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Something Wrong

Photograph by Joshua Frank

Ask yourself how somebody like Donald Trump ever gets within cheating distance of the Oval Office in the first place.

– Pete Buttigieg, Second Democratic Debate, Detroit, July 30, 2019

Mayor Pete asks us to think about what history could have brought Donald Trump to the presidency. Elizabeth Warren has also remarked that something must be being seriously wrong with our country because we elected Trump.

The observation resonates as true to some and seriously wrong to others.

If something is seriously wrong, we need to correct it and Warren has a plan for that. On the other side of the street, we find Americans who feel Trump himself is the change that was sought in 2016 and that change has been good, or at least good enough to re-elect him. Obama’s counsel that we are the change we seek has been altered first to extract Obama from the “we” and unite Trump with The We.

Some feel that Trump is better than the change that The Squad wants to see. Or, if you don’t go along with Trump’s identification of his Democratic opposition for presidency being represented by The Squad, he can extend it to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both labeled “socialist,” a triggering word in the lexicon of the American mass psyche.

If Trump remains in office for another term, some of The We – your gentrified neighbors and your unionized neighbors (no one really has both) – do not have to worry about what’s wrong. Trump’s re-election would mean that what could go wrong, i.e., a “socialist” elected, has been prevented.

A combination of a zealous faith that Trump can remedy anything wrong or prevent “socialists” from destroying a plutarchy, aka democracy, would be enough to terminate any investigation as to what is wrong with this country. Those who assert that something is wrong should be investigated.

Still, a generic “You” would have to agree that something is wrong with the country if right now we can imagine that if Trump loses, that loss won’t be accepted, either by him or half the country.

.

We should imagine that possibility right now.

Russian interference might be less of a problem than home grown Americans refusing to accept electoral results. The election might wind up in the Supreme Court, where a precedent for such has been set. We’d be relying on the swing vote in that Court, Chief Justice Roberts, something like relying on Mueller to render a summary judgement on Trump. But crazier.

As certain as the climate heating up, the country could run amok as the never-ending story of the 2020 election runs on. The Congress could call for security to frog walk Trump out of the building. They could subpoena him if he didn’t comply. Maybe Congressional subpoenas will have some teeth in them by then. Probably not. Someone at some point will have to declare martial law to keep the streets in all the Trump strongholds safe for The Squad and their Twitter followers.

As a sidebar: It might be a good learning experience if The Squad hung around those strongholds and assessed that the country was a great distance from being brown and gay and that whites, though racially privileged, were poor too, that poverty has no color. Those same whites should also have a learning experience, namely that The Squad was, in the full flush of their youth, trying to save everyone from the eminent disasters of a planet getting too hot for everyone while at the same precarious moment, trying to resurrect a diverse, egalitarian democracy out of the plutarchy of privilege we’ve become.

Trump, who refuses to leave office, probably wouldn’t declare national emergency and martial law by executive order. Let’s imagine he’s outside the White House gates with his one allowed box of desk memorabilia. And tweeting his loyal followers in fragmented syntax. But the Congress might be forced to go for martial law, and we’ll all wait, the military standing down, until the Supreme Court decides, waiting to see which way the Chief Justice swings.

If Kellyanne Conway is still running loose and dismissing subpoenas from the House Oversight Committee, we can all imagine her citing alternative numbers, both popular vote and Electoral College, to whatever numbers signifying a Democratic victory.

Optimists believe that if Trump wins and the market continues to bullishly move along, all will be well with the top 20%, regardless of how personally – but not financially — disgusted they avow Trump makes them. Cynics believe that votes of this top 20% always follow the money. If Trump wins, his disciples will remain loyal and celebratory. Liberals will leave behind talk of micro-aggressions and defend against real aggression. Optimists, once again, would expect that the politics of survival would be kicking in when floods, fires, droughts, and starving migrant hordes would grab everyone’s attention.

The generic “You” looks backs and observes the conditions that brought alternative facts to life and attended the wisdom that “truth isn’t truth.”

The generic “You” observes that something is going very wrong in our regime of order.

The problems raised in The Federalist Papers regarding how to keep the populace from voting what they liked into existence had not emerged as troublesome problems because Everyone really didn’t have a voice that could be heard. The Vox populi spoke only to bathroom mirrors.

Our Founders felt that what the populace, aka The Mob, liked was passion and not reason driven. The populace should be instructed as to what to like for the Republic to survive and Mob Rule avoided.

That hasn’t happened. I refer to “instruction.” The liberation of everyone’s voice in cyberspace has secured the liberation of everyone’s passions. We are at the threshold of seeing that and coming around to the view that one of sanity’s defenses has always been that only your psychiatrist hears about your passions with the hope of converting them to sanity and sense. The blessing of not hearing what everyone’s passions are has unfortunately been defiled on-line.

We are reminded of Madison’s words: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.” Ambitious demagogues are always lurking to play on the viscera of the cerebral cortex, which of course doesn’t have that.

In the present American clime, we have both tsunamis of Twitter passions and a narcissistic, “I always win/You always lose” zeitgeist. We’re a representative democracy, one step removed from Mob Rule, but our representatives need the votes of the many, not the few, which of course re-introduces the Mob. And as Fox TV has shown, passions can be orchestrally conducted in a way that neither aristocratic privilege could succeed in doing nor the preventatives set in place by the Founders now seem able to do.

The writers of The Federalist Papers signed as “Populist”, but they were being ironic and perhaps sarcastic. They envisioned the members of the Electoral College to be up to the task of voting rationally. Here’s Hamilton:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

In short, these Electors would base their votes on reason, their powers of reasoning easily identified by their fellow-citizens. We are no longer in that ball game. We’re in a “Trump tells the truth…as he sees it” and no one has quite figured out what he sees but human reason and logic are not involved. Some believe our Electors are discerning and judicious and so on because they enabled Trump’s victory.

For those who judge on the evidence of that victory that something has gone wrong, they are obliged to point out who, when, how, and where reason is being abused, where illusions and delusions are confounding both reason and reality.

But all sides now have to go into cyberspace and hurl our grain of sand into the whirlwind of crackpot deliberations, injudicious rants, the self-informed discernments of selfies and vile opines that pass as analysis. If we’re not of the temperament to jump into that mosh pit, we can feed at the gazillion places that feed us what we want to hear. We can hear our enemies mocked and “crushed,” saving us our own confrontation with views other than our own. We can get packaged into a bag of wrongness that is truly incredible but one, nevertheless, whose causes can be traced.

What went wrong is a concatenation of events, like those creating a perfect storm, in which an American illusion of personal autonomy and the power of personal choice joined with an alternative reality medium – cyberspace – in which any idiocy could go viral and reach millions. And that marriage happened in the hyperreality of a society of spectacle and celebrity serving a ravaging economic system easily unmasked if commonly accepted paths to knowing anything had not been themselves exposed as adaptable constructions of a will to power.

A statement attributed to Karl Rove way back in Dubya’s reign expresses the swerve: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Great genius is not needed to see that wealth and power build an empire in which thinking itself preserves and protects that empire, an empire that shapes the dimensions of reality, of our realizing what anything is to mean.

We are deep now in such a reality constructed by plutarchic power. And we are thinking without a compass, or with millions of compasses each pointing to their own True North.

We could engage in some recuperation but escape and dis-entanglement are first required.

To rescue the Vox populi from Mob Rule, we could eliminate or at least mitigate the power of passion to wrest the sceptre from reason, actions performed in ways James Madison could not foresee.

Begin with Fox TV, initiated by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, who both proved that transmitting passion and not reason attracted eyeballs. Providing what a consumer wants and not what you think they should want or what a “fair and balanced” view of anything would provide is a ticket to profit. Before Fox, all venturing capitalists were shy of treating news coverage as just another widget to market. Strong and wrong proved more attractive than Probing/investigative which is always attention demanding.

And just as Ailes and Murdoch seized the opportunity to make fortunes by reaching the populace at the level the populace was at, Donald J. Trump seized Twitter as the most effective means of reaching that portion of the populace for whom passion had already wrested the sceptre from reason.

It is not personal privacy that is the danger of social media. Every post on social media is an exposure of your private life, a willing, self-generated exposure. It’s naïve to think that what you willingly offer will not be used by owners in a search for profit. It’s also naïve to think these owners will give up their paths to profit.

The real danger of the social media is that it posts and retrieves an overwhelming amount of words, images, videos that are not vetted, curated, classified or examined at the gates, prior to entry. Rather than fear hordes of un-scrutinized immigrants crossing our southern borders, we should fear the mess of messaging traveling across the cyber-borders of cyberspace. There are no gatekeepers, no refereed posts, no watchdog equivalent of Académie française.

That last sentence is of course a proud declaration of independence of Cyberspace, a proud Libertarian declaration of the freedom of Cyberspace. And yet, clearly, we have democratized that domain whose democratization is leaving us victims of “alternative facts” and has led us to a pre-developmental mind as U.S. President.

We have leveled the hierarchies of mind into a field of mush, denying the slow and deliberate development of thought, to educate and thus bring out our thinking from an early to a mature stage. All Men [sic] are created equal” Jefferson writes but he, especially, did not include all thought.

Right now, Google is storing and allowing us to retrieve our new encyclopedia knowledge within a system of retrieval, a PageRank algorithm, which prioritizes within a technocrat’s order of things. There is no Roget or Jefferson or Herbert Putnam (created the Library of Congress classification system) behind Google. Only an algorithm which makes a multitude of responses returned in Nano seconds. Regarding learning anything, time and volume are meaningless.

If we go down to the root cellar, the very bottom of the foundation upon which something wrong in our society has been built, we can certainly find a fractionalizing economic system that has placed the Winners in commanding positions. But we can also find corrupted ways of knowing, corruptions of rational/empirical interpretation to science’s own rigorous methods of explanation. These corruptions preempt our realizing in common that something is wrong and certainly preempt a common understanding of how we are to proceed to correct this something that is wrong.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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