David Masciotra

How Bruce Springsteen – and the left – can reclaim and cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism

The American flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics. Democrats can insist otherwise, but honest observers will concede that when they see a house, vehicle, or wardrobe adorned with the stars and stripes, it probably belongs to an American whose conception of patriotism allows everyone to have easy access to a firearm arsenal, but medicine to remain a high-priced luxury item.

The success of the right wing in their co-optation of patriotic language and symbols reached its absurd zenith on Jan. 6 when a mob of domestic terrorists proudly waved the flag and chanted, "USA!" before assaulting police officers and attempting to murder elected officials in their aspiration to replace American democracy with a dynastic dictatorship.

Beyond the ignorance of the Trump insurrectionists, it is essential for the left to evaluate how the far right monopolized patriotism and the hallmarks of Americana without much difficulty. The left has always demonstrated a healthy aversion to displays of national pride. Understanding the manipulative power of the flag, and that maudlin tributes to "God and country" typically shadow the ongoing injustices that take place under their invocation, progressives have largely neglected to offer a counterargument to operationally anti-American pundits and politicians who personify the words of Jewish activist and journalist James Wise, often misattributed to Sinclar Lewis: "If fascism comes to America . . . it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty."

Despite a justifiable reticence surrounding pious displays of American pride, the left has made a critical error by not forcefully confronting the right's self-serving, deceitful, and hateful brand of chauvinism. Most Americans – left, right, and apolitical – desire to feel some affection toward their country, especially considering that people have the tendency to associate their own community with their country, distilling the abstract "America" into the concrete hometown of their youth.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty brilliantly describes the contradictions of patriotism, and the self-inflicted wound of the left in refusing to cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism, in his prescient collection of lectures, "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America." Rorty begins with the assertion that "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."

"Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself," Rorty argues, "need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of." The right wing is clearly childlike and delusional in its familiar refrain that any denunciation of American policy or history is tantamount to treason, but Rorty insists that by only associating patriotism with atrocity and oppression, the left disarms itself in debates about the identity of the country, and how best to advance a national construct that makes words like "liberty and justice for all" actionable and real. Rorty devotes most of his search for edifying patriotism to the beautiful and magisterial poetry of Walt Whitman, wisely celebrating the American bard's tributes to democracy, paeans to the working class, and lyrical advancement of the idea that the "password primeval" of America is in the voices of the "diseased, despairing, those whose rights others are down upon."

In democratic practice, Martin Luther King famously argued that the civil rights movement was an effort to cash the "promissory note" of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. When I asked Jesse Jackson, who was one of King's aides, about the common sight of American flags at voting rights marches and Black freedom rallies in the 1960s, he said, "We used the flag and the cross for equality and justice. We made a convincing case that we represented a true form of patriotism because we had the Constitution on our side."

The poetry of Whitman, and the leadership of King and Jackson offer insight into the distinction that the British poet and pamphleteer, Samuel Johnson, made in his essay on patriotism. Famous for the warning, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Johnson wasn't condemning natural feelings of affection for one's country, but in his time and place, scoundrels like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, who are "self-professed patriots," more concerned with their own power and profit than any abiding sense of national prosperity or unity. "True patriotism," Johnson declared, is not only possible, but important.

In recent years, as Trump invoked the flag to encourage hostility toward Black people, immigrants, and Muslims, and actually hugged and kissed the flag in a bizarre psychosexual display at a rally, more thoughtful and compassionate cultural figures have attempted to express "true patriotism" in rebuttal to "self-professed patriotism."

No musician has a more all-American image than Bruce Springsteen. Committed to progressive causes since the late 1970s, he has consistently used his music to spotlight injustice, and as he puts it with no small measure of modesty, "measure the distance between the American reality and ideal." The widespread misinterpretation of "Born in the USA," for which he was partially responsible, is infamous, but the song itself is one of the most powerful explorations of an unjust war and societal neglect of working class veterans.

In the past few months, Springsteen has made a concerted effort to communicate with his own predominantly white, Baby Boomer audience, seemingly with the awareness that many of his fans voted for Trump. First, there was a grievously ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep in which the rock and roll legend drives around a small town in Kansas in search of a chapel located at the geographic middle of the continental United States. While wearing a cowboy hat and impersonating Clint Eastwood, Springsteen suggests that Americans of diametrically opposed ideologies "find the middle." He offers no indication of how any Americans, irrespective of political persuasion, can find unity with the Trump cult that has not only rejected the possibility of compromise, but also empirical reality.

Even more bothersome in terms of content is the replication of the imagery of Christian nationalism that is central to the far right fascist movement. Halfway into the Jeep ad, the camera zooms in on a cross hanging over a red, white, and blue map of the United States. Where this leaves Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who do not identify patriotism with Christianity is out of the realm of discussion. One should not expect too much from a multinational corporation making a major contribution to the climate crisis. It is disappointing at this late stage of his career, that Springsteen would shill for big business, breaking a record of integrity that dates back to when he rejected Chrysler's multimillion dollar offer of appear in one of their ads in the 1980s.

Springsteen's investment in his own heroic myth seems to motivate his other recent attempt at rescuing patriotism from the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic sewer of right wing outrage. Together with his friend, former president Barack Obama, he has launched a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." The two eloquent speakers explore American identity, race, and masculinity throughout the eight episodes of the series, but they do so in constant reference to themselves. They make a fine argument for social liberalism, and as the title would suggest, attempt to identify patriotism with diversity, acceptance of outsiders, and hospitality for those who are unconventional, but the larger message is lost in their unabashed egomania.

During the first episode, Springsteen declares "My Hometown," his 1985 hit about communal conflict and loyalty, a "great song," and in the second episode, speaks at length about the "power of the idealism of the E Street Band." Not to let his friend outdo him, Obama, without any hesitation, offers as conclusion to part one, "People often ask me, 'What is your favorite speech'?" Then, proceeds to name one of his own speeches, and recite it verbatim.

The natural question in response to such self-aggrandizement is "why?" Why is a former president squandering his authority and influence on a meandering podcast about his youth, and in the words of the Springsteen song, "boring stories of glory days?"

It would appear that Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are coequal partners in the icon business. Believing that they can use their iconography to the advantage of liberalism, they are attempting to present their own stories as patriotic myths. As the banality of the podcast would illustrate, it is a poor political project; doomed to fail with anyone who does not already adore both the former president and rock and roll legend.

The mission to become living and breathing icons is particularly fraught in an age of iconoclasm. In San Francisco, Chicago, and cities across the country there are various campaigns to rename schools and public buildings currently christened to honor everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. There is an opposition to the traditional icons of patriotism emanating out of a new focus on the injustices that they either ordered or observed without intervention. Indiscriminate slaughter of sacred cows also seems like poor politics, destined to alienate even those sympathetic with reinterpretations of American history. The campaign to, for example, remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln from a Chicago city park not only offers a narrow and boringly pious vision of history, but also further surrenders patriotism to the far right. If the left announces, "We don't want Lincoln," intentionally or not, they gift the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president who saved the Union, to right wing demagogues.

Howard Zinn, the brilliant historian and activist, once rebuffed a question about whether his classic exploration of U.S. history through popular movements, "A People's History of the United States," would influence young students to dislike their own country, and deprive them of patriotic heroes who could inspire them to strive to improve the conditions of their country. Zinn's response offers instruction to those who, like Rorty, are concerned about the future of critical patriotism on the left.

We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don't learn in school . . . that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There's Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."

The crucial insight that Zinn offers is that patriotism should spotlight virtuous behavior in service to justice within a shared community. Richard Rorty interprets Whitman according to that definition, and there are living artists who have employed their creativity in the discovery of ways to celebrate what is unique and good about America, without ignoring or lying about what is unjust and oppressive.

Like Zinn, the poet Rita Dove locates patriotic profundity in the life of Rosa Parks. Her 1999 collection of poems, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," makes the heroic activism of Parks central to American life. The bus not only rides through Montgomery, but all of American history, offering an invitation to anyone who would like to help push the passenger vehicle closer toward freedom, justice, and equality.

"Pull the cord a stop too soon," Dove lyricizes, "And you'll find yourself walking a gauntlet of stares." The immediate impression is that she is describing the inhospitable response, possibly even violent, a Black American will receive in the "wrong" neighborhood, but the perspective soon widens to include the assassination of advocates for civil rights, and how those deaths continue to haunt American history: "Dallas playing its mistake over and over/ until even that sad reel won't stay stuck – there's still / Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis / at every corner the same / scorched brick, darkened windows."

Dove advances an idea of patriotism that demands movement and insists upon forward progress. In her poem, "American Smooth," she not only pays tribute to the multicultural tapestry of American music, but also compares its sociopolitical life to a couple on the dance floor, finding its rhythm, continuing to dance to the sounds that surround them. The only error, Dove seems to warn, is to stop.

As she herself implies with reference to the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, tragedies and atrocities often leave mourners no choice but to stop, and in their pause, reflect on the gravity of the loss.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many tributes to the victims, especially the firefighters and first responders who risked their own safety to save the lives of strangers. Martin Espada offers one of the most beautiful memorials of Sept. 11 in his poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100."

It is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 100 who died while working at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Espada describes the wide range of countries where these workers – the dishwashers, the cook, the busboy – travelled from to make their home in America. With homage to Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," he praises the majestic and soulful music of their labor, their voices, and their harmonious presence.

Espada ends the poem with the imagery of war – "from Manhattan and Kabul" – and provides a dark, but profound insight into the separation between power and the people who are so often the victims of those who exercise it.

Patriotism, like any feeling of affection, is only as useful as its ability to assist in the alleviation of human suffering, and the flourishing of human potential. In that respect, it is a localized iteration of compassion and justice, calling upon the best traditions of a particular country.

A pandemic should have activated this form of patriotism throughout the United States, but the scoundrels most eager to wave the flag have little interest in helping the people who live underneath it.

An entire set of policies – from voting rights to universal health care – should emerge out of the patriotic instinct. Otherwise, all the red, white, and blue gestures are nothing more than symbolism that is both empty and obfuscating. As John Prine sang in 1971 with eternal relevance:

Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...
"Your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven…"

Here's why the arrogance of 'centrism' may destroy us all

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." One insight to draw from Santayana's oft-repeated aphorism is that the repetition of clichés is likely to have little effect, given the widespread tendency to ignore pithy advice and continue witlessly recycling, recreating and reliving history.

Over the past few weeks, the Republican Party has proven itself hostile to freedom and democracy; its merciful incompetence the only thing saving whatever remains of our republic from the fascist insurrection of a con man. The absurdity of the cast members — from Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to their incoherent Michigan "witness" and of course Donald Trump himself — have made the entire fiasco seem more like a satirical film than political reality. At the other multiplex on the Democratic side of town, every screen is running previews for the third version of a box office smash, "Centrist Failure," with Joe Biden taking over the leading role from his more charismatic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The 1990s original had audiences entranced by a seductive Southerner, Clinton, who under the guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council rebranded his party as the "new Democrats," which apparently translates into "Republicans." Clinton cut social programs, ended "welfare as we know it" by making single mothers work low-income jobs without child care, signed a massively destructive and draconian crime bill into law, deregulated the financial industry, and approved NAFTA. Democrats throughout the mediocre commentariat largely applauded, on the grounds that right-wing policies with a friendlier face were the only way Democrats could win or maintain power, and prevent another Reagan-like figure from seizing control of the country.

After all, they asked, wouldn't you rather have Clinton, with his paeans to social liberalism, administrative proficiency and obvious intelligence, than George H.W. Bush? Sure — but then along came Bush's son, holding the White House door open for the ghoulish likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and proving himself far worse than his father. Two horrific wars, the criminal ineptitude of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash created fertile conditions for radical reform, but instead the "hopey-changey" Obama administration committed the first error of national politics. They failed to act on the keen insight of the aforementioned Cheney, who once told a defiant Republican senator, "We don't negotiate with ourselves."

Obama clearly enacted policies that improved American life. The Affordable Care Act rendered an ongoing catastrophe somewhat less deadly, he doubled Pell grants (barely keeping pace with exorbitant tuition spikes), signed the Paris climate accords and negotiated a decent nuclear deal with Iran. He also staffed his Cabinet with corporate sycophants, allowing the same banking and high-finance bandits who had liquidated working-class wealth to manage the "recovery"; dropped the "public option" from his health care proposal without a fight; and spent years attempting to reach compromise with an obstructionist opposition that he eventually admitted — rather too late — had no interest in productive policy and governance.

Obama was inarguably better for the country than a potential McCain-Palin administration would have been, let alone the planned corporate tyranny of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But throughout his two terms in office, Democrats lost countless state and local offices, while obliviously arguing that demographic changes all but guaranteed their permanent ascension to power — a great victory that somehow always lies just beyond the horizon. Performing a cover version of the Clinton composition, mainstream politicians and pundits also insisted that any openings to the left would provoke a vicious backlash, manifesting in a menacing right-wing resurgence. In other words, if Obama had governed as a progressive, someone like Donald Trump might have become president.

A rational observer might assume that the victory of a reactionary psychopath who upended all normative assumptions about politics would have introduced a little humility and introspection into the centrist consensus. That observer had best not hold her breath.

Biden hasn't even taken the oath of office, and the centrist crew, including Obama and Biden himself, are blaming the left for Democratic losses in the Senate, House and state legislatures, citing the activist call to "defund the police" as the primary reason for the party's poor down-ballot performance. There is no data to support this conclusion. If anything, the available evidence actually suggests that candidates with progressive positions outperformed the so-called moderates.

Lack of evidence has never stopped the centrists before. Now they've reached a point where information is an unnecessary impediment to their effort to overwhelm all legitimate political or ideological debate with a mélange of platitudes and bromides.

John Harris, writing in Politico, chastises the "stupid second guessing of Biden" from the left over his corporate Cabinet choices, focusing closely on the early opposition to the potential appointment of former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Harris claims that progressives "don't know what they are talking about," and then attempts to prove Emanuel's merits by summarizing a book he co-wrote in the 1990s. He never mentions that Emanuel left Chicago as the most hated mayor in the city's long and colorful history, earning contempt for closing dozens of schools in poor neighborhoods and then covering up video footage of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, which eventually sent the officer involved to prison.'

Joe Klein, the former sage of Time magazine and champion of "radical centrism," shared Harris' article on his Facebook page, acting as if he had received it from the hands of Jehovah on Mt. Sinai. When I reminded Klein of the McDonald murder, observing that the country's leading civil rights organizations and labor unions opposed Emanuel, Klein responded that I was "missing the bigger point."

Centrists are always threatening to make a big point, but never follow through. Here is the big point that they've been missing for 40 years: The neoliberal consensus is disintegrating, taking traditional party politics into oblivion, because the policies on which it was built have devastated the lives of ordinary people. Widespread privatization and the elevation of what Karl Marx called "fictitious capital" — interest, stocks and commodities, dividends and incomprehensible financial instruments of many kinds — have transformed an economic arrangement that, for all its flaws, gave at least some working-class people a chance to build stability and generational wealth into a Serengeti Plain where the powerful use their fangs and claws to rip the flesh from the weak.

The RAND Corporation — hardly an advocate of socialism or Marxism — recently reported that from 1975 to 2018, the top 1 percent, taking advantage of tax policies, corporate welfare and other built-in benefits, took in $47 trillion — that's trillion, with 12 zeroes – that otherwise would have been distributed among the bottom 90 percent.

Naomi Klein explains brilliantly in her book "The Shock Doctrine" that catastrophes and crises typically exacerbate inequality in various ways: They offer multinational corporations an opportunity to force out small competitors, convince governments to deregulate or surrender public land and other areas of the commons, and accelerate urban gentrification and residential segregation. It is hardly surprising then that COVID-19 has only enhanced these hideous developments. According to one report from the Center for Public Integrity, 900 companies that accepted billions in Paycheck Protection Program loans still laid off a cumulative total of 90,000 workers.

American life, for most citizens, has become a never-ending struggle, with essentials like health care, child care, and high-quality education all but inaccessible. As a recent report from NPR made clear for those sitting in the back, even many Americans who appear to have it made in the shade, earning relatively high salaries and owning substantial homes, still live paycheck to paycheck, frightened that an unexpected expense will drown them in debt.

There's "stone cold rage in the hinterlands," Warren Haynes shouts in the Gov't Mule song, "Stone Cold Rage," capturing the way that entire American towns have collapsed into conditions that resemble war zone. Small villages that once had a vibrant communal center made possible by family farming, light manufacturing employment and small retail business have become ghost towns, without much hope for middle-class or even working-class resurrection. In a previously unprecedented and horrific development, "deaths of despair" — primarily meaning those caused by suicide, drug overdose, alcoholism and obesity — began to rise in the United States a few years ago, especially among men in rural areas.

The inhabitants of these desolate and deprived outposts have accepted a theory, albeit a terrible and dangerous one, to explain their demise. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist who spent five years conducting lengthy interviews with poor people in the Louisiana bayou, summarizes it this way:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they'd worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].

Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.

Hochschild is not seeking to excuse the obvious racism embodied in this narrative, or to deny its pervasive influence on whites who support Donald Trump and other xenophobic Republicans. She only explains that nearly everyone she interviewed articulated some version of this "deep story," to use her words — "a story in which you lift away facts and moral judgment and just find the story that feels true."

A massively funded apparatus of creative thinkers and skillful personalities inundate voters with right-wing propaganda on a daily basis, creating an alternative universe in which "facts and moral judgment" drift away to make room for the hateful scapegoating of all the people Hochschild identifies above.

What is the centrist "deep story" that might respond to this? Is there even a centrist hypothesis to explain and alter the continual decay of American life?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently courted the scorn of centrists for stating the obvious by calling Biden's vision for the country "hazy." None of the attacks on her even tried to offer an alternate assessment of Biden's prospective agenda. Of course there is time for the incoming president to communicate with more clarity and specificity, but progressives in Congress are only expressing the reasonable concern that 20 months after Biden announced his presidential candidacy, no one can honestly describe his overarching vision for governance, reform and public policy.

The progressive or leftist politics that Ocasio-Cortez represents at least offers Americans, especially those who suffer from poverty and despair, a "deep story." The leftist deep story has the benefit of being true. It doesn't require adherents to overlook relevant facts or suspend all moral judgment. It makes no room for racism or nativism. Instead it accurately surveys the reality on the ground, from the South Side of Chicago to the swamps of Louisiana, and offers real, actionable solutions, which double as an effective counterargument against the nationalism of the fast-rising far right.

As psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl demonstrates in his book, "Dying of Whiteness," many white people in "heartland" America are so deeply committed to "racial resentment" that they will actively vote and fight against their own access to medicine, education, clean air and better wages. Many of the poor people Metzl interviewed essentially took the position that it is preferable to starve than to endorse policies that might better the lot of Blacks or "illegal immigrants."

Of course progressives shouldn't assume that they will convert Trump followers to democratic socialism with a few Bernie Sanders speeches and John Mellencamp records. They may, however, begin to shift some political support with active and aggressive engagement throughout the country, explaining exactly why their "deep story" is better than racial inculpation and division.

As for the centrists, they guarantee failure, offering exactly nothing other than their own arrogance and provably false prescriptions to ordinary people confused and outraged over the decline of their communities and the precarity of their own lives.

Centrists insist that "moderation" is the only sensible approach to national politics in a large and diverse country. They might have an argument worthy of consideration if the world's problems were moderate. But the impending climate apocalypse is not moderate, nor is the dramatic and worsening economic inequality, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. Those things cannot be addressed with compromises or half-measures.

Centrist equivocation will only alienate Americans from each other, while emboldening the forces of right-wing extremism, ignorance and hatred. From the 1980s onward, through recession, war terrorism, and ecological catastrophe, this story has repeated itself time and time again. How many times will the "sensible" centrists have to watch the country descend into chaos before they learn its lessons?

Trump's delusions and conspiracies are one aspect of a distinctive American bias against reality

On this holiday, millions of Americans are gathering around a homemade feast of comfort food, basking in the warmth of familial love and giving each other a potentially life-threatening virus. One week ago, Erin Burnett asked during the lead segment of her nightly talk show on CNN, "The CDC is warning Americans not to travel or gather in large groups for Thanksgiving. Will they listen?"

Any fool could have answered the question: No. Millions of travelers have moved through the airports to greet their loved ones, perhaps with gestures of physical affection, all but coughing in each other's faces. One cannot help but wonder how many families will share napkins as they debate the efficacy of masks as protection against COVID-19.

A pandemic is dangerous, frightening and chaotic enough in the best circumstances. Throw in a population given to superstition, hatred of experts as diabolical elites and hostility toward science, and reasons to give thanks — other than the ability to breathe without the aid of a ventilator — will rapidly diminish.

The farcical spectacle of ostensible adults screaming about the tyranny of face masks and indulging in megaphone-mad conspiracy theories while their neighbors die would invite howls of laughter, if it weren't so tragic. Far surpassing the death rate of Canada, Germany, Japan and almost every other country on Earth — the planet where seemingly everyone but Americans still reside — the United States has lost more than 260,000 people to the coronavirus. As Joe Biden often said during the presidential campaign, that is 260,000 kitchen tables without a parent, spouse, sibling or child.

Yet a baffling and terrifying amount of Americans act as if the virus is not real, or at least does not present a threat to them and their loved ones. A nurse in South Dakota, Jodi Doering, has told the surreal horror story of patients denying that COVID-19 exists, up until the moment that they die from it.

While I cannot report anything so extreme, I can say that I've had conversations with several people — all of them college-educated professionals — who repeat the following claims as if they are self-evident: 1) COVID death numbers are significantly inflated, because hospitals make more money from treating those patients; 2) China created the coronavirus in a lab as a biological weapon (this is one particularly incoherent, because even if true it would not negate the danger of the virus); 3) only the elderly die from COVID so we don't have to worry about it (if this were true, it would make adherents to that belief sociopathic, not reasonable); 4) the only way to beat back the pandemic is through herd immunity.

When pressed to give their sources of evidence, they will typically fall back on what has become the favorite line of many Americans, a delightful distillation of the ignorance and arrogance of individualism and anti-intellectualism in one sentence: "I do my own research."

According to polls, most Americans believe that COVID is not a hoax. The majority also regularly wear masks in public, even when there is no mandate. Despite the good news, there is a gap between theory and practice. The staggering amount of Thanksgiving travel is only the latest example of a general public that suffers from what psychologists are calling "pandemic fatigue."

Having grown tired of compliance with CDC protocols, many Americans have adopted a cavalier attitude. They have resumed dining in restaurants, shopping in malls, and having parties in their homes. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California broke his own coronavirus guidelines by dining indoors with several friends, and New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo examined the potential of his family's Thanksgiving gathering to spread the virus, determined that it was significant, and then concluded he was doing it anyway.

With friends like these, everyone concerned about succumbing to a deadly virus might as well throw a mask burning party … indoors.

Meanwhile, the most pathetic attempt at a coup d'état in world history reaches a merciful end with Rudy Giuliani's hair dye melting in beads down his face as he impersonates Joe Pesci, and his co-counsel on behalf of Trump, Jenna Ellis, telling Republican pollste and frequent Trump critic, Frank Luntz that he has a small penis. Despite the legal weakness of the Venezuela voter-fraud conspiracy theory, not to mention the micropenis defense, upwards of 70 percent of Republicans now believe that Joe Biden won the election by fraudulent means.

This isn't much different from the 51 percent of Republicans who "doubt" that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, the 50 percent of Republicans who believe that the QAnon theory that a secret ring of pedophiles run the federal government is, at least, "partially true," and the 40 percent of Americans who are creationists.

e American population is some combination or variance of ignorant, delusional or insane.

In a country with many of the best universities in the world and almost unlimited technological resources, a salient inquiry for an engaged intellectual class would be, how the hell did this happen? Why do so many Americans accept lunacy as empirical truth?

To begin by reaching for the low-lying fruit, let's start with the far right. The late Richard Hofstadter, a Pulitzer-winning historian, authored a famous book in 1964 called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Despite a few errors, Hofstadter's analysis of the delusions and fears of the right gains relevance with each year.

In his introduction, the historian explains that Americans are increasingly responsive to politics as competing gestures of emotional symbolism, rather than debates about material interest or theories of effective governance. On the right, an affinity for symbolism combines with the "apocalyptic carryovers" of the "evangelical spirit" to create the foundation for the paranoid style. Hofstadter's nuanced and detailed definition of the eponymous term of his text is worth reading in full, but here is a key excerpt:

When I speak of the paranoid style … it is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. Webster defines paranoia, the clinical entity, as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one's own greatness. In the paranoid style, as I conceive it, the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. … His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.

The contemporary application of Hofstadter's delineation of the "paranoid style" makes it clear that Donald Trump is flypaper for every pathology that Hofstadter, along with many psychiatrists, diagnoses, but also that Trump's following marks the culmination of a right-wing divorce from reality that has unfolded over several decades.

The danger of the "paranoid style" is clear, but becomes profound when Hofstadter describes how the political paranoid sees the opposition, an analysis that should resonate with anyone who has watched a few minutes of Fox News, listened to Rush Limbaugh or gone through the masochistic ritual of attempting to debate a full-fledged Trump supporter:

He [the paranoid] does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.

Hofstadter estimated that the extreme right of the John Birch Society and similar movements comprised 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and therefore was able to distinguish between the "working politician," meaning the typical Republican, and his more militant voters. Fox News, social media and Donald Trump have obliterated that distinction. Americans who are curious why their Trump-devoted friends broke off all contact might want to reread the paragraph above. More importantly, people who believe that the political opposition is literally aligned with Satan, as onetime Hollywood star Jon Voight recently said about progressives — in a viral video approvingly shared by many leading Republican pundits — will fall for anything.

If Democrats are Lucifer's foot soldiers, working to subvert everything that is good in the world, why wouldn't they use a pizza parlor in Washington to traffic children to pedophiles? Stealing an election is a misdemeanor by comparison.

Those who believe that their political opponents are pure evil will also justify anything, which clarifies evangelical Christians' willingness to forgive Donald Trump's countless offenses against decency, and so many Republicans' evident glee as the Trump administration did everything in its power to sabotage American democracy.

Hofstadter was wise to make a connection between paranoid politics and Christian fundamentalism. Like the fundamentalist who suspects the devil of every misfortune or temptation, ranging from a car accident to the temptations of internet pornography, the far right paranoid sees the anti-American, liberal hand at work in every area of life. Wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus infection isn't adhering with public health protocol, but yielding to the arch-conspiracy of global tyranny.

It is difficult to imagine what life must feel life for these people. They believe that a homicidal cabal of demons in human form is running the country, feverishly working to destroy their lives with multiculturalism and communism, yet they still have to pick up groceries at the market, drop their children off at school and pay their taxes.

Paranoid delusions make them susceptible to a series of cons, from Steve Bannon's "We Build the Wall" campaign to Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" fundraiser, but it also makes ordinary governance of the United States painfully difficult.

Before the rest of us judge our conspiracy-theorist neighbors too harshly, we should perhaps consider how their lives also require some detachment from reality.

In January of this year, the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the "Doomsday Clock" — a measurement of humanity's proximity to global catastrophe — one minute and 40 seconds from midnight, citing the growing threat of climate change.

The United Nations warned in 2018 that the human species had only 12 years left to take decisive action on climate change, before facing existential disaster. Even the Department of Transportation under the Trump administration predicted that without major reforms, climate change would destroy life as we know it by the end of this century.

There are inspiring movements to demand aggressive measures to combat climate change, and most Americans support them in theory. In practice, however, most of us carry along without a care in the world. There was almost no discussion of climate change during the recent presidential campaign, and the majority of Americans haven't shown anything resembling the urgency a reasonable observer would expect from people who have learned that their entire species faces the threat of widespread destruction within a relatively brief time span.

In the past two years, major newspapers reported that humanity has eliminated 60 percent of the animal population since 1970, and that 40 percent of the world's plant species are at risk of extinction. But this notional awareness that our planet is dying planet has little effect on political discussion, as powerful officials and influential pundits debate the margins on corporate tax rates, agree that the Green New Deal is "too radical," and argue about Twitter should ban Donald Trump after Biden's inauguration.

Climate change is one reason among many that Democratic calls for a "return to normal" are effectively tickets for a flight from the real world. Except for having a president who respects democratic norms and institutions, the "normal" of 2015 isn't exactly an Edenic paradise to which we should aspire. Extreme inequality, environmental degradation and the subordination of ethics to corporate capitalism — manifesting most clearly in health care, criminal justice and decaying public infrastructure — was shot through American life then. Without transformative action, they will continue to wreak havoc in the lives of countless people long into the future.

After a survey of American culture, an obvious question might be: Where are the real realists?

Wherever they reside and struggle, they will have to live alongside the right-wing paranoiacs who threaten to undermine American democracy, and the more respectable members of the educated liberal classes, who appear content to turn up the music while the tornado siren blasts outside the window.

Those who are curious how that might work out, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving, might want to ask a Native American.

Noam Chomsky: 'If you don't push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump'

Noam Chomsky, one of the world's foremost public intellectuals, has provided the international left with wisdom, guidance and inspiration for nearly 60 years. Proving that he operates at the locus where argumentation and activism meet, he demonstrates indispensable intellectual leadership on issues of foreign policy, democratic socialism and rejection of corporate media bromides.

One of the founders of linguistics, he is also an American dissident who has wrestled with systems of power on matters no less important than genocide, war and poverty, creating a corpus of classics, ranging from his manifesto against the Vietnam War, "American Power and the New Mandarins," to his amplification of reason against a jingoistic cacophony following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "9-11." "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman, is essential reading for anyone interested in the real biases against democracy in the commercial press. His more recent book "What Kind of Creatures Are We?" provides a deft and provocative exploration of human purpose and the common good.

At 91, he is still committed to seeking and sharing the truth, and showing little patience for the foolishness and selfishness of the powerful.

With dozens of books, and countless lectures and articles, Chomsky has addressed nearly every major topic of politics and economics with an orientation toward democracy, peace, and justice, but his new book is possibly his most urgent. "Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal," co-authored with progressive economist Robert Pollin, measures the stakes of climate change as threatening the survival of the human species, and offers a bold and ambitious solution that can not only stave off disaster, but create a more beautiful, hospitable and just world.

I recently interviewed Chomsky over the phone about climate change, the Green New Deal, and the 2020 presidential election.

We can, perhaps, begin by spotlighting Amy Coney Barrett's remarks at her nomination hearings calling climate change a "controversial and contentious issue." One of the realities you and your co-author, Robert Pollin, identify in this book, which seems to elude most other analysts, is that while our mainstream discourse often presents a "debate" surrounding climate change, there is no debate at all – not just among scientists, but among the institutions that are actively making the problem worse. They know they are courting catastrophe.

Not just "courting," but causing catastrophe. She not only said that it is "contentious." She said, "I'm not a scientist. I don't really know about it." Unless she is a hermit living in Montana without any contact with the outside world, it is inconceivable that anyone could even be considered for a Supreme Court position who doesn't know about the most significant environmental issue.

In the case of the major institutions, let's start with the Pentagon. They are open about it. They acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat. They've argued we should prepare for it. They've published documents about it. Certainly, they know about it.

In the case of ExxonMobil, their scientists were among the first to discover the nature of the problem back in the 1970s. We have the full record, and it's quite extensive. Their scientists provided detailed reports on the threat of global warming – on the threat it will have on the business of fossil fuels. They knew and know about everything. What actually happened with ExxonMobil is – when James Hansen made a speech about global warming in 1988, which received a lot of publicity, at that point management moved to a new position. It wasn't outright detail, because that would have been too easy to expose. They said, "Well, it's uncertain." This was a strategy to shed doubt. In other words, "we really don't know yet. So, we better not do anything precipitous." That was an effective strategy, and that's the Barret strategy: "It's contentious." Meanwhile, the scientific evidence is accumulating beyond any question. ExxonMobil knows all of this, and they've said straight out that, unlike other companies, they won't put aside funds to develop sustainable energy. They've committed to keeping to their business model of doing what is most profitable, and that is developing as many fossil fuels as possible.

Then, there is JPMorgan Chase. They know, and they've conceded. They were one of the world's leading financiers of fossil fuels. Recently, their CEO, Jamie Dimon, announced [they] have to do something about fossil fuels, because of the reputational risks. "Reputational risks" translates into "it is harming our business, because consumers are upset." In fact, an interesting memo leaked from JPMorgan Chase that said [the company is] pursuing policies that place the survival of humanity at risk, and [the company has] to be careful about [its] reputational risks. The "survival of humanity."

There is an interesting question about people like Jamie Dimon. They know exactly what is happening, but they are willing to proceed knowing that it is going to cause a cataclysm — a total disaster that will be irreversible. What is in the mind of somebody like that? Maybe we can say that Mike Pence listens to his preacher, and actually believes there is no need to worry, because God will take care of it. But not the executives of ExxonMobil or JPMorgan Chase.

JPMorgan Chase used the phrase, "survival of humanity," and you are quoting it. All of your books deal with serious issues, to put it mildly. It seems, though, that the new book is the most urgent. Is that a fair characterization?

Let's take seriously the publication of the Department of Transportation — their document on climate change and emission standards. It was an astonishing document, and it is shocking that it didn't get more coverage.

It is a careful environmental assessment from the Trump administration. It concluded that on our present course we will reach four degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. What is that? Total cataclysm. No one can even estimate the effects. Organized human life as we know it will be over. Of course, it will build up over the years, getting worse and worse with sea levels rising, extreme weather events, and so on. So, after describing this, they offer a prescription, and here it is: Let's reduce emission regulations on cars and trucks.

This is the most extraordinary document in human history. I can't think of anything like this. The thing that comes closest is the Nazi Wannsee declaration in 1942, which was the formal decision of the Nazi party to wipe out all the Jews of Europe. Not even that said, "Let's race ahead to make some money while destroying the prospects of all human life on Earth." Why isn't this the headline everywhere?

You've asked two questions, I assume rhetorically, but I'm curious if you can offer an answer to either. First, what kind of people have an awareness that they are threatening all livable ecology and proceed along the same course? Second, why isn't this the headline everywhere?

I have no independent evidence about what is inside people's minds. In the case of the Trump administration, I simply think that they don't care. They are sociopaths. We see this constantly with the president, from the pandemic to hurting the World Health Organization, because it improves his election prospects. If that means kill people in Africa and Yemen who depend upon the WHO for survival, that's fine. The Palestinians didn't treat him nicely? Good. Cut off money for their hospitals. I think it is the mentality that all of us have when we walk down the street and realize that we might crush a lot of ants. We don't think, "I'll take all kinds of precautions to avoid crushing ants." That is the Trump administration's attitude toward the human species. I'm sure it isn't everybody, but it is the mentality that comes from the top down.

There is also the idea, "We have force. Therefore, we can compel anyone else to surrender to it." We see that constantly in the most remarkable ways. A couple of weeks ago the administration approached the United Nations Security Council, requesting that they reinstitute the sanctions against Iran, which were torturing and killing Iranians. The Security Council flatly rejected it. Well, they didn't say no. They abstained, because you don't want to irritate the master too much. So what did the U.S. do? Mike Pompeo returned to the Security Council, and said, sorry children, we're reinstituting the sanctions, because we say so. Has that ever happened in the history of the Security Council? I don't know everything, but I don't think so. What country acts that way? This one does.

There's a major biodiversity conference going on right now at the UN. It is of crucial significance not only for the many species that are being crushed, but for human survival. For example, one of the issues they are addressing is how to prepare for the next pandemic. There is one major country that is not attending. The usual one. The United States. Take a look for coverage. I did, and all I could find was approximately two minutes on NPR.

The New York Times: Great newspaper, right? A couple of days ago, they ran an article on Chevron buying Noble, which gives them entry into the Eastern Mediterranean – huge natural gas fields. Good article on how it will expand production. It will be very good for Israel and Egypt. It didn't say one word about how this is another stab in the heart of the possibility of human survival. It isn't something they really think about. They don't see it as their task to think about it. They write about gas markets, very little about climate change, because it is good for Israel-Egypt relations. There is a biodiversity conference happening, but the U.S. isn't attending. So, who cares?

Now, what about the banks? They know what is happening, and this is my best guess. Let's see if it is plausible. I put myself in the position of Jamie Dimon. I'm sure he knows all about global warming. He cares about it. He probably contributes to the Sierra Club is his spare time. He has two choices. He can say, "What we are doing is horrible. I refuse to participate." He does that, and the board of directors throws him out. They bring someone else in who will do it. So, then he says to himself, "I'm as humane as that next guy they would bring in to destroy the planet. So, I might as well be the one to do it."

ExxonMobil has shareholders. They do what is best for them. The only other way to explain it is sociopathy, but I don't think they are all sociopaths. I think they are the same as people like us.

If the profit at the center of the system incentives sociopathy, is it possible to proceed with something like the Global Green New Deal, on the level that is necessary, without addressing the profit motive?

That's a question that Robert Pollin and I discuss. First of all, there is the simple question of timescale. The timescale needed to deal with this urgent problem is a decade or two. Major institutional changes, which I think are very much in order, have a totally different timescale. It is a much longer process. The fact of the matter is that in order to survive we have to deal with the problem within the framework of the existing institutions. Then, comes the question, can it be done?

We think so. Without radical modification of the existing institutions, which on the side, we can continue to pursue – it is a parallel project – but without that happening, there are adjustments possible. This is mainly Pollin's work – looking at how we can proceed within the timescale and within the existing institutions.

Take fossil fuels. One thing that could be done is simply to take them over – socialize them. It isn't even that expensive. With the oil prices, they aren't worth that much right now. Then, we can put the institutions in the hands of the workforce and the community, and have them do what has to be done. What has to be done? Cut back annually – say 5 percent – on the use of fossil fuels. That would be enough to bring us to net zero emissions by the midcentury. Set the workforce to do things that they know how to do. Let's have them work on developing sustainable energy. They know how to do it. Outside of ExxonMobil, every major company has a division on this.

We might recall that one of the leading early environmentalists was Tony Mazzocchi, the head of the Oil, Chemical, Atomic International Workers Union. Those are the guys on the front line. They're the ones being poisoned. Mazzocchi and his union pushed for safety regulations, and the reduction of fossil fuels. That can be picked up. That's within the framework of institutions.

Take the carbon tax. In itself, it is destructive. It leads to what happened in France. You're telling poor, working people, "You will have to pay more to get to work, because I care about the environment." The way that a carbon tax ought to work is redistribution of the income. Tax the fossil fuels, but then redistribute the profits to the people who need it. The rich guys aren't going to like that, but there's a lot of things that they don't like. They don't like Social Security, but we ram it down their throats through popular pressure.

All of this is within a range of expenses that is not very high. We have Robert Pollin's model. We have a different model from Jeffery Sachs, which reaches pretty much the same conclusion. It can probably all be done within 2-3% of GDP. It is important to note that this doesn't only end fossil fuel production. It creates a better world.

The small number of workers in the fossil fuel industry can get a much better job doing something else. If they need help during the transition period, we can do it for peanuts. Pollin points out that the amount that is needed annually is a fraction of what the Treasury recently poured out to save Wall Street. These things are not out of sight.

Now, there are plenty of barriers. Plenty of fighting back. Amy Coney Barrett saying, "I don't know what's happening. I'm too remote from all of this." The people behind her, getting her to say it, they are going to try to block it.

But there are popular forces who pressing for this, because they know it has to happen quickly. Most of them are young. Greta Thunberg, for example, saying eloquently, "You betrayed us." We should listen to her. Yes, we've betrayed them. Now, we have to change course.

Too often the issue is presented as dichotomous, meaning working class economics versus environmentalism. Why is that wrong?

There will be better jobs and more jobs for working people with a Green New Deal. Jobs ranging from construction to retrofitting houses to mass transportation to installing solar panels and wind turbines to research and development. That whole range presents many more opportunities than there are in fossil fuels, and it makes for a better world.

I don't know where you live. I live in Arizona right now, but I lived outside Boston most of my life. It isn't much fun sitting in a traffic jam for over an hour to get to work.

I live near Chicago. I can relate.

Same thing. It would be much nicer to have a highly efficient mass transit system. You step inside, read a newspaper, enjoy a cup of coffee, and get to where you need to go in no time. It is a better world. In Arizona, I know people who pay $1,000 over the summer for air conditioning. I pay $10 a month, because we've installed solar panels on the roof. It is a better life. Furthermore, I don't have to feel guilty about using so much electricity. The sun is up there, and it is just giving it to me. Insulate your home. You are more comfortable, you are saving money, and you are saving the environment.

It isn't 100 percent. The coal miners, for example. It is a rotten job, but it does pay well. They are on their way out anyway, though. So, we better begin to think about how we can ease the transition. They can do constructive things. In Germany, they are phasing out coal mines, and turning them into ways to produce sustainable energy. These are good jobs, cleaner jobs, and less dangerous. Where there are people who are going to be harmed, we can help them ease the transition.

And again, let's remember that the fossil fuel workers are the ones suffering directly. They experience the worst health consequences – the workers and the people who live near the plants. So, it is in their interest more than anyone. It isn't a hard sell if you break through the propaganda.

You are using the simple, but profound phrase, "It's a better life." It seems that the Global Green New Deal presents the left with a great opportunity to offer to people a large-scale, ambitious project for reimagining human life and society that leads to dramatic improvements.

Absolutely. These two questions that you presented earlier — environmentalism or changing the institutions. This is where they coincide.

Let's take the auto industry. It is a huge industry; the core of American production. In 2009, after the financial collapse, the auto industry was nationalized. There were choices at the time, and if the left had been up to it, we could have made a better choice. The first choice, which is what the Obama administration did, was to pay off the executives and the shareholders, and then return the industry to its original owners, and have them go back to what they were doing — make traffic jams in Chicago and Boston.

Another possibility was to take the industry that we owned, and hand it over to the workforce and the community, and ask them to alter it in ways that were more beneficial. They might have developed an efficient mass transit system. If we start doing that, we undercut the institutions that work for profit, and transform them into democratic institutions that work for public needs. This isn't nationalization, putting it into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats. It is giving it to workers and community members who can use it for their own needs. That is radically undermining capitalist institutions.

I'm sure you know the Next System Project. One of their proposals that makes great sense is to expand the postal service into general services for people, like banking. It is a perfect way to do banking — not commercial banking, JPMorgan Chase giving someone $2 billion — but the kind of banking we all do. It would be easy to do it through the post office. There are post offices everywhere, the staff is already there, the infrastructure is there. Much of what we do can happen through socialized institutions, which people are surprisingly favorable to. And it would improve our lives. It is a good part of life to have a postal carrier who you get to know. You trust him. You can ask him to feed your dog when you are away. It makes life better.

This is one of the reasons why the rich and powerful want to destroy public institutions, like the Post Office. Public institutions show people that there is an alternative to individualism and consumerism that is possible.

There is so much that it is possible if we only escape the rigid doctrinal assumptions that say, to quote Ronald Reagan, "government is the problem." It is a problem for the rich. It isn't a problem for the rest of us.

Forgive me for closing with what is by now an obligatory and predictable question, but I think I am forever banished from journalism if I don't ask. How do you respond to the irresponsible leftist purity that discourages voting for Biden because of his limitations as a candidate, and the troubling aspects of his record?

My position is to vote against Trump. In our two-party system, there is a technical fact that if you want to vote against Trump, you have to push the lever for the Democrats. If you don't push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump. We can argue about a lot of things, but not arithmetic. You have a choice on Nov. 3. Do I vote against Trump or help Trump?

It is a simple choice. He's the worst malignancy ever to appear in our political system. He is extremely dangerous.

All of this for the left shouldn't even be discussed. It takes a few minutes. Politics means constant activism. An election comes along every once in awhile, and you have to decide if it is worth participating. Sometimes not — there were cases when I didn't even bother voting. There were cases when I voted Republican, because the Republican congressional candidate in my district was slightly better. It should take roughly a few minutes to decide, then you go back to activism, which is real politics.

There is a new phenomenon on the left. I had never even heard of it before 2016, which is to focus, laser-like, on elections. That's where you get these crazy ideas like condemnation of "lesser-evil voting." Of course, you vote against someone dangerous if it is necessary, but that is not serious political activity. Serious political activity comes out of commitment to educational and organizational work.

Somehow parts of the left within the past few years have unconsciously accepted establishment propaganda. The establishment view of politics is that the public are spectators, not participants in action. Your function is to show up every few years, push a lever, go back home, leave the rest to us. You shouldn't have "democratic dogmatisms about people judging what's in their best interest" — I'm quoting Harold Lasswell, one of the founders of political science. The establishment view is that we have to provide people with, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr, "necessary illusions" and "emotionally potent simplifications." We'll handle the real work.

To see the left buy into this is astonishing. If you don't buy into the establishment picture, you don't talk about "lesser-evil voting." You talk about activism and strategy. Every once in awhile, you decide whether or not it is worth the effort to push a lever. Sometimes it is so obvious, as it is now, that it shouldn't take two minutes to decide.

There's only one political party in the US — the other one has descended into madness

There is only one political party in the United States.

The first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump demonstrated with hideous clarity that the Democratic Party is currently running against not a conservative public policy agenda or a coherent philosophy of governance, but a collective psychotic episode, channeled through an authoritarian demagogue who is equally propelled and crippled by his own neuroses.Gore Vidal, one of America's best chroniclers of empire, once provided instruction to a British interviewer expressing confusion over the radical hostility Republicans showed toward Barack Obama, and the former president's inability to react with equal aggression: "Obama believes the Republican Party is a political party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word 'conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they're fascists."

That mindset is now threatening to devour everything in its path, while its current figurehead, Donald Trump, provides encouragement to violent extremists, giving the Proud Boys — a militant far-right organization whose members have committed hate crimes — the chilling order, "Stand back and stand by."

The president's refusal to reject white supremacist movements elicited almost no clear condemnation from Republican commentators in the immediate aftermath of the debate. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate (and one of only two in Congress), pathetically speculated that Trump "misspoke," and the few Republican members of Congress who spoke out against Trump's dangerous remarks equivocated by drawing comparisons to antifa, the right wing's favorite phantom hallucination.

Observers of political debate can now expect journalists and analysts to fall into the familiar pattern of throwing their arms in the air, articulating incredulity at Trump's malevolence and the Republican refusal to object, and conclude they are merely making a "political calculation," proceeding with caution so as not to alienate Trump's rabid base.

This is wrong.

It's certainly true that Republican officials are afraid of the bloodlust of the Trump cult. But it is also true, and more important to recognize, that Trump's hatred for democracy — which critics and commentators view as a liability is largely an asset for his supporters. Many of those who hold office at the national level, as evident from the ghoulish statements of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and others, along with the voters who applaud Trump's every act of cruelty, are glad to see him waging war on a system designed to give representation and power to a diverse group of citizens.

If Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and their enablers in Congress can succeed in subverting the presidential election, and "making America great again" by enshrining the minority rule of white Christians, the average Republican will celebrate. There is no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the fact that between 80 and 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's performance in office.

Among Democrats, there is an ongoing, interesting and important argument between moderate figures like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regarding the expansion of the social welfare state, federal regulation of economic activity and the extent of measures necessary to curb inequality and climate change.

The Republican Party offers nothing to the American people. They have no policy agenda. Despite Trump's meaningless and inane boasting of nonexistent "plans," they articulate no agenda to address the converging crises of American life.

An American without health insurance, or who pays a high monthly premium for inadequate coverage, can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Working parents who cannot afford child care and have no disposable income after paying each month's bills can expect nothing from the Republican Party. A young college graduate unable to qualify for a mortgage because he has tens of thousands of dollars in student debt can expect nothing from the Republican Party. Poor children suffering through hunger and struggling to learn basic skills in a dysfunctional school can expect nothing from the Republican Party.

Finally, no one on planet Earth can expect anything from a Republican Party that is still in denial about climate change, even as it threatens to end all livable ecology within the next hundred years.

The Republican Party is actively anti-human. It does not qualify as a political party according to any definition of politics, no matter how elementary or esoteric.

In ancient Greece, politics roughly translated into "matters pertaining to the city." Aristotle wrote about the city as synonymous with "community," and posited that all communities are established for the sake of the good life. The ultimate end and ambition of the community is for happiness. It was this Aristotelian conception of politics that influenced the American founders to write the words "the pursuit of happiness," in the Declaration of Independence.

Absent from the Republican National Convention was any mention of anything — save for occasional references to the mysterious issue conservatives call "school choice" — that might remotely assist people to live happier or better lives. To the contrary, much of the Republican agenda is the obliteration of potential for happiness and the imposition of suffering on masses of immigrants, the poor, the sick, the disabled and anyone in a position outside the ownership class.

Even to the overwhelming majority of white Americans, the Republican Party offers nothing with the sole exception of rhetorical massages for their atrophied egos — the ignorant insistence that they are the "real Americans." Only white Republicans are satisfied with this sad recognition in place of an actual politics that might actually give them more opportunities for security, prosperity and dignity. Beyond the myth of white supremacy, Republican politicians on the national level give America various keys in which to scream the word "freedom," and instructions on how to fit as many flags as possible on one small stage.

The Democratic Party should accelerate its drive toward progressive policies, and champion candidates and officials who are fighting to pull their country into the more humane and civilized world, alongside the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and other social democracies, which for all of their current struggles with xenophobia, escalating inequality and populist revolt still provide their citizens with basic social services. Even the moderates, while too meek in their advocacy for fairness and equality, and too cozy with multinational corporations, offer a political program responsive to the problems of ordinary citizens. The Affordable Care Act, as an example, provided 18 million Americans with health coverage for the first time, and protects anyone with a pre-existing condition.

For all their disappointments, the moderates in the Democratic Party are committed to the laws and norms of the democratic system of governance. Studies show that the Republican Party, on the other hand, is far off the spectrum of mainstream conservative parties in comparable countries. The Trump and McConnell-led GOP is more extreme, more authoritarian and more hostile toward democracy than any right-leaning party with significant power in other free societies, even as anti-immigrant nationalist parties gain popularity in Italy, France and other European countries.

It isn't as if there are no longer competing ideologies of governance. One could easily imagine George Will debating an advocate of progressive economics. It is that national Republicans have abandoned any connection to previous notions of "conservative" politics, as Will himself has argued in recent columns.

Trump was unable to debate Joe Biden, and could only interrupt, mock and descend into a tantrum familiar to anyone with teaching experience at a middle school, because the Republicans have nothing to debate. Through their multi-decade commitment to shrinking government down so small that it can "drown in a bathtub," to use the words of Grover Norquist, what was once a reasonably coherent pro-business conservative party has arrived at its logical endpoint — a fascist power grab under the guise of an incoherent personality cult.

The late Stanley Crouch warned Republicans of their trouble in the late 1990s, explaining to Charlie Rose that you "cannot assemble a group of lunatics" to follow you without eventually following them into lunacy.

Welcome to America in 2020.

The president wants you dead

The president of the United States wants you dead.

Throughout the dystopian horror of the past four years, critics of the Trump administration have speculated, with persuasive evidence and analysis, that Donald Trump and his gaggle of ghouls — Jared Kushner, Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, et al. — are both incompetent to prevent death and indifferent to the onslaught of death if the victims, whether they lose their lives in a largely preventable pandemic, a natural disaster caused by climate change, or at the hands of police or right-wing terrorists, are not white, rich and Republican.

Recent revelations should force Americans to consider an even darker reality, and gather insight into the malevolence of humanity that is typically accessible only in barbaric episodes of history and frightening stories of literature. The most powerful man in the federal government delights in the infliction of pain, misery and grief.

To understand Trump as a sadist, it is helpful to use Occam's razor. The 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham submitted that in order to solve problems, a theorist should begin by cutting away the hypotheses that contain unnecessary complications. The fewer assumptions against reason one makes, the likelier one will stumble upon the truth. (He didn't actually invent this principle, but used it so often his name was attached to it.)

Bob Woodward recently released recordings and his new book have demolished Trump's last remaining defense of ignorance or delusion regarding COVID-19. As Trump made clear to Woodward in numerous conversations over a period of months, he always understood that the virus was easily transmissible and, in his own words, "deadly stuff."

Mike Lofgren, a longtime Republican congressional aide who worked as a staffer on both the House and Senate budget committees, recently wrote, "The stupidest leader imaginable randomly might have gotten something right; Trump's one hundred-percent record of failure was carefully calculated to achieve a specific result: mass death and a ready-made scapegoat."

Jared Kushner, according to a recent story in Vanity Fair, made the evil calculation early in the pandemic that it would only hurt Democratic states, and thereby cause more political harm to Democratic candidates for office than to Trump. It is now inarguable, as polls show Trump failing to gain on Joe Biden in the presidential race, with senior citizens moving toward the former vice president, that Trump has exacted no benefit from the ongoing failure to impose widespread testing and tracing measures, or to fully supply health care workers with personal protective equipment.

Sharpening Occam's razor, it is important to note that Trump's cruelty surpasses indifference. He is not only refusing to help — he is actively promoting the spread of the virus with his mockery of masks and packed indoor rallies.

Any biographer of Trump will explain that he is a hedonist. This is a man born into wealth and luxury who rarely, if ever, does anything that does not satisfy his ego, bring him pleasure or enhance his profits. As hundreds of thousands of Americans die, and the pandemic causes considerable damage to Trump's re-election campaign, what hypothesis remains other than the horror that Trump derives gratification from presiding over widespread death and chaos?

Perhaps it is the single most satisfying stroke of his ego to realize that he has the ability to save people's lives, but chooses not to do so. It is by now common to compare Trump to a cult leader. As Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple and many other cults have demonstrated, the leaders of especially destructive cult movements eventually turn on their own people, ordering mass suicide as the ultimate exercise of power.

Before Trump's recent indoor rally in Nevada, a television reporter asked whether he was concerned about the event increasing infections of COVID-19. The president laughed, explaining that he wasn't worried because he'd be on a stage, standing "very far away" from his unmasked supporters. Trump voters are willing to risk their lives for the glorification of their leader, and that is thrilling — even fun — for him to watch.

Trump's tendency to laugh at inappropriate moments is particularly chilling and revealing.

He has shown little or no concern for the Pacific Northwest, where the worst wildfires in the history of the country are destroying countless homes, incinerating ecosystems and wildlife, and have killed more than 30 people.

When Wade Crowfoot, head of California's Natural Resources Agency, challenged Trump on his refusal to act on climate change during a meeting to discuss the fires, the president turned his head and began to laugh. He chuckled again when he told Crowfoot, in reference to irrefutable evidence that the planet is warming due to human activity, "The science doesn't know."

It's all fun and games for Trump.

Americans can gain similar insight into Trump's homicidal philosophy of political power by observing him defend Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-deputized right wing vigilante who shot three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month, killing two of them. Trump also brazenly calls for extrajudicial assassinations from law enforcement, recently declaring in an interview that "There has to be retribution" when reacting to the news that federal forces had killed Michael Reinoehl, the left-wing activist accused of shooting a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon.

Edgar Allan Poe has a story about a man under the spell of the "imp of the perverse." He kills only for the rush of doing something he knows he should not. Poe writes that when "we peer into the abyss, we grow sick and dizzy." The normal human instinct is to turn away in retreat of danger and evil. There are those, however, who "unaccountably remain," guided by a thought that "chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height."

Donald Trump has descended into the abyss. He is attempting to take America with him. It is for us to decide whether we will follow.

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