The United States of America (1776-2016)
An Obituary (sort of)
I woke up on Wednesday, 9th of November, around 6.30 AM as usual and made by first cup of coffee. I don’t do anything until I’ve had my first sips of coffee. I turned on the computer and went to CNN to see how the election had turned out. BIG LETTERS confronted me: TRUMP’S SURGE. It was clear that Donald J. Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. My vote from Mölln, Germany, hadn’t made any difference.
My first reaction: That is not my country any more.
Perhaps it never was my country. Maybe I had developed for myself the illusion of a liberal, open society that looked optimistically and energetically into the future, of a country that despite a long history of racial and minority suppression and discrimination, of war and violence, of periods of political aberration and turmoil still held as its most important values the principles of the Declaration of Independence, principles that were formed during the European Enlightenment – a belief in the power of reason, tolerance and the respect for a single human life, of a country that welcomed diversity and intermingling of all people regardless of race, creed or sexual preference. America – to use the emotionally charged name for the United States one time – was (is?) a unique country. It did not develop in course of a long history out of a homogeneous population in a set geographic area but defined itself through the commitment to common values and “made” its people.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
In the broadest sense anyone is an “American” who can sign into the words out of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In High School I memorized these words and other from the Founding Fathers, and not just memorized them, but have come to realize their meaning. The Enlightenment, that “discourse among friends” (still the best definition of what the Enlightenment means), has served as the beacon for the values of the United States from the beginning. Has the beacon been extinguished?
What happened? How have fear, hate, prejudice and distrust become the driving forces in such a large portion of the American population, at least of the millions who went out and voted for Trump? Later on in my obituary I’ll develop some thoughts about the genesis of Trumpism. I do know that these millions have betrayed the fundamental principles of the country. The problem is not Donald Trump, of course. The problem is the millions who voted for him.
Fascism in its many forms and variations is on the rise worldwide. What the media call “populism” is nothing other than the incipient stirrings of a grassroots-movement in increasingly larger sections of the population that heads toward a totalitarian society. In the history of the United States in the former century there were fascist movements – Huey Long in the thirties, Joe McCarthy in the fifties and George Wallace in the sixties. (I’ll talk about the Tea-Party movement later.) None of these movements had a long duration and none of them a lasting effect on the American body politics. Even McCarthyism that was so virulent during the “red scare” wilted in time in the face of the underlying tradition of a liberal society, a society that welcomes and needs an open discussion without fear of reprisal. With Trumpism fascism has gained entrance into the political arena on the highest level. It represents a real danger for the future of the country, in a dimension that earlier movements did not attain. I am not claiming that Trump himself is a fascist. As far as one can tell he is not anything; he stands for nothing and believes in nothing, expect Trump. His campaign however played upon fascist elements, as I will list below. That is the danger. He bought fascism out of the closet and made in for many people socially and politically acceptable. Trumpism is the beginning; it has opened the gate.
Trump was elected in a free election. Free elections, however, are not the basic element of a democracy. More fundamental are the balance of power in the government, the rule of law (for example an independent judiciary), respect for the rights of minorities and free speech. It is revealing that during the campaign Trump attacked in one form or another all of these fundamental principles. But: he was still elected! History has shown many examples of democracies that turned into mobocracies and then dictatorships. Is the American democracy strong enough to withstand a Trump presidency?
A look at Trump’s election campaign reveals how well he played the fascist card. So many elements of the fascist ideology like extreme nationalism, distrust und fear of everything foreign, strange or not part of the mainstream, emphasis on masculinity, the threat to use force to solve problems (the John-Wayne-Syndrome), simplistic solutions to complex issues, the feeling that everything was better “in the old days” (“Make America great again”), suspicion of experts and intellectuals as well as the yearning for a strong leader, who will make everything right, were consistent elements of the Trump campaign. Combine them with his personality – narcissist, vindictive and intolerant then you have the ideal leader for a populistic movement, a real demagogue. Like the Pied Piper of Hameln, who was able to get the rats in the town of Hameln to follow him by using his magic pipe.
Why did they follow him?
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – these words of Franklin Roosevelt are still relevant today. The problem seems to be, that no one wants to hear them. It appears that many Americans have lost faith in themselves and in their country to deal with the challenges of a global world. Too many have the feeling they are losing out and falling behind, particularly in the white middle class. But even so, why follow a Pied Piper named Donald Trump? In its history the United States has endured much more serious crises than this. The Civil War, for example. Or the Great Depression. And answered the challenges without giving up its most sacred values.
Following are my thoughts about the background of Trumpism and my own personal assessment of the 2016 election.
Jimmy Carter (1976-1980) was the first President who claimed to be a born again Christian. Since then religion has come to play a greater role in politics in sharp contrast to the secular ideals on which the country was founded. Christianity became not just a private choice but a public issue. Christian Fundamentalism raised its ugly visage and began to make its influence felt in the political discourse. Issues like sexual preference and abortion became so charged with extreme emotional elements that it has made any reasonable debate impossible. It has come so far that clinics who perform abortions are subject of terrorist attacks. When a religion plays a deciding role in public affairs it takes over the function of an ideology for its believers. It claims to possess the truth, and that makes it dangerous. The roots of the Tea-Party movement are to be found in this social milieu of white middle class Americans, largely in rural areas, who feel endangered, a milieu that fears and hates the dynamics of a modern, global society. The Tea-Party is clearly a fascist movement. Up to now it has been contained on the fringes of national politics. Very loud, but not that influential. It has, however, succeeded in infusing a new level of intolerance and hate into the political discourse, a result of which is apparent in the venomous rightwing attacks against Barack Obama (socialist, Muslim, not an American citizen , etc.). Christian fundamentalism has found a welcome enemy in the global world – Islam. These people really believe in the Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington, 1996). Fundamentalism can only flourish in an atmosphere of hate and fear.
The election of Donald Trump, whose style panders to all rightwing extremists groups, could create a corridor for the Tea-Party to infuse its ideology into national policies. It appears Trump plans to appoint prominent representatives of the movement to national offices. Things are going to get a lot worse, before they get better. Are they even going to get better?
Between 1945 und around 1990 the world seemed rather easy to explain. On the one hand there were the “Democracies” (?) of the West and on the other hand Communism, specifically the UdSSR. Sure, there was also the so-called Third Word, but no one in power took these countries seriously, except to exploit their resources. Things have changed, radically. The USA, as the only remaining “world power”, was faced with a new, almost impossible task – the “world policeman”. It has largely been a history of failure and setbacks. No need to go into the whole history here. Suffice to point to the bungling in the Near East – the Bush war against Iraq for example – has made the world – and the USA – less safe (to say the least). The USA has through its international politics contributed to the spread and strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism worldwide. By claiming to fight a “war on terrorism”, an absurd concept in any case, the USA helped create its own enemy. Terrorism has changed the nature of conflict in the world. Every time you get on an airplane, every time you use public transportation or go to the movies or the disco – you are putting yourself in a position of increased danger. Fear is just a small step away. In the USA 9/11 has become a symbol for this new feeling. That date is still a scar on the American consciousness; fear and paranoia are the result.
The new global world and its affiliate, the internet, have led to a massive international migration. People are fleeing by the millions from poverty and hopelessness in the “developing countries” , from the many civil wars in failed countries in the Near East and Africa. They are showing up on the door steps of Western Europe and the USA. National borders don’t seem to have any impact anymore, the people just keep coming; the millions of refugees are difficult to accommodate and integrate. National governments are in a quandary; they have no real answers to the origins of the worldwide migration. This has led to fear and insecurity. The middle class in particular feels threatened and in many ways forgotten.
It appears that the consequences of globalization has worn down, unsettled and disheartened the traditional core of American society – the white middle class. Many of these people don’t look with optimism in the future. They are ripe for a demagogue like Trump, who claims he will lead them out of the valley of frustration and back to a time when “America was great”.
Here is my very personal take on the election. It was in 2015 as I was visiting my family in Cumberland, Wisconsin that I first saw Donald Trump on television. He was coming down an escalator into a ballroom to announce his candidacy for the President of the United States. First he said he was very rich and then he meandered aimlessly through some issues, at one point calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. He wanted to build a wall along the Mexican border, which the Mexican government was going to pay for. I assumed it was all a satire and a joke. The many comedy news shows in the USA – Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee – had a field day in the following months. We all laughed a lot that fall. The American people could not be that dumb as to elect an obvious charlatan. We were wrong and P.T. Barnum was right: There is a sucker born every minute.
By the time I went back to visit in spring of this year the laughing was becoming more cynical. It appeared that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee and there was a chance he could be the next President of the United States. I began to get worried after getting to know the media landscape in the USA and talking with some people. Many people (white males who lived in rural Wisconsin) were determined to vote, some for the first time in their lives. Trump had motivated them. That worried me. It didn’t matter what he said or did. It was his personality that attracted them. He seemed to be Anti-Establishment, a candidate that broke every taboo. These people wanted to get even for something they could not really define. They felt endangered, but they didn’t know from what. Washington D.C., Mexican immigrants, Islam, China, people with color, Gays, Barack Obama? And now they felt suddenly empowered. Trump brushed off all attacks. In one campaign appearance he said he could shoot someone and it would have no effect on his popularity. That turned out to be the truth. One of the few true things Trump said during the campaign. His followers – and there were getting to be more and more of them – didn’t really care what he said and did. The only message was: Trump. Molesting women at will; making fun of gays and people with handicaps; denigrate people of an Islamic faith; brag about not having to pay federal income taxes – isn’t that something we’ve secretly all wanted to do? (I hope not.) With Trump you could let it loose. Let your belly do your thinking.
The television and general media culture in the USA scared me; Trump is a product of that culture. There are hundreds of TV-channels, each worse than the next. The dumbing down of America reveals itself most clearly in the electronic media. It is omnipresent. Everywhere you go there are televisions. And they are of course supplemented by the digital world with internet, tweets, apps and all of the rest. This plethora of information has apparently wiped out the difference between fact and fiction. You can say anything and everything – and no one bothers checking it. What is the truth, and what are lies? Who cares? After you have been in the USA awhile you realize that Trump is not really that much of an exception. You can find his type of character and language all over the media. The American culture is producing small scale Trumps on a daily basis, like a factory assembly line. I guess the American people have come to accept that as normal. Reality-TV for example, that is – it is hard for me to even write this – very popular. I was appalled when I watched a show the first time. (We don’t have a television set in Germany, so I don’t know if there is something similar to Reality-TV in Germany. I hope not.) Shallow and just simply stupid; a reality that is unreal. Trump is a product of Reality-TV. It is as if he has jumped out of the television set into the real world and acts as if he is still playing a role in Reality-TV. And no one notices the difference. It’s frightening.
After my last visit in the States a couple of weeks before the election I felt the urge to read George Orwell’s 1984 again. Newspeak has arrived.
On the 8th of November 2016 America passed away. It was suicide. Rest in peace.
What can we do?
My words up to now have been bitter and perhaps in some ways unfair and overdrawn. I can only say that I am still in shock and have to work it out somehow. Writing about it helps. I grew up in the Sixties, surely a time “that tried men’s souls” to paraphrase Dickens. It was a critical decade in American history. Tensions ran high – anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights movement, sexual revolution, assassinations of national leaders, riots in the streets. The driving message of the Sixties was however – emancipation. It was a movement that looked to the future, which continued the fundamental values of the United States and took them to a new level. American society became more open, more diversified, more dynamic. Trumpism is the opposite. His movement wants to close the borders and close the society; it is grounded in fear, prejudice and distrust; it looks backward to a fabricated past, when things were allegedly “great”.
Although I had just declared the passing away of the United States that was only meant rhetorically. I believe and I hope that the American democracy is powerful enough to get over Trump.
His policies have to be confronted on every level and in every way possible. It must be made clear that Trumpism does not speak for what America stands for and means. That there is another America that holds true to the tradition of the Enlightenment. The voices of reason, humanity and tolerance must ring loud and clear.
Trumps policies – as far as they are known – will lead to serious problems in foreign and domestic affairs. The world is going to be a lot less safe in the future, and it is already far from safe at the present. The national and possibly the world economy will suffer a setback. Trump’s message of protectionism will only make the global economy more unstable. Global capitalism cannot be dealt with on a national scale; borders mean nothing to the flow of goods, money. ideas and services. The neoliberal doctrine of the 1980s (for example the deregulation of the financial markets) helped turned capitalism into the global monster it is today that devours everything, eventually, in the course of time, even itself. Karl Marx saw it coming over 150 years ago. It cannot be dealt with through policies of isolation (“America first”) and erecting higher walls. The monster can only be contained and domesticized through concerted international measures. We need strong international organizations, if we are going to have any chance at all of getting through the next 100 years. Germany, as do other countries in Western Europe, has a long and successful tradition of “social democracy” (a method of trying to contain the monster) since the Second World War. The Common Market (which is unfortunately under attack from national populist movements) is an attempt to raise this tradition to a supra-national level. What we need is a world-wide Common Market with the respective international organizations to enforce the rules. I know, I’m dreaming. “… but I’m not the only one. Someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”
The people who voted for Trump will come to realize that he is not able to do anything to help their lot. His campaign promises are largely unfulfillable. When they do, it could get very serious.
Trumpism does not necessarily mean the end of the American democracy, not by far. Trumpism is, however, a very clear warning that nothing is set in stone. It is up to each generation to set forth the tradition and values that were propagated in 1776. My generation seems to be dropping the ball.
In one of her speeches during the campaign Michelle Obama declared the meaning of the election in a simple but elegant question: What kind of country do we want to live in? The American people voted for a country of fear, hate, prejudice and distrust.
Count me out.