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The Anti-President

Photo source tristan_roddis | CC BY 2.0

“Raids by U.S. commandos in Afghanistan. (I could be talking about 2001 or 2018.)

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen. (I could be talking about 2002 or 2018.)

Missions by Green Berets in Iraq. (I could be talking about 2003 or 2018.)”

— Nick Turse, Chronicles Magazine, July 2018

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

— Guy Debord,  Society of the Spectacle

The U.S. is now a endless machine for war profiteering and endless war itself. Simultaneously a hyper Imperialist machine directed toward global hegemony. Domestically it is a McCarthyesque empire of propaganda and censorship and mass incarceration. On both fronts it is a machine for channelling money directly to the ruling class.

The U.S. has 900 military bases around the world. Everything is contracted out. Where once soldiers and marines built their own barracks and peeled their own potatoes, the new military is one in which construction, maintenance, and operations are handed over to private companies, many of whom have as their sole reason for existence, to service the US war machine.

“…U.S. bases overseas have become a major mechanism of U.S. global power in the post-Second World War era. Alongside postwar economic and political tools like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, the collection of extraterritorial bases—like colonies for the European empires before it—became a major mechanism for “maintaining [U.S.] political and economic hegemony,” advancing corporate economic and political interests, protecting trade routes, and allowing control and influence over territory vastly disproportionate to the land bases actually occupy. Without a collection of colonies, the United States has used its bases, as well as periodic displays of military might, to keep wayward nations within the rules of an economic and political system favorable to itself.”

David Vine (Monthly Review 2014)

Many of these bases are as large as small cities. Camp Liberty in Iraq has concrete sidewalks, traffic signals, spas and cinemas as well as coffee shops and Burger Kings. Generals and Admirals employ private jets, and siphon off taxpayer money for vacations at luxury resorts and shopping trips for their wives and family. The bookeeping has been described as functionally fictive. The vast amounts of monies misplaced or unaccounted for is in the trillion of dollars. Everything….from shower heads to gym equipment, to electrical cable is from private firms that usually have spent small fortunes lobbying Pentagon officials or even state department higher ups to *win* these contracts. So ponder that a moment: TRILLIONS of dollars. When anyone asks why *we* are still in Afghanistan after 17 years, this is but one of the answers.

“As the FOB 2012 conference neared its end, I asked another conference attendee (who asked that I not use his name) if during his wartime deployments in Iraq he had seen the problem Major Elliott had described of a base with private security guards protecting privately contracted cooks, who were cooking for the same private security guards, who were protecting the privately contracted cooks. “A lot,” he replied. It’s the “self-licking ice cream cone”—by which he meant a self-perpetuating system with no purpose or function except to keep itself going.”

David Vine (Monthly Review, 2014)

The U.S. has accepted that they are now fighting generational wars. There are children born in just the special-op fronts, the hot spots that Special Operations forces fight in, who are now of fighting age. Teenagers who have never not known American occupation. From Iraq to Afghanistan, to Somalia, to Libya, to Yemen, to Philippines and Niger and Syria there are conflicts that the U.S. seems intent on keeping active. The idea of solution is now forgotten.

And watching Donald Trump and his traveling insult party it struck me that only such clearly intentional behavior and statements could make a ghoulish war criminal like John Brennan attractive to the American public. And then something began to nag at me.

“While Trump is seeking to develop a framework for authoritarian rule—including the cultivation of far-right and fascistic forces based on anti-immigrant chauvinism—there is not an ounce of democratic content in the campaign of his critics within the state and political establishment. In the name of opposing Trump—and the supposed Russian plot that sustains him—they are developing their own arguments for dictatorship.”

Joseph Kishore (WSWS Aug. 18, 2018)

Brennan has, besides suggesting intensifying foreign theatres of operation, now openly outlined a plan for Orwellian thought control at home, and wholesale censorship of dissent.

More from Joseph Kishore…

“This is the significance of Brennan’s column, “President Trump’s claims of no collusion are hogwash,” published in the print edition of the New York Times on Friday. The pages of the Times were turned over to Brennan by James Bennet, the newspaper’s highly-connected editorial page editor, brother of right-wing Democratic Senator Michael Bennet and son of Douglas Bennet, a former top State Department official with CIA connections. { } More than Russia, the targets of Brennan’s attack are domestic organizations and individuals. He writes: “Electoral politics in Western democracies present an especially inviting target, as a variety of politicians, political parties, media outlets, think tanks and influencers are readily manipulated, wittingly and unwittingly, or even bought outright by Russian intelligence operatives.” Who are these “politicians, political parties, media outlets, think tanks and influencers?” The answer is: Anyone who does not accept uncritically the narrative of the intelligence agencies and the military, including the lies used to justify war in Syria and aggression against Russia.”

The liberal class in the U.S. is now embracing with laudatory accolades the most malign sadistic authoritarians possible. Men like Brennan, James Comey, Robert Mueller, and nary a peep from them about the confirmation of serial torturer and all around liar Gina Haspel. With Vietnam there were massive protests against the war. Today there are none. Nobody cares in the U.S. They do not care it is year 17 in the occupation of Afghanistan, or that in Yemen there is such human suffering that statistics are an insult to even mention. Shoot a school bus in Yemen? Unfortunate but hardly headline news. Google and Facebook are now in the process of widespread censoring of dissenting voices. How dare anyone criticize the ogre John McCain. That is *hate speech*. Hollywood continues to avoid ANY criticism EVER of the U.S. military or domestic police forces. In fact they continue to produce one jingoistic narrative after another in which service in the armed forces is uniformly expressed as a noble choice, a honorable patriotic sacrifice. Hollywood is, in fact, creating (and has done for two decades at least) a indelible mythology of fascistic martial love.

But that is really the core of what is nagging at me.

The curious exaggerated response in the U.S. to the Trump presidency is understood, partly, by the failure of previous conflicts and even by 9/11, to produce a sense of national regeneration in the usually willing masses. No amount of revisionist history about Vietnam or Korea produced a real national sense of military purpose. Grenada and Somalia just didn’t, frankly, kill enough people. This is a Puritan nation that has never left its roots in blood atonement. Organized corporate owned sports provides only a limited refuge from the crushing economic reality. Not many are fortunate enough to feel pride in what they do. And deep down nobody really believes the lies. They may work overtime and very hard to do so, but I don’t believe they do. But hating Trump has now become, at least in part, a new mythology for America. For the educated classes anyway, Trump is now the anti-president.

“…one of the syndromes that people working with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD was something called John Wayne Syndrome where the young men had internalized the John Wayne model of heroism and one of their problems was they felt they had failed somehow to live up to that model.

And that’s the psychology we’re talking about here. You internalize a model of heroic behavior from the media that purvey the myths that shape your society. And there’s a whole spectrum of responses you might have in relation to that internalized model.

You might not do anything yourself. You might simply consent that the government or somebody act on your behalf, you don’t make the war yourself, but you consent that somebody make the war for you, kill the bad guy for you.”

Richard Slotkin, Interview, Truthout 2013.

I remember Slotkin (whose trilogy on the American West is essential reading) pointing out that the first significant shift in consciousness for America was …“1890, the moment when the landed frontier of the United States was officially declared ‘closed’, the moment when ‘frontier’ became primarily a term of ideological rather than geographical location.” And that is when Americans began to codify this idea of violence and conquest as acts of purification and nobility. One must cross into *Indian territory*, or for many, just into Mexico — for these symbols and tropes of white supremacism represent a metaphoric shadow world that must be overcome in order to be reborn as a proud white American. The U.S. has fought no wars that could be sold as heroic without inordinate amounts of propaganda and indoctrination in a sort of kitsch patriotism. I think of the Chris Kyle memorial event at the Cowboys Stadium where fifty thousand people showed up. But it is likely that 99% of the wars in human history also needed propaganda. Just, perhaps, not quite at the level we see today.

But such observations must be understood against a backdrop of an eroded education system, a society of screen and anti-depressive addictions. There is no way to grasp the mental illness in play today. For the anti Trump hysteria, and that is what it is, comes out of a kind of backhanded schadenfreude. The disfigured mental state of America has arrived at some kind of critical mass. ( As an aside vis a vis Lacan, in his one actual public speaking appearance -Catholic University of Louvain, mid 70s- he opened his lecture by asking the audience “can you bear the life that you have”?

Today, the sense of misery in the U.S. is acute and operative in about three different registers. There is the exponential spike in homelessness and poverty, and that is obvious. But there is another register of psychic torment and depression that blankets life on a day to day basis. And it is a sense of this absolute counterfeit existence — coupled to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and inadequacy that is causing widespread depression and driving more and more desperate narratives of American privilege. And no wonder, I mean look at the most powerful men in the country; Trump, the Koch Brothers, Mike “Domionist” Pompeo, John fucking Bolton…I mean JOHN BOLTON for christ sake, and Brennan, the Clintons and their posse, and Jeff Bezos and Zuck, not to mention Pierre Omidyar, and these are just off the top of my head. Not a single person in that list is not reprehensible. Then the DC think tanks. And there is no way to overestimate the influence of these institutions; The Brookings Institute, CATO, Council on Foreign Relations, RAND Corporation, Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, Center for Strategic and International Studies – the list goes on. These places advice the State Department and Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, Unified Commands of the Marines and Navy, not to mention congress and the Attorney General, and the Executive Branch. As I glanced at the bios of the leadership at CSIS I came across this in a bio…..”…held the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy”. These people live in an alternate universe. They are Martians. But they are very powerful. That is the reality we live in.

So no wonder misery is endemic. And I guess the question begged here is how did the most powerful nation on earth (though defining powerful is perhaps useful) arrive in the hands of people who think the Brzezinski chair in Global Suffering is something to aspire to?

But this sense of the counterfeit is in no small measure the result of the lost counter culture, and alternative press. Again during Vietnam there were important writers protesting and speaking everywhere. Papers like the East Village Other, the L.A. Free Press. Berkeley Barb, et al had importance. People were rejecting the idea of ruling class privilege. They also understood the ruling class were the real criminals. Today Google would just erase them. Now we get Rachel Maddow, Fox News and Jordan Peterson. Where once Robert Bly and Alan Ginsburg gave readings to protest the war, in trips they paid for themselves across the entire country. Today were have celebrity war pimps like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.

We have a 1950s throwback cracker as AG. If a movie is made of these years its too bad Strother Martin has passed on because he was born to play Jeff Sessions. But I digress. (And George Kennedy as Mike Pompeo?). I gotta stop.

I was reading Paul Goodman recently. Whatever place in the annals of American letters that Goodman may finally rest, there is a serious shortage of that kind of wisdom out there today. And Goodman was remarkably prescient as well as wise.

I keep resorting to the metaphor school-monks, the administrators, professors, academic sociologists and licensees with diplomas who have proliferated into an invested intellectual class worse than anything since the time of Henry VIII. Yet I am convinced – as they got their grants and buildings and State laws that give them sole competence — that the monks are sincere in their bland faith in the school. The schools provide the best preparation for everybody for a complicated world, are the logical haven for unemployed youth, can equalize opportunity for the underprivileged, administer research in all fields, and be the indispensable mentor for creativity, business-practice, social work, mental hygiene, genuine literacy — name it, and there are credits for it leading to a degree. The schools offer very little evidence of their unique ability to perform any of these things — there is plenty of evidence to the contrary — but they do not need to offer evidence, since nobody opposes them or proposes alternatives.”

Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation

Over fifty years ago William Burroughs, a contemporary of Goodman, was asked what he thought of contemporary America:

“At the official level a nightmare. Difficult to believe that people in positions of power who form the foreign and domestic policies of America could be so stupid and so basically ill-intentioned.”

So what we are seeing today is not new. What is new is this phenomenon of the anti-president. All the things that were not really believed in by themselves become valuable,even sacrosanct symbols of an imaginary Good America.

I was told by a teacher recently that her high school students are hugely reluctant to volunteer answers in class. Later she asked one why. The student said everyone was afraid of being made fun of on social media later that night. Best to keep quiet and invisible. This does not portend well for the future of the West. Burroughs added a bit later (in the under-read The Job) about the term nightmare. He said, it’s less a nightmare than a non dream. For the ruling class, dreams must be eradicated. The masses cannot be allowed dreams.

Only today, I think, there is–either by accident or design — a manufactured dream. The dream of stopping the anti-president. The obvious contradictions are brushed aside. After all, this is mythology. I remember Robert Bly noting that when a society confuses the mythic with the real, it is a sign of terminal sickness in that society. Witch burning is an example. Of course, there were historical and economic determinants involved in both the wave of European witch hunts in the 16th century (see Sylvia Federici) and those in Salem. But nonetheless the populace believed in witches. They believed the Church propaganda. Today, the hatred of Trump is so exaggerated that only a deep conviction in something bigger than just politics has to be involved. Hating Trump has become a of secret handshake among liberals. A part of spiritual self improvement, right alongside Yoga classes and TM.

Of course Trump is horrid. And somewhere in him, or somewhere in the story of how he got elected, he knows this or at least suspected it. I was put here to be who I am and ergo, I was put here to be hated. He plays to it. He insults the queen for cryin’ out loud. What a cad.

There is another aspect to this, though. One that has to do with how the U.S. government and the ruling elite are expressing their own hysteria. A quick survey here, then.

Mike Pompeo is another example of the foulness that holds power in the U.S. Pompeo has helped form something called the Iran Action Group. What this is, and Pompeo and Mattis openly state this, is an organization devoted to orchestrating a coup d’etat in Iran. They want to overthrow a sovereign government by any means necessary. If this seems a contradiction given the hand wringing and howls of indignation about Russian collusion in OUR elections; well it is. Its a breathtaking contradiction. But such is the hubris and arrogance of the U.S. government. What, you might well ask, has Iran done to us? The answer is nothing. Oh rather, it has offended those who stride the corridors of power in the U.S. by not doing what it was told.

Look at the official list of American enemies. Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, and the DPRK. What do they have in common? They are independent. They have refused all those World Bank and IMF overtures to drain profit from the country. They don’t accept U.S. bases in their country. And they refuse to allow western Capital to buy up their resources. The horror!!!

So, the US government, and in particular Pompeo’s CIA, will form committees and pay for studies (from the aforementioned think tanks) to figure out how to kill the leaders (like Qadaffi, and Lumumba) of these recalcitrant nations, or exile them or TRY to kill them. But most of all, to get rid of them and replace them with compliant client governments. For the only acceptable form of foreign government is a vassal state. All those leaders who have defied US diktats, have suffered endless persecution. Why were Chavez and Milosevic demonized? What did they do? Why was the former Yugoslavia bombed, broken up, and its president illegally kidnapped and stuck in a prison? And then handed over to an ad hoc tribunal for a show trial meant to demonstrate how good and gracious is the U.S. (and its European clients) but they couldn’t even get that right. So they dropped the trial from their TV line up. And Milosevic died in jail. Chavez and Milosevic and Castro and Qadaffi et al — were not threats to world peace. They were not tyrants.

I have said before, if the US targets you, then you deserve to be defended. Full stop. Only the most privileged of leftists make distinctions about whatever they don’t like and get mealy mouthed and start using racist terms like “thug”. Or call independent states “regimes” just like Mad Dog Mattis does.

You know that cognitive dissonance must be rampant when the two biggest U.S. allies are Saudi Arabia and Israel. I mean the Saudis are set, as I write this, to publicly behead a woman’s right activist (and her husband). For….*protesting*. This is our ally. We sell them billions in weapons. We train them. We visit them and they visit us. Or Israel. I mean Israel is an official apartheid state now where politicians openly call arabs “dogs” and “vermin”.

The Iran Action Group is illegal by all and any international legal conventions. No matter.

I want to add, again, Pompeo is another Christian extremist in this administration and one with a deep hatred of Islam. Back in 2015

…“Pompeo, then a Congressman, attacked Barack Obama, who, according to him, took the side of the “Islamic East” in its conflict with the “Christian West”. “Every time there has been a conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East, the data points all point to a single direction.”

Peter Beinart (The Atlantic, 2017)

Pompeo’s Islamaphobia is shared by Pence and, really, the entire Trump cabinet. But this is the standard sensibility of the contemporary evangelical community. And why that is so hard for people to recognize is beyond me. But I want to get back to the state of consciousness in the U.S.today. To the new mythology…or pseudo mythology anyway.

“A recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that at one point last year, 74% of adults in the UK were so stressed that they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. One-third were suicidal and 16% had self-injured at some point in their lives. These figures were much higher among young people.

In the United States, death rates are rising steadily, especially for middle-aged white men and women, due to “desperation,” which includes deaths from drug and alcohol addiction as well as suicides and many car accidents. An epidemic of distress seems to be affecting some of the richest nations in the world.”

Manuel E. Yepe, CounterPunch, Aug 2018

“When Richard Nixon switched his Vietnam policy from winning the war to “rescuing” US POWs, he was consciously reclaiming another American myth which was the basis of the Puritans’ earliest literature: the captivity narrative. This pointed the way for the revisionist Rambo histories of Vietnam, whose betrayal scenarios blamed loss on dissenters at home. What was Ronald Reagan, asks Slotkin, if not America’s last attempt to reclaim the beliefs American myths told Americans should bind society together, even when they were known to be untrue.”

Michael Carlson, Irresistible Targets, 2008

These two things, then. Epidemic levels of extreme anxiety and depression, and the system’s doubling down on the mythology of individualism and the frontier; but a doubling down that has meant an ever more distilled nativist zealotry. Those who went to Chris Kyle’s memorial are the NASCAR flyover state true believers, but now liberal America is, as I say, buying in. For them, there seems no alternative. For the liberal, the educated classes in America, the status quo is sacred. And they would rather have any version of Brave New World, than to contemplate actual radical change. You know where the most rabid bulging eye, popping veins, hatred of communism can be found? In white liberal America. And it was Malcolm X. who said “The white liberal is the worst enemy to America, and the worst enemy to the black man.” It is the new fall collection for American Exceptionalism.

The liberal educated white American is now shoehorning some contradictory ideological threads into this new belief system. Trump is a fascist they say (true, but he isn’t the first) and stopping Trump eclipses all other concerns (like Obama’s bloody policies, or Bill Clinton’s, or Bush’s etc etc). And this sense of purposeful hating of Trump is a bit like the new frontier. One must cross into the land (or underworld…or maybe high rise…I don’t know) of Trump evilness to come out the other side, reborn, redeemed. Trump is a kind of prismatic reincarnation of Reagan, I think. Those who hated Reagan and those who loved Reagan are the on the same side regards Trump. And again, it is clear there are elements in the system, the so called deep state if you like, that want Trump gone. Right? That is the common wisdom out there. And there is truth in that perspective I think. I think. But it’s not the whole truth. For Trump serves the interests of even those who seem to want him gone. Why are we to believe this CIA and NSA and Pentagon cabal hate Trump and want him impeached? Why? What is he doing to hurt them? It seems to me he is carrying out policy that serves their interests. The ruling class is always united in the end. His statements are only that. I mean the guy *tweets* for christ sake. A compulsive tweeter in fact. He is probably not much in charge of anything, I suspect. He doesn’t know the names of countries, or their histories. He is a typically ignorant American.

But domestically, that is where the real story is unfolding. That’s all americans care about anyway. They have no idea where Yemen is, or Syria. They have no idea where Vietnam is, for that matter. They DO-NOT-CARE. But Trump’s pandering to white racists and all the Christian evangelicals, and of course Jeff Sessions; those things do have a Trump imprint. And its ugly. And that ugliness was always there. I mean literally always there. Since Salem in fact. Since the first slave ship landed in Virginia. Remember the civil rights fight? Remember there were race riots early in the 20th century in at least a dozen cities. Its not new. Trump didn’t invent it. But he has allowed it to surface again. And it is in this Manichaean melodrama of the NEW Exceptionalism meets the old racism that the surreal and hallucinatory story of american madness is playing out. The United States is sinking under the weight of its contradictions, ideologically, and its also materially crumbling. And it is economically propped up in part by those trillions of dollars associated with the defense industry. With those 900 bases. And with an expanding NATO. I mean if NATO gets much bigger there wont be many places for NATO to attack. And thats a sobering thought. The homeless encampments around every city in America are the legacy of so called American Century. That is the end of the line for Western capital and rugged individualism. The post script to Manifest Destiny is a nation of absolute misery, over medicated, and trying hard to NOT see the misery around them. To not see their neighbors have moved….to the nearest homeless encampment. Not see that yet more record days of heat have arrived. Not see that everything is poisoned and wrapped in plastic anyway. Of polluted lakes and scorched earth. A nation of narcissism and despair in equal measures. But at least they can hate Trump together. In that sense the Anti-President is a gift.

 

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John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published this year by Mimesis International.

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