TomDispatch

January 23, 2017
Tom Engelhardt
January 3, 2017
TomDispatch
” I deeply believed that our country was simply too special for The Donald, and so his victory sent me on an unexpected journey back into the world of my childhood and youth, back into the 1950s and early 1960s when (despite the Soviet Union) the U.S. really did stand alone on the planet in so many ways.”

Know thyself. It was what came to mind in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and my own puzzling reaction to it. And while that familiar phrase just popped into my head, I had no idea it was so ancient, or Greek, or for that matter a Delphic maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo according to the Greek writer Pausanias (whom I’d never heard of until I read his name in Wikipedia). Think of that as my own triple helix of ignorance extending back to… well, my birth in a very different America 72 years ago.

Anyway, the simple point is that I didn’t know myself half as well as I imagined.  And I can thank Donald Trump for reminding me of that essential truth.  Of course, we can never know what’s really going on inside the heads of all those other people out there on this curious planet of ours, but ourselves as strangers?  I guess if I were inscribing something in the forecourt of my own Delphic temple right now, it might be: Who knows me? (Not me.)

Consider this my little introduction to a mystery I stumbled upon in the early morning hours of our recent election night that hasn’t left my mind since.  I simply couldn’t accept that Donald Trump had won. Not him. Not in this country. Not possible. Not in a million years.

Mind you, during the campaign I had written about Trump repeatedly, always leaving open the possibility that, in the disturbed (and disturbing) America of 2016, he could indeed beat Hillary Clinton.  That was a conclusion I lost when, in the final few weeks of the campaign, like so many others, I got hooked on the polls and the pundits who went with them. (Doh!)

In the wake of the election, however, it wasn’t shock based on pollsters’ errors that got to me.  It was something else that only slowly dawned on me.  Somewhere deep inside, I simply didn’t believe that, of all countries on this planet, the United States could elect a narcissistic, celeb billionaire who was also, in the style of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, a right-wing “populist” and incipient autocrat.

Plenty of irony lurked in that conviction, which outlasted the election and so reality itself.  In these years, I’ve written critically of the way just about every American politician but Donald Trump has felt obligated to insist that this is an “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, “the greatest country” on the planet, not to speak of in history.  (And throw in as well the claim of recent presidents and so many others that the U.S. military represents the “greatest fighting force” in that history.)  President Obama, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John McCain — it didn’t matter.  Every one of them was a dutiful or enthusiastic American exceptionalist.  As for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, she hit the trifecta plus one in a speech she gave to the American Legion’s national convention during the campaign.  In it, she referred to the United States as “the greatest country on Earth,” “an exceptional nation,” and “the indispensable nation” that, of course, possessed “the greatest military” ever.  (“My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing.”)  Only Trump, with his “make America great again,” slogan seemed to admit to something else, something like American decline.

Post-election, here was the shock for me: it turned out that I, too, was an American exceptionalist.  I deeply believed that our country was simply too special for The Donald, and so his victory sent me on an unexpected journey back into the world of my childhood and youth, back into the 1950s and early 1960s when (despite the Soviet Union) the U.S. really did stand alone on the planet in so many ways. Of course, in those years, no one had to say such things.  All those greatests, exceptionals, and indispensables were then dispensable and the recent political tic of insisting on them so publicly undoubtedly reflects a defensiveness that’s a sign of something slipping.

Obviously, in those bedrock years of American power and strength and wealth and drive and dynamism (and McCarthyism, and segregation, and racism, and smog, and…), the very years that Donald Trump now yearns to bring back, I took in that feeling of American specialness in ways too deep to grasp.  Which was why, decades later, when I least expected it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it couldn’t happen here.  In actuality, the rise to power of Trumpian figures — Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia — has been a dime-a-dozen event elsewhere and now looks to be a global trend.  It’s just that I associated such rises with unexceptional, largely tinpot countries or ones truly down on their luck.

So it’s taken me a few hard weeks to come to grips with my own exceptionalist soul and face just how Donald Trump could — indeed did — happen here.

It Can Happen Here

So how did it happen here?

Let’s face it: Donald Trump was no freak of nature.  He only arrived on the scene and took the Electoral College (if not the popular vote) because our American world had been prepared for him in so many ways.  As I see it, at least five major shifts in American life and politics helped lay the groundwork for the rise of Trumpism:

* The Coming of a 1% Economy and the 1% Politics That Goes With It: A singular reality of this century has been the way inequality became embedded in American life, and how so much money was swept ever upwards into the coffers of 1% profiteers.  Meanwhile, a yawning gap grew between the basic salaries of CEOs and those of ordinary workers.  In these years, as I’m hardly the first to point out, the country entered a new gilded age.  In other words, it was already a Mar-a-Lago moment before The Donald threw his hair into the ring.

Without the arrival of casino capitalism on a massive scale (at which The Donald himself proved something of a bust), Trumpism would have been inconceivable.  And if, in its Citizens United decision of 2010, the Supreme Court hadn’t thrown open the political doors quite so welcomingly to that 1% crew, how likely was it that a billionaire celebrity would have run for president or become a favorite among the white working class?

Looked at a certain way, Donald Trump deserves credit for stamping the true face of twenty-first-century American plutocracy on Washington by selecting mainly billionaires and multimillionaires to head the various departments and agencies of his future government.  After all, doesn’t it seem reasonable that a 1% economy, a 1% society, and a 1% politics should produce a 1% government?  Think of what Trump has so visibly done as American democracy’s version of truth in advertising.  And of course, if billionaires hadn’t multiplied like rabbits in this era, he wouldn’t have had the necessary pool of plutocrats to choose from.

Something similar might be said of his choice of so many retired generals and other figures with significant military backgrounds (ranging from West Point graduates to a former Navy SEAL) for key “civilian” positions in his government. Think of that, too, as a truth-in-advertising moment leading directly to the second shift in American society.

* The Coming of Permanent War and an Ever More Militarized State and Society: Can there be any question that, in the 15-plus years since 9/11, what was originally called the “Global War on Terror” has become a permanent war across the Greater Middle East and Africa (with collateral damage from Europe to the Philippines)?  In those years, staggering sums of money — beyond what any other country or even collection of countries could imagine spending — has poured into the U.S. military and the arms industry that undergirds it and monopolizes the global trade in weaponry.  In the process, Washington became a war capital and the president, as Michelle Obama indicated recently when talking about Trump’s victory with Oprah Winfrey, became, above all, the commander in chief.  (“It is important for the health of this nation,” she told Winfrey, “that we support the commander in chief.”)  The president’s role in wartime had, of course, always been as commander in chief, but now that’s the position many of us vote for (and even newspapers endorse), and since war is so permanently embedded in the American way of life, Donald Trump is guaranteed to remain that for his full term.

And the role has expanded strikingly in these years, as the White House gained the power to make war in just about any fashion it chose without significant reference to Congress.  The president now has his own air force of drone assassins to dispatch more or less anywhere on the planet to take out more or less anyone.  At the same time, cocooned inside the U.S. military, an elite, secretive second military, the Special Operations forces, has been expanding its personnel, budget, and operations endlessly and its most secretive element, the Joint Special Operations Command, might even be thought of as the president’s private army.

Meanwhile, the weaponry and advanced technology with which this country has been fighting its never-ending (and remarkably unsuccessful) conflicts abroad — from Predator drones to the Stingray that mimics a cell phone tower and so gets nearby phones to connect to it — began migrating home, as America’s borders and police forces were militarized.  The police have been supplied with weaponry and other equipment directly off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, while veterans from those wars have joined the growing set of SWAT teams, the domestic version of special-ops teams, that are now a must-have for police departments nationwide.

It’s no coincidence that Trump and his generals are eager to pump up a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military with yet more funds or, given the history of these years, that he appointed so many retired generals from our losing wars to key “civilian” positions atop that military and the national security state.  As with his billionaires, in a decisive fashion, Trump is stamping the real face of twenty-first-century America on Washington.

* The Rise of the National Security State: In these years, a similar process has been underway in relation to the national security state.  Vast sums of money have flowed into the country’s 17 intelligence outfits (and their secret black budgets), into the Department of Homeland Security, and the like.  (Before 9/11, Americans might have associated that word “homeland” with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but never with this country.)  In these years, new agencies were launched and elaborate headquarters and other complexes built for parts of that state within a state to the tune of billions of dollars.  At the same time, it was “privatized,” its doors thrown open to the contract employees of a parade of warrior corporations.  And, of course, the National Security Agency created a global surveillance apparatus so all-encompassing that it left the fantasies of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century in the dust.

As the national security state rose in Washington amid an enveloping shroud of secrecy (and the fierce hounding or prosecution of any whistleblower), it became the de facto fourth branch of government.  Under the circumstances, don’t think of it as a happenstance that the 2016 election might have been settled 11 days early thanks to FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the race, which represented a historical first for the national security state. Argue as you will over how crucial Comey’s interference was to the final vote tallies, it certainly caught the mood of the new era that had been birthed in Washington long before Donald Trump’s victory.  Nor should you consider it a happenstance that possibly the closest military figure to the new commander in chief is his national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency until forced out by the Obama administration.  No matter the arguments Trump may have with the CIA or other agencies, they will be crucial to his rule (once brought to heel by his appointees).

Those billionaires, generals, and national security chieftains had already been deeply embedded in our American world before Trump made his run. They will now be part and parcel of his world going forward. The fourth shift in the landscape is ongoing, not yet fully institutionalized, and harder to pin down.

* The Coming of the One-Party State: Thanks to the political developments of these years, and a man with obvious autocratic tendencies entering the Oval Office, it’s possible to begin to imagine an American version of a one-party state emerging from the shell of our former democratic system.  After all, the Republicans already control the House of Representatives (in more or less perpetuity, thanks to gerrymandering), the Senate, the White House, and assumedly in the years to come the Supreme Court.  They also control a record 33 out of 50 governorships, have tied a record by taking 68 out of the 98 state legislative chambers, and have broken another by gaining control of 33 out of 50 full legislatures.  In addition, as the North Carolina legislature has recently shown, the urge among state Republicans to give themselves new, extra-democratic, extra-legal powers (as well as a longer term Republican drive to restrict the ballot in various ways, claiming nonexistent voter fraud) should be considered a sign of the direction in which we could be headed in a future embattled Trumpist country.

In addition, for years the Democratic Party saw its various traditional bases of support weaken, wither, or in the recent election simply opt for a candidate competing for the party’s nomination who wasn’t even a Democrat.  Until the recent election loss, however, it was at least a large, functioning political bureaucracy.  Today, no one knows quite what it is.  It’s clear, however, that one of America’s two dominant political parties is in a state of disarray and remarkable weakness. Meanwhile, the other, the Republican Party, assumedly the future base for that Trumpian one-party state, is in its own disheveled condition, a party of apparatchiks and ideologues in Washington and embattled factions in the provinces.

In many ways, the incipient collapse of the two-party system in a flood of 1% money cleared the path for Trump’s victory.  Unlike the previous three shifts in American life, however, this one is hardly in place yet.  Instead, the sense of party chaos and weakness so crucial to the rise of Donald Trump still holds, and the same sense of chaos might be said to apply to the fifth shift I want to mention. 

* The Coming of the New Media Moment: Among the things that prepared the way for Trump, who could leave out the crumbling of the classic newspaper/TV world of news?  In these years, it lost much of its traditional advertising base, was bypassed by social media, and the TV part of it found itself in an endless hunt for eyeballs to glue, normally via 24/7 “news” events, eternally blown out of proportion but easy to cover in a nonstop way by shrinking news staffs.  As an alternative, there was the search for anything or anyone (preferably of the celebrity variety) that the public couldn’t help staring at, including a celebrity-turned-politician-turned-provocateur with the world’s canniest sense of what the media so desperately needed: him.  It may have seemed that Trump inaugurated our new media moment by becoming the first meister-elect of tweet and the shout-out master of that universe, but in reality he merely grasped the nature of our new, chaotic media moment and ran with it.

Unexceptional Billionaires and Dispensable Generals

Let’s add a final point to the other five: Donald Trump will inherit a country that has been hollowed out by the new realities that made him a success and allowed him to sweep to what, to many experts, looked like an improbable victory.  He will inherit a country that is ever less special, a nation that, as Trump himself has pointed out, has an increasingly third-worldish transportation system (not a single mile of high-speed rail and airports that have seen better days), an infrastructure that has been drastically debased, and an everyday economy that offers lesser jobs to ever more of his countrymen.  It will be an America whose destructive power only grows but whose ability to translate that into anything approaching victory eternally recedes.

With its unexceptional billionaires, its dispensable generals, its less than great national security officials, its dreary politicians, and its media moguls in search of the passing buck, it’s likely to be a combustible country in ways that will seem increasingly familiar to so many elsewhere on this planet, and increasingly strange to the young Tom Engelhardt who still lives inside me.

It’s this America that will tumble into the debatably small but none-too-gentle hands of Donald Trump on January 20th.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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Wise Words

January 23, 2017

(thanks to Rick Ayers for passing this along)

From Kweli Tutashinda, Berkeley, CA

At the end of the day ya’ll, you know it ain’t about the President. Some of us have been in this thing for over 40, 50, and even 60 years. Folks like DuBois, Matt Crawford, Louise Thompson Patterson, Grace Lee Boggs, William L. Patterson, Queen Mother Moore, Dr. Ben and many others, spent over 70 and nearly 80 years of conscious struggle, the bulk of their entire lives, fighting against racism, capitalism, sexism, and all the other ‘ism’s ‘ plaguing the world we live in.

We got excited for a minute at the prospect of a Brother in office and it made for good optics and an overall cool vibe-outwardly.

But we have to remember. The President of America has a job description and protocol just like anyone else with a job-keep America powerful with its foot on the world’s neck and wrestle as much money as possible from the world market. Period.

So, let’s return to our business of both trying to survive and topple this beast. No ups or lows. No crying or handwringing. No moaning and oh awing.

Just back to business and away from fantasy land and good optics.


Guest Post

January 23, 2017
Michael Rice is an 80 year old holocaust survivor active in the Jewish Voices for Peace in Albany NY:
 
This would be a blog if I knew how to — but then even fewer would be reading it. These are my reflections about the March and Rally January 21 in Albany (with apparently 7,000 persons of a great range of ages and colors and faiths in attendance).
 
I have chanted “The People United Can Never Be Defeated” in scores of demonstrations over at least 40 years, but have never felt comfortable with it. I prefer the more realistic version: “The People United will sometimes win and sometimes lose” even though it lacks the meter expected in a chant — because if we keep chanting the original version, and lose, we get discouraged. For me the highlight of the March was “The People United Can Never Be DIVIDED” along with the positive message of most of the signs and the whole atmosphere of love and mutual support. The focus was on US, together, and not on Trump. There are, nevertheless, two very hopeful things that the election of Donald Trump has achieved:
 
1. Due to Trump’s huge list of enemies, he has forced People of Color, Black Lives Matter activists, LGBTQ activists, Muslims, Civil Libertarians, Labor Rights Advocates, Climate activists, Women’s Health Advocates, Healthcare as a Human Right advocates generally, Social Security improvement advocates, Medicare For All advocates, Medicaid and other programs for the poor, Socialists and others for progressive taxation, and many many more — to take care of each other, have each other’s backs, and fight for each other’s causes, no longer focused solely on single issues campaigns. WE WILL NOT BE DIVIDED.
 
2. The Trump phenomenon holds up a mirror to the unresolved dark underside of American Democracy. We are reminded of the White supremacy embedded, as our national original sin, in the Constitution, in which a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of calculating a State’s allocated number of Congressional Representatives but as no-person-at-all having the rights of citizenship. This undemocratic distribution of power among the States, along with the Electoral College, was regarded as a necessary bribe to obtain slave states’ consent to even establish the United States. This iniquity would have been corrected by the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing involuntary servitude but for the qualifying compromise phrase “except as punishment for a crime.” The phrase enabled the re-enslavement of Blacks: any number of “crimes” were invented — vagrancy, for example — that were enforced exclusively against Blacks, who were then rented by the State as laborers on their former plantation or in dangerous mining, manufacturing, and road building. It was the forerunner of today’s mass incarceration. The Trump election holds up the mirror to popular objection to newcomers (such as the Irish during the potato famine, who were greeted, in Boston, with NINA signs (“No Irish Need Apply”), even by the previous decade’s newcomers. The foreigner, the alien, the immigrant was demonized, sometimes executed — Sacco and Vanzetti among them — long before Trump rode that same calumny to the Presidency. This, too, is a piece of unfinished American business, a big piece of our unfinished Democracy. We waited 50 years for a Congressional Resolution acknowledging the nation’s shame in sending Americans of Japanese ancestry to “relocation camps.” We have never acknowledged national guilt for the massacres of indigenous peopled as recently as the mid 1800s, let alone the prior history of the genocide waged against them by European settlers — and the still current violation of our one-sided treaties with them, as at Standing Rock. We have yet to come to terms with our national sin of slavery. We are still dreaming of our Manifest Destiny and holding on to American exceptionalism to excuse whatever we do as a nation because it must be good just because it is we who are doing it.
 
We have the opportunity now, with our complacency gone, to envision together what a generous, diverse democracy could look like, how we could fortify an effective right to vote, what a sound response would be to joblessness due to automation and corporate-controlled trade policy, how the wide disparity of wealth and political power can be overcome, how the power of the military-industrial-education-media complex can be curtailed.
 
Peace. Justice. Persistence. Resistance.
 
Michael Rice

The great Paul Robeson before HUAC. This is what honest courage looks like:

January 23, 2017
 

GET WOKE, White People!

January 22, 2017
The world-wide outpouring of rage immediately following the inauguration of Donald Trump was dazzling and heartening. Women in the lead, connections and intersectionality in the air, humor, art, determination, solidarity—the people rising, the popular opposition on display. I loved so many signs waving in the streets of Washington: “Fight like a girl!”; “If my uterus shot bullets it would have more protection than it does now;” “If it’s not intersectional, it’s not my feminism;” “I love my nasty mom.”
 
We can and we must build a broad social movement in fierce and effective opposition to Trumpism, and for a world in balance.
 
It’s time to organize a powerful resistance.
 
And that means in part getting smart, paying attention, waking up in new ways.
 
White folks need to get over the illusion of innocence.
 
I remember years ago watching a sequence from the documentary, “Shoah.” The film maker was standing in a public square in formerly occupied France within sight of a station where Jews were loaded onto trains and transported to death camps. interviewing a villager. The film maker kept asking what the villager thought at the time. We didn’t know, he said. We didn’t know about the camps. But you knew they were rounded up. Yes, but we didn’t know why. Well, you could see them packed into box cars. Yes, but we didn’t know…
 
The question is, what do you need to know in order to know? Or, from another angle of regard, when is the claim of innocence simply a fraud and a lie?
 
Here in the US, if you look you’ll see that the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex are institutions of congealed violent white supremacy; if you open your eyes, you can see that African Americans living in racially isolated communities of concentrated poverty is the result of cold-blooded federal policy.
 
Gather your classmates or your fellow workers or your neighbors. Talk about this moment and where we are on the clock of the world. Discuss what you are willing to do collectively to resist the shredding of civil liberties, and to protect vulnerable populations.
 
Start a reading group, and go deep to understand the world we live in. Start here: Angela Davis; Keeanga Taylor; Jeff Chang; Ta-Nehisi Coats; Junot Diaz; Saffire; Allison Bechdel, Fun Home; Sandra Cisneros; Sherman Alexi; Claudia Rankine; Jesmyn Ward.
 
And be agile: When Trump lies and the press somehow at last summons the courage to call him on it (Trump Advances Two Falsehoods, says the NY Times), and the administration threatens to “hold them to account,” create a brigade of fact spreaders.
 
When Trump promotes an “America First” agenda, note the facsist echoes from the early Twentieth Century.
 
When a page on the new White House website announces that “The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration,” and adds that “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community” is a top priority and that “President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.” It continues that “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.”
 
This is a threat to the Black Lives Matter movement.
 
What do you need to know, to know?

Rashid on Palestine’s Fate with Trump

January 22, 2017

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/palestine-in-the-age-of-trump


Education is a Human Right!!

January 22, 2017
A bipartisan effort has gotten us into this mess: permanent war, mass incarceration, a hollowed out economy, an oppressive and white supremacist justice system, the selling off of the public assets. Both parties have agreed that education is a product to be bought and sold at the marketplace rather than a fundamental human right—and that’s why Betsy DeVos has no effective opposition within the political class. We have to build that opposition from the grassroots. Get busy!