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America Deconstructed: The Great Unraveling

From Warm Springs, the modest cottage in Georgia, where Franklin Roosevelt sought relief and rehabilitation from the rigors of poliomyelitis, to Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s 128-room private club and golf course in Florida, where the Nouveau Riche, the Vulgarians, gather to pleasurably stew in their proto-fascistic visions and luxuriant lifestyles, marks a political-ideological journey the US historically traversed, actual and symbolic, over the last three-quarters of a century that reveals a structural descent, cumulatively unfolding, into a living hell of totalitarianism. We are getting there as a nation, from at least a formalistic democracy under the New Deal (with the capacity and will to fight world fascism) to a plutocracy—government by the wealthy—(with all stops removed to a class-state, concentrated wealth and power, the privatization of heretofore PUBLIC institutions and social-moral obligations dedicated to the people’s welfare). The eclipse of democracy, an impending decline of already weakened Constitutional principles and the rule of law, is perhaps the least of our worries, as the doctrine of permanent war, to keep capitalism solvent, express the spirit of Exceptionalism, and give vent to the fears of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, combine to define the contemporary mindset.

FDR was neither Pope John nor Eugene V. Debs, for corporate consolidation continued with the National Recovery Administration, but he could feel the pain and suffering of the people and he did provide structural limits to business-banking dominance of the polity, along with authentic welfare measures that restored dignity to the poor, the unemployed, youth, victims of a system of organized greed and selfishness. Donald Trump inherited that system and will fast bring it to greater perfection, inverting its teachings, however violated in previous practices, and promises to intensify its consequences in fashioning autarky (a Fortress America), international rivalry (a war-and-trade posture, global, but with China uppermost of concern), and, not without sadistic intent and delight, strip the society of its social safety net as trigger to reducing expectations of the people of what was once termed a decent competence.

The ambience of Mar-a-Lago comes to life, contempt for the supposed inferior, who have not made their fortunes (especially through ill-gotten riches), and deservedly merit only scorn—and humiliating treatment for their alleged failures as human beings. Perhaps that might awaken them, or the more ambitious among us (for we are them!) to the glories and our responsibilities as 100% Americans. Patriotism is in vogue, if not embroidered with a Nazi-like banner, then still recognizable for its guttural hatred of all that challenges god, country, flag, and militarism, that which alone can cleanse our fellow countrymen of their sordid betrayal of values sanctioning a rightful hegemony, absent all traces of socialism, in international politics. American GREATNESS is code for world dominance in all areas of life; arguments to the contrary are matters of unjust defamation and internal subversion.

Why this unraveling today? That of course is simplistic. America has always been prejudiced against the poor (Newport “cottages” of 100-plus rooms a precursor of Mar-a-Lago), widely interpreted to include minorities, dissenters, radicals, whomever stands in the way—certainly, gender until recent years–of the ruling groups and capitalism per se. Simplistic, in the more important sense that Trump is merely the present culmination of long-term trends, as though American history by 1800 had not already experienced an ideological-structural scrubbing that would ensure the universality of capitalistic institutions and corresponding hierarchical valuing and arrangement of social classes. Democracy wore a false mask, pace the mileage and the prestige of Jeffersonianism, throughout the period of plantation slavery, and continued in racial segregation. And what held for blacks could be used as leverage against all working people: the stamp and generalization of second-class citizenship. This antidemocratic heritage has been matched, stride for stride, by imperialism, gradually enlarging in scope to embrace both foreign markets and intervention, the latter issuing in regime change, occupation, the works.

Simplistic, then, because Trump is America’s Everyman, albeit like his invitations to Mar-a-Lago, etched in gold leaf, but typical enough in the line of postwar presidencies to qualify as one who stands in a long procession building toward present-day policy. Kennedy, without first Truman and then Eisenhower, would be incomprehensible: the Cold War is already in place, and with it, anticommunism at home to bring to a focus the paranoia and compensating ethos of claiming superiority as against all others. Ditto the years of Reagan (I still see Carter as slightly off to one side) through the Bushes, until we come to Obama, who I believe has gone 90% in the direction, and hence provided the foundation, for where Trump is heading, an all but formalized Fascist State. Intervention, drone assassination, trade adventurism (TPP), CIA-JSOC regime change, the silencing of whistle-blowers—a legacy of George Patton-Joseph McCarthy quite unlike what FDR had envisioned when he presided over WPA, CCC, and later, announcement of the Four Freedoms and its implicit inclusion of all Americans.

Bipartisan fascistization has been the norm, not the exception, throughout modern US history. Business has been allowed to expand practically without limit, banking even more so, but it is the military factor that has given American capitalism its particular identity, a capitalism bent on solipsistic force-feeding, the ingestion of world power at the expense of other nations and our own people (upwards of 90% of them). Militarism and capitalism comprise a heady brew: the martial spirit turned inward, to ensure conformity with the System as it is, and complicity with its criminal activities (as in war crimes, or more difficult to discern, legitimated violence, in which society’s upper groups enjoy a privileged status, the violence practiced on those below). Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump, like a flight of stairs, only downward rather than upward: not a scintilla of hope that catastrophe can be avoided given the contemporary alignment of social forces. China is in the cross-hairs, but that’s just for starters. Indigenous movements of protest and change are endangered throughout the globe. One-sized capitalism fits all, or had better, on pain of extinction.

Finally, don’t judge Trump too harshly, unless of course one is prepared to judge his peers by the same standards as well. Obama is Trump, without the hotels! He is Cheney, without the Wyoming twang, or Bush, the Texas ranch. He is what may be termed, an ultra-imperialist statesman, using liberal cosmetics to disguise policies of repression (targeted assassination, a blip on the radar screen of evil, outweighed by policies, e.g., nuclear modernization) which can bring down the house. Trump is not thereby exempt from criticisms and responsibility; he is a distillation of American political culture (and US culture in general), rashly opinionated, inflated in self-esteem, reactionary in political-economic core beliefs, hateful of those who do not see things in the same way he/she does. This is the start of a bleak winter—not for ourselves alone, but for everyone on the planet, as America’s destructive tendencies come more and more to the foreground. Sound bitter? No, I just despise an ever-renewed military build-up, covered up as the normalization of government and society. Capitalism once upon a time did not depend on militarism, nor militarism, on capitalism. When fused, as now, their integration is deadly.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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