Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Demagogues Rising

This past Sunday, Heather Cox Richardson wrote a piece for titled:
“It is time to get very afraid: Extremists, authoritarians now run the GOP—and no one can stop them.” Her piece, well worth reading, runs through some of the history of the rise of conservatives in the United States, beginning with William F. Buckley and continuing through the Goldwater run for the presidency in 1964, the Nixon ‘southern strategy’ to take advantage of white outrage over the Johnson-era civil rights bills, and into Ronald Reagan and the consolidation of radical-conservative thinking into what almost seems a majoritarian hold on American life. She also takes us through the Bush W. years and today’s rise of the clown car of Republican presidential hopefuls, all of whom would have been considered absolutely beyond the pale in Republican primaries of the Eisenhower era and before. Not any more. Republican presidential aspirants now try to outdo each other in the rabid radicalism of their utterings. They deny climate change, they deny that taxes are necessary, they deny that Obamacare is legal, they insist that Obama is a Muslim and a foreigner, they indulge in outright lies—Carly Fiorina insisted that she ‘saw’ a video of Planned Parenthood  people dealing in foetal body parts, and when confronted with the truth, tried to produce a fake video to compound the lie—and never even blanche when caught. They “double down” as the media loves to call it, rather than, the media I mean, holding aspirants for the highest and most powerful office in the world to account, to even a bare minimum of truth-telling. And above all, Republicans have, since the aforementioned Buckley, maintained that government is the enemy, government is unnecessary, government is what deprives red-blooded Americans of their freedom and must be “drowned in the bathtub.” This leads to idiocies such as Tea Party activists chanting “get your hands off my Medicare,” all the while directing their wrath at the very government that in fact gives them Medicare.
            Isaac Asimov is reported to have once written:
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

In the situation that now faces us, it would be tempting to join Asimov in attributing the ravings now convulsing the Republican Party to sheer stupidity. Americans are stupid, they are proud of knowing nothing about politics or science or world affairs, and this is why the Republicans can make a virtual cult of ignorance, spouting the most outrageous and dangerous falsehoods, stupidities, and pretend-cures like no taxes, and get away with it.
            But that would be too easy. Americans in general are ignorant and poorly educated, yes. But even a stupid population would see through the flim-flams of someone like Donald Trump. They seem not to. Ever since he entered the Republican primary race, with his nasty, narcissistic, authoritarian insults of his rivals and everyone else, Trump has not only led the field, he has overwhelmed it. He seems to appeal to some atavistic impulse of Tea Party arch-conservatives to bring on the most hateful, boorish leader available and have him “clean house.” Get rid of government ‘insiders’ and intellectuals. Trump’s recent “tax plan,” announced this weekend, will have delighted them: it promises reduced or much-lowered tax rates for poor and lower-middle classes as a cover to disguise the fact that the upper echelons (the real ‘insiders’) are actually the ones who will make out like bandits, including massive corporations and those richest of the rich who have big estates that benefit from reduced estate taxes. Not to mention the fact that the vastly reduced revenues that will result will be taken out of critical social programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and every other public program that will be starved in the way that rich Republicans have always wanted them to be starved. And of course Trump scapegoats the most disadvantaged, the immigrants coming over our borders, with his promise to build a border wall to rival the Israelis’ wall of shame keeping out Palestinians (to Republican ‘minds’, there is always enough federal money to finance walls, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, drones and every other form of welfare-for-the-rich-and-powerful their devious brains can imagine).
            All of this might be just mildly annoying or even funny if it weren’t for the fact that events seem to be playing into Trump’s (or fate’s) hands. The 2007-8 financial collapse drove the country into an economic downturn from which it has still not fully recovered. Though the stock market has been cratering of late, it rose to unprecedented heights to make billions for the very Wall Street scam artists and banksters who brought the whole economy down in the first place. This powerfully exacerbated the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest Americans, a gap not seen since before the Great Depression. While salaries for the poor and middle classes have remained stagnant since the Reagan years, the income for those who do not work for their money but earn it through financial investments has skyrocketed. A permanent underclass has emerged with even less hope than most for carving out a decent life. And for the white male portion of the population, easily persuaded that the benefits they should have are being given to the ‘underserving’ poor and colored classes, the gravity of the labor situation is compounded by resentments against their ‘vanishing rights.’ These kinds of hopeless conditions and resentments are what prepared Germany to accept the lunacies of Adolf Hitler and his gang in 1930s Germany. That is the real danger here. When whole populations get desperate, they become ever more susceptible to the ravings of demagogues.
            One other condition seems to me to be adding to the danger. Hillary Clinton, the once-inevitable nominee for the Democratic Party, has been faltering badly. Her campaign seems unable to put any distance between the candidate and the manufactured scandal of her private email servers. Months have gone by and she is still peppered with questions at every turn about whether she violated the law. This has meant that the unlikely Bernie Sanders has been able to catch and surpass her in the latest polls: he leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Now Bernie Sanders is the candidate I prefer. But he has made no secret of his attraction to socialist principles. He believes in big government, he believes in New Deal type policies to re-distribute income to benefit those who need economic help, he believes in social programs to help the poor and disadvantaged, he believes in taxing the rich so that they pay what he believes is their fair share to support the government programs he believes in. And his message seems to be resonating, at least with primary voters and a sizable portion of Democrats polled so far.
            If Sanders were to become the nominee of the Democratic Party, and Trump were to grab the Republican nomination—as he now seems likely to do—we would then have a Trump v. Sanders presidential race. Two outsiders (more or less; though Sanders has been a politician his whole adult life, he has always been an Independent). And two men who tend to say, largely unedited, what they think. But I fear that the campaign would be a disaster for the truth-teller, for the rational man, for the man who believes that everyone deserves a fair chance to thrive. Because history shows us that in the conditions that pertain in the world today, and will pertain even more in the future, the demagogue usually triumphs. The big liar triumphs. The man who pretends to know the answers—simple answers that everyone can understand—wins. Most people, especially in a crisis, want someone to tell them what to do. People want someone to tell them that their country is, and has always been, the best the world has ever known. That their country is prompted by good and noble aims. That their country always works for the good guys for the good solution on the side of the angels. And that it is only the outsiders, the marginalized Others, who are causing trouble. Hitler played this song in the 1930s in Germany and succeeded beyond what anyone might have imagined. Mussolini did the same in Italy. We are great. We come from noble Roman stock. Our nation must take its destined place at the head of Europe. We deserve our own empire. And all those who say otherwise are defeatists, losers, cowards, and pathetic intellectuals who never do anything. If not communists or terrorists.
            This is how the campaign—if it does turn out to be Sanders v. Trump—could well go. The authoritarian, the man who brags about his wealth and dismisses everyone else as stupid and incompetent because they haven’t made the money he has, will garner the headlines, will continue to fascinate the media with his sound-bite style, and make mincemeat of the more sober, rational, serious man of the people. And what I fear more is that this will be only the beginning. As Naomi Oreskes imagines it in her recent novel, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, the fate of nations under global warming conditions will favor the authoritarian governments most able to handle the crises that will result. Migrants, millions of them, will be on the move due to the ravages of floods and storms and drought and sea-level rise displacing whole populations. They will be swamping borders wherever they can, just as migrants from Syria and Afghanistan and Africa are now over-running the borders of Greece and Italy and Hungary and everywhere else in Europe. In such a situation, suggests Oreskes, democracies will be more or less paralyzed. They will need to fashion consensus, pass laws, take precious time to determine whom to accept and whom not to accept, and where to put them, and how to enforce what they decide. A nation with an authoritarian government, by contrast, will be able to act much more swiftly and decisively. A dictator will simply be able to say: ‘no more; build the fence, build the wall; allow no one to enter except the few we can use.’ And will have no qualms about using force to maintain those closed, inviolate borders.
            Hateful as it is to think it, in such a situation, it is the Donald Trumps of the world, the bloviating, narcissistic, ruthless assholes who can lie without blinking an eye and condemn whole populations as worthless, who will manage to captivate the loyalty and approval of the masses. The masses will want protection. They will want simple solutions. They will choose security over liberty every day of the week.
            That is what I fear. And that is what we should all be worried about, as Heather Richardson writes, right now. Before it is too late. The time is very very short, but there is still time. There is time to agitate, and demonstrate, and educate, and work for candidates who are driven by more than ego and money and power and the ignorance of contempt.
            Within a very few years, there may not be.  

Lawrence DiStasi

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