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Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016
The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.—Hermann Göring, in an interview by Gustave Gilbert, April 18, 1946
The “war on terror” is the longest continuous war in US history. Taxpayers have ponied up over $4 trillion to wage it. Yet the consensus of our intelligence community is that we are more in danger than ever. Did we spend more than $4 trillion to make ourselves less safe? Let us unpack the contradictions.
Terrorism in the United States is statistically a negligible cause of mortality: One is about as likely to die from being crushed by a flat-screen TV, and more likely to die falling in the bathtub than from terrorism. Imagine if we had spent $4 trillion to cure cancer or heart disease. Nevertheless, nearly every word US government officials have uttered about the matter during the last 15 years has been designed to instill dread of terrorism in the population. And it has worked.
For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”
Voters in the Republican primary in South Carolina declared terrorism to be their foremost concern, eclipsing a stagnant, low-wage economy; deteriorating living standards leading to an actual increase in the death rate of GOP voters’ core demographic; and the most expensive and least available health care in the “developed” world. The operatives of the national security state must have been rubbing their hands with glee: Through relentless conditioning, their agenda is now the creed of a numerically significant and highly motivated segment of the electorate.
But there was a flaw in their calculation. Those voters who felt most strongly about terrorism chose Donald Trump, who comfortably won the primary. The national security state, which is a subset of the corporate state, doesn’t want Trump. They prefer to maintain the present corporate oligarchy that offers a façade of democratic process by putting forward safe, obedient, pre-programmed candidates. Since the “war of terror” began, this charade has worked rather efficiently: Bush or Kerry, Obama or McCain, Obama or Romney. And this year it was to be Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. Or, in a pinch, a second-stringer like Marco Rubio.
Trump’s proposed tax policy is such a giveaway to the rich that it would make the Bush tax cuts look like fiscal rectitude.
Our rulers may have overplayed their hand. Their implementation of a psychological shock doctrine has unhinged a sizable percentage of the American people, although the full implications were not evident for years. First, the shock of 9/11. To divert Congress and the public from the simplest explanation as to why it happened – that George W. Bush sat in Crawford, Texas, during the entire month of August 2001 and did precisely nothing – the national security complex concocted a tale of the fearsomeness and ubiquity of terrorism. Then, the fearmongering over Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, followed by a futile and intractable war. Then the crash of 2008, engineered by the same corporate mindset that dominates the national security state, only it is located on Wall Street rather than in the Pentagon. A numbing fear of unemployment and foreclosure gripped millions.
The fear apart, I was surprised by how passively Americans appeared to respond to that trifecta of shocks. After the horrific bungling and shabby lying attendant to the US invasion of Iraq, Democratic voters lined up like iron filings obeying a magnet to coronate a dud like John Kerry, who voted for the war. Likewise, Republicans in droves supported the warmongering John McCain and the rapacious corporate predator Mitt Romney. Democrats might think they have reason to be excused for being deceived by Obama’s sonorous rhetoric – provided they hadn’t checked his 2008 vote on the FISA Amendments Act, or the fact that John Brennan, who had separated from Bush’s CIA, proceeded to attach himself, limpet-like, as a national security adviser to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
As much as the Republican Party created Trump, it shares parentage with the transpartisan national security complex.
But the chickens finally came home to roost. What we now have, it appears, is not the public finally wising up en masse and realizing they’d been played for chumps by the corporate oligarchy and their political marionettes. No, a sizable chunk of them have lurched headlong in the opposite direction; they are sick of the charade of managed democracy, so why not try a little fascism, straight-up and without all those boring impediments like a bill of rights or checks and balances? This flight from reason is both a symptom of, and a reaction to, the underlying pathologies of the last decade and a half.
The slick operators at the CIA, Wall Street and the Kennedy School of Government did their job a little too well. It will be hard for some State Department spokesman to piously lecture other countries about human rights when a President Trump institutes a torture regime that will make George W. Bush look like the Marquess of Queensbury. Maybe he’ll televise the torture sessions as the next reality TV hit.
Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer estimates that about a fifth of the US population consists of authoritarians. These are people who practice the creed of kiss up, kick down, by which they vent their spite on those they fancy below them while attaching themselves to a bullying, charismatic leader figure. Twenty percent isn’t a majority, but combined with the fact that they are easily mobilized, there are also millions of low-information voters, unbelievably misguided people (who overlap with authoritarians), and human drones who robotically cast votes strictly by party label. Those add up to numbers that can swing an election.
Beyond those groups, I have run into a surprising number of gullible cynics not attached to either party. They persuade themselves that because Trump is the first prominent Republican to debunk the trance-like belief among the faithful that Bush was somehow not president on 9/11, it means Trump’s views on the Middle East are more reasonable than the GOP norm and therefore worthy of their vote. Meanwhile, on the economic front, Trump has sneered at Republican free trade theology, but his proposed tax policy is such a giveaway to the rich that it would make the Bush tax cuts look like fiscal rectitude: Trump would literally wreck the government’s finances. The selective amnesia of these gullible cynics is striking; they remind me of children playing with fire. I wonder how many of them there are in the country.
I’d estimate the odds at about fifty-fifty that this country ends up with something resembling a fascist political system.
It has finally become conventional wisdom among centrist pundits that the Republican Party (and its associated media-entertainment complex) created Trump, however much the party detests his business model. I agree with that view, but there is an aspect of the media-entertainment complex that they may be missing: It seems to have created a new voting demographic, which, with Trump, will be unprecedentedly strong. There probably has always been a relatively fixed percentage of hostile paranoiacs in the general population, but in the past they were isolated, politically unmobilized and doubtful that others shared their worldview. Twenty years of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and other broadcast effluvia have handed them an insular group identity, stoked their rage and mobilized them.
But as much as the Republican Party created Trump, it shares parentage with the transpartisan national security complex. Politicians, generals, CIA directors, think tank warriors and terrorism “experts” have been dinning a message of fear into our heads for a decade and a half, a fear that works on many voters like catnip on a feline.
The fear, of course, can only be exorcised by a policy of nonstop militarism. Congratulations, patricians of the Beltway: However disdainful you are of the vulgarian Trump, you helped put him where he is today. After all, as the media incessantly reminded us, South Carolinians worship the military – and those same South Carolinians broke for Trump, because they want their militarism pure and untainted by the base metal of establishment hypocrisy about being a peace-loving people.
I’d estimate the odds at about fifty-fifty that this country ends up with something resembling a fascist political system, if not in 2017, then at some point in the next decade. We may never hear it called that: The prestige media have up to now mostly maintained an embargo on words like “fascist” or “authoritarian”; it will be fascinating to see at which point in the coming year – if at all – the embargo is lifted. No, we won’t have black uniforms and goose-stepping. In the US cultural vernacular, it would be more like Lee Greenwood played on an endless loop, with patriotic ceremonies even more lugubrious and hypocritical than the ones now at professional sporting events.
I have occasionally heard it objected that Trump’s gestalt is not fascist but populist. This belief betrays a confusion of ends and means. Fascism is a political and economic system; populism is a rhetorical style and campaigning technique designed to gain and maintain power by appealing to mass longings that do not normally see expression in formal political systems. Policies like mass deportation, torture, killing hostages, and so forth, are hard to assemble under the umbrella of populism. They would be awfully difficult to link with the 19th-century Populists, for example, but they readily fit under most definitions of fascism.
It is difficult to convey the sheer animal excitement at a Trump rally. And one thing that has gotten insufficient notice is how his followers threaten, or actually use, violence against protesters while Trump stands on the stage, arms folded, chin thrust out, glowering. Occasionally, as in Nevada, he utters threats of violence himself. Where, skeptics ought to ask themselves, have they seen this grainy newsreel footage before?