The Trump-bashing among the slate of Democratic candidates for president never got beyond the occasional blurb that Trump is not the problem. An extended discussion about what this means was neither compatible with the time limit on responses in the debates nor the agenda limits of the candidates themselves. Trump’s outrageous tweets and comments to the press of course make him the problem and monopolize the space and time for debating issues. Week after week since he was elected the media has been consumed with something he said or did, but it hasn’t been very successful at unmaking Trump’s making of himself the problem and replacing it with a discussion of how and why he was elected in the first place. And now that the longest-tenured moderate is left standing and the most promising progressive panting, there’s little chance this issue will be debated.
Trump is certainly a problem. His recent briefings-meltdowns, assaults on science, and scapegoatings are dangerous provocations unbecoming of a world leader. Some sanity at the helm would help to at least repair America’s image but it will take more than a better actor to undo the damage from generations of wrong turns taken by a variety of deluded actors.
Trump’s pre-eminent slogan coming in was to “make America great again,” and a significant part of this involved making it first while achieving independence from countries in the global order. Being separate and on top apparently equates with greatness. The assumption here is that something great had vanished and we needed to get it back. Our status, that is, at the termination of the Obama administration was one of decline, and we needed to forge a path that would restore our destiny as an exceptional nation.
One reason for Trump’s electoral success was that he tapped into some urgent issues that many Americans were concerned about, especially the outsourcing of jobs to sweatshop-friendly nations and the stagnant low-wage economy that had institutionalized inequality for two generations. And in the early moments of his ascendance he promised to pull back from the endless wars. The fixing of these concerns would’ve elevated our credibility rating among the community of nations concerned that our image as a land of opportunity for the perennially excluded was being seriously tainted.
But they haven’t been fixed. Outsourcing hasn’t been reversed or even ceased, and wages for workers have remained stagnant, leaving the inequality indexes worse than when he took office. The stimulus transfers in recent weeks have exposed Trump’s true colors. The large corporations have received the bulk of the funds, as they usually do in economic downturns. But they’ve also raided the fund for small businesses, preventing many needy recipients from getting help. What better evidence of Trump’s betrayal of the economic populism he claimed to endorse.
And our military presence is greater than ever around the globe. Our firstness has come to mean some sports-crazed macho for winning, a crassness far removed from the elevation of a higher moral authority that responsible leadership should inspire.
Since the promises weren’t fulfilled, we must ponder what kind of greatness Trump had in mind. His bravado to the contrary, we’re far from first in many categories, the most notable being the lagging response to the Covid-19 virus itself that’s left our pitiful infrastructure exposed to the world. His simulation of greatness seems to be only a defensive strategy. It attacks all players, even his once-close associates, instead of actively affirming ideas and options that would transcend the limits of existing ones and demonstrate an application of the special excellence that has at times made this country’s offerings and status exceptional. Conserving the status quo while denouncing those who actively instill the desire for change can lead to the sabotaging of progress, the reversion to creeping barbarism.
American exceptionalism has always been buffeted by a wish list, often been a ruse to justify behaviors that are morally suspect and condemned when other nations perpetrate them. We uphold the creed of non-violence and get aggressive only when absolutely necessary to resolve conflicts caused by others, the interests served in advancing military campaigns perpetually excised from the picture. Our unique brand of “free market” capitalism, the alleged envy of the world, is believed to be so superior that it trumps all evidence to the contrary, leaving us blind to the deaths caused by a healthcare system deficient in comparison with those in the rest of the advanced industrial world. This blindness is so striking that vast numbers of Americans push the myth that we live longer than other global citizens when we have slipped to the un-exceptional rank of 37th in terms of longevity. Crises happen so let them take their course. Institutions of our making are not involved.
We have such an obsession with the idea that government is the problem, giving the private sector responsibility for solving problems, that they tend to get deferred and forgotten, the fallout festering for subsequent generations to disavow on their terms. Our exceptional cultural views and institutions are perpetually absolved from accountability as the price of freedom. As a result, we remain blind to how these private interests influence government and stifle innovations that can benefit the public interest.
So, what moments of greatness had Trump in mind to revive? Likely those when we could easily dominate the globe, when capital could expand with little competition from organized labor, when workers were relatively powerless and atomized. Perhaps he harbors a vision of progress toward relative slavery. The moment just after the expiration of absolute slavery would likely be attractive, the post-Civil War era when corporations were being born and regulations barely existed, when the Robber Barons were beginning to flex. If you factor out the crises, he must look on the stretch from then until the birth of regulations in the 1930s as great indeed.
The maturation of these regulations that helped cultivate the sensibility to produce the American Century, the stretch from the end of WWII to the early 1970s when we led the productive partnership between government, labor and corporations through the ethic of progressive taxation, has certainly provoked Trump’s ire. He would no doubt like to erase that period from history. His attraction would be for any moments when labor was weakened.
Like the years of Herbert Hoover, that pre-regulation pinnacle of profit-taking which prefaced the Great Depression, the prime example of how capital expands exponentially and benefits an elite when labor has little clout, but also of what happens when progress accrues to too few through unfettered speculation on the backs of the too many that enabled it. This scenario has been repeating itself since Trump took office, but his limited version of greatness can only thrive through denial of the downside. And the Covid-19 crisis thus far has not appreciably altered his mindset.
Trump’s vision is to make a smaller segment of America “great” at the expense of large numbers of citizens, many of whom are reversing the paths of the American Dream, while pandering the one-liner myth that glosses over the failings that prove otherwise. His vision is an identification with the historical moments of aberration from the more prevalent and credible myth of equal opportunity that drives the mainstream.
Like the Reagan years. Reagan’s pushback against efforts to appreciably eliminate the downside of capital’s expansion certainly intrigues him, but especially the moment when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s and Reagan’s legacy was about to begin its true test. This was the moment when exceptionalism got a misshapen retrofit.
The winding down of the Cold War with the Soviets, as Andrew Bacevich argues in his recent book, was a mixed blessing. It was perceived as a victory of epic proportions—a decisive and irreversible one—by most at the time, christening the US the globe’s “sole superpower.” History had validated our institutions as superior, and our version of liberal-democratic capitalism as “universally applicable” (The Age of Illusions).
Suddenly there were no countervailing forces to check our narrative. The Soviet experiment by then had drifted far away from pure communism, but the pool of collectivist social systems that it legitimized were discredited so convincingly that it felt for many like the end of history, the title of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal essay from that moment. If these collectivist systems and at least the spirit of the Soviet experiment had served the purpose of providing some semblance of conscience for the west, in at least insinuating alternatives and correctives to a capitalist system that languished in structural imperfections, leaving huge gaps in the promise of equality, what would now prevent capitalism from becoming even less fair; neoliberalism from becoming more purified?
Pumped by the euphoria of victory, intellectuals and politicians stopped trying to cultivate a “3rd way,” an alternative to or productive synthesis of capitalism and communism. In the void came a more aggressive globalization that secured new forms of wealth but propped up by a military whose power was used to “suppress disorder and enforce American values,” according to Bacevich, confident in its power to dominate (so much so that we immediately identified new enemies in the Mideast, seeding the potential for blowback).
The “end of history” effectively meant its revision, the erasing of messy contradictions that led to this moment, the knowledge of lessons that should’ve been learned from our disastrous drift into a polar world that could have so easily led to annihilation, the ridiculousness of failing to compromise and forge diplomatic solutions, the wastage of resources on superfluous weapons to the detriment of expenditures on education and the public welfare, etc. An intensification of a rigid attitude of wrongness toward the Soviet experiment and these alternative systems survived this moment when at least a tempered anti-anti-collectivism should have ensued.
Instead there was the aggressive imposition of a creed sold as truth. The capitalist creed of course was hardly new, but it could now be flagrantly celebrated in a culture with fewer competitors. The political orchestration of this creed is neoliberalism, imported into institutions and the discourse through Milton Friedman’s toppling of Keynes in the early 1970s, routed through Friedrich Von Hayek’s selective appropriation of Adam Smith. This regimen is ascendant through this decade but doesn’t become dominant until the Reagan administration’s orchestrations. It becomes unabashedly hegemonic after the Cold War expires, when Thatcher’s TINA—There Is No Alternative—becomes an even more secure mindset that encourages the right to go for the jugular. Newt Gingrich does exactly that during the early Clinton years, throwing temper tantrums against all weakening, deviant liberals, and guiding the Republicans to a takeover of Congress in 1994. They bully their way through the decade, turning the somewhat-liberal Clinton into a mild Republican. In consort they obsess with balancing a budget bloated out of proportion during the Reagan administration, scrap the entitlement-inflected AFDC welfare program, and decontrol the banking system, among other moves. The latter occurred in 1999 when the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was repealed and replaced with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This effectively removed the barrier between conventional lending and financial operations, permitting banks to engage in risky speculation, and giving the private owners of capital an enhanced power to control and game the system.
If history is over, temporal consequences ceasing to be of value, replaced by a focus on variations within a perpetual present, then the elite victors who can claim the spoils will likely argue that ideology is over as well. After the Cold War, the main concern was making periodic adjustments to the neoliberal apparatus, but never seriously questioning the superiority of free markets and minimal government. The danger when grand narratives like the “end of history” and the “end of ideology” are announced, however, is that they tend to be believed by more and more (repeat a falsehood over and over and it becomes true, to paraphrase George Bush Jr.). And the failure to see these narratives themselves as ideological suffuses much of the populace with blinders, encourages it to support policies that repeat the same old farces. Temporal sequences are necessary. They’re where the interplay of truth and error unfold to provide the basis for teaching subsequent generations progressive new options for survival. History is constantly evolving, and ideas are always generated through a dialectical grid of options. Possessors of the dominant ideas at a moment in time can’t hold onto them permanently. They’re perpetually challenged, no matter how forcefully the possessors claim to have arrived at some plateau of finalities, even under circumstances of mild, authoritarian repression.
The “end of ideology” ideology has surfaced before. Daniel Bell announced it in the 1950s under different conditions, when the Cold War was in its infancy, assigning a specious superiority to our system—technocratic tweaks all that were then needed to advance—that unfortunately amped up the polarization. But while this extremism was being applied, pressures were already percolating to produce challenges to the Cold War orthodoxy, like the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) and SDS, its experimental child.
To date pressures to challenge the orthodoxy of the post-Cold War ossification of neoliberalism have been quite weak. There was the flareup of Occupy Wall Street a decade ago that failed to transition inside the power structures. And then there’s the Sanders “revolution,” now a sideshow despite its leader’s significant influence on the course of the political debates. The pressures to firm up the orthodoxy have been greater, as the Tea Party demonstrated during the early Obama administration. Our great hope as we face the 2020 election is for a retread from the Obama administration who might soften the neoliberal orthodoxy to beat Trump!
The rumbling of inclinations to challenge the orthodoxy to the contrary, we’ve been living like it is indeed the end of history ever since the Cold War transpired, as if man-made social regulations and protective buffers were no longer needed; as if somehow the alchemical concoction of financial energy germinated from the victory now had a life of its own and would motor into the future unshackled, bringing unlimited wealth and opportunity to all who sought it. The repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, on the cusp of the millennium, was certainly a symbolically exhilarating moment, meant to unleash a new age of growth and efficiency.
But the removal of regulations and protections that coincided with this unleashing left us unprepared for ensuing crises, according to Thomas Friedman (“How We Broke the World,” New York Times, 5/30/2020). These regulations provided “resilience and protection when big systems—be they ecological, geopolitical or financial—get stressed.” And a deregulated world mandated much stress, more shocks and extreme behaviors, as the obsession with efficiency and profits dominated. The victims of the downturns from 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, the two great crises to follow, were forced into poverty without a substantial safety net to support their existing statuses. The weakening of labor regulations has left them with little or no power to challenge the periodic tax cuts that shift the relative burden of public financing onto the lower orders. The continued shrinkage of the middle class and the widening of inequality have been one notable result.
The deregulating expansion of the neoliberal machine over the next two decades gave a select group of seekers the opportunity to excel and accrue disproportionate wealth and power. These survivors were made fittest through exclusionary policies and interests, fulfilling a Social Darwinist dream that became a nightmare for many. Seemingly untethered from all impediments to progress, this machine generated the very images of freedom and transcendence while delivering restricted access and representation, a kind of privatized Big Brother that monitors behaviors through advanced technological capacities and shapes options accordingly, shrinking the field of awareness for citizens. Conformity processed into the appearances of freedom could very well define what it looks and feels like at the end of history. People spout slogans from the blogosphere, innovative debates that can lead to credible alternatives as limited as the leadership pool.
Is this kind of conformity a symptom of decadence? In mapping the cultural sensibility of the first two decades of our new century, Ross Douthat claims that decadence helped give us the Trump presidency. He borrows Jacques Barzun’s definition of this notion. It refers to “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” Despite the surface markers of accelerated progress, we are living in an era where “repetition is more the norm than invention; in which stalemate rather than revolution stamps our politics; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, consistently underdeliver” (“The Age of Decadence,” New York Times, 4/7/20).
In short, we are a society that has lost a connection with the temporal sequences that define us. Cut off from the past, we are aging ungracefully while awaiting some “saving innovation or revelation” that will never materialize. Our lean, deregulating, monopoly machine has so thoroughly repressed thoughts of difference from our imaginaries and exhausted our options that defaulted candidates are our only choice. So Trump, a recycled collage of reactionary tendencies, appears like truth.