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Trump as Symptom of a Deeper Disease: An Assessment After One Year

“We have met the enemy and he is us”

–Pogo

The election of Donald Trump represents a new low point in the ongoing degradation of US democracy. He says and does things that even Ronald Reagan would have balked at. It would be easy to see his election as a kind of a coup pulled off at a time when Americans were feeling especially vulnerable to ISIS and a low-wage economy. After all, he got the votes of only about 25% of the eligible electorate. In addition, many of these voters were just venting anger about the other non-option. Doubtless, there is truth to both these explanations.

Both Hillary Clinton’s primary nomination as well as Trump’s electoral college victory illustrated once again how the whole system is deeply flawed, but despite discontent and periodic uprisings, it persists, and Sanders notwithstanding, we are still a long way from real alternatives. Why is that so? I suggest that the deeper reason is the underlying values and attitudes—established parameters–that still exist and percolate through a very large segment of the general population, enough to keep the game going. Though old attitudes about race and gender are less operative than they once were, now mostly replaced by identity politics, others like militarism and class divides are just as virulent as ever. And they did not come about as a result of neoliberalism in the last few decades. They have dominated the US psyche from the time of the slave-owning, plantation-owning patriarchal Founding Fathers and will not change with a Democratic Congress in 2018. In the final analysis the established parties, the contented middle class, and Donald Trump are on the same page when it comes to the following:

Capitalism.

There is strong consensus that the tenets of capitalism came down on the back of Moses’ tablets. As with the Bible, there are issues of interpretation but nevertheless a shared faith that only “entrepreneurs” know how to get things done, and profit is what motivates humans to get up in the morning.  Thus, health care is not a right and there’s no shame in making money off another’s medical misfortune. For this reason, Obamacare put bandages on some wounds but only by shifting public resources to private profit to keep the current system afloat. Bernie Sanders had ideas about separating health care from profit, and so was not acceptable to the Democratic establishment. Occupy movement protesters went the furthest in challenging capitalism, so they had to be forcibly removed by the police under Obama instead of patiently being waited out. Consumerism, the weapon of mass distraction, promoted by aggressive, relentless advertising, is the driving force of the US economy.  Besides, shopping relieves depression. Money has been buying beautifully manicured suburban enclaves long before Donald Trump built his first golf course.  Inner city gentrification is the latest variation on this theme. Rather than recognize capitalist profit as the ultimate cause of global warming, the broad middle prefers to believe that “market” incentives and “green” technology can offer solutions.

Racism.

Thanks to Black Lives Matter it’s now a little harder to simply shoot Blacks in the street. Nevertheless, racism is so deep-seated because it predates the founding of the US, grew with the profits of King Cotton based on slave labor and then morphed into Jim Crow for another century. The struggles of the 60s brought some real progress; but seeing Barak Obama or Condoleezza Rice in high places is only a reflection of the fact that if minorities want to join the elite they need to adopt the elite’s values.  Native Americans now get brief mention in high school textbooks, but when they confront state power whether at Wounded Knee or Standing Rock they are killed or bulldozed away just as the Occupy protesters were. But Whites intent on “taking back” federal land in the name of private property “rights,” is another matter. Asian Americans are often considered to be the ideal minority (for the moment let’s forget about the WW2 Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act) maybe because many now have high tech jobs and live in the suburbs, but if your roots are in Mexico and you pick vegetables, that’s different. The current “immigrant crisis” is mostly just plain old racism. None of this started with Donald Trump.

Sexism.

Here’s another one that’s been around since “Revolutionary” times and got written into—or rather left out of—the sacred Constitution.  Lest we think that things have changed so much since then, recall that the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated not so long ago. When abortion rights were finally granted by the Supreme Court it was on the basis of privacy, not equality lest women get notions of taking things too far. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and women in combat bring women into line with the establishment but don’t represent the liberation that most women still want. Trump’s chauvinistic attitude toward women and LGBT people has been toned down since his election, which indicates that one can still hold such attitudes; they are just not to be voiced publicly.

Social Class.

When was the last time you heard a politician refer to working people or blue collar people? Instead, politicians pander to “the middle class” for understandable reasons. The poor don’t vote and the superrich don’t need to vote in order to get what they want. Lower class people know that they are getting the shaft but haven’t got the power to make their demands met.  Besides, they’re just too damn busy working all the time. In the meantime, if a broad swath of people sees themselves as part of the respectable mall-wandering, Amazon-searching, iphone-touching middle class, the likelihood that they will demand systemic change is greatly diminished. They will figure that as middle class people they have more to lose than to gain in any revolutionary change and will stick to tweaking the status quo or substituting identity politics for class-based solutions to their problems.

Militarism.

Encouraged by state propaganda, a large proportion of Americans live in fear that they are threatened by ruthless evil “terrorists,” who can only be dealt with militarily. Coincidentally, these enemies tend to be darker skinned and sitting on resources like oil.  In any case, there’s no problem that doesn’t have a military solution. “Collateral damage,” formerly known as civilian deaths, is duly “investigated” and apologized for. To get the “Vietnam Syndrome behind us” massive airstrikes with “smart weapons” like drones have replaced boots on the ground lest precious American blood be spilled as in VN and previous wars. Mercenaries can also be useful. Now it’s the Kurds and before them it was the Hmong. When US deaths became visible in Afghanistan and Iraq, the “Support the Troops” campaign rapidly got cranked up and few have been able to resist getting on the bandwagon. Overnight, war critics became unpatriotic, unsympathetic enemies of those patriotically “serving” the nation, just like those who allegedly spit on returning VN veterans. Anyone under illusions about how much Americans are titillated by war and high-tech weaponry—from a safe distance–should go to the local chain bookstore and check out the number of offerings in the “Military” section.

Gun Violence.

Here is an area where there is promise of some change while at the same time it reveals the depth of the challenge. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken the issue from the politicians and it seems that there may be some minor tweaking of “Second Amendment rights.” That said, the backlash against change reveals the deep affection that so many have for their private arsenals. We should not forget that the history of this “right” goes back not primarily to a tradition of subsistence hunting but rather for use as a means to political power, for the killing of Native Americans, and for control of slave populations by fearful White minorities.

Nationalism.

This is on the rise worldwide, but in the US case it’s connected with so-called American Exceptionalism. There’s something special about America. US wars bring freedom, democracy and women’s rights to the oppressed and unenlightened.  As one of my former students posted, nationalism is a powerful drug with dangerous side effects. Promotion of nationalism long predates the Bush/Obama/Trump wars on terrorism. It goes back to the first white settlers, Manifest Destiny, “Indian Wars,” and the war on Mexico.  From sea to shining sea everyone now enjoys the right to vote for Republicans or Democrats.  After the North American conquest, the next step was to take the show on the road internationally. Nationalism is also very useful for repressing dissent.  One can challenge a particular policy but not question “American values.” When America makes mistakes, they are only minor aberrations because as Obama was fond of saying “That’s not the kind of people we are.”

The Ideal System.

We often hear pundits across the political spectrum repeat that the US Constitution is the greatest document for human freedom in history. Even Democrats were in a hurry to tell the public that “we” had to give Trump a chance because he was legitimately elected despite the obvious anachronism of the electoral college and the manipulated nomination of Hillary Clinton. No wonder that there has been a loud chorus of agreement from politicians and the media to blame the Russians for problems in the recent election cycle. Not to have a scapegoat would imply the need for self-examination, which has not been possible for 200-some years now.

Individualism.

It’s a given that there’s nobody more important than you and your self-esteem. You might be like other people in certain ways: gender, race, ethnicity but that’s about as far as it goes. “Diversity,” is an abstraction, a diversity of isolated individuals. It’s easy to avoid participating in other cultures or learning their languages or seeing them as good as your own. Get your kids into the best high school so that they can get into the best college and get the best job. Other people are your competitors. Pursuit of personal happiness to the exclusion of others has been around long before Trump and the current crop of politicos. Making contributions to the charity of one’s choice is a convenient substitute for pursuing social justice across the board. As many have pointed out, “social media” is as much about self-advertisement as it is about communication.

Media/Propaganda.

These two are two labels of the same phenomenon. There’s a wide spectrum to be heard—everything from center right Democrats all the way to extreme right Republicans and Libertarians. Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky are beyond the pale. The important thing is to stay within acceptable bounds, that is, those set by corporate sponsors and advertisers. Democrats can attack Republicans and vice versa and even the occasional Libertarian or Green can be heard provided they play by the rules and genuflect to the electoral process and the sacred Constitution. Establishment media love Trump because exposing his obvious lies gives them the image of adversarial hard-hitting journalism.  In-depth criticism of US toadies like Saudi Arabia or Israel remains unacceptable. The problem is always someone else.  A few years ago, it was the Chinese and the drug kingpins; now it’s ISIS, the Russians and the North Koreans. Other views simply don’t reach the commercial or “public” media, which dominate what Americans hear and see.

Conclusion.

Every one of the above categories has been around ever since Thomas Jefferson was making his evening visits to Sally Hemings’ quarters. They are mutually reinforcing cultural viruses that continue to infect a sufficiently large proportion of Americans to keep the system going. Donald Trump is only the latest and most egregious incarnation. Getting self-righteously angry about Trump—now a media industry with a life of its own–is not enough.  We surely must aggressively organize on specific issues, but we must do so in the context of seeing our individual fates as part of a collective fate and creating radically different social, political, and economic institutions that challenge established parameters.

In the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” As Camus’ novel The Plague demonstrates, reactions to plague vary from denial to apathy to solidarity and resistance. Fighting the plague is a constant struggle and the outcome is always uncertain but fight on we must. Trump is just a symptom of the deeper disease.

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Robert  Kosuth, a retired instructor and administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Superior,  spent 30 years teaching English to international students from all over the world as well as over four years in China and Hong Kong teaching English, Western culture, translation, and applied linguistics to both graduate and undergraduate students.  

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