As Donald Trump becomes president, we must remember: We are all observers of history.
On January 20, the United States enters a new era. It will no longer be the same country. It will be different from what it has been for the past eight years under Barack Obama. It will also be different from the previous eight years under George W. Bush. Not, as many believe, because Donald Trump is unlike any previous leader or because he isn’t qualified to be president. A similar case could be made for Bush and even Ronald Reagan. No, this time something has radically shifted in the basic paradigm of American democracy. The script has been rewritten. Where it will lead no one can reasonably predict. The suspense begins. In more than a metaphorical sense, the world of American politics has become an extravagant TV reality show, with a cast of millions.
In the coming months we can count on President Trump—simultaneously assuming the roles of tragic hero and Greek chorus—to guide us through the experience with his usual deluge of tweets intended, in his mind, to function rather like the subtitles on a foreign film. We will never be expected to understand the actual text, but by paying attention to his tone we may hope to get the drift of his and the other actors’ intentions. Then we will simply have to follow the twists and turns of the plot as the different characters—Democrats and Republicans—step up to challenge the new leader and bend him to their will.
Whether the model is reality TV or Greek tragedy (some have suggested comedy), we need to acknowledge that the barrier between fiction and historical reality has at least momentarily dissolved. This is hyperreality at its purest. Think of it as a combination of a classic Hollywood catastrophe film—about a massive earthquake, for example—and a play by Samuel Beckett. The title of the piece might be, Waiting for the Big One.
The seismic shock in November 2016 stunned the entire world. The professional pundits and political scientists are now monitoring the region around the epicenter for the arrival of a tsunami as Trump settles in to the Oval Office. We know there will be damage to the political foundations that have been in place since the end of the Second World War. And we know it will be massive. It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media, who will be tasked with interpreting the data, manage to make sense of it, or whether the politicians who will be required to act can find the means to adjust to the new reality, repair the damage and rebuild the structure. Bad habits, artificial loyalties, complacency and ingrained ignorance die hard. The myths we formerly lived by tend to endure, long after their sell-by date.
By the time the dust settles and Trump’s new team is installed in Washington, lucid observers will have noticed two essential things about American civic culture that only became obvious in the wake of the 2016 election. They concern the media and the political system.
Media and Politics
The popular media in the United States have clearly lost their bearings to the point that they can no longer distinguish between reality and the hyperreality they have themselves created—between reporting based on verifiable information subjected to critical reasoning, on one hand, and the fake news that’s so much easier to sell to a willing public, on the other. Fake news has become an object of public debate, but to some extent the debate itself is a fake debate. That is a characteristic of hyperreality.
The motor that everyone counts on to power the system of government is clearly out of order. The stability of the two-party system that has been operative since the late 19th century is seriously compromised. Both parties are now acting like wounded beasts, bellowing wildly and struggling to find their footing. It requires superhuman optimism to believe that the storm will soon be over and that the experienced managers who have kept things ticking over for so long will in due time be able to get everything back in order.
If the picture the media paint of today’s world is hyperreal, the current political landscape has become simply surreal. When a president-elect preparing his inauguration—traditionally a moment of glorious triumph in Act I of his heroic play—lashes out at the entire political establishment, sounding more like Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in Act V, it becomes clear that what we are witnessing resembles more the end of an unraveling story than the beginning of a new one. Here is a sample of Trump’s recent tweets: “Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably…”
Reading this we can easily imagine the next scene when Trump will be shouting, “a horse, a horse my presidency for a horse.”
Well over a million people—some estimate close to 2 million—attended President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. On January 20, 2017, the numbers are expected to be significantly lower. On the other hand, some estimate that more than 100,000 people will be on hand to protest at the inauguration, refusing to acknowledge Trump as their legitimate president. And they won’t be Democrats only. Fellow Republican and former presidential candidate John McCain is the designated “sleazebag” who supplied the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with the dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia.
Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2017
On the Democratic side, the struggle for control of the party is just getting underway, but the battle lines are beginning to appear between the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing and whoever manages to step up to mobilize the traditionalists from the Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden side of the party. The first skirmish has begun over the election of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). For the moment, both sides are gathering arms as they wait to see the lay of the land once Trump takes office.
As 2017 begins, the nation faces a paradox. The Republicans have won everything but are in total disarray, reduced to a state of aggravated agitation. The Democrats are still too stunned to realize that they have nothing other than their hatred of a few chosen villains to guide them. Those villains have names: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, James Comey, Julian Assange. Declaring war on any or all of them seems to make them feel better about their own sense of failure and miscalculation. The Russian bugbear they find particularly pleasing, since it places the blame for their own failures on the other side of the world in a place Americans have long been conditioned to think of as a den of evil.
Something essential in the system is clearly broken. For any reasonable person, once the effect of the November shock subsides, this should be the time for reflection that seeks a deepened understanding of what is clearly a complex and historically unique situation. It’s too early to expect it from the politicians lost in their world of woe or from the mainstream media, committed to perpetuating their hyperreal universe.
Searching for clues
Popular political culture in the US has always been too close to entertainment culture to have cultivated or developed a taste for systemic analysis, even in moments like this where a previously stable system is clearly in peril. Reactions and reflections abound, but for the moment, predictably enough, all eyes are focused not on the system itself, but on the personalities. After all, personality is what the media does best. Look at the headlines of any newspaper or news service and the subjects of the articles will jump from Barack Obama to Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift, from Paul Ryan to Justin Bieber or LeBron James. All are on an equal footing in a celebrity culture. Hyperreality at its most concentrated.
Consequently, the final phase of this transitional post-election/pre-inauguration period has assigned two jobs to be done by the media: assess Obama’s legacy and anticipate the effects of Trump’s unpredictable, unconventional personality. As the Democrats shed copious tears over the departure of their dignified African American president—who from the start made history in a way that always impresses the American public, simply by being different—they fail to notice the historical reality that Obama was more an exotic symbol than a leader. Symbols are easier for the public to identify with than political leaders, whose job it is to weigh options and make decisions.
In contrast, the Republicans find themselves with a symbol they didn’t really invent and which they do not quite understand. Instead of savoring their victory, the “true” Republicans—the Ryans, McConnels, McCains—find themselves gesticulating erratically in all directions as they attempt to understand and clarify their relationship with the man who has replaced President Obama, more a sinister gargoyle than the kind of noble figurehead Obama turned out to be.
Taking stock of Obama
The disturbing truth behind the current confusion is the realization that Obama may well be the last of his kind. For the mainstream media, presidents are public personalities who should be admired even when criticized or gently derided. Fox News tirelessly complained about Obama’s policies but did so with a measure of respect for the man. The tradition always sought to elevate presidents and place them on a pedestal of respectable celebrity, however virulent the criticism of their policies. The mainstream media realized it was essential that political leaders retain the real or artificial dignity of their celebrity status, even when denigrated in the most outrageous and insulting terms by the pundits of talk radio or late night TV satirists. It’s an integral part of the law of celebrity. In some sense, the true proof of political stardom is the privilege of being “roasted” in public, by friends and foes alike.
As a celebrity president, Obama invited and responded masterfully to the initiatives of the media, playing his role with the brio of a celebrity chef, never forgetting to toss in the additional spice of his personal story—the one that launched him as a future star at the Democratic convention in 2004. He created and then embodied the perfect 21st century Democratic Party leader, no longer a pure white establishment figure like John Edwards or John Kerry, but rather an exotic outsider who is nevertheless at ease in establishment culture. The Harvard credentials and a law degree of course helped.
Above all, Obama had the look, the voice, the style and the speech cadences of a political celebrity. He was young and energetic, represented the advantages of diversity, and was particularly skilled at reformulating the party’s Jeffersonian ideals in the form of simplified resonant slogans (“yes we can”, “change you can believe in”). With his daring rhetoric and sonorous voice, none better than he could appeal to those who identified with the Democrats’ traditional progressivist ideology—however compromised and diluted by the “realism” of Bill Clinton’s New Democrat worldview.
Over two terms and eight years, President Obama has consistently demonstrated the celebrity’s skill of keeping his image intact, not an easy task for a president who is continually faced with complex foreign policy dilemmas, an undisciplined and frankly obstructive legislature and multiple forms of civil unrest. In the final weeks of his presidency, Obama, alongside his co-star Michelle, was shown all the honors by his fans and supporters and showered with tributes in the mainstream and social media. None of them greater than the privilege of leaving office to the resounding echo of his public vociferously chanting, “four more years.” Just as he received the Nobel Peace Prize mainly for not being George W. Bush, his status as a great president has been sealed by the comparison with his unworthy and unpopular successor.
The artist formerly known as President Barack Obama has always understood how to play his part. In 2008, his performance was so consummate he stole the show from the top-billed Hillary Clinton at the precise moment when she had put on her Annie Oakley gear and mounted her steed, on cue to ride into glory as the first female president. Her clear path to victory seemed assured as she advanced on the not yet frayed coattails of her husband—a man remembered by the public as the last president to ensure peace and prosperity.
To Hillary’s surprise and chagrin, she found herself facing a young, sassy, inexperienced Obama, whose profile just happened to be that of the ideal post-Bush, 21st century Democratic candidate. He not only spoke with the voice of the party, pushing the themes of peace and economic justice further than the more calculating Clinton, but as the first black candidate nominated by a major party, presenting himself as an anti-war militant after two terms of Bush, he had everything required to motivate a new generation of voters.
And though his politics proved far less radical than his campaign discourse suggested—ultimately provoking severe criticism from some of his most enthusiastic supporters (such as Cornel West, who said: “It’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin”)—and for two full terms he successfully maintained both the rhetoric and the celebrity image, the Democratic faithful see him today as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
Obama’s success in building and maintaining his image may have been his finest accomplishment, one that should not be underestimated in a culture that relies heavily on adulation of public personae. But, however impressive, this achievement may already be the relic of a bygone era. Trump’s over-the-top narcissistic sociopath persona may not be the new model, but Obama did his part in discrediting the old one by cultivating his image rather than realizing his ideals.
From the very first months of his presidency, Obama’s image as a resolute change agent quickly began to tarnish. He continued to speak nobly of peace, but threw himself with very real enthusiasm into the logic of war, eventually promoting and to some extent perfecting the latest form of state-sponsored terrorism: drone warfare. In his public pronouncements, he appealed to the most generous ideals of freedom, honesty and sincerity, but then led an enduring campaign to suppress whistle blowers. He preached respect between peoples and nations while prosecuting multiple wars and military operations conducted through unholy alliances with autocratic regimes. He ever so discreetly engaged in the well-established post-World War II tradition of attempting to overthrow regimes—despotic and democratically elected ones alike—that made the mistake of failing to align with American economic interests. And, of course, the single deed that he and his administration were most proud of—even six years after the fact—was an assassination.
It could be said that like Obama himself, Osama Bin Laden was more a symbol than a leader. And in politics, even in nations that swear by all the political saints that they are wedded to the rule of law, symbols are routinely given more importance than laws. Nevertheless, history and the hope for peace between peoples and nations, to say nothing of the notion of the rule of law, would have been better served by the capture and trial of Bin Laden than by his illegal and deliberately disrespectful murder by SEAL team 6.
The American media saw it as an act of bravery and efficiency, two key components of US culture. It certainly stood out as a spectacular moment in history, the long awaited coda to 9/11, served up by the media to an avid public. After President Bush’s shame at failing even to locate Bin Laden, his assassination shaped up for Obama as the equivalent to a buzzer-beater in his beloved game of basketball. In his farewell speech in Chicago, Obama himself cited with pride the assassination of Bin Laden as one of his four major achievements, alongside Obamacare, the Iran nuclear treaty and renewed relations with Cuba.
The election of the sleazy real estate mogul Donald Trump ensures that Obama will be immediately regretted by many. Not only for the professional dignity he exuded compared with Trump’s exaggerated vulgarity. He will also be regretted because of the chaos that America will experience in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. One of the terrible ironies of history in 2017 is that, in comparison to his successor, President Obama will appear that much greater for having produced his greatest political failure, one that will mark the history of the nation in the 21st century: the failure to secure a stable succession.
Donald Trump represents not just the decline of the American empire—which was already under way despite Obama’s concerted effort to maintain it militarily—but also and more significantly, the collapse of American democracy. This starts with the collapse of the belief in American democracy. Elected with nearly 3 million fewer votes than his rival, Trump triumphed thanks to an unusual combination of circumstances. First among them, of course, is the curious relic called the Electoral College, an ad hoc institution designed for the needs of a confederation of disparate states rather than those of a unified nation.
For his critics on the Democratic side aware of these issues, Obama was acknowledged as a great communicator but an ineffective president.
More significantly, Trump profited from the deep contradictions of a political culture nourished for decades by both parties. Democrats and Republicans alike have consistently attempted to justify themselves and build momentum by reciting credos that increasingly diverged from the reality of their policies.
The Republicans maintained the myth of an economy fueled by small entrepreneurs and family businesses while aligning their politics on the needs of multinational companies and global capitalism. The Democrats maintained the myth of caring for the common man while equally aligning their policies on the needs of global capitalism, the inevitable source of finance for their campaigns.
The Republicans proclaimed their active faith in trickle down economics. They did so in the name of absolute liberty, with no channels to ensure that the trickle arrived in any particular place. Nature would do the rest. The Democrats allowed capitalistic greed to seed the clouds of economic success, but promised to build onto the rooftops of businesses the gutters and drainpipes that would send the rainwater into selected irrigation channels that benefit the common man.
Obama’s Affordable Care Act exemplified this approach. It started by honoring the capitalist principle of profit for powerful private enterprises, the insurers, and then busied itself by building the drains that would irrigate a greater number of people who could afford and opt for health care.
Voters lining up with both parties continued to buy into these dogmas, comforted in their choice by the fact that the economy remained globally prosperous, whoever was in power, and that the consumer society continued to deliver the goods they craved. But cracks in the foundation began to appear. The numbers of voters identifying as either Republicans or Democrats fell over time to levels that no longer radiated the effect of moral adhesion to a set of ideals that has always been the key to keeping democratic institutions stable. By 2016, both parties had fallen below 30%, ceding the plurality to independents, people with no fixed dogma or vision of governance.
Bernie Sanders, an independent culturally affiliated with the Democrats, made his move against the would-be Democratic dynasty of the Clintons, while Trump—of no fixed party persuasion—countered and quickly eliminated the designated heir of the Bush dynasty on the Republican side, before side-lining all the others.
One other crucial factor doomed the Democrats: their obstinate belief in the pseudo-science of political marketing and candidate branding. They held the demographics of party loyalty to be an infallible science. The historical trend that resulted in a mathematical weakening of the white majority, a phenomenon that Obama’s two elections appeared to conclusively validate, promised a bright future for Democratic organizers. This belief, coupled with the well-honed professional ability to fashion a platform pleasing to the targeted public and model the candidate’s discourse around themes identified through “scientific” polling, led not just the Democrats but also the media and the pollsters to believe Hillary Clinton’s victory was inevitable.
The icing on the promised cake was their mistaken confidence in the brand value of dynastic names. They should have called this feature of the campaign into question as soon as Jeb Bush faltered in the Republican primaries, fatally wounded by Trump’s unscientific but highly effective bandying of the epithet, “low energy.”
The year 2016, therefore, became the perfect electoral storm to weaken the foundations of the two parties that had shared power in Washington for more a century and a half. We are now left wondering whether either of them can survive intact. If not, we must ask: What might replace them, and what new source of talent can be identified capable of running a complex global political, economic and military machine?
The obvious answer suggested by Trump’s victory and his initial efforts to form a cabinet is business leaders, the captains of finance and industry. This may seem contradictory with Trump’s campaign promise to liberate the government from the grip of Wall Street. But it turned out to be a clever strategy on Trump’s part. If we go back and listen to what he said at the time, we will notice that he was only promising to liberate campaign financing, not government, from Wall Street—in order for him to ride to victory on his own fortune.
The real question we should ask is not whether the parties can or should survive in their traditional form, but whether the political culture that they thrived on will survive. It was built on two levels of implicit trust: 1) trust in the capacity of the party structures to manage and ensure the legitimacy of a bureaucracy that made things work; 2) trust in a powerful economy to find ways of rewarding the population. Many feel both of those forms of trust have faded beyond redemption. The repeated historic failures in Congress of both parties and the more than apparent disconnect between discourse and reality have pushed distrust to the tipping point. With the impending chaos of a Trump presidency, the moment of paradigm shift may be upon us.
The weight of history
We are witnessing the accelerated disarray of a political system, one that for several decades had confidently gone about its business of electing parties rather than leaders to its highest office. The logic of the system dates back to the aftermath of World War II, when the US resolutely assumed the role of the leading global power. Given the scope of the organization required to build and run a global political economy, it was no longer physically possible for individual politicians to assume and execute the role of visionary leader and bold decision-maker. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last one to play that kind of role, which had previously suited George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. John F. Kennedy was the first post-war president to understand the attraction of that role for the public. He was also the first to turn it into a public spectacle focused as much on his lifestyle as it was on pragmatic political programs.
Even if Kennedy had wanted to, he couldn’t have succeeded because the system had matured to the point of governing itself. Presidential politics could henceforth be defined, in electoral terms, as a popularity contest for political celebrities, while in the background a system of complex interests with global implications held the reins over government organization and action.
This reflected an approach to the political economy and organization that had first successfully developed by none other than Adolf Hitler, who had benefited from the assistance and complicity of top American industrialists and bankers in the 1930s. The great German novelist, Thomas Mann, who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938 to become an American citizen, was one of the first to notice the resemblance in the years following the Allied victory. His observations were not well received. In 1952, after brushes with HUAC, Mann moved back to Europe, disillusioned to the point of claiming that Hitler had won the war, not for the Third Reich but for the type of powerful military-industrial system he had created. Thomas Mann died in 1955.
The public first learned about the American version of a system with German design when outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower described the all-powerful military-industrial complex days before leaving office.
Despite Eisenhower’s warnings, the trend continued for decades. Every president since Eisenhower has found the means to hide the reality from view. To clarify how far we have come since 1961, Glenn Greenwald reminds us of the current state of play: “The threat of being ruled by unaccountable and unelected entities is self-evident and grave. That’s especially true when the entity behind which so many are rallying is one with a long and deliberate history of lying, propaganda, war crimes, torture, and the worst atrocities imaginable.”
The deep state now includes the formidable information gathering capacity of the National Security Agency (NSA), exposed by Edward Snowden, capable of accessing nearly everything that circulates on the internet. In 1961, the internet hadn’t even been imagined yet. The power of the military-industrial complex has grown incomparably since Eisenhower’s warning.
Who called the shots?
During Obama’s eight years in office, the public had the opportunity to appreciate the tepid efforts he made to scale down the wars in the Middle East and applaud his intentions.
Many who appreciate his personality and style have, nevertheless, blamed him for betraying his early campaign promises. He not only failed to end those wars, but engaged in new ones (Libya, Syria, Yemen). He never closed Guantanamo. He refused to take the opportunity to defend civil liberties by challenging the overreach of the security state when its abuses were revealed by Snowden. He never punished or reformed Wall Street, but he did take measures to stabilize the economy, thereby forestalling a citizens’ revolt against Wall Street. He continued a foreign policy of interference and intervention in the politics of other nations—from Honduras to Somalia and beyond.
For his critics on the Democratic side aware of these issues, Obama was acknowledged as a great communicator but an ineffective president.
One can draw one of three obvious conclusions and mention for the record a supplementary delusional one, popular in some channels. Most Democrats affirm that Obama had nothing but good intentions but was thwarted by Congress on every initiative he took. The minority of cynics on the Democratic side will say that he had no wish to change anything, but was content to be a “good guy” president and represent the ideals of the Democratic Party. Critics on the Republican side saw him as a typical naive Democrat, ignorant of the laws of the marketplace and, therefore, incapable of getting any serious business done. Cynics on the Republican side, who have the occasional platform on Fox News, continue to believe that he wanted to install a socialist regime under Islamic law, abolish the Second Amendment and that it was only the patriotic obstruction of the Republicans in Congress that prevented him from succeeding.
The most rational explanation is the one for which President Eisenhower provided the clue. Whatever he knew, thought or had the intention to do, Obama was a prisoner of what today we call the deep state: the nebulous entity Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex. He was its spokesman, its political press secretary, or rather the talented actor who could learn the script and play the role. Or perhaps less like a player on the stage and more like a player of video games, he had choices to make but they were circumscribed by the algorithms fabricated by the deep state.
Government has itself become a video game, designed and produced by an industrial-military-financial conglomerate. The man or woman we like to call the most “powerful in the world” is simply a skilled user of complex piece of interactive software produced by a largely anonymous team of designers.
Obama was perfect for the role. The question now is, what about Trump? On the surface, he doesn’t seem to suspect that that’s what it’s all about. Will he be the unwitting agent of change who exposes the sham, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz? Or will he be eliminated through impeachment or some other procedure of neutralization? Once in office, will he learn the skills and adapt? Or will the deep state find the means of physically or morally lobotomizing him?
The show is about to begin. History has led us to a turning point. This is the question we need to ask and reflect on: Will we see emerging a new art of government, kinder, gentler or more sinister?
It has become standard discourse among those who were stunned by the result of November’s election to speculate on whether Trump will attempt to impose a neo-fascist regime because of his apparent narcissistic, solipsistic, xenophobic and racist instincts. At the moment the new administration takes over, the real questions we need to ask ourselves are these: Will Trump’s ham-handed style and Twitter addiction end up exposing the whole charade of politics programmed by the deep state? Or in the event that the political status quo of electoral politics traditionally guaranteed by the “good” Republicans and the “good” Democrats actually does implode beyond recognition, should we expect that a cabal composed of military-industrial personalities may come to the fore to re-establish order as in a banana republic?
It actually did nearly happen in 1933 with the Business Plot. Today, it seems a more likely scenario than that of Trump establishing a fascist regime under his personal control. He simply lacks the leadership skills.
We are all observers of history. But with the means of communication that exist today and the weakening of traditional political power networks, we may also become actors in a new form of democracy whose architecture is yet to be defined. American citizens have been used to the routine of calling themselves Democrats or Republicans and showing up to vote (or simply watch on the sidelines) every four years. The system of calling the population to vote in pre-programmed elections, first within primaries and then in a general election, has failed. It is no longer a viable model for democracy. We need to acknowledge the opportunity this represents to become engaged in the model that will replace it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Glyn Lowe