Chris Hedges: Here's the real lesson we should learn from the rise of demagogue Trump
Joe Biden and the systems managers of the deep state and empire are returning to power. Trump and his coterie of buffoons, racists, con artists and Christian fascists are sullenly preparing to leave office. U.S. pharmaceutical corporations are starting to disseminate vaccines to mitigate the globe's worst outbreak of COVID-19 that has resulted in more than 2,600 deaths per day. America, as Biden says, is back, ready to take its place at the head of the table. In the battle for the soul of America, he assures us, democracy has prevailed. Progress, prosperity, civility and a reassertion of American prestige and power are, we are promised, weeks away.
But the real lesson we should learn from the rise of a demagogue such as Trump, who received 74 million votes, and a pandemic that our for-profit health care industry proved unable to contain, is that we are losing control as a nation and as a species. Far more dangerous demagogues will arise from the imperial and neoliberal policies the Biden administration will embrace. Far worse pandemics will sweep the globe with higher rates of infections and mortality, an inevitable result of our continued consumption of animals and animal products, and the wanton destruction of the ecosystem on which we and other species depend for life.
"One of the most pathetic aspects of human history," Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun."
Biden's appointments are drawn almost exclusively from the circles of the Democratic Party and corporate elite, those responsible for the massive social inequality, trade deals, de-industrialization, militarized police, world's largest prison system, austerity programs that abolished social programs such as welfare, the revived Cold War with Russia, wholesale government surveillance, endless wars in the Middle East and the disenfranchisement and impoverishment of the working class. The Washington Post writes that "about 80 percent of the White House and agency officials he's announced have the word 'Obama' on their résumé from previous White House or Obama campaign jobs." Bernie Sanders, apparently rebuffed in his efforts to become secretary of labor in the Biden administration, has expressed frustration with the Biden nominations. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was denied a seat by House Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee because of her support for the Green New Deal. The message of the Biden administration to progressives and left-wing populists is very clear – "Drop dead."
The list of new administration officials includes retired General Lloyd J. Austin III who is being nominated to be secretary of defense. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies and a partner at Pine Island Capital, a firm that invests in defense industries and also includes Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee to be secretary of state. Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel. He was one of the architects of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a proponent of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, resulting in yet another failed state in the Middle East.
Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chair under Barack Obama, is slated to be Treasury Secretary. Yellen as the chair of Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and later as a member of the board of the Federal Reserve, backed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which led to the banking crisis of 2008. She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also lobbied for a new statistical metric intended to lower payments to senior citizens on Social Security. Yellen backed "quantitative easing" that provided trillions in virtually no-interest loans to Wall Street, loans used to bail out banks and corporations and engage in massive stock buy-backs while the victims of financial fraud were abandoned.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry is to become a special envoy for climate. Kerry championed the massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production, largely through fracking, and, according to Obama's memoir, worked doggedly to convince those concerned about the climate crisis to "offer up concessions on subsidies for the nuclear power industry and the opening of additional U.S. coastlines to offshore oil drilling."
Avril Haines, a former Obama deputy CIA chief, is to become Biden's director of national intelligence. Haines oversaw Obama's expanded and murderous drone program overseas and backed Gina Haspel's nomination to be the head of the CIA, despite Haspels' direct involvement in the CIA torture program carried out in black sites around the globe. Haines called Haspel "intelligent, compassionate, and fair." Brian Deese, the executive who was in charge of the "climate portfolio" at BlackRock, which invests heavily in fossil fuels, including coal, and who served as a former Obama economic adviser who advocated austerity measures, has been chosen to run the White House's economic policy.
Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, has been picked to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, as the head of the Democratic Party's thinktank, the Center for American Progress, raised millions in dark money from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Her donors include Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart and the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, also gave the thinktank between $1.5 million and $3 million. She relentlessly ridicules Sanders and his supporters on cable news and social media. She also proposed a plank in the Democratic platform calling for the bombing Iran.
The perpetuation of the deeply unpopular wars and onerous neoliberal policies by the Biden administration will be accompanied by a fevered demonization of Russia, most recently blamed for cyber-attacks. A new Cold War with Russia will be used by the corporate Democrats to discredit domestic and foreign critics and deflect attention from the political stagnation and the corporate pillaging of the country. It will allow MSNBC and The New York Times, which spent two years slogging empty Russiagate conspiracies, to disseminate a daily stream of emotionally charged rumors and shady accusations about Russia. Cable celebrities such as Rachel Maddow will hyperventilate night after night about Russia while ignoring the corruption of the Biden administration. The only reason Russia is not blamed for rigging the election in 2020, as opposed to 2016, by the Democratic Party is because Trump was defeated.
Biden, after his defeat in the Democratic Party Caucus in Nevada by Bernie Sanders, where Sanders got more than twice his vote, immediately played the Russian card, telling CBS News that the "Russians don't want me to be the nominee, they like Bernie." Hillary Clinton started this dirty game when she attacked 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein as a "Russian asset" and in 2020 leveled the same charge against Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The Democrats need an enemy, real or fictious, and Silicon Valley and major manufacturers will not allow them to target China.
More of the same means more disaster. If we want to reclaim our open society and save the ecosystem, we must abolish the corporate stranglehold on global economic and political power. If we want to avert zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, swine flu, avian flu, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease), Ebola, and SARS we must stop consuming animals and their bodily secretions. We must abolish factory farming and adopt a vegan diet. And we must keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Razing the rainforest for cattle grazing and vast tracts of farmland devoted to growing monocrops to feed animals destined for human consumption are responsible for up to 91 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction since 1970. The loss of forests is one of the single biggest contributors to climate change. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of ocean dead zones. Oceans could be devoid of fish by 2048. Each minute, 7 million pounds of feces are produced by the animals raised for human food in the US alone. The continued destruction of natural habitat, coupled with the vast factory farms which use 80 percent of the antibiotics in the U.S. and incubate drug-resistant pathogens that spread to human populations, presage new forms of the Black Death.
The belief that we can maintain current levels of consumption, especially of animal products, capitalist expansion, imperial wars, a reliance on fossil fuels and abject subservience to unfettered corporate power, which has solidified the worst income inequality in human history, is not a form of hope but suicidal self-delusion. We are not headed under the policies of the Biden administration and the global ruling elite for the broad sunlit uplands of a new and glorious future, but economic misery, vast climate migrations, waves of new and more virulent pandemics, of which COVID-19 is a mild precursor, along with irreversible ecological systems collapse and frightening forms of societal breakdown, authoritarianism and neofascism.
Global warming is inevitable. It cannot be stopped. At best, it can be slowed. Over the next 50 years the earth will most likely heat up to levels that will make whole parts of the planet uninhabitable. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people will be displaced. Millions of species will go extinct. Cities on or near a coast, including New York and London, will be submerged.
Oceans absorb much of the excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere. This absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters, resulting in the deoxygenation of the oceans. Each of the earth's five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one part of what climate scientists call the "deadly trio" – warming, acidification and deoxygenation of the oceans. The next mass extinction of sea life is already under way, the first in some 55 million years.
This is not defeatism. It is realism. We appear to have bought four years with Biden's election, but if we do not use it wisely – and there is nothing in the Biden nominations that offer any encouragement – we are merely reconstructing a shabby Potemkin village that will soon be flattened by the gale-force political and environmental hurricanes that are gathering around us.
One of the lessons I learned from covering wars and revolutions as a foreign correspondent is that the political, economic and cultural systems that are erected by any society are very fragile. The façade of power remains in place, as I saw in Eastern Europe during the 1989 revolutions and later in Yugoslavia, long after terminal rot has consumed the foundations. This façade fools a society into thinking the structures of authority remain solid, impervious to collapse. So, when collapse comes, which should have been long predicted, it appears sudden and incomprehensible. The ensuing chaos is disorienting and frightening. The cognitive dissonance between the perception of power and its rapid dissolution feeds self-delusion. It creates, as I witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, what anthropologists call crisis cults, as well as bizarre conspiracy theories, fascism and the embrace of inchoate violence to purge society of the demons blamed for the national debacle. Hatred becomes the highest form of patriotism. The vulnerable are scapegoated. Intellectuals, journalists and scientists rooted in a fact-based world are despised. Ruling elites and ruling structures lose all credibility. This collapse is often a portal to a world of nihilism and blood-drenched fantasy.
After four years of lies, the stoking of racist violence, stunning ineptitude, rampant corruption and an abject failure to cope with a national health crisis, Trump expanded his base by 11 million votes. This should be a huge, flashing red light. Worse, 70 percent of Trump voters, 51 million Americans, believe that "radical Left Democrats" and the deep state rigged the elections through "voter fraud," including the importation of Venezuelan voting software, illegitimate mail-in ballots and the wholesale destruction of Trump ballots by election officials. One hundred and twenty-six Republican House members joined a lawsuit filed by 18 Republican state attorneys general asking the Supreme Court to overturn Biden's victory. The vast majority of Republican senators refused to acknowledge the election results following the November vote. Electors from the Electoral College were forced in several states to deliver their votes to state legislatures under armed guard. Some two dozen armed protesters carrying American flags and chanting "Stop the Steal" descended on the home of Democratic Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Seven hundred members of the white nationalist group the Proud Boys took over streets in Washington last weekend to protest the alleged theft of the election, leading to more than three dozen arrests, four stabbings, the vandalizing of four Black churches, and Black Lives Matter banners and signs ripped down and burned.
Trump may be gone soon, but he leaves behind a party that is openly authoritarian, dismissive of democratic norms, an enemy to science and fact-based discourse and which attempted a coup d'état. The next time around they won't be so disorganized and inept. This hostility to democracy by one of the two ruling parties, supported by millions of Americans, many of whom were betrayed by Biden and the leaders of the Democratic Party, will not dissipate but grow, especially as the hammer of economic dislocation, including the looming evictions of millions of Americans, pummels the country.
The decades-long corporate assault on culture, journalism, education, the arts, universities and critical thinking has left those who speak this truth marginalized and ignored. These Cassandras, locked out of the national debate, are dismissed as unhinged and depressingly apocalyptic. The country is consumed by a mania for hope, which our corporate masters lavishly provide, at the expense of truth. It is this delusional hope that will doom us.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who with a handful of other writers and artists desperately tried to warn of the suicidal folly of World War I, wrote of what he called "the mental superiority of the defeated." His anti-war play Jeremiah, based on the Biblical prophet Jeremiah who issued warnings in vain, illustrated that those who face reality, however bitter, are able to endure and rise above it.
"Awaken, doomed city, that thou mayest save thyself," the prophet cries out in Zweig's play. "Awaken from your heavy slumbers, heedless ones, lest you be slain in sleep; awaken, for the walls are crumbling, and will crush you; awaken."
But the warnings from Jeremiah, called "the weeping prophet," were ignored and ridiculed. He was attacked for demoralizing the people. There were plots against his life. When the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem, Jeremiah, like Julian Assange, was in prison.
"I was always attracted to showing how any form of power can harden a human being's heart, how victory can bring mental rigidity to whole nations, and to contrasting that with the emotional force of defeat painfully and terribly ploughing through the soul," Zweig wrote in his memoir, "The World of Yesterday". "In the middle of war, while others, celebrating triumph too soon, were proving to one another that victory was inevitable, I was plumbing the depths of the catastrophe and looking for a way to emerge from them."
We cannot use the word hope if we refuse to face the truth. All hope rooted in self-delusion is fantasy. We must lift the filter from our eyes to see the danger before us. We must heed the warnings of our own prophets. We must destroy the centers of power that lure us and our children, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, to certain doom. The walls, daily, are closing in around us. The radical evil we face is as real under Trump as it will be under Biden. And if this radical evil is not smashed, then the world ahead will be one of torment and mass death.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact.
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