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Horror Story

To paraphrase Marx on the occasion of the accession of Napoleon III, the class struggle has created circumstances that have conspired to give the Presidency of the United States to a grotesque mediocrity – a reality-show host now surrounded by his family, a beautiful, entrepreneurial daughter and her handsome real-estate developer husband, the First Lady (an ice princess from a distant kingdom), and a ten year old princeling, speculatively named Baron. Banished, fairy-tale (or reality-show) style, is second daughter Tiffany, reputedly to be sequestered shortly at Harvard Law School.

The President, his wife and young son retreat to their Florida chateau, Mar-a-Lago, on many weekends for family time within the make-believe society of their private club, where would-be knights and their ladies pay princely ransoms to become members and hob-nob (or curry favor) with the President and visiting dignitaries. Mother and young son spend quality time, perhaps, in the mansion’s brocaded rooms and wander the outlands of the ocean-view estate far from its formal gardens as they spurn too, the eighteen-hole jousting fields located just across the bridge in the ever-so slightly louche West Palm Beach. Meanwhile, back at the White House, Jared and Ivanka, hold court and ponder their nebulous responsibilities.

The Executive Branch has gone Regal. The Supremes and Congress stand idly by as a new Camelot emerges, the gilded kingdom now realized in the space-time of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Air Force One and a verdant estate on the southern spit of the moated Palm Beach. The First Family and its courtiers lightly hold the levers of power, as Arthur deftly wielded Excalibur over his fractured Kingdom, their roles both inspirational and ceremonial, while knights errant venture forth to manifest their President’s desire to slay the dragons of administrative power – clear in their mission of ridding the Federal Government of its role in bureaucratic management. Henceforth, it seems, the nation’s peoples shall live in an anarchic limbo where their livelihood is guaranteed only in the excessive acquisition of capital, its hoarding protected by the all-powerful caparison of the First Family.

The State’s vast military machine occupies a dark land where the villainous Mordred (now played by Mad Dog Mattis) hold sway, and is oft spurred into action – but only after receiving the imprimatur of the White (but lightly poached) Knight who draws the approbation of his peoples and obeisance from afar for his derring-do as the might of Empire creates havoc across the planet.

The nation’s citizens have been mostly lulled into acquiescence of this state of affairs by the historical majesty of the constitutional apparatus. There has been no revolution: only the slow movement towards an apotheosis, prefigured by the Royal houses of Bush and Clinton, whereby Democracy devolves into Dynasty. Now, another familial figurehead is wrapped in the flag, enrobed with the magical powers of the American myth, securely throned in the Oval Office. Without, an eligible child and a son-in-law lurk, terrifyingly available to continue the Royal line.

The Constitution of the United States is a document that, almost from the start was designed to facilitate Capitalism rather than Democracy, promoting, in the hands of its interpreters, the oligarchical enslavement of most of the population by a small elite. In its Declaration of Independence, the proto-nation asserted the role of government to be the facilitation of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ – a phrase which originally read ‘the pursuit of wealth’, until bowdlerized by Thomas Jefferson. This first version is a prescriptive for venal rapacity rather than its PG-rated replacement, which suggests a state of communitarian bliss: we all know how things turned out.

In Report on the Subject of Manufactures prepared by Alexander Hamilton for the Congress in 1791, he is, as Leo Marx notes in The Machine in the Garden, creating a blueprint for the young Republic which aims at “maximum productivity, not as an end in itself, but as the key to national wealth, self-sufficiency and power”. At once a nationalist and a capitalist, Hamilton saw the United States as a corporate entity becoming preeminent among all nations based on its harnessing the economic power inherent in the nascent Industrial Revolution. Congress, the Supreme Court and the President have been dedicated to supporting the accumulation of wealth as a means and measure of National greatness ever since. Thomas Carlyle (who coined the term industrialism) is one of the thinkers contemporary to Hamilton who immediately understood that the addition of wealth to the Republic inevitably increased the distance between rich and poor, not least because, as Karl not Leo explained, half a century later, capitalist production relies on the exploitation of its workers.

A little more than two decades before the be-sashed and be-medaled Napoleon III was to rule over France’s Second Empire (1852-1870), William IV fulfilled his constitutional duty in Britain by wearing the crown (1830-1837). Real monarchic power lay with the institution and the fealty it engendered in the scattered multi-national kingdom of Great Britain, thus William’s subjects were somewhat forgiving of their King’s particular idiosyncrasies. Lytton Strachey describes him in his biography, Victoria, 1921, as,

“A bursting, bubbling old gentleman, with quarter-deck gestures, round rolling eyes, and a head like a pineapple, whose elevation to the throne after fifty-six years of utter insignificance had almost sent him crazy…He rushed about doing preposterous things in an extraordinary manner, spreading amusement and terror in every direction, and talking all the time”.

During his reign, however, when he is claimed to have said, ‘I feel the Crown tottering on my head’ significant strides were made in establishing a measure of democracy in the election of the members of Parliament through the passage of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, which quieted the revolutionary fervor soon to break out elsewhere in Europe in 1848. (Napoleon III also softened his despotic inclinations to similarly liberalize the French Republic). Yet, as Tom Nairn points out in The Enchanted Glass, 2011, his trenchant critique of the British Monarchy, the Royal family, ever since its reinvention in 1688, has tended to neuter radicalism by upholding the status quo, or in his words, has “again and again broken the political teeth of opposition by inducing…the Word of Regal Constitutionalism down its throat”.

A very similar phenomenon has occurred in the United States where, since 1787, the Constitution and the Flag have presented a formidable barrier to radical thought, let alone action. The quality of presidential leadership or the royal personage is almost inconsequential when weighed against the vast panoply of implied power – the majesty of either Britain’s un-written (but Royally underwritten) constitution or our own tortuously word-smithed, but now sacrosanct governing document.

London’s place as the financial center of the United Kingdom (and home to the Royal Family) with the north and west of England functioning as the productive outlands, and Wales, Scotland and Northern Island as the ever insecure periphery has established a geographical hierarchy that is echoed in the United States by the financial centers of the east and west coasts in their relationship to the flyover country of its productive heartlands.

Washington D.C., as the seat of presidential power, has now been extended as if by Presidential fiat from one drained swampland to another, but the White House – Mar-a-Lago axis immediately parallels the Atlantic and by this circumstance alone possesses a cosmopolitanism that will be forever be denied the river cities of the Mississippi, or anywhere else in the heartland. As in London, this cosmopolitanism befits the power center of a (past or present) Empire where the urban fabric represents the reification of the capitalist ethos.

The ultimate irony in all of this is that it is the class struggle in America (reflected morphologically by the middle against the edges) that has resulted in a Presidency determined to demonstrate that the constitutionally mandated rejection of Aristocracy has run its course. Mr. President he remains, but the lack of a more distinguished honorific cannot disguise the Midas creep towards effulgent Regalism where Capitalism and Democracy, as Habermas has demonstrated over his long career, remain inimical to one another.

No matter, the people are comforted by the status quo: focused on the idiosyncrasies of turnip-head, they ignore the implacable forces of an institution carefully guarded by a legal framework, clearly working against their best interests. Can we doubt that they will welcome the accession of Ivanka or Jared in eight years’ time?

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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