Woodrow Wilson, that high-minded academic and idealist, racked up some significant accomplishments. Besides spearheading America’s entry into the entirely unnecessary World War I, he helped to segregate Washington and—under his administration’s aegis—launched the Palmer raids, some of the most concerted attacks on civil liberties in American history. That high-minded academic and idealist was followed into office by his polar opposite personality type, Warren Harding, an avuncular Babbitt who whiled away the days playing cards while his plutocrat friends kept themselves busy by abusing the public trust.
A century later, Barack Obama, that high-minded academic and idealist, engaged in continuous warfare during his eight years in office and—under his administration’s aegis—launched a far-reaching, sophisticated surveillance network of true Orwellian proportions. This high-minded academic and idealist was followed into office by his polar opposite personality type, although the deranged Donald Trump is certainly not the avuncular, Babbitt type. Trump plays golf and tweets while his plutocrat friends keep themselves busy by abusing the public trust. One big difference is that Warren Harding was swept into office in 1920 by a historical landslide; Donald Trump lost his election by a resounding three million votes. But considering that in 1920 millions of African-American voters were permanently disenfranchised, Harding’s “victory” was equally as invalid as Trump’s.
So this particular schema, in essence, is consistent: utter hypocrites like Wilson and Obama—posing as lofty activists–are followed by mediocre, ill-educated hacks.
It is hard, living here in the greatest nation on earth, not to think of oneself as Prometheus, hopelessly trapped and forced to endure an eternal cycle of having one’s liver painfully ripped out of your body in perpetuity. Jimmy Carter is a man of exceptional insight, but the Jimmy Carter of 1976 was a very conservative Democrat who was going to push this not-very-radical party even more rightward. And so, with an ersatz Republican in the White House, Ronald Reagan–the real thing–followed. Bill Clinton promised to tack further right, and with that ersatz Republican in the White House, the real thing followed, in the personage of Newt Gingrich and Republican control of the House of Representatives. And, in due course, more real things followed: George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan. And on and on and on.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump is systemic and not a total aberration. Ultimately, he is the symptom, not the disease. What is unique in his particular case is the higher-than-usual level of mental instability. Nobody has ever made a case for the logical thought processes of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, or for Ronald Reagan’s power of concentration. It takes a special sort of temperament, as in the case of Barack Obama, to launch attacks on the innocent and then go off to dinner. But Trump, all in all, really is a special case of mental incompetence and dislocation: unable to form coherent sentences, erratic, in a state of perpetual frenzy, railing against overweight beauty queens. In this regard, he presents a special danger.
President Donald J. Trump: This is what you get. This is the logical denouement when American military power is spread across the far reaches of the planet, which goes basically unquestioned: It just is. Trump is the end result of a system in which the domestic poor have utterly vanished from the political landscape—there is not even any lip service about ending poverty; no pretense that anyone in power cares at all.
And this is what you get when the deficit—far, far removed from everyone’s daily existence—is deemed to be the crucial issue. Not adequate health care. Not a living wage, not mass incarceration–the deficit is the priority. And to combat it—whatever it is–“we” must all tighten our belts.
It is understood that mass transit is simply not feasible. It is understood that any health-care policy simply must involve the massively profitable insurance companies, with their billions of dollars in assets. Although technology is hurling along at warp speed, solar energy is simply beyond our ken. Russia is the enemy, unless the enemy is ISIS or al-Qaeda or Iran or global Islam—or all of those, or some.
And so this is what you get: an unhinged, authoritarian monstrosity in the White House. The fact that Trump is not entirely a fluke and part of our systemic madness can make one feel wretched: In other words, the problem is far larger than Donald J. Trump. But in some respects it should engender a measure of hope.
Hope is—to say the least–certainly in short supply at the moment. But these systemic inequities weren’t inevitable; they followed no natural evolution. A horrible system can be made un-horrible. It has happened before. It can happen again. Couldn’t it?