The Ghost in the Dream Machine

“Dream the impossible dream” has summed up the American ethos since its founding. The new twist is the notion that if you can’t realize your dream, make believe that you have – and that imagined reality is as good as the real thing. Today, tens of millions of us live in that sort of virtual reality. Increasingly, the nation as a whole does the same about our collective identity. This rampant, perverse yet convenient version of subjectivism has reached its acme in the concept of “alternative facts” – or, as one of Trump’s minions declared: “truth is what someone thinks it is.”  That generous standard has been steadily gaining currency among the populace at large, in the media, among politicos (implicitly) and now at the highest levels of government explicitly.

For some time, nothing has been accorded a presumptive claim to being the truth unless it has passed through the pop culture filters from which we receive most of our pre-digested information (including social media), and our personal filters that enforce conformity with pre-existing biases and preconceptions.  How did we track and kill Osama bin-Laden? Zero Dark Thirty is the gospel.  What really went down in Iraq? Check out The Sniper. Looking for a comforting tale that explains why slavery really wasn’t such a stain on the American soul? Tune in Ben Carson. He has the scoop on that – he knows, he’s black. Fearful about random acts of terror? The answer lies in erecting a fortress to keep out Islamo-fascists and Latino low-lifes while assembling a small arsenal of guns around the house.

Is this an accurate account of the United States nowadays? Not quite – but it is an accurate portrayal of the emotions that rule the thoughts and behavior of a big, and growing, slice of the country. Moreover, the trend line clearly points in their direction. Most important, escape from discomforting truths has become a national pastime which permeates all sectors of society. Let’s do a quick tour de horizon.

How many Americans are facing up to the fact that Washington has been allied with al-Qaeda in Syria?

How many will even consider that Vladimir Putin is not evil incarnate and Russia a so-called “existential threat” to the U.S. – much less that it is the U.S. that has taken the critical hostile steps in their direction.* How many Americans realize that we have killed thousands of Muslim civilians in the Middle East while Iran – which we accuse of being the greatest sponsor of terror in the world – has not been proven to kill any American except, perhaps, soldiers in Iraq who were fighting Iraqi shi’a militia with political ties to Teheran? How many realize that the Taliban have not killed a single American outside of their own country? How many who vilified Russia for its assault on East Aleppo realize that American shelling and bombing of Mosul has produced 5,000 civilian casualties (as of February) according to the Iraqi government – which has an interest in understating the number?

On the domestic front, how many Americans know that charter schools perform less well (measured by standard tests) than do public schools – despite their preferential funding and liberty to exclude disadvantaged children? How many in the Mainstream Media bothered to report the Orangutan’s commitment to dismantle the American public school system while oohing and aahing about his presidential demeanor before Congress in not cursing anyone, not mocking the handicapped, or not grabbing some Congresswoman’s pussy?   How many realize that there is greater social mobility in Europe than in America? How many know that the Chicago police ran a Guantanamo-style “black site” where abuse of un-convicted prisoners was routine and legal niceties ignored – including under the administration of former Obama Chief of Staff and pal Rahm Emanuel? (Chicago is where police bloodied an Asian-American doctor on the notorious United plane).

How many of us know that a substantial majority of those receiving some form of public assistance are white? Or note that life expectancy in the United States is declining – and will continue to do so at a faster pace as health care deteriorates and poverty cuts deeper? How many realize that the fraction of working age American who actually have jobs is today 4% lower than it was a decade ago – that it translates into 6+ million persons who have dropped out of the work force; moreover, if that percentage had risen at the same pace as it has historically, there’d be 10 million more employed Americans? (In other words, the official unemployment rate of 4.7 % should be 10%).  How many have any sense that commuter public transportation in the United States is the worst anywhere in the developed world – with Britain its sole rival?  Or, realize that modern underground systems exist in such cities as Tashkent, Recife, Medellin, Baku, Calcutta and Yerevan – not to speak of the state-of-the-art rail networks in the China we disparage as an economic paper tiger? (25 urban subways + 15 under construction). How many grasp the implications of the news that Omaha, the home of billionaire Warren Buffett, is reverting to gravel streets because “it can’t afford” paved streets?  No other city or town of any size in Europe or Australia or Japan has seen such a regression. We’re Number One.

None of this is recondite; most is elementary.

How many Americans, at all levels of society, care enough about any of this to want to find out the truth – or to acknowledge it when they see it? For the holes in Americans’ mental picture of their country are not there by accident. They are not merely isolated memory lapses. Each of them has been filtered out of our collective consciousness, with the help of self-interested agents, because it challenges the fragile of myths that sustain our sense of self – individual and national. A systematic disconnection from reality that bespeaks a deep seated emotional dysfunction.

Accustomed as we are to inhabit realms of make-believe, it is no surprise that similar forms of avoidance behavior are on display in the reaction to the Orangutan’s chaotic and corrupt first weeks in office.  The vast majority of those who voted for him tell questioners that they think he is doing just fine. Understandable – for two reasons. First, people who are embarrassed or disillusioned are reluctant to admit that they were actually so reckless and gullible as to put a psychopath in the White House. Nobody ever tells the pollsters: “I was a damn idiot to do that!” Second, loyal Republicans place advancement of their agenda ahead of jeopardizing the country’s welfare (e.g. by putting the nuclear button in the hands of a head case). They have been doing that since as far back as Bill Clinton’s first inaugural – at least. Indeed, that crowd hopes that Trump simply quits for one reason or another and leaves the Presidency to Pence – a trusted right-winger who happens to be sane. Both of these reactions were predictable.

Far more troubling are those who have opposed Trump, yet yield to a temptation to downplay the significance of his election and of his actions. That manifests itself in numerous ways. The common denominator is a failure to recognize that the American political system, and American society, are being permanently changed. Often, we read or hear analysts say something to the effect that: we will survive Trump and then the negative reaction to his excesses will sweep more liberal, sober people back into power – maybe stronger than ever since the Republicans’ reactionary program will have been discredited. There are two flaws in this line of thinking. Above all, the damage will be institutional – and its deleterious effects warping of all aspects of our public life – in ways that go beyond individual programs and policies. Rescinding Obama Care and supplanting it with some vendor friendly voucher system not only will return us to the status quo ante; it will weaken the loosely woven network of insurance schemes that pre-dated it. Medicaid will be gutted; and Medicare benefits reduced while the share shouldered by the elderly will rise.   The beneficiaries will be the powerful elements of the health care industry who denied us a decent system instead of Obama’s Rube Goldberg contrivance eight years ago. They will fight tooth-and-nail to keep in place the lucrative non-system imposed by Trump and the Republican Congress. We lost an epochal opportunity in 2009 in the wake of the Great Financial collapse and the advent of Democratic control. It won’t return in the foreseeable future.

The paramount truth of American politics today is the dissolution of the Democratic Party. A ‘win’ in Congress on health care will not be the critical shot of adrenalin –as some pollyanna  operatives predict. Rather, it’s like giving a cup of coffee to someone who’s been comatose for decades. The Democrats’ abject condition suggests that it is an endangered political species – destined for extinction were there a replacement. Where are the Denisovans? Party leaders lack all conviction, spirit or elementary political skills. In this, they are following in the footsteps of Europe’s suicidal Social Democrats. As constituted and led, the Democrats simply are incapable of coping with the Rightist juggernaut. That is evident in the folly of staking all on the phantasmagoric tale of Russian devilry. By the time that affair is reduced to a pallid  memory, Trump’s make-over of America will be a fait accompli, the Republican story  line will be etched in the national consciousness, and the Democrats will have nothing to offer as an alternative. We already perceive that unfolding through the vapor trails of the Tomahawks over Syria. Their only hope is a Republican meltdown. The GOP did do their best to hand the Presidency to the Democrats by nominating Trump. Having fumbled the gift, the Democratic Party hardly can be expected to mount a serious challenge to the powerful forces now in control across the country. Led by whom – Mario Cuomo, confederate of Chris Christie in the corruption of the Port Authority?

Another reason for skepticism about visions of a progressive revival lies in the rigging of the electoral system. Rampant gerrymandering of Congressional districts, restrictions on voting by minorities and the poor, and uncontrolled campaign funding introduce structural biases. All of these alterations in favor of a Republican Party now coterminous with the Tea Partiers are backed by a judicial system that leans increasingly toward partisanship. The federal judiciary four years from now will bear a resemblance to the courts we see in some Bible Belt states for whom legal scholarship is little more than a façade to conceal blatant ideological bias. We already have witnessed that in arbitrary interpretations of the Constitution and of legislation by the Supreme Court majority.

Finally, fundamental boundary changes for public discourse already are well advanced. There are two noteworthy features of this change. In terms of content, the shift to the ‘Right’ which has been going on for 30 or 40 years is accelerating and cutting deeper. Just look at the Trump/Republican/Tea Party agenda. It is the agenda of the John Birch society and the crack-pot Right which, at one time, was beyond the pale and any advocate of it unelectable. Today, an overt White Supremacist like Steve Bannon is the Orangutan’s Rasputin. This is the extremity reached in a steady transformation of the political landscape whereby Democrats in general and its leaders in particular have conceded territory without a fight. There are many strands to this phenomenon, the most salient of which are the following.

Acceptance of neo-liberal economics as intellectual orthodoxy despite its inherent logical flaws and pernicious record of outcomes. Acceptance of the financialization of the economy. Acceptance of money as the one true measure of success. Acceptance of celebrity as the one true measure of fame and heroism. Acceptance of selfishness as a social norm – whether in the pure Ayn Rand form or in milder versions that stress self-interest as the legitimate, ruling motivation in all what we do. Acceptance in the academy of the pseudo-scientific justifications by psychologists and philosophers of these anarchic trends. And exaltation of the classic American myth that each of us is the accountable master of our fate.

In terms of form, the triumph of vulgarity – in all its aspects – is the hallmark of our times. The surest sign we had that Americans had crossed a critical threshold between decency and crudity was the casual acceptance of the Orangutan’s numerous vulgarities – beginning with his assault on Meghan Kelly. This is the culmination of a descent in more than words. It reflects how we think, how we feel, and how we act. Too many indulged themselves in the juvenilia of profanity in the mistaken, uncritical belief that it really didn’t count. It does. Obscenity and name-calling are the forerunners, and then companions, of brutality, racism and violence. We still don’t realize that – and we will continue to pay a heavy price in all spheres of public life for our juvenile indulgences.


What do these transformations mean for the United States’ place in the world?  Most obviously, we are destined to become less attractive in the minds of others – as model, as cynosure of moral value, as “the indispensable” nation – i.e. arbitrator, protector of the commons, underwriter. Already, there is a wide gap between Americans’ self-image as the Providential nation mandated to lead the world (by example or agency) along the path of enlightenment, on the one hand, and how the rest of the world now views a diminished America, on the other. The so-called ‘war on terror’ has cost us enormously in respect – not just in the Muslim world. Continued deference in places like Europe has more to do with their own feeble self-confidence that it does belief in American sagacity and prudential judgment. We have made an unholy mess nearly everywhere that we have placed a leaden foot. The resulting negative feelings about America are becoming more pronounced with the laying down of draconian rules that restrict access to the United States, making even Green Card residents liable to either exclusion or summary deportation. Those measures besmirch a national image that already has been soiled.

Americans don’t see that. We still hold to the illusion that the U.S. is perceived in some luminous light emanating from the worlds of 1900 and 1950. That is all history now. The State Department still issues its annual report card on every other government’s respect for human rights. The rest of the world snickers.

Triumph in the Cold War and the conceit of being the world’s sole Superpower breathed new life into that glowing self-image. We embraced the seeming confirmation of our cherished myth. The dim realization that it is fading, along with the fading of purely domestic myths about the American Dream, have fed undercurrents of anxiety and insecurity. We have not been mature enough to handle them.

Our perverse reactions, culminating in the accession of Trump the vulgar buffoon, will deepen those unsettling feelings and accelerate our decline externally. At home, either the cheap highs that the Orangutan and his Republican allies have dispensed will wear off and leave us writhing and sweating amidst the debris of our lives OR we will become addicted to the thrills and chills to the point where the American enterprise becomes unrecognizable.

Those who write about American foreign policy pay no attention to all this. They live in a mental universe wherein the static indicators of power are intact, American presence and influence are undiminished, and nobody can come close to challenging us. They search for a presumed logic and direction in the mouthings of a President who hasn’t a clue as to what foreign policy is about. It is not just taboo to state the truth (which it is). It is literally unthinkable. Intangibles are beyond our pundits’ ken. So, we get high visibility, respected analysts who declare as incontrovertible, granitic truth the assertion that every country must follow the liberal path marked out by the United States, together with its European followers, or else fail. Russia is presented as being kept afloat only by Putin’s vanity, coercion and the national hubris he stokes. Sooner or later it must return to the path taken in the 1990s or collapse. So, too, for Iran. So, too, for Latin America where successive administrations have intervened politically to topple every reformist government and to restore to power the old oligarchs dressed up in the trendy garb of free marketers. This self-interested crusade will see Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Venezuela, et al reduced to the status of Greece, Portugal and Italy – as has Honduras whose homicidal junta we helped install. But evidence and facts are immaterial where dogma and self-serving myth rule.

The American model already has passed its sell-by date. As the country lapses into xenophobia, as domestic conditions for the wage-earning populace deteriorate, as our vaunted liberties are eroded, as we become a vulgar caricature of ourselves – so, too, will our ideology lose credibility to match a loss of authority. China will step into the void – however hesitatingly, and on its own terms. The writing is on the wall – it is Beijing that now is mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran – not the U.S.

What does the crisis of American identity mean for dealings with China? That’s the big one that overshadows everything else. One theoretical response to the Chinese challenge is hostile confrontation. We already have begun to move in that direction under Obama. Although ready in principle to let China into the exclusive club of those who run the neo-liberal world (e.g. making a place at the IMF), we do so grudgingly and devoted to maintaining our prerogatives to set the parameters. In the security realm, we fret about an exaggerated military threat while striving to ring China with a circle of bases and allies – circa 1955. This line is likely to be toughened by the new administration, as indicated by the rhetoric from the White House and the O’s covey of generals.

This is a sterile exercise – an escape from the far more arduous task of shaping a nuanced relationship based on a sharing of influence and responsibility. It also is dangerous. The danger is not that an O temper tantrum will lead to provocations that risk war. He, like all bullies, is a coward deep down. The last thing he wants is a true test of his prowess. (Pity that never in his life has someone called him out or punched him out). What we risk is conflict by miscalculation or accident. Our best hope for avoiding that is the sobriety of leadership in Beijing, a sobriety that is accompanied by intolerance for the O’s bullying and provocation. The latter is the course they took in forcing the O to back down on his impetuous move to abandon the ‘One China’ principle.

In truth, were Trump ever to find himself through happenstance in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with Xi or Putin, he would do one of two things: slap the other on the back, announce “that’s a beautiful idea you have,” and suggest a drink to celebrate their amazing accomplishment; or, dive under Kellyanne Conway’s skirts (assuming that she is not sitting cross-legged on the couch) and leave it to Generals Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, Dunford and Bannon to cross swords.  O’s bluster has been abetted by his encounters with the likes of the mannequins on stage for the Republican debates and the Milquetoast press corps. That’s not what he’ll encounter in Moscow or Beijing.

The world of globalized communications is typified by modelling and emulation. This pertains to elite political conduct and policy fashions as much as it does to pop culture. Trump’s improbable success has put wind in the sails of every xenophobic, racist, ultra-nationalist movement in Europe – and beyond. It validates them and makes them more acceptable. It emboldens their leaders. Establishment policos themselves quickly pick up the meme: Britain First announces Theresa May; we will Make Britain Great Again clowns Boris Johnson; French presidential candidates gleefully talk about decimating public services and public servants – and Francois Fillon seized his party’s nomination by reverting to tough talk about immigration and crime; Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, feeling the racist and extremist Geert Wilders breathing down his neck, reverted to crude insults of the Netherlands large Muslim population in Trumpian tones; East Europeans like Orban in Hungary and Kaczynski in Poland take heart from the performance of what they know in their bones is a fellow neo-fascist in Washington. American is now the beacon of reaction and repression – not enlightenment and liberty.

In a great historical turn-around, America today serves as a model of regression rather than progression. Our warped conception of a modern society is becoming an export item.  The Orangutan celebrates the narrow minded Brexit and welcomes the disintegration of the European Union. This is not just the short-sightedness of a ruthless ultra-nationalist who aims to weaken a rival. A united Europe that demonstrates an ambition to play an independent role on the world stage is an asset to the United States – by any sane measure.  What we are seeing is yet another expression of the impulse to destroy what others have built. Lacking the caring or creativity to construct and foster institutions, the O and his horde are driven to leave their mark on the world by razing the structures bequeathed by better people. They are barbarians.

Most Americans share a powerful impulse to soften the edges of the Trump phenomenon. That includes all segments of the political class. Understandably, for it is hard to swallow the truth of what we have done to ourselves. Not only will the damage be incalculable and permanent, but the even more unpalatable truth is that this history changing event is the climax of an accelerating decline of the country’s vital signs we have willfully ignored.

An impossible dream has been fulfilled – the nightmare version.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.