legitimate” or “loony.” Or — as right wing host Bill O’Reilly has it every day towards the end of his TV show on Fox — “Patriot or Pinhead.” It’s all very simple: everything can, and should, be labelled, ranked and then either dismissed or embraced according to such labels. Regardless of substance.
What Happened with Trump
There are several theories about how an incompetent misogynistic, racist, xenophobic narcissist found himself the most powerful man in the world:
- There were indeed disaffected blue-collar voters in the rust belt of the northern Mid West who feed themselves a diet of Fox and the much newer One America News Network which told them repeatedly how bad the others were and how they had lost out to them, their jobs, healthcare, their pride and their hope for the future
- There was and is legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo; and this resulted in its replacement… but with another one
- There was an (almost equally) unattractive alternative: Hillary Clinton
- Votes were suppressed in conventional ways… requirements to obtain and produce formal identity documents which were disproportionately more difficult for those likely to vote against Trump
- The Crosscheck system further rigged the election against those likely not to vote for Trump
- It does seem likely that there was Russian intervention or interference in the (mechanics of the) election in various ways as yet unclear
- The FBI did throw a spanner in the works almost on top of polling day (perhaps at the prompting of key conservative and former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani) when it suggested that there may be more to investigate about Clinton’s private email system – even though vice president Pence was doing the same thing with an AOL account that was actually hacked and so on.
None of these events or circumstances gives all the answers. Rather, the result (which Clinton would have won had the popular vote been the determinant) was a combination of these factors.
But aspects of the broad US psyche go a long way to explain the fact that we have Trump and his gang where they are now.
The primacy of the self has become the default benchmark by which social, political and even personal interactions can be judged. Me, me, me. For instance, when former Republican Congress-member Ryan Zinke was sworn in as secretary of the interior last month, Vice-President Pence extolled: “We’re confident that your record of leadership, integrity and public service will see to our nation’s great natural resources and treasures as if they were your own.”
One is reminded of Hannah Arendt‘s analysis of the self in politics: for her, dissent was the just and necessary corollary of consent if and when the latter removes the individual’s room for manoeuvre as advanced capitalism redefines many of the roles of political engagement.
Industrialised capitalism, of course, has always needed the acquisitive individual who so identifies themself (even though tacitly) as a conscious consumer. From a self to be cared for against all-comers at its mildest; to a self to dominate others in order to feel fulfilled or dominant at its most vicious. Of course this is not how the world really works. But many strong influences on Americans both growing up and as adults fail to acknowledge other ways of doing things. After all, the United States is a huge country thousands of miles from any society which represents a real contrast, at least far from any society that’s likely to be actively observed — let alone learnt from.
World history is not widely taught in schools in the United States. Nor indeed are the authentic arts, which would go some way towards equipping young Americans (who are otherwise brainwashed by the solipsistic reductionism of social media) to exercise judgement about how “local” events are likely to be seen elsewhere. An awareness of 20th century European history, for instance, would suggest how great the danger is of history repeating itself when Trump singles out and demonises an “enemy.”
We would know that a twenty-first century version of Nazism is taking off if an operative of Trump is indeed found “dead of a heart attack” in a hotel room somewhere; and a fire in a government building near the capital can apparently plausibly be blamed on an ‘Arab’.)
Even local history is distorted in many areas. For example a Republican lawmaker in Arkansas introduced legislation this month to ban the works of the late historian, activist, and writer Howard Zinn from publicly-funded schools in the state. Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980). In that book and the later Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2010) he presented an “alternative,” more honest, description of how the US has developed — thanks not to the prominent politicians and business people, but women, native Americans, immigrants, the unions, children and at the grassroots.
Adults typically have more than 500 TV channels from which to choose. For the most part they all show slim variations day-in day-out on a few formulaic models of derivative, loud, raucous, bombastic, cliché-ridden, reductive programming. The originators and designers of episodes, series, segments and items in most types of programming vie with one another not to present nuanced drama, challenging facts or original entertainment. But to sell advertising which exhorts viewers to buy often destructive products (cars, chemicals and carcasses) in the over 35% of the average programme’s time devoted thereto.
Addiction and Extremity
There is an addictive aspect to the media and the currency of its language. The rhetoric of consumption demands ever more “extreme” language: It is no longer enough for the weather to be forecast. To keep ahead in the ratings a station now has to have a “future cast;” or a “super” something or other, preferably sounding high tech. Similarly, the past tense (such as “you said you gave the book to me”) isn’t past enough for many speakers in everyday discourse. The pluperfect has to be invoked: “You had said that you gave the book to me.” Witness, too, the introduction of the very words “extreme” and “power” as brandings: “Extreme sports,” “extreme DSL,” “Powerbook” and so on. Indeed, so strong is the grip of the notion of “power” on the imagination that virtually the only term of approval for a striking film or unusual piece of poetry or drama is “powerful,” once “awesome” has been exhausted and needs to be capped. Programming on the media is thought to be more effective in garnering revenue if it is “dynamite” programming.
A corollary of this trend is the use of phraseology which diminishes. To do something properly is now to be “detail-oriented;” facts have become trivia; and to have any kind of expertise is to act like a “nerd,” thereby discrediting exactness or engagement … as sissy. This also illustrates how everyday speakers feel a subconscious need to “possess” the object of their discourse by distancing themselves from it (as opposed to exposing that humility which equates to weakness for them).
From the babble of most TV and radio stations it’s a short step to the inescapable messaging in nearly all shops, lifts, petrol stations, waiting rooms and increasingly via weatherproof loudspeakers disguised as stones in shopping malls. Consumers, customers, families, kids and those conversing are held back from genuine mental, emotional and spiritual development, encouraged to put self at the centre of everything. Not just the craze for insertion of personal ephemera into social media epitomised by the “selfie.”
Not just the supremacy of the self as catered for in goods… cosmetics, clothing, magazines, self-help books and so on, but the unconscious and largely unchallenged assumption that the self has a right to do just what it wants. And is to be applauded if it pulls off something unexpectedly “macho” or conquering. Just as Trump did. There is a sneaking admiration on many people’s part for such action. It’s also easier to believe what you want to believe than submit to unpalatable facts.
The Truth no longer Matters
Add these together and it’s easy to see how perceptive the Oxford English Dictionary was in choosing “post-truth” as its word of 2016. Trump’s “missteps,” lies, disgusting admissions and boasts of sexual assault, distorted or simply untrue and baseless “statistics,” insults and so on of Trump and his entourage just do not matter. They’re less important to many than what he stands for. Than his image.
He has been touted as a figurehead who could be relied on to mix things up, apparently to stand up to the bully state in Washington. Proxy power. America will be great again as many a racial memory from the foundation of the United States is triggered in ways that made those pragmatic values of succeeding regardless of others very attractive.
It’s labels again; and axioms that just … fit. One of the most superficially-convincing tricks of the far-right media is to base their false “logic” (usually only implicit) on the assumption that there are only really ever two sides in any argument. Two diametrically opposed sides; and clear cut sides. So if one locus of opinion (critics of Trump, say) is flawed in any way (which can almost always be demonstrated to apply to the Democratic Party or an event of protest which gets a little out of hand perhaps), then it follows syllogistically that Trump must be right; or at least must have right (morally) on his side. Because he is the opposite. Every fruit that is not an orange can only be an apple.
And who can be blamed for not realising, for instance, that the gallon of petrol bought at the pump doesn’t actually cost as little as $3 because you’re also paying $1 in taxes to subsidise the likes of Exxon and Shell? To point this out is treasonous; just as to refer to climate change is to accede to a “liberal” plot. There are still many reds under beds “… so I’d better do all in my power to squash them. No, I don’t believe everything I watch on TV, but I sure as hell disbelieve the ‘liberal media’ more than I doubt Fox and Friends… why? Because they’re liberal!”
Weak or Strong
As a young country, the United States may be considered to be in its adolescence (perhaps even its infancy) when trying to learn how to behave in the world. Like a cognitively still developing child, it finds it hard or impossible to see the world from any other than its own limited perspective. This gives it the right to invade, destabilise, bomb and take over whichever other country or society it likes … American Exceptionalism.
In order to see how Trump got where he did three final aspects of the way in which many, particularly, of the white males living in the United States think can be added to pragmatism, the irrelevance of the truth, and to this inability to empathise borne of feeling “special.”
Firstly, no matter how forward-thinking an education you believe in, work for or advocate, it’s never real education unless its students are marked, ranked and so judged in terms of “Grades.” That adherence to the physical, to that which can be tangibly put in its place again. Think also of the strongest strains of twentieth century philosophical thought in the United States. It’s almost all positivist in nature. Speculation, the metaphysical are dangerous … they cannot be sold or controlled.
The second is an extension of a tendency already alluded to: don’t show weakness. The pragmatic side of the American nature, for example, is to make sure your kids are on the winning side of any sports match rather than show understanding or compassion to those who lose – inevitably someone will. This has echoes of Trump’s address to Congress last month when he announced an increase in military spending (as large in itself as the whole of the UK’s annual military budget) in order to make sure that future wars fought by Americans will… definitely be won. Strength at all costs. And never never, ever, ever under any circumstances, no matter how progressive your stance, criticise the military, “our brave veterans”; whatever else happens, they keep us safe – and are to be revered. Despite evidence like this.
Lastly, you must not change your mind (or “flip flop”). To do so is a worse sin than to have a mind empty of substance. Remember, though, that a definition of the fanatic is one who redoubles their efforts in direct proportion to the extent to which they are failing.
Trump is taking actions and behaving in ways that are, perhaps surprisingly, well in keeping with the traditions of the mainstream Republican Party. He is a “Yankee;” that is a Protestant immigrant in a northeastern state, who identifies with the ostensible values of hard work and the latter day puritan work ethic — for such folk shall inherit the Earth (remember that tanker).
He is apparently sceptical of big government (“drain the swamp”). Although of course — unlike the virtues of reduced or no government for anarchists — his version emphatically leaves the way open for (big) business.
Trump is derisive of foreigners … as was 31st president Herbert Hoover, who used deportation as an economic tool during the Great Depression.
He is a protectionist in trade. He sees spending on infrastructure as a good thing. Although in an impious manner, Trump is a propagandist for American “greatness” — as have been all Republicans since Lincoln; and even potentially, until and unless it can benefit (his) businesses, he is nominally an isolationist, as were Republicans from Monroe to Theodore Roosevelt.
He is a cultural conservative and — although he has alienated the religious right — Trump does bolt Christianity onto such conservative “policies” as his intolerance of diversity… hypocritical though it may be. Indeed, ultimately Trump is very much for the grab-and-greed rights of the individual in what appears (for deception is key) like a free market, very much in the way that Thatcher was. He is, in short, a true Republican because it’s a fickle party largely devoid of principle that will shift and disguise its public ‘policies’ in the interests of advancing the élite.
At the same time what Trump also does is, by turns: deliberately provocative (like the erosion of reproductive rights the day after the women’s march in January); incompetent (the wording of the first Moslem ban which was likely to fail legal challenge); purely doctrinaire, dogmatic (cut two (environmental) regulations for every one which has to be introduced); apparently determined by his toadies, notably from Bannen (the repeal of the Affordable Care Act); designed only to make him seem strong (military budget, parading about in a soldier’s uniform); ostensibly consistent with his campaign promises no matter how impractical (the border wall); reactive as he flips through the right wing propaganda TV channels and fires out a Tweet (the accusation that Obama “…[went] low to tapp [sic]…” his phones in one of his properties before the election); and given as a sop to keep the less overtly doctrinaire factions in the Republican Party quiet (some of his cabinet appointments, that of Carson, for example).
Since November, and increasingly since the start of 2017 as Trump and his billionaire wreckers took office officially, those living in the country have without doubt felt one or more emotions of shock, disbelief, anger, bewilderment, disgust, horror and fear. That is, those living in the United States who either do not stand to gain from the Trump ‘brand’ and/or who are not taken in by it.
What’s more, strength of opinion amongst informed people in the country (of which there are many – and very well informed at that) is huge. For example, it was tens of thousands of phone calls which persuaded two Republicans to switch sides and vote against the confirmation (albeit unsuccessfully) of one of Trump’s more astounding nominees, Betsy DeVos for education, despite her complete lack of experience and knowledge in the field. Demonstrations, organising, resistance generally are all at highs not seen since the 1960s. They’re diverse, strong and based on good, solid and reliable information and often sound politics — particularly in the women’s and immigrant and LGBT communities.
Into this fluid situation, though, should come a note of caution. The new government and its moved could perhaps have the unintended side-effect of encouraging, or even obliging, progressives to examine to what extent it may be legitimate to refuse to abide by any generally ‘bad’ legislation. Clearly there is and will be a lot of that. But how firm is the land on which we stand if we pick and choose how to work in a society and polity so clearly at odds with what we know to be good for the majority and the planet? At least American politics has become lively once again.