Saturday, December 31, 2016

Make America Decline Again

Where is Trump going, and where are our institutions going?

My recent reading of Medieval history was particularly interesting in its analysis of the growth of institutions in Western / Northern Europe. It was a very slow, painful process, as the vacuum of Rome was replaced first by German kings with very primitive notions of the state and society, co-existing, with monks in their cloisters. Then came nascent states that used more bureaucratic structure (increasingly integrated with services from the church) to provide state services to larger territories and more people. Charlemagne built a great state, but it did not yet have the institutional staying power to last much beyond his sons. But over time, bigger and more effectively run states (Norman England, Capetian France) won the struggle for power in Europe, and generated not only bigger armies and bloodier wars, but also more peaceful and prosperous conditions at home.

Many of these institutions by which we live in peace with each other are written down, in constitutions and laws. But many are not. For example, the fact that a majority of votes in the Senate or House passes a bill is understood and obvious, but not actually written down in the constitution. It appears only by default when a 2/3 majority is required for such things as a passing a constitutional amendment or overriding a veto, and would be implicit in the ability of each chamber to make its own rules for administration. More topically, nothing prevents a president from having all sorts of business interests and foreign entaglements that might corrupt his or her administration. It is merely up to the voters to decide, and later the Congress to take up the matter if they have a mind to impeach.

Institutions live not only in our officials and constitutions, but in everyone's implicit expectations of how their society should run. The town meeting is a hallowed institution, by those who take part in it, as the only reasonable way to run a small political entity. They would not dream to call in a dictator from the outside, as was common practice in Medieval Italy.

Corruption is what happens when unwritten as well as written institutions weaken and go by the wayside, allowing the immediate motivations of greed and ego to replace the carefully honed traditions- if those traditions be worthy- and even common decency. An example is gerrymandering. It is obvious that the original intent, and the intent of any fair-minded person, would be that legislative districts should be evenly and regularly allocated to group together people who live close together. But well-gerrymandered state can scientifically allocate voters such that the party responsible gains far more seats that they deserve, which are then impregnable till the next census and the next exercise in drawing districts.

North Carolina's 12th district.

Corruption is not only an offense against fair play and moral decency, but typically against truth as well. No one is proud of being corrupt and abusing written and unwritten institutions. The trick is to claim one's fidelity while subverting in reality. And the cost of our large political system is that people are so out of touch with each other that they can no longer judge closely, or care to judge, or may not be educationally equipped to judge, the candidates for office, who each make the same claims to fidelity, truth and good character.

Which all makes our recent election so difficult to digest. The Democrats surely had their issues with fidelity to public institutions, with Hillary Clinton eagerly feeding at the golden trough of Goldman Sachs, and her husband raking in (charitably, of course) millions from foreign and other politically interested donors, a haul that one assumes is likely to dry up quite dramatically in the coming year.

However, all this pales in comparison to the orchestrated war on our basic institutions and our very understanding of truth that the Republicans have led for decades. Donald Trump campaigned openly on a platform of lies and execrable character. His business history is one of repeated bankruptcy, betrayal, cheating, and bullying. His knowledge of our institutions, and indeed of reality itself, is marginal. His abilty to articulate rational public policy was and remains nil, suited only to emotional outbursts via the 140-character medium of twitter. His emotional makeup was clearly unstable, and evidently psychopathic. And people voted for him.

Why? The battlefield had been softened up by decades of smear operations mounted by the Republican party through FOX news and other organs of the right. It turns out that hate sells, and thus leads to a sustainable business model of purveying emotionally tinged lies, leading to mis-directed hate, leading to more listener engagement, and more advertising dollars. It is reminiscent of the interwar period in Germany, when scapegoats were sought for: who lost World War I. They came up with the Jews, and a general lack of teutonic authoritanianism, in a self-feeding cycle of hate which polarized society to great, deadly extremes.

For decades, the Republicans have been seeking scapegoats for: who lost the culture war? Why are Americans becoming increasingly compassionate towards blacks, towards gays, towards atheists? What is going on, and could the clock be turned back- to make America great again? The backbone of this movement was naturally the right-wing religious believers, who, being temperamentally authoritarian, and having already swallowed one pack of lies, had little problem with a few more, like the whole wishlist from the business community, that wealthy people are the job creators, that government regulation is the main thing standing between rural people and good jobs, and that unions are evil. And that Donald Trump means anything he says or has an ounce of morals. And that the Clintons are unspeakably vile- far more so than those fine business organizations who sold so many fraudulent loans and other toxic waste that we are barely coming out of the recession they caused. And that global warming is a hoax, and that Bengazi was Hillary's fault, and ... well, the appalling list goes on, ad infinitum. They have a great deal of airtime to fill, after all.

The Republican war on our institutions has had a self-reinforcing quality. Given that they want to debilitate governmental institutions, whenever they get their hands on one, like the House of Representatives or the Senate, they make it non-functional, and in a self-fulfiling prophecy, the government indeed doesn't work, and the base can be riled up all over again to attack their chosen targets of hate. The base doesn't seem to make the connection between cause and effect, except when that connection is glaring, such as the government shutdowns that ultimately damaged Newt Gingrich- perhaps the earliest and most vociferous destroyer of American instutions in our generation.

The vacancy on the Supreme court stands as the absolute lowest point of Republican subversion. A shameless plot against norms and practices in place since the founding, in a doomed quest to reverse the course of social development. For however conservative and extreme the court gets, America at large is never going back to the image that conservatives have of it. Similarly, Donald Trump is busily appointing to each department a head who seeks to debilitate it and subvert its purposes and norms, so that corruption by the business elite can flourish. Education will see corporations in charge of charter schools, the EPA, corporations in charge of climate change policy, and the Labor department will see union busters in charge. The tax system as a whole will doubtless see giveaways to corporations and the wealthy that will make the Reagan administration look like a Trotskyite regime.

Is this what his voters wanted? I would hope and assume not. But they knew they were electing a con man, right? How could a ruthless billionaire with no previously recorded ounce of compassion for anyone outside his family do other than he has, hiring those he likes and trusts to run our country, which already is one of the most unequal in the developed world?

While all of politics is a matter of lies and half-truths; banal rhetoric with maximal tone and minimal content, the degree to which Trump could play this game with complete shamelessness and emptiness is not a matter of his talent alone, but of the decades-long evisceration of our public discourse and institutions, and particularly the Ministry-of-Truth programming that his base has been fed so effectively from the right-wing media. They do it not only in the service of their conservative ideals, but also for their true power base- the wealthy and corporations, who could never carry an election with their own votes, but if they destroy enough of our democratic and cultural institutions, and brain cells, can win anyhow, free and fair.

  • Is compassion dead?
  • Yes.
  • Honestly, do we really need a middle class?
  • How about some happy thoughts?
  • "Liberalizing policies are justified in theory only by the assumption that political decisions will redistribute some of the gains from winners to losers in socially acceptable ways. But what happens if politicians do the opposite in practice?"
  • Christmas is pagan.

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