I had a very hard time picking a title for this essay--which is unusual, as I usually think of my title first, and the rest of the words are driven by that choice. I thought of "Disaster", "An Ending", "Voting Against Democracy", and many other choices which seemed either melodramatic or bland. I am not really happy with what I chose either.
Two months ago, I wrote about the astonishing emergence of the coinage "post-truth", which has now been designated by the Oxford English Dictionary as its "word of the year". I am now coining "post-cliff", based on the following lines of thought. It is not hard to find case studies which demonstrate that, if we do not perceive and communicate truth, we all die. My personal favorite is the 1982 Potomac crash, in which the pilot refused to believe, and the co-pilot failed to communicate loudly and certainly enough, that the gauges were wrong and the plane had not achieved take-off velocity. Both died as a result, along with most passengers. What we are seeing in 2016 is a shifting of normal rules and perceptions to include the idea that lies are just part of the landscape, therefore a normalization of fraud. The phrase “post-truth” contains absolutely no knowledge of the literal deadliness of such a concept. In cartoons (there is much truth in Warner Brothers cartoons), characters run off cliffs, look down, and then fall. “Post-truth” suggests that, so long as we never look down, we will not fall. We can thus speak of being in the “post-cliff” part of our trajectory.
I told you so?
The emergence of Donald Trump has caused me to go prospecting in some essays of mine I haven't reread in many years. Without false modesty, I think my predictive skills were quite good. In my Auschwitz Alphabet compilation from spring 1995, I included a section called “Language”, in which I quoted Arthur Cohen: “[T]he debasement of language and the traducing of the psyche, dependent as it is upon the organ of speech, is a process observable in varying degrees in all western language. ....one notes in advanced capitalist societies that the command of nuanced and subtle language in public discourse has all but disappeared. The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues after he is gone. It will help us to explain a kind of cauterization of conscience by the use of metaphor and euphemism...”. Arthur Cohen, The Tremendum (London: Continuuum 1993) pp. 7-8
In an essay a few months later, called Newt Gingrich's Morality and Mine, I wrote, “I have been wondering how there can be a morality without compassion”. I tracked Gingrich carefully and with morbid fascination, sensing how much he wanted to be the man on horseback. I was delighted when his own party rejected him and sent him into exile after the insensate impeachment of Bill Clinton. In 2012, when he ridiculously ran for President buoyed by the dollars of billionaire Sheldon Adelson, I described, in Not Newt, with examples, his grandiosity, impulsivity, corruption, meanness, and authoritarian nature. I wrote, not even imagining Donald Trump, “The last thing we need, in the bully pulpit, is a mean, divisive president.”
Another subject of great interest to me had been the similarly cruel and grandiose Rudy Giuliani. In a 2007 piece, Giuliani is Dangerous, when he was attempting a Presidential run, I wrote: “Rudy would in effect be the second coming of Richard Nixon: smart, crazy and vengeful, using the people with guns as his power base, making enemies' lists and punishing the opposition”. When a future historian, if there are any, writes a 1000 page account of these times, one of the strands will be the way these authoritarian personalities, who had aspired to be the alpha dog, flocked to Donald Trump, contented to be Goebbels instead. Among the many rude outcomes I never would have expected, is the new and awful power assumed in a Trump world by these failed figures. It literally will be the revenge of the forgotten. The spectacle of some Trump surrogates, particularly Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have gone quite mad, screaming over interviewers rather than answering questions, closely recalls Nazi speech-methods.
In 2009, I wrote a piece I am particularly proud of, Language, Lies and Power, about the way in which the Republican party, following Newt Gingrich's lead from fifteen years before, was degrading our language in order to consolidate power. And I find (this is quite eerie) that I even predicted Donald Trump. “With a curious sense of unreality, I read mainstream media, which report on these Republican tactics with little awareness that the party has transformed itself into a radical, revolutionary entity, using fascist tactics. If a new American Hitler arose, how far would he get while the media reported on him as an everyday phenomenon, business as usual?”
Since 1995, I had been describing the effects of the Republican initiative as a solvent, but I did not foresee that the collapse of the structure under attack would come this soon, or so quickly, and in my own lifetime.
From day to day, the strange ups and downs, incidents and accidents, assertions and reversals, are leaving me confused and wondering, at times, if I am over-reacting, hysterical, clinically paranoid. Have I finally lost my streak of accurate prediction? Is my twenty-year run analyzing the degradation of language and the rise of sophistry and demonization of the other, a shaggy dog story ending, not in disaster, but in a genial, low urgency, shaggy dog presidency with flashes of common sense and compassion? Will I be writing in embarassment in two years about how wrong I was in my direness and urgency?
However: The trends I have been analyzing have produced a very important effect I have also analyzed, the end, among the American majority, of any idea of causation. This is a disguised double attack on human agency: first, it maintains that no one is responsible for terrible things happening to us; they are acts of God, like weather. But if nothing can be done, we are not agents either, incapable of acting to save ourselves, because there is no one to act against (we cannot fight God).
Samuel Butcher described the torpid Greek attitude towards Philip of Macedon: “The Greeks looked on as they might at a hailstorm, praying that they themselves might be spared, but without an effort to prevent it”. Samuel Henry Butcher, Demosthenes (New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1882) p. 109 A tactic of power is to instill the despair and passivity necessary to quell any resistance; eliminating even the perception of agency is the final consolidation of that victory. An official who resigned from the Johnson administration, who was more qualified than most to identify those responsible for the Vietnam debacle, reiterated the Official Narrative instead: “There wll be no act of madness, no single villain on whom to discharge guilt; just the flow of history”. Edward Weisband and Thomas M. Franck, Resignation in Protest (New York: Grossman Publishers 1975) p. 79 Remarkably, even the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in a small ground-breaking 1967 book highly critical of every aspect of the war, agreed to diffuse the blame: “The Vietnam story is a tragedy without villains”. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Bitter Heritage (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1967) p. 32 William Shawcross noted that by the time of the Carter administration: “Vietnam and Watergate were frequently referred to as 'traumas' or 'tragedies' rather than as specific acts and decisions by officials”. William Shawcross, Sideshow (New York: Simon & Schuster 1979) p. 393 Today in America, the press largely reports on the trend of the declining middle class, and even on very specific historical events such as the collapse of the mortgage bubble, as if these were random weather-like events (though there is irony in the fact that today, even changes in the weather are the result of human behavior). Mike Davis gives a miniature case study of such hypocritical and evasive power-speech: in 2001, Algerian slums were devastated by floods and mudslides, with the loss of 900 lives. The impact of these events was magnified by the “degradation, inadequate repair, aging and neglect” of the neighborhoods, houses and structures; additionally, “to deny insurgents hiding places and escape routes, the authorities had deforested the hills above” the slums “and sealed the sewers”. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso 2007) p. 125 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, visiting the scene, said, “the disaster was simply the will of God”. p. 125 Lewis H. Lapham says that Republicans “define evil as a pollutant borne on an alien wind; nothing to do with man's inward nature but something that arrives, inexplicably, from the sea, the ozone layer, or the slums”. Lewis H. Lapham, Gag Rule (New York: The Penguin Press 2004) p. 136 Ta-Nehisi Coates said that American racism “is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men”. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau 2015) p. 7 Hegel described a particularly poignant variation, in which citizens of a polity which is entirely corrupt, recognize some problems but argue it is essentially sound. “On this showing the institute in question escapes obloquy, and the evil that disfigures it appears something foreign to it”. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover Publications 1956) p. 412 Two months ago, I analyzed the extremely disturbing new trope that we are living in a “post-truth” world: not that there are terrible powerful liars in the environment, whom we are among, or encouraging, or tolerating, or passive towards, but that an alien wind, come from God knows where, has blown all the truth out of the atmosphere. This is one of the last, and saddest, denials of agency in the history of the West, of enlightenment, of the freedom of speech.
Contrast those people and characters who have gloriously claimed agency: the gangsters in movies who never forget “This is the life we chose”; Emma Goldman, who wrote: “Notwithstanding all our hardships and sorrows, all persecution and imprisonment—perhaps because of it all—we have lived the lives of our choice. What more can one expect of Life”. Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman (New Haven: Yale University Press 2011) p. 130 The corner-stone of Marx's narrative was that these events are not random at all, but inevitable effects of a conflict of social classes. Dialectical materialism leaves no room for acts of God. Vivian Gornick reports the words of a young man arriving independently at this epiphany sometime in the Depression, on his way to joining the American Communist Party: “There's got to be some explanation for it, its not like its fire or flood, its people doing this to other people....” Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism p. 82
Roland Barthes, in a splendid essay in Mythologies on wrestling, of all things, provides a description of a world in which there is no ongoing sense of history (name-check Santayana here), no idea of causation, just the brutal spectacle of the moment. '"[T]he public relies on the most important virtue of spectacles, which is to abolish all motives and consequences; what is important is not what the public believes, but what it sees...each moment is intelligible, not the totality...Wrestling demands an immediate understanding of juxtapositions, without the necessity of connecting them together" and “excessive gestures, exploited to the ultimate paroxysm of their meaning.... a wrestler thrown to the ground is there exaggeratedly, swelling to fill the public view with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness....Each symbolic act in wrestling is endowed with a complete clarity because it must always be instantly understood...."
Evidence v. Smokescreen
Sophistry used to deny causation and linkage can dissolve everything; it is a skilled defense attorney's job to make the jury think the victim beat herself to death, that the driver of the hit car had a fatal heart attack an instant before impact with the eighteen wheeler. As a case study, I briefly present evidence that Donald Trump has encouraged and used anti-Semitism, regardless of his personal feelings about Jewish people. 1. A Jewish American writer named Julia Ioffe wrote a profile of Melania Trump in GQ Magazine. She immediately began to receive horrendous anti-Semitic tweets, such as one in which her head was Photoshopped onto the body of an Auschwitz inmate. The caption was "Julia Ioffe in Camp Trump". 2. Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked Trump if he would tell his followers to desist and he replied, “I don’t have a message to the fans. A woman wrote an article that’s inaccurate.”
Or here is another exercise. 1. Trump hired Steve Bannon to advise him in the White House. 2. Bannon's ex-wife in a divorce filing claimed that Bannon said he doesn't like Jews, who raise their children to be "Whiny brats". 3. Even if we reject this--in Trump world, all ex-wives by definition are liars-- Bannon employs, as Tech Editor of his Breitbart web site, Milos Yiannopolos, who brags publicly about his own anti-Semitism (and describes it as vanguard First Amendment speech): Jews “run everything... run the banks.... run the media”, but despite this elitist Jewish domination, millenial anti-Semites are “a mischievous, dissident, trolly generation who do it because it gets a reaction....[W]hen Jonah Goldberg of National Review is bombarded with these memes, and anti-Semitic ‘take a hike, kike’ stuff, it’s not because there’s a spontaneous outpouring of anti-Semitism from 22-year-olds in this country”. This guy works for Bannon, who works for Trump.
When the connections are so obvious and the hatred so overt, the lines can only elided by an acidic fog of nonsense. Much of this maintains there is no connection between Trump and the worldwide emergence of a level of hatred that Jews under eighty haven't seen in their lifetimes. Some reactions: "Media trying 2 bully @realDonaldTrump into admitting he’s responsible 4 [supporter and neo-Nazi Richard]Spencer. Just sign this confession & we’ll let you walk out the door". "I do not think Mr. Trump can be responsible for people who are anti-Semitic who support him,”. "[C]laiming that America has become anti-Semitic, or that it’s not a friendly country for Jews, is a slap in the face to the country that, besides Israel, has been the best home for Jewish people in thousands of years." By the way, the spectacle of right wing Jews excusing grotesque anti-Semitism has been a revelation. Trump exerts a huge malign force which warps everything out of shape.
The following is a list I have been sending out to friends of forthcoming signs, any three or four of which by June 2017 would confirm that this is the end of our world:
--Bannon is in a secure place and apparently increasingly strong --the trillion dollar infrastructure bill is making progress with little visible Republican opposition --Hillary has been arrested --Pressure is being put on Ruth Ginsburg to quit the court (based on allegations of senility) or impeachment proceedings are being planned --There is an increasing or total abandonment of standards of civility and government rhetoric increasingly resembles 1984 or Stalin-era pronouncements --civil service is under attack and some form of Loyalty Review Board is firing Democrats/ anyone unwilling to play along --new investigative and police entities are being formed, for example, rabidly anti-Clinton FBI agents in NY office are broken out into an independent "Special Investigations Unit" --(Possibly won't be public but) CIA resumes major role spying on US citizens, as does Army etc. --increasing use of the military in a policing role --declarations of martial law in specific regions or nationwide --surprising domestic uses of military commissions to try people --Republicans who previously resisted Trump are falling into line without explanation --mccarthyesque investigations are mounted by multiple congressional committees --congress is impeaching independent judges or recalcitrant employees of executive branch --one or more congress folk, not necessarily democrats, are suddenly arrested for graft or child porn --increase in prosecutions of occupy, black lives matter etc etc --increase in material support prosecutions --important highly visible roles for trump children...congressman resigns or is arrested, there is a by election and don Jr is in congress chairing a new huac....or Trump suspends nepotism laws and appoints Eric to chair Loyalty review Board. --vigilantism against Trump opponents --American citizens sent to Guantanamo --First use of a drone strike within US borders (to take out an alleged revolutionary encampment or dangerous radical driving on a rural highway)The Punch-line
I mention here from time to time that I am aware of two circumstances in which citizens have voted somewhat knowingly to end a democracy, Germany in 1932 and Algeria in 1992. I now add a third, the United States in 2016. There is no coherence, no mapping, no line you can draw from the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments to candidate Donald Trump, so I have the image of an electorate, like toddlers having a tantrum, smashing the Constitution on the floor.
Every step of the way, watching Donald Trump in action, I clearly saw a man who lacked all of the qualities I would look for, not just in a President, but in a business associate or a friend. I do not see any compassion, the single quality I look for first in another human. Someone can have heart and lack every other quality and be my friend--and be trustworthy. I do not see any humility or tolerance. I do not see intelligence, in the sense of someone who reads and considers, who decides carefully. I saw someone crude, insulting, and worst of all, terribly vain, someone who believes himself to be a higher life form than everyone else, and accordingly owes none of us any obligation of respect or truth. The obvious, known, widely disseminated facts about Trump University cases made abundantly clear that Trump had actively participated in stripping vulnerable people just like his voters of their last dollars. He was recorded talking about grabbing women "by the pussy", and old photographs and stories of him socializing with Mafioso and Russian gangsters and accepting suitcases full of cash at apartment closings were reported. He had made a large donation to Florida A.G. Pam Bondi at the exact moment she decided to close a case against Trump University. He had used contributions from other people to his foundation to settle lawsuits and to buy a six foot tall portrait of himself. And the voters didn't care about any of it.
If you track back through some of the twenty years of essays I cite above, my theme is the death of deliberative democracy through shouting, lies and the demonization of Democrats. I checked yesterday and was reminded that Democrats remained in control of the House for much of the Reagan administration, that Speaker Tip O'Neill had a good working relationship with the President, that Justice Scalia--who did so much to destroy democracy through sophistry in his own career--was unanimously confirmed by Senate Democrats who limited themselves to the question of whether he was qualified, not what his politics were. In an attack in Lebanon, 241 Marines died and the subsequent investigations never attempted to demonize Reagan. Today, by contrast, we have the Republican party lending itself to the birther and Muslim lies, withholding all cooperation to ensure that President Obama could not pass a single piece of legislation, and refusing even to hold hearings on Merrill Garland, an appointee who everyone agreed was middle of the road, highly qualified, and had previously been confirmed to the Court of Appeals with significant Republican support. And also holding endless hearings, for years on end, about Benghazi. The Republicans have, almost nonstop since the Gingrich era, been doing everything they can to destroy all vestiges of cooperative government. In such an environment, Donald Trump became inevitable.
We have an old saying in law practice, "When you have neither the law nor the facts on your side, you bang on the table and shout". The Republicans have been working a "long con" for much of the last seventy or eighty years, to get the middle and working classes to vote against their own health, jobs, and houses, and the trick they discovered for doing that is to make them hate and fear the other party more than they care about, or notice, their own suffering. It is still being debated, and will be for a long time, who Trump's electorate primarily was, but it seems completely obvious to me he committed a meta-fraud, a fraud about frauds, in which his own con was embedded in a narrative about how the Republicans had cheated the voters. In a famous old "long con" called the "fight game', the mark is persuaded to bet heavily on what he believes will be the winning fighter in a fixed fight. The fight turns out to be fixed the other way. Trump pulled a version of that.
I heard anecdotally that some subset of Trump voters actually did want to smash the Constitution in their rage, felt so left out that they wanted to punish everybody by destroying the rocking horse they were never permitted to ride. But I have to think that the majority of his voters looked at this mediocre, dishonest, exploitive and kitschy con man and saw some kind of exemplary hero instead. It wasn't even close. I have been conned myself; at the company where I worked in the 1990's, we had two employees who were pathological liars, who were both eventually revealed to have lied about every detail except their names--resume, life history, education, relatives, health, everything. And I had trusted them both. But in Trump's case, he doesn't even begin to start to commence to have the chops to put his narative across--he is too obviously lacking in every quality. The whole man is as kitschy, fake and mediocre as his hair. So the idea that we have a massive chunk of the electorate, almost half, that couldn't see that, is a big problem.
James Russell Lowell in an introduction to an edition of Milton's Areopagitica in the 1890's, sensed the interplay between leadership and education in a democracy, when he said: “[E]ven democracies are a great while in finding out that everything may be left to the instincts of a free people except those instincts themselves”. John Milton, Areopagitica (New York: The Grolier Club, 1890)p. 6 Our mass society never solved the problem of how to educate Americans to understand that the nation is a ship we are all navigating together, what we stand for, how to cooperate, how to make informed judgments about people like Donald Trump. Even without Republican malice, democracy might have failed. But the Republicans, as a highly successful methodology, have been working for decades to create the most ignorant, hateful voters possible.
The punchline: The victory of Donald Trump seems to me to mean that we are no longer qualified for self-government, which can only exist when there are voters capable of making sane choices. Since I don't want to live under any other system, would in fact refuse to aid or participate in any other system, I expect all bad and fateful outcomes. But I also don't think there is any easy way to reverse this. The Republicans have also succeeded in innoculating their voters against anyone who might reach out to them and try to establish common ground: each such figure is perceived as a treacherous lying alien-born, secret elite Socialist secularist who deserves to be hung.
I have been struggling with the question of what I do now. There are no good answers. My own chance of being imprisoned or worse, for pure speech, just went up dramatically. I have the impression that Americans threw the polity Madison and Jefferson gave them on the floor, shattering it in a temper tantrum, like Germans in 1932 or Algerians in 1992. This is a resounding answer to Franklin's “A republic, if you can keep it”. My future activism, and I am fairly certain there will be, will not be based on a desire to save my country-folk from themselves. I will fight for the remnants of the shattered Constitution, and particularly for the First Amendment. I will fight to try to protect myself and the people I care about, to preserve as much of a space as I can for the remnants of Enlightenment, to make sure there are some people who remember, and can transmit to the next world the memory of, the lovely things we had.I will fight because that is the only way I can feel whole in the years to come. I will fight from my reason and knowledge and from my savage indignation based on these.
When you are jumping waves at the beach and a huge one arrives, you dive into it. I see myself diving into the wave that has come. If you run from it or turn away, it will slam you into the gravel below. Diving into the wave, I am a still a free man in the world.