Theater of the absurd: How America’s politicians betray a gullible public to amass personal power and wealth
Our political class does not govern. It entertains. It plays its assigned role in our fictitious democracy, howling with outrage to constituents and selling them out. The Squad and the Progressive Caucus have no more intention of fighting for universal health care, workers’ rights or defying the war machine than the Freedom Caucusfights for freedom. These political hacks are modern versions of Sinclair Lewis’s slick con artist Elmer Gantry, cynically betraying a gullible public to amass personal power and wealth. This moral vacuity provides the spectacle, as H.G. Wells wrote, of “a great material civilization, halted, paralyzed.” It happened in Ancient Rome. It happened in Weimar Germany. It is happening here.
Governance exists. But it is not seen. It is certainly not democratic. It is done by the armies of lobbyists and corporate executives, from the fossil fuel industry, the arms industry, the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street. Governance happens in secret. Corporations have seized the levers of power, including the media. Growing obscenely rich, the ruling oligarchs have deformed national institutions, including state and federal legislatures and the courts, to serve their insatiable greed. They know what they are doing. They understand the depths of their own corruption. They know they are hated. They are prepared for that too. They have militarized police forces and have built a vast archipelago of prisons to keep the unemployed and underemployed in bondage. All the while, they pay little to no income tax and exploit sweatshop labor overseas. They lavishly bankroll the political clowns who speak in the vulgar and crude idiom of an enraged public or in the dulcet tones used to mollify the liberal class.
Donald Trump’s seminal contribution to the political landscape is the license to say in public what political decorum once prohibited. His legacy is the degradation of political discourse to the monosyllabic tirades of Shakespeare’s Caliban, which simultaneously scandalize and energize the kabuki theater that passes for government. This burlesque differs little from the German Reichstag, where the final cri de coeur by a mortally ill Clara Zetkin against fascism on August 30, 1932, was met with a chorus of taunts, insults and jeers by Nazi deputies.
H.G. Wells called the old guard, the good liberals, the ones who speak in measured words and embrace reason, the “inexplicit men.” They say the right things and do nothing. They are as vital to the rise of tyranny as are the Christian fascists, a few of whom held the House hostage last week by blocking 14 rounds of voting to prevent Kevin McCarthy from becoming Speaker. By the time McCarthy was elected on the 15th round, he had caved on nearly every demand made by the obstructionists, including permitting any one of the 435 members of the House to force a vote for his removal at any time, thus guaranteeing political paralysis.
The internecine warfare in the House is not between those who respect democratic institutions and those who do not. McCarthy, backed by Trump and far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, is as morally bankrupt as those trying to bring him down. This is a battle for control among con artists, charlatans, social media celebrities and mobsters. McCarthy joined the majority of House Republicans in support of a Texas lawsuit to void the 2020 Presidential result by preventing four states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia — from casting electoral votes for Biden. The Supreme Court refused to hear the lawsuit. There isn’t much in the Freedom Caucus extremist positions, which resemble those of Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany and Fidesz in Hungary, McCarthy doesn’t embrace. They advocate greater tax cuts for the wealthy, further deregulation of corporations, a war on migrants, more austerity programs, champion white supremacy and accuse liberals and conservatives who do not line up behind Trump of treason.
“I want you to watch Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel. It will be hard not to hit her with it,” McCarthy said in audio posted to YouTube by a Main Street Nashville reporter in 2021. Pelosi, for her part, called McCarthy a “moron,” after he said that a possible renewed mask mandate was “a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.” This is what passes for political discourse. I yearn for the time when political rhetoric was geared to the educational level of a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth or seventh-grade education. Now we speak in imbecilic clichés.
This political vacuum has spawned anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMottcalled “junk politics,” which “personalizes and moralizes issues and interests instead of clarifying them.” Junk politics “maximizes threats from abroad while miniaturizing large, complex problems at home. It’s a politics that, guided by guesses about its own profits and losses, abruptly reverses public stances without explanation, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized (e.g.: [the war in] Iraq will be over in days or weeks; Iraq is a project for generations).”
“A major effect of junk politics — its ceaseless flood of patriotic, religious, macho and therapeutic fustian — is to pull position after position loose from reasoned foundations,” DeMott noted.
The result of junk politics is that it infantilizes the public with “year-round upbeat Christmas tales” and perpetuates the status quo. The billionaire class, which has carried out a slow motion corporate coup d’état, continues to plunder; unchecked militarism continues to hollow out the country; and the public is kept in bondage by the courts and domestic security agencies. When the government watches you twenty-four hours a day, you cannot use the word “liberty.” That is the relationship between a master and a slave. The iron primacy of profit means that the most vulnerable are ruthlessly discarded. Supported by Republicans and Democrats, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to slow economic growth and increase unemployment to curb inflation, exacting a tremendous cost on the working poor and their families. No one is required to operate under what John Ruskin called “conditions of moral culture.”
But the second result of junk politics is more insidious. It solidifies the cult of the self, the amoral belief that we have the right to do anything, to betray and destroy anyone, to get what we want. The cult of the self fosters a psychopathic cruelty, a culture built not on empathy, the common good and self-sacrifice but on unbridled narcissism and vengeance. It celebrates, as mass media does, superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and an inability to feel guilt or remorse. This is the dark ethic of corporate culture, celebrated by the entertainment industry, academia and social media.
The essayist Curtis White argues that “it is capitalism that now most defines our national character, not Christianity or the Enlightenment.” He assesses our culture as one in which “death has taken refuge in a legality that is supported by both reasonable liberals and Christian conservatives.” This “legality” ratifies the systematic exploitation of workers. White excoriates our nationalist triumphalism and our unleashing of “the most fantastically destructive military power” the world has ever known with the alleged objective of “protecting and pursuing freedom.”
“Justice, under capitalism, works not from a notion of obedience to moral law, or to conscience, or to compassion, but from the assumption of a duty to preserve a social order and the legal ‘rights’ that constitute that order, especially the right to property and the freedom to do with it what one wants,” he writes. “That’s the real and important ‘moral assessment’ sought by our courts. It comes to this: that decision will seem most just which preserves the system of justice even if the system is itself routinely unjust.”
The consequence is a society consumed by excessive materialism, pointless soul-destroying work, suffocating housing developments closer to “shared cemeteries” than real neighborhoods and a license to exploit that “condemns nature itself to annihilation even as we call it the freedom to pursue personal property.”
The billionaire class, for the most part, prefers the mask of a Joe Biden, who deftly broke the freight railway unions to prevent a strike and forced them to accept a contract a majority of union members had rejected. But the billionaire class also knows that the goons and con artists on the far right will not interfere in their disemboweling of the nation; indeed, they will be more robust in thwarting the attempts of workers to organize for decent wages and working conditions. I watched fringe politicians in Yugoslavia, Radovan Karadžić, Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman, dismissed by the political and educated elites as buffoons, ride an anti-liberal wave to power in the wake of widespread economic misery. Walmart, Amazon, Apple, Citibank, Raytheon, ExxonMobile, Alphabet and Goldman Sachs will easily adapt. Capitalism functions very efficiently without democracy.
The longer we remain in a state of political paralysis, the more these political deformities are empowered. As Robert O. Paxton writes in “The Anatomy of Fascism,” fascism is an amorphous and incoherent ideology. It wraps itself in the most cherished symbols of the nation, in our case, the American flag, white supremacy, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Christian cross. It celebrates hypermasculinity, misogyny, racism and violence. It allows disenfranchised people, especially disenfranchised white men, to regain a sense of power, however illusory, and sanctifies their hatred and rage. It embraces a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance to coalesce around an anointed political savior. It is militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy, especially when the established ruling class mouths the language of liberal democracy but does nothing to defend it. It replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as contaminants who must be physically purged, usually with violence, to restore the health of the nation. It perpetuates itself through constant instability, for its solutions to the ills besetting the nation are transitory, contradictory and unattainable. Most importantly, fascism always has a religious coloring, mobilizing believers around rites and rituals, using sacred words and phrases, and embracing an absolute truth that is heretical to question.
Trump may be finished politically, but the political and social decay that created Trump remains. This decay will give rise to new, perhaps more competent, demagogues. I fear the rise of Christian fascists endowed with the political skill, self-discipline, focus and intelligence that Trump lacks. The longer we remain politically paralyzed, the more certain Christian fascism becomes. The January 6 mob assault on the Capital two years ago, the polarization of the electorate into antagonistic tribes, the economic misery afflicting the working class, the rhetoric of hate and violence, and the current dysfunction in the Congress is but a glimpse of the nightmare ahead.
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