Anyone attempting to understand the present faces the difficulty of sifting through the Blitzkrieg of challenges and misinformation thrown about over the past election season and several years leading up to it. Nearly everyone will offer explanations, of which causes and blame are in no short supply. In the midst of it all, there are, however, facts to which memory could also offer insight.
As the past eight years came to a close, some reflection on their significance is no doubt on the minds of many not only in the United States, but also across the globe. Searching for comparisons in US history, an immediate one is Reconstruction (1865–1877). In some significant ways, the past eight years included efforts to build a better union. In contrast, the recent election and the now early days of the Trump administration have been marked by trickery, demagoguery and a degeneration of public discourse, especially on race and immigration, all akin to the solidification of what the jurist Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow” or “American Apartheid” (1890s–1965).
How did this come to be?
The trail is a sinuous one. Though the foundations of the present have been in the making through the work of right-wing think tanks, retrograde legislation and ideological pummeling of the left over the past 40 years, the immediate roots of the current situation trace back to 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush. Through bullying tactics leading to Al Gore’s conceding the presidency to Bush’s 537 majority lead, despite the possibility of continued counting of the votes in Florida offering Gore’s victory, the US began a course into the new millennium of an executive who was legally president but not, in the realm of public opinion, legitimately so. Bush, after all, had lost the popular vote by 540,000.
Despite a lack of executive legitimacy, the beginning of the Bush years was marked by an unusual advantage: Republicans were the majority in all branches of the federal government, and Bush inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton. Bush’s response was to play golf and cut taxes. For lower-income households, the cuts were as modest as a few dollars, and for the very rich, they meant millions.
Everything changed, however, on September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the failed effort at doing the same to Congress created a national security situation that rallied the country and much of the world behind the president. The Bush-coined “War on Terror” was unleashed at a moment bolstered by legitimacy beyond the country and across the globe.
Bush was able to secure a second term, despite tactics ranging from the erosion of nearly every civil liberty, which included the implementation of torture and a lack of due process in secret facilities, to the destabilization of the already fragile Middle East, Northern Africa, all the way through to parts of central Africa and much of south Asia into the Pacific. Then, as one financial bubble after another burst, the world spiraled into global financial crisis. The United States’ moral standing was compromised around the world. It is in this moment that Sen. Barack Obama ascended to the presidency.
The Casting of Barack Obama as Savior
No issue challenges the moral character of the United States more than racism. Many thus felt that the first Black American to be elected offered a promise to “save” America.
For many people in 2008, President-elect Obama was the achievement of the impossible. There was a presumption at the core of American social psychology that the very notion of a president of African descent was anathema to the United States’ status as an avowedly white Christian “nation.” Yet there he was: President-elect Barack Hussein Obama.
Despite dangers of hypothermia, a record number of people (more than 1.8 million) gathered as early as 3 a.m. on January 20, 2009, to witness the inauguration of the impossible. The effect defied physical challenges, where sheer will made mind overcome the limitations of body for so many.
The long road leading up to January 2009 was full of moralism. Though he had already composed an autobiography, Sen. Barack Obama had written a second in which his moral credentials — his Christian faith (not being white, he at least had to be Christian) — was outlined in ways that appealed to the nation.
Not everyone was happy with this outcome. Those who believed in the white Christian nation questioned Obama’s citizenship and religion. Effigies burned across the United States, and on February 19, 2009, ironically during Black History Month, the Tea Party was formed when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange called for a determined effort to render Obama’s presidency ineffective.
Although the American public tends to have a short memory, what followed, in sum, was Republican domination of the US Congress from the mid-term elections of 2010 onward. Under House of Representatives Majority House Leader Republican John Boehner and well-funded Tea Party members, a systematic effort to block nearly every initiative of the president — including those with which they ideologically agreed — became policy. Nearly every nefarious activity — from assassination attempts of the president, racist caricatures of the first family and multiple parties’ refusal to acknowledge many basic courtesies afforded previous presidents — unfolded, including, in the last year of Obama’s second term, Congress members’ refusal to vote on his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia.
President Obama faced also a seemingly impossible situation of a US and global economy (the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s) spiraling out of control in the midst of a situation of global military insecurity. He made some very unpopular decisions, such as the bailout of what turned out to be a very ungrateful financial sector, and the same for the US automobile industry (despite outcry from critics, such as Donald Trump and Mike Pence). He also continued the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, oversaw the assassination of Bin Laden, increased drone strikes to unprecedented numbers and failed to close Guantanamo after having promised to do so. He deported more immigrants than any other US president, but he also secured a reprieve for undocumented migrants and achieved his signature accomplishment: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (derisively known as “Obamacare”). He also supported increased protections for LGBTQI peoples, including same-sex marriages.
Though many supporters deified Obama in January 2009 — mountains, towns and many children were subsequently named after him — in reality, the country elected not a god but a politician. And despite being blamed in typical fashion for the failures of his white predecessors, President Obama’s team brilliantly managed to secure his second term.
Those who today cry about “anemic growth” (a contradiction of terms if there ever were one) should bear in mind the scale of damage done through corruption, greed and other malevolent forces in the finance sector in the years leading up to 2008. It’s not only the past and present wealth that was siphoned away by unprosecuted members of the upper crust of the 1 percent; financial elites also siphoned away future wealth by betting on and concealing college loans and other financial instruments in schemes of which the exact sums could only be estimated. The language of “billions” has given way to that of “trillions.” Additionally, the vast network of financial deals set in various trade agreements across the globe have pretty much rendered the governing institutions of many countries impotent with regard to protecting the livelihood of their lower and middle classes. What used to be called “class warfare” is far more vicious when unleashed from the haves against the have-nots. It should properly be called “class massacre.”
Countering the Delusion of Racial Progress
The Obama administration has functioned as a buffer, absorbing the focused attention the Republican members of Congress devoted to blocking his policies. In this way, the administration prevented right-wing forces from achieving their ultimate aims: reenacting the sorts of legislation that created such problems in the first place.
Until now. One delusion that many succumbed to over the past eight years was the presumption of racial progress. An element of racial logic often misunderstood is its resistance to the law of contradiction. The rule is as follows: A universal claim is rendered void through a single instance of its failure. Thus, Obama’s presidency supposedly exemplifies the end of the nation’s racist identity. What is not understood, however, is that racism is not about how many people have racist attitudes. It’s about the power that supports them. A Black individual in an office for eight years does not obviate more than 200 years of white male succession. Though Obama’s presidency was historically momentous, it was statistically insignificant: he was one out of 45. One could thus publicly invest in Obama while counting on maintaining a system of racial exclusion. This is because racism has always had room for the exception that, in effect, maintains the rules. That one, as the saying goes, is supposedly not like the others. One could, in other words, love Obama and hate Black people at the same time.
The hatred for Black people, as well as Brown and First Nation peoples, was manifested in ongoing killings by police (in the hundreds annually), increased incarceration (despite a decline in crime), a rise in the number of hate crimes, mass shootings and disenfranchisement in the red states through the US Supreme Court’s repeal of key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The situation became so bad that even a hashtag simply declaring the value of such lives led to a global movement and continued controversy. The comedian Michael Che perceptively pointed out that it wasn’t “#BlackLivesAreBetter” or “#BlackLivesAreSuperior.” It was simply #BlackLivesMatter. When mattering at all is controversial, the message is clear: Under the status quo, the world is considered “right” when Black lives don’t matter at all.
There continued to be, however, a vocal contingent of people who hate Obama and hate Black people. The birthers, whose insistence and obsession that Obama is not a born US citizen buoyed Donald Trump to the political stage, agitated for a form of “restoration,” calling for the election of a white, racist, sexist Christian (or at least avowed Christian) man.
The administration that President Trump has assembled is the whitest and most male in recent history. The logic of exceptions makes this clear with regard to those few people of color or women tapped: They simply are not normative in the administration.
This logical point may seem strange to some readers. Let me make it more concrete. Racist logic portrays instances of failure and impropriety as exceptions among members of the so-called superior race. This means, bad behavior is simply rationalized away as not pertaining to the norms of that group. It’s the opposite for supposedly inferior racial groups. Their successes are framed as exceptions, while their infelicities are seen as the rule. The result is that it becomes nearly impossible to ascribe unreasonable behavior to members of the presumed superior population. They always receive the benefit of the doubt.
Even stranger, the logic of victim and victimizer becomes skewed. The advantaged imagine themselves as victims of people who are patently without the power to victimize them. This leads to self-protecting behavior, the effect of which is, in a nutshell, cruelty.
The country — indeed, much of the world — now faces the classic onslaught of bullies. A major problem with bullies is that they are ultimately cowards. They pick on the weak or the vulnerable. They are the quintessence of the mob, the pack, the agents of ressentiment. They also subscribe to the circular logic Hitler offered in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”): The proof of superiority is in winning; inferiority, in losing. In a world of winners and losers, the objective is to win, however unfairly and brutally. This is why bullies are threatening when they are losing and more violent when they are victorious. Many Trump supporters were raucous during his campaign and physically violent since his victory.
Bullies cannot be handled through reason. They are at bay only where their force is limited. This is what makes the present so dangerous. Such agents aren’t being properly curtailed because as white people, they are presumed reasonable. This presumption of reasonability makes each expansion of their grip over state institutions of power appear part of the supposedly normal course of things instead of its subversion. The presumption is that they are taking the reins of power; the reality is that they see themselves as at war, as Trump’s chief strategist Stephen (“Steve”) Bannon does, and are thus seizing power.
20th-Century Philosophical Insights for the Present Moment
At this point some observations from two 20th-century political thinkers who have witnessed such developments are worth considering.
The first is Jose Ortega Y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and statesman who warned against the demise of liberal republicanism in Spain. He warned against what he called “mass man” and “massism.” Mass man is the enemy of skill, expertise, propriety — the enemy of anything that would distinguish an individual in a way that would make her or him a “minority.” A healthy society appreciates such skills and contributions. The working class, as Gasset understood it, is not mass, because as a class, it is distinguished by the labor it offers. That labor has a broad range of skills. An unhealthy society regards skilled individuals with envy and disdain. A form of arrogance emerges where those with a mass mentality presume they can do anything without the skill and time necessary for its mastery. They, in their view, have a right to everything. The greatest crime, in their view, is to be, in any way, more capable than they. What is lost in the ascent of mass man, Gasset lamented, is the task of what governing demands — namely, the ability to set rules and standards that, on reflection, make sense to live by. This often means raising the standards of human potential instead of lowering them. Such achievements offer something historically coveted in political and governing life: legitimacy.
The bane of mass man’s existence, he warned, is just that: a foreboding lack of legitimacy. Failure to achieve legitimacy causes people to wage war on the norms of legitimacy, such as evidence, facts, intelligence, persuasiveness, clarity, truth and fairness, in favor of sheer will. The inevitable descent, as witnessed in Spain in 1939, leads to fascism. Incapable of building new and creative rules for the future, mass man appeals to a fictional, highly selective glorified past.
The second great thinker to revisit is the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers. Though his wife was Jewish, the couple decided not to emigrate, and instead stood up to Nazi bullying. They were pushed to the point of planning suicide just before the allied forces took Berlin, but survived. In the aftermath, he offered reflections that are tragically to all of us in the many countries facing growing neo-fascism today.
Jaspers offered a portrait of four kinds of responsibility: political, legal, moral and metaphysical. The one most pertinent to us is the first. The others are borne by specific individuals ultimately leading to a personal reckoning with their maker. Political responsibility, however, has a tragic quality. Jaspers asks us to consider who bears the responsibility for a government whose actions are so reprehensible that it has forfeited a claim to mercy in the event of its being vanquished. The immediate response of most people would no doubt be the governing officials, the leaders — the executives or chief officers. That, however, would be the wrong answer. In such an event, the burden of rectification falls upon those whom the government serves: the people under its jurisdiction. It is the people — everyone, whether heroic or cowardly, true or complicit, citizen or migrant, legal or undocumented, healthy or weak, rich or poor, and so on in the long list of possibilities — who carry the responsibility of rectification.
It is not always the case that good governments benefit everyone. It is true, however, that bad governments hurt everyone. Placing malevolence in charge leads ships astray. Everyone drowns in a sinking ship, especially one without lifeboats.
Jaspers’ counsel to every society is to make sure its government behaves in a manner deserving of mercy for its people in the event of calamity. Bravado emerges often through self-deception about the future. Oddly enough, so, too, does pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are ultimately two sides of the same coin: pretense about a future unknown.
And that is just it. We don’t know the future except for one thing: Whatever future emerges will depend on our actions today. Our actions will determine whether we face a tomorrow asking for gratitude or forgiveness. To what, we must ask, without knowledge of the outcomes, are we ultimately committed?