July 2020


American carnage

By Don Watson
Image of Donald Trump mask

Photograph by Scottie Cameron

Donald Trump and the collapse of the Union

When Watergate investigators cornered Richard Nixon, he told them lies. In the Articles of Impeachment it adopted, the House Judiciary Committee noted these lies along with other “false or misleading public statements” the president had made “for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States”. As if lying to the people were a crime! According to The Washington Post, which has been keeping a tally, as of April 3 this year Donald Trump’s false or misleading statements since becoming president numbered 18,000.

Trump’s mountain of lies might constitute a new category of high crime or misdemeanour – something like “making false or misleading statements for the purpose of whatever”. For the purpose of satisfying the toddler’s monomania, for the purpose of enlarging the hoodlum’s desperate insecurity and insatiable self-­regard, for degrading political debate to a level that he can manipulate, for rendering the presidency a monetised family fiefdom or mafia lair, for leading the United States into the post-truth world of fake news and alternative facts where reality itself is a partisan judgement, for subverting democracy. For the purposes of ungoverned greed and power.

That Trump was guilty of the crimes for which he was impeached is beyond doubt. That he is guilty of many others is just as certain. He has used the office to enrich himself, his businesses and his family. He has replaced competent and dutiful civil servants with members of his family and business colleagues. He has surrounded himself with courtiers and lickspittles, sacked any who are less than recreant, and installed political fixers in powerful government positions. He has been unremittingly partisan. He has incited violence, intimidated witnesses, threatened the press, uttered racial slurs and lent comfort to white supremacist groups. He is a tax evader; he has paid thousands of dollars in hush money to women with whom he had affairs, US$25 million in settlement of three lawsuits relating to fraud at his sham university, and US$2 million to settle claims relating to the misuse of funds raised for charity by the Donald J. Trump Foundation. He has boasted of groping women, and several women have accused him of sexual assault, one of rape.

No president in the history of the United States has proved so unfit to hold the office, and nothing has exposed his unfitness so calamitously as the coronavirus pandemic. A disease that has so far killed 120,000 American citizens, 30,000 of them in his native New York, and close to half a million worldwide, has not for a second shifted his self-revering gaze. Trump dismissed it as a matter of no consequence at first, and the delay cost unknown thousands of lives. Ever since, he has offered lies, denial and baloney. Nixon lied to investigators; Trump sacks them. Among the five inspectors-general (government watchdogs) recently purged was the one investigating shortages of medical supplies, and another was responsible for oversight of the $1–3 trillion stimulus (nothing to see there). In nearly four months, not once has the president been able to sufficiently subdue his power-seeking, self-­aggrandising instincts to show by word or gesture a convincing sign of sympathy for the dead and dying, the suffering and the grieving. Nor has his wife or any member of his family. And then, in the midst of misery and fear, Trump staged his stunt with the Bible outside St John’s Church in Washington, and threatened to call out the military to put down the protests and riots that followed the killing by a policeman of George Floyd.

Yet, menace though he is, and fervent as our hopes might be that he will soon be voted out, Donald Trump is not the most alarming thing in the present American debacle. He will go, sooner or later, but whether it’s this November or four years hence, the divisions in American society will remain. And, so long as one of the two great factions has made widening them its operating principle, they will widen. So long as it is in the interests of money and the media to widen them, they will widen. Trump is alarming, but when military helicopters flying at rooftop level and police and national guard in battle gear are deployed to violently clear a public park for the sake of a presidential photo-op, or on national television the president suggests ingesting disinfectant as remedy for coronavirus, it is more alarming that he is still supported by 40 per cent of voters. It is more alarming that, like the police who stood and watched as their colleague killed George Floyd, medical people, as if too much in awe of his office and too fearful of his vindictiveness, looked miserable or bemused but said nothing as he burbled out his fallacies. As he is now, the gruesome sideshow to a deadly pandemic, so he was in the beginning when any one of a hundred things he said and did should have been enough to give any voter pause, and ten of them sufficient to recognise him for what he is – a crook and a thug conducting a heist. But they voted for him. That’s the most alarming thing. In electing Trump, American voters projected onto the presidency the mountainous social and economic evidence of a nation irretrievably divided and declining. 

The Democrats have plumped for Joe Biden, a famous “hands-across-the-aisle” healer thought deserving after two failed cracks at the job and eight years being the cool Obama’s warm Joe Sixpack deputy. Far from the most talented or commanding of more than 20 candidates, the old white man was judged a safer bet than a Jewish democratic-socialist, a high-achieving gay mid-western mayor, or any one of several women, including the formidable left-wing senator Elizabeth Warren and the former Californian attorney-general Kamala Harris. If Biden’s mind and body hold up until November and, what is almost as desirable, if he can convince enough of the electorate that he won’t be wheeled out of the White House and into assisted living before his term is up – to be succeeded by his vice president, whoever she may be – he might win in November. The polls suggest he’ll bolt in. But the dirty bit is just beginning, and in the showdown to come we can only hope that believing Biden can knock over Trump is not the same as believing James Stewart was the man who shot Liberty Valance. (It was really John Wayne, lurking in the shadows of Shinbone’s main street.)

Still, it was the moral of that film: Without myth, great men cannot fulfil their destiny, nor great nations theirs. (Nor the press: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as the newsman says when he learns the truth at the end.) And, as the film also made clear, there are two myths – two big ones at least, two founding myths. There is James Stewart, the man of progress, all for education, a free press, capital works, the Constitution and the law – the north-easterner, the communitarian, spiritual descendant of the pilgrim fathers. And there is John Wayne, the man of the past, all man and all heart, no education nor much time for the idea of it, the rugged self-governing individual, his rifle a symbol of his self-reliance, and in his hands the last guarantee of the good – the westerner, descendant of the vanishing frontier. In the film their destinies collide and, though Wayne gets much the worst of the love angle (that’s progress for you), they reach across the aisle as it were, and the evil one, the hoodlum, is vanquished.

The history of the United States being substantially the history of these divides, American politics is always to greater and lesser degrees their expression. They are essential to the Democrats’ self-definition and without them the wellspring of their rhetoric dries up. How else could they speak of “healing”? If they could not say there are “no red states and blue states, only the United States”, of what could they speak? If they could not pursue their healing mission, they would be obliged to mount their campaign on policy. They have plenty of policies. But in the modern political culture, policy is as welcome as sand in a carburettor. It does not belong in the media narrative. The Gettysburg Address does not belong. Short as the speech was, it was still too long for a tweet, much too long for a grab, and too complex, too radical by far. Americans don’t like that sort of thing. You can’t have everyone sounding like Bernie Sanders. One of his speeches went for eight and half hours. Americans don’t like long speeches. Or Elizabeth Warren. Sure, she’s brainy. That’s her problem. Or half of it. George McGovern was brainy, and left-wing like Sanders and Warren – a liberal. He won one state in 1972. One. That’s why they set the party up the way they did – to keep people like McGovern and Sanders out.

The necessity – real and imagined – to conquer evil has been a uniting factor in the country’s history; the general excitement of conquering has been another. In these and smaller enterprises it is no small thing to have God on your side. And there’s the treasure, of course. And the buoyancy granted by economic and technological headway, and a superabundance of consumer goods. There’s manifest destiny and the idea that at once justifies the empire and disguises it, American exceptionalism. There’s the American dream. There’s Dolly Parton. And the Constitution, which in general has prevailed. The things that unite them are indeed greater than the things that divide them, as Democrats often proclaim, but that is only to say there’s at least one bandaid for every wound. It is true that the nation has survived the great divides, and just as true that the divides have survived the nation. Now, in one nation under God, the factions are irreconcilable tribes, with different value systems, different assumptions and ambitions, different notions of truth. The basis upon which the nation has held values in common – freedom, the anthem, the Constitution, truth itself – is no longer agreed. The primal myths that, in Hollywood, came together to banish hoodlums have not come together against Donald Trump. Instead, one faction has made him the infallible projection of their contempt for the other side. On their behalf, Trump usurped the throne of America’s elective monarchy and now charges all his critics with lèse-majesté. For Trump loyalists the thrill of his transgression is visceral. He is the embodiment of their freedom and their truth, their revenge on the condescension of the meritocracy, the corruption of governments, and the faithlessness of the parties that walked out on them. For the other faction, used to the old rules of engagement and the veneers of civilised argument, the world has been turned on its head, and it all happened so quickly and at such odds with received wisdom, the hardest thing is to stay calm and try to think what Jed Bartlet would do.

The signs were there with Hurricane Katrina: the social and racial inequality, the decaying infrastructure, and the ineptitude and heartlessness of a federal government wholly unaccustomed to any problem that couldn’t be left to free enterprise in combination with the churches. Katrina probably was the beginning of the end for George W. Bush, which means it was something of a beginning for the Democrats. They could make ground on the failings of the Bush administration, and if only by default earn the support of society’s losers. Enter Obama with the sharp mind and shimmering rhetoric, and Hope as his catchword.

There are the measurable distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and class, and there are these and other social groupings asserting themselves as “identities”. Liberals find it hard enough to distil their beliefs into a consistent and intelligible creed. Their philosophy, if not their nature, lends itself to ambivalence and contradiction, which liberal rhetoric only papers over. Before Barry Goldwater steamrolled Nelson Rockefeller for the nomination in 1964, the Republican Party was liberal. The liberal case can be politically powerful and entirely feckless. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society go under the rubric of liberalism, but where some citizens see in these programs a notion of moral economy consistent with liberal tradition, swathes of Americans who might otherwise call themselves liberals see such government incursions into the national life as inimical to freedom, individualism and the American way. Philosophically, liberals can’t reasonably deny the case for identity politics, or the causes behind it. Nor can they deny it and pretend to be in tune with the motley of contemporary American life.

The Democrats’ problem is that identity politics sharpens focus on social and political fragmentation, and no party wants to be the party of that. The problem becomes deeper when some identities speak louder than others, or worse, louder than the voice of the party – worse still, decide the language in which the party speaks, what it is acceptable to say and what is not. The Democrats will not win the people’s hearts and minds by telling them what they can and can’t have in them.

Among those who need persuading are people who are neither particularly liberal nor particularly reactionary, but perhaps live in the rust belt and the Midwest and have their own identity and their own needs, which, with some justification, they feel the Democrats neither respect nor understand. By “deplorables”, Hillary Clinton did not mean these undecided voters, but they could hardly fail to draw the inference that not all identities are equal. From every cause, the political mill extracts an opposite: so “Black Lives Matter” soon runs up against “All Lives Matter”. Identity politics, which began on the progressive side of the mainstream becomes, on the reactionary side, the white identity politics that has been profoundly helpful to Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the White House.

In theory, it is the purpose of democratic politics to resolve by debate what might otherwise be resolved by civil war. For reasons of financial greed and public entertainment, debate in modern democratic politics must come as close to war as possible. A slide from a 2018 internal presentation to Facebook executives read, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” It went on to say that without change the site would attract “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform”. No change has been made. Fox News did not need algorithms: it did it on instinct.

As war reduces everything to competing war cries, so does modern politics. When communism no longer made for a credible enemy, liberalism, the philosophy on which more than any other the nation was founded, took its place. In the 36 years since Ronald Reagan announced it was morning in America, liberals have spent much of their time ducking the “L” word and trying to prove themselves worthy participants in the American dream. Bill Clinton dodged the “L” word by getting himself elected as a New Democrat. New Democrats, like New Labour in Britain and Hawke–­Keating Labor in Australia, combined an insistent rejection of trickle-down economics with the practise of it. Though nothing Clinton did in eight years came within a bull’s roar of what Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration managed in one (1965), there were some grounds for forgiveness. Johnson had a liberal Congress and Supreme Court, and Republican opponents who had yet to adopt the strategy of blanket opposition that Clinton ran into.

Still, Johnson got Medicare for the aged and Medicaid for the poor, the Civil Rights Act for African Americans, federal aid to elementary and secondary schools for the disadvantaged, a few billion for his war on poverty, and much else, including new national parks and wilderness areas, and national endowments to the arts and humanities. Who knows what else he would have done if Vietnam had not brought him down? The country might be like a workers’ paradise.

Johnson had another advantage: polls at the time showed that most Americans had faith in their politicians and the state. The efforts of the New Left to dismantle this faith were nothing compared to those of Reagan and his platoon of hairy-chested tax cutters and draft evaders. By the time Clinton got the job, the state was as dirty a term as liberalism. By then, excepting a few isolated pockets, liberal, communitarian and egalitarian ideals had been airbrushed from American political discourse, and in conservative quarters from the annals of American democracy. It turned out that the country had been built pretty much solely by entrepreneurs – though no one has ever explained why such a seminal American concept should be known by a French word that a lot of Americans can’t pronounce. The entrepreneur was the human – or political – embodiment of the Chicago school of economics (or public choice or trickle-down economics… it goes by many names). Suddenly no one much cared if the entrepreneur was a decent human being or a repellent one; a benefactor or an exploiter of humanity; George Hearst or Thomas Edison; Theodore Roosevelt or the corporate thieves he loathed. It was not the person but the principle that mattered. It became a commonplace that, for Americans in their natural and unspoiled condition, government and all forms of reliance on it was an anathema to the soul.

The tech boom of the ’90s put the wisdom of free-market economics so far beyond doubt that Clinton could not resist the urgings of Wall Street donors and took the free-for-all to a logical conclusion: in 1999 he repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that restrained banks from operating as both commercial and investment enterprises. Now everyone could join in the entrepreneurial riot. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, the ordinary functions of the state were too depleted and compromised to be effective, which for the likes of Newt Gingrich only went to prove the case that governments were no good at anything.

In 2006, I met a wealthy investor on the beach in Santa Monica: ex Harvard, ex GOP, ex Goldman Sachs. In his view all his old connections had gone to the dogs. He told me in detail what was going on in Wall Street, and why the biggest crash since 1929 was coming within a year or two. When I asked him what could be done, he said: “Buy gold.” (I never got around to it, of course.) If he knew, how was it that no one else did? No one with the power to do something to prevent it? As chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan saw it as a possibility, but thought markets would self-correct, much as companies so famously self-regulated. Appearing before a Senate committee in 2008, he seemed genuinely shocked that this had not proved to be the case.

In 2006, Timothy Geithner, then president of the New York Federal Reserve, might have wondered if all those derivatives were safe, but he didn’t follow it up. Lawrence Summers was the economist who advised Clinton to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act. Obama made Geithner secretary of the Treasury and Summers director of the National Economic Council. The story of the bailout that the Obama administration engineered during the Great Recession has been told often enough. Trillions of taxpayer dollars went to banks judged too big to fail, and within a few years those banks were much bigger. In 2000 the combined assets of the six biggest banks was equivalent to 17 per cent of US national GDP. In 2015 the figure for the four biggest was 52 per cent.

Why Obama chose the people he did is puzzling. Why he approved a response to the GFC that amounted to socialism for Wall Street and free-market capitalism for everyone else is even more puzzling. Why there were no prosecutions is also puzzling. He could have taken on someone with a more liberal and imaginative mental cast, a warrior less compromised by past and immediate associations, less technocratic in attitude and appearance. He might have put in a Joseph Stiglitz or Robert Reich. Whomever he chose, Obama could have made the millions of poor victims of the crisis the focus of his energies – and his rhetoric. He could have got a few dozen prosecutions under way. The country with more people in jail than any other country in the world could surely find cells for half a dozen bankers. Maybe he didn’t want to upset Wall Street. He was new in the job and wanted a steady start. Maybe he didn’t want to look like an angry black man. He looked like a cool black man instead, which might not have been any more helpful. But anger was needed. The Great Recession shone a light on the US so bright it was impossible not to see the staggering inequality and outrageous imbalance of privilege and power brought about by neoliberalism and the self-justifying lie of meritocracy. To put it another way, the country was dying of greed. Obama missed the moment, a historic opportunity to change the nation’s course.

The Tea Party protests began within weeks of Obama’s election. No one who attended the first wave of them could have imagined that gatherings of a hundred or so gun-toting misfits chanting for Sarah Palin and demanding “freedom” would end up controlling the US Congress and clearing the way for Donald Trump’s election. Funding from the Koch brothers helped, but the Tea Party’s staggering momentum was only possible in the absence of a countervailing force. When another New Deal or Great Society initiative was needed, the Democrats were not there; worse, they seemed to be on Wall Street earning, as Hillary Clinton did, US$250,000 per speech, or bathing in the auras of celebrity.

Of course, the Republicans blocked Obama at every turn, and of course Fox and Breitbart gnawed away, but hardscrabble America did not need much urging from nefarious corporate and alt-right sources to think Washington and both parties had abandoned them. Why would they not respond to populists? Obama put his faith in building bridges to his opponents, but so long as they would not take a step in his direction, he was stranded. He extended their tax cuts, talked their talk about their deficits, appointed their kind of people. He ceded ground until, as one of his liberal critics said, he began to sound like an Eisenhower Republican – which still left plenty of room for Tea Party Republicans to attack him. For all his calm intelligence and decency, Obama never rekindled the fire he lit when he became president. He was essentially a manager. In a recent book, George Packer described him as a “technocrat disguised as a visionary”. Sure, just now civilisation would likely settle for a technocrat disguised as Ivan the Terrible, but if we accept Packer’s judgement – and it’s hard not to – we have to accept the part that Obama played in Trump’s success.

When the independent senator Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016 it was to occupy a space in the political landscape that the Democrats had vacated in the ’90s, and had left vacant long after it became apparent that economic rationalism and globalisation was a deepening social disaster. Trickle-down economics had caused torrents of money to flow upwards. The top 1 per cent of income earners owned 39 per cent of the nation’s wealth while one in six children lived in poverty. As the rich got richer, their tax rates went down, which made them richer still, and the richer they got the more power they had to influence the political system. As Jane Mayer and Nancy MacLean have demonstrated in their separate studies, the effort to turn the country into a plutocracy (some might say, restore it to this state) – with the likes of James M. Buchanan, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman lending it respectable intellectual roots – was conscious, orchestrated and relentless. It began in response to the New Deal and has never stopped. But it had deeper roots in fractures as old as the country itself: in the racial divides, in the clash of free-market and communitarian myths, and in the case of Buchanan, principal founder of “public choice” economics and the Koch brothers’ favourite economist, the loathing of someone from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the north-eastern elites.

Since Reagan’s election in 1980, the US economy has doubled in size while real wages – the element on which, above all others, social justice depends – have flatlined, and taxes have become dramatically less progressive. In many parts of the country, once prosperous manufacturing towns have gone into unstoppable decline as US companies with unembarrassed zeal moved their operations to countries where workers get a pittance. One can see this as the natural operation of free enterprise, just the way of the world, and tell folk that it means they get cheaper goods. You can tell them that they will find better jobs in the knowledge economy or the gig economy. But it’s a betrayal just the same, and that’s how a lot of them see it. Add to their betrayal the evidence of social collapse, visible in the empty streets, and measurable in the statistics for health, suicide, drugs, domestic violence, crime, education levels, personal debt, evictions. The simpler measurement, however, is the success of the Tea Party, and Donald Trump and that slogan of his.

Despite remarkable popular support, the Democrats rejected Sanders in 2016 and again this year. He was a “socialist” and a “populist”, so of course he would have lost. In fact he was on Johnson’s Great Society trajectory, and to believe he would have lost in 2016 means believing against all logic that he would have lost states that Hillary Clinton won, because he almost certainly would have won the three crucial states she lost: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He would have won them because his alternative to “Make America Great Again” was not the grotesquely inept “America is Already Great” or a continuation of New Democrat policies, but a doubling of the minimum wage and health insurance for everyone. He would have won by appealing to both the interests of workers and the old solidarities of those states. 

It is the great triumph of neoliberalism to have persuaded so many Americans, including many Democrats, that the profit motive and individual self-interest is all that has ever governed their thinking and behaviour. It might be that, where the political parties and the commentators have failed, the coronavirus pandemic succeeds in showing up the many fallacies underlying this belief. If nothing else, surely, the experience has cemented in a fair sample of the public mind a reborn respect for collective as opposed to entrepreneurial solutions, for the justice in paying wages commensurate with the value of work done, for a health system that like so much else about the US, including its president, does not resemble the chaos of a failed state.

And if he wins, will Joe Biden return it to order and success? James Stewart first encounters Liberty Valance when Liberty holds up the stagecoach in which he’s travelling to the town of Shinbone. “Stand and deliver!” the robber shouts. If Donald Trump is Liberty Valance demanding America give itself up to him and his gang of thieves, Biden must be Stewart, and who can be John Wayne if not an honourable Republican (or several of them) who, when all hope seems fanciful, will cross the divide. The evildoer will lie in the dust and the nation will be indivisible again, there will be no red states and blue states…

Turns out there’s nothing to worry about.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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