In a compelling article published on Fair Observer earlier this week, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), speculates on the theme of “what Trump will leave behind” if he loses the November election. The author offers an enlightening perspective on the choices available to people and governments in the rest of the world regarding an American presidential election that promises not so much clarification as a new phase of aggravated confusion.
Perthes is not optimistic about the outcome of the election, whoever is declared the winner. He focuses on the choices other nations must make at a moment marked both by the twin phenomena of a long-term trend of American decline and the fireworks Americans expect to witness when the results begin trickling in on the evening of November 3. Across the political spectrum, Americans are preparing for some serious post-election trauma.
Is America Edging Toward a “Racial Holy War”?
Perthes is guilty of slightly understating the reality of politics in the United States today when he writes that “there is the political polarization in the US, which is as intense as it was during the Vietnam War.” But he is perfectly accurate when he adds that “neither the political nor social divisions in America will simply disappear with a change of political direction.” Perthes’ analysis is correct but he errs, as Europeans tend to do, by being too polite when he compares today’s polarization with that of the Vietnam War era. It is exponentially greater.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The intended consequence of a cleverly managed electoral system designed to meet the requirements of a consumer culture that reduces the notion of political choice to exactly two products that are only distinguishable by their packaging.
The war in Vietnam pitted the hardline anti-communist defenders of the idea that the US was the “world’s policeman” against those who were committed to a more relaxed way of realizing the American dream. It was a largely generational divide rather than an ideological one. For American youth, raised in the new post-World War II consumer culture, every individual entering adulthood had to make a crucial decision while moving on from the years in which the study of schoolbooks vied for their attention with fun. They now had to begin focusing on constructing their identity as responsible consumers.
The draft and the prospect of two years fighting in the jungles of Vietnam represented a serious obstacle in their quest to define a respectable consumer lifestyle for themselves. This forced many of them to consider the more radical consumer choice of simply dropping out. If they could manage to avoid the draft, that might translate as either living on a commune in the wilderness or, for some, in an urban neighborhood colonized by the promoters of flower power.
In other words, the polarization at work at the time became a contest pitting a majority of adults — traditional Republicans and establishment Democrats — who supported what President Dwight Eisenhower had called the dominant military-industrial complex against a highly visible contingent of intellectuals, hippies and peaceniks seeking to redefine what being a consumer and enjoying American prosperity meant. The most conservative hawks preferred reducing the polarizing choice war to the simple idea of “It’s America — Love It or Leave It.” The rebellious youth who experienced the “summer of love” preferred to both love it and symbolically leave it, following LSD promoter Timothy Leary’s advice: “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”
Today’s polarization is far more complex and far more dangerous. It cuts across a variety of categories, political, economic and cultural. Ultimately, it opposes contrasting styles of collective identity. It plays out in a variety of combinations in connection with the extreme individualism at the core of US culture shared by the entire population. “Love it or leave it” defined a consumer choice. If the rebellious youth at the time failed to show the appropriate amount of love for the system, the solution was to send the police, the FBI or the National Guard to step in, as they did at Kent State University in 1970. As a child of the 1960s, Donald Trump remembers that logic and is now seeking to duplicate it.
The difference today is symbolized in the person of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. The new message is “love it … or face the wrath of other armed citizens.” Thanks to two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the police have morphed into a military force armed with equipment designed for counterinsurgency in the Middle East. But their ability to win wars in other countries or on domestic city streets has been thrown into doubt. “We the people,” brandishing their guns and flaunting their Second Amendment rights, are ready to take over where armed authority has failed. Donald Trump and Fox News have encouraged them to rise in mass to the challenge.
Fifty years ago, the symbolism of political polarization focused on the great American tradition that led to the nation’s founding: a popular revolution. The new symbolic reference has lost all its revolutionary fervor. If a symbolic reference is needed, it can only be civil war. The conflict that emerged in the 1960s pitted rebellious youth against an oppressive authority. In the Trump era, the legitimacy of any institutional authority has been undermined to the point that armed citizens appear to be ready to take things in their own hands.
Things were much simpler back in the 1960s. Nobody was happy with Lyndon Johnson’s war. For conservative Republicans and establishment Democrats loyal to Johnson (and later Nixon), the war should have been prosecuted more aggressively since the aim was to prove once and for all that American might is right. For the nation’s youth, who were being asked to participate in the fighting, pursuing war was unjustified morally and politically. They felt it as a betrayal of the promise made to the consumer society.
The protests against the war led to an asymmetrical struggle between the American prosperity machine that refused to admit its dependence on a neocolonial foreign policy and a vast segment of the population that believed the American dream was about enjoying that prosperity rather than dying to defend it. There was no real contest other than psychological warfare and the occasional skirmish.
Even the idea of “love it or leave it” reflected the culture of the consumer society. The hawks were simply offering youngsters an alternative. They refused to understand that, because of the draft, the choice young men had was not a simple binary one. Loving it meant dying for a cause that had no meaning they could understand. Reacting like the consumers they had been conditioned to be, some came up with the idea of escaping to Canada as an attractive third choice. Canada represented the same culture, but without the war.
Richard Nixon abolished the draft in 1973. All subsequent wars have been fought by a professional military. Young men can now concentrate on other things, such as how they might pay off their student loans over the next 20 or 30 years of their lives. Today’s polarization is also generational, but it is no longer about overseas wars. The difference today is that the youth, for the first time, has become aware of the oligarchic nature of both political parties and the fact that it serves to protect those who suffer the least from the ills of society.
But there is another difference, far more significant. Those ready to defend the system against the multiracial protesters with their personal arsenal are equally defiant of the controlling oligarchy. Only they fear and hate any group that they do not culturally identify with. They fear that reforms intended to redress ills that may even affect their lives translate as the imposition of new rules or restrictions on their way of life. Many are ready to go to battle to prevent change to a system that has encouraged what they see as “alien” tendencies. They value their possessions and feel that that ownership itself is being threatened.
One thing they own in increasing numbers is a gun and rounds of ammunition. They are currently preparing for battle. This is not merely polarization. It is the prelude to civil war, but one of a new kind, with no organized opposing armies.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.