Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
by Chris Hedges
Widespread social unrest will ignite when Donald Trump’s base realizes it has been betrayed. I do not know when this will happen. But that it will happen is certain. Investments in the stocks of the war industry, internal security and the prison-industrial complex have skyrocketed since Trump won the presidency. There is a lot of money to be made from a militarized police state.
Our capitalist democracy ceased to function more than two decades ago. We underwent a corporate coup carried out by the Democratic and Republican parties. There are no institutions left that can authentically be called democratic. Trump and Hillary Clinton in a functioning democracy would have never been presidential nominees. The long and ruthless corporate assault on the working class, the legal system, electoral politics, the mass media, social services, the ecosystem, education and civil liberties in the name of neoliberalism has disemboweled the country. It has left the nation a decayed wreck. We celebrate ignorance. We have replaced political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry with celebrity worship and spectacle.
Fascism, as historian Gaetano Salvemini pointed out, is about “giving up free institutions.” It is the product of a democracy that has ceased to function. The democratic form will remain, much as it did during the dictatorships in the later part of the Roman Empire, but the reality is despotism, or in our case, corporate despotism. The citizen does not genuinely participate in power.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Noam Chomsky told me with uncanny insight when I spoke with him six years ago. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists, but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.
“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like [Joseph] McCarthy or [Richard] Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer: We have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens, it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate, it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”
The repression of dissents will soon resemble the repression under past totalitarian regimes. State security will become an invasive and palpable presence. The most benign forms of opposition will be treated as if they are a threat to national security. Many, hoping to avoid the wrath of the state, will become compliant and passive. We, however, must fight back. We must carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, as many have done in streets around the country since the election. But we must also be aware that the democratic space allotted to us in our system of inverted totalitarianism has become much, much smaller.
Trump, with no democratic institutions left to restrain him, will accelerate the corporate assault, from privatizing Social Security to exonerating militarized police forces for the indiscriminate murder of unarmed citizens, while he unleashes the fossil fuel industry and the war industry to degrade and most probably extinguish life on earth. His administration will be populated by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, men and women characterized by profound intellectual and moral impoverishment, as well as a stunning ability to ignore reality. These ideologues speak exclusively in the language of intimidation and violence.
Half the country lives in poverty. Our former manufacturing centers are decayed wrecks. Our constitutional rights, including due process and habeas corpus, have been taken from us by judicial fiat. Corporations and the billionaire class carry out legal tax boycotts. Police gun down unarmed citizens in the street. The military, under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, is empowered to carry out the extraordinary rendition of U.S. citizens within the United States, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in our black sites. We are the most spied upon, watched, eavesdropped, photographed and monitored population in human history. When the government watches you 24 hours a day, you cannot use the word “liberty.” That is the relationship between a master and a slave. And governments that wield this kind of surveillance power swiftly become totalitarian. Trump and his cronies have been handed by bankrupt elites the legal and physical mechanisms to instantly transform America into a brutal police state.
Rudy Giuliani; Newt Gingrich, who advocates stripping U.S. citizens of their citizenship if they are deemed to be terrorists; retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and John Bolton—these men will not exhibit legal or moral restraint. They see the world through the Manichaean lens of good and evil, black and white, patriot and traitor. Politics have been transformed, as philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of fascism, into aesthetics. And the ultimate aesthetic experience for the fascist, Benjamin warned, is war.
State terror and state violence, familiar to poor people of color in our internal colonies, will become familiar to all of us. Racism, nationalism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, intolerance, white supremacy, religious bigotry, hate crimes and a veneration of the hypermasculine values of military culture will define political and cultural discourse. The ruling elites will attempt to divert the growing frustration and rage toward the vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, feminists and others. White vigilante violence will be directed at those the state demonizes with little or no legal ramifications. New enemies, at home and abroad, will be manufactured. Our endless wars in the Middle East will be expanded, perhaps to include a confrontation with Russia.
There were some, such as Ralph Nader, who saw this dystopia coming. They desperately tried to build a viable third party and empower citizen movements to give the dispossessed working class a vision and hope. They knew that the longer corporate power had a stranglehold on the economic and political system, the more we seeded the ground for an American fascism.
The elites put up numerous obstacles—refusing to let Nader or later, Jill Stein, into the debates, making ballot access difficult or impossible, turning campaigns into long, money-drenched spectacles that cost billions of dollars, and skillfully using the politics of fear to intimidate voters. But the elites were aided by a bankrupt liberal class. In presidential election after presidential election, especially after Nader’s success in 2000, so-called progressives succumbed to the idiotic mantra of the least worst. Those who should have been the natural allies of third parties and dissident movements abjectly surrendered to the Democratic Party that, like the Republican Party, serves the beast of imperialism and makes war on the poor, the working class and the middle class. The cowardice of the liberal class meant it lost all credibility, much as Bernie Sanders did when he sold his soul to the Clinton campaign. The liberal class proved it would stand and fight for nothing. It mouthed words and ideas it did not truly believe. It bears significant responsibility for the phenomena that created Trump. It should have had the foresight to abandon the Democratic Party after President Bill Clinton passed the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, to build parties and institutions that defended the interests of the working class. If it had stood up for working men and women, it might have prevented them being seduced by protofascists.
The rot of our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media—first playing a fictional master of the universe on a reality television show and later a politician as vaudevillian. Trump pulled in advertising dollars and ratings. Truth and reality were irrelevant. Only when he got the nomination did the mass media see their Frankenstein as a threat, but by then it was too late. If there is one vapid group that is hated even more than the liberal class, it is the corporate press. The more it attacked Trump, the better Trump looked.
Trump is emblematic of what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” A society in terminal decline often retreats into magical thinking. Reality is too much to bear. It places its faith in the fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age. The good jobs will come back. The nation will again be prosperous. The decrepit cities will be rebuilt. America will be great again. These promises, impossible to achieve, are no different from those peddled to Native Americans in the 1880s by the self-styled religious prophet Wovoka. He called on followers to carry out five-day dance ceremonies called the Ghost Dance. Native Americans donned shirts they were told protected them from bullets. They were assured that the buffalo herds would return, the dead warriors and chiefs would rise from the earth and the white men would disappear. None of his promises was realized. Many of his followers were gunned down like sheep by the U.S. army.
We face the most profound crisis in human history. Our response is to elect a man to the presidency who does not believe in climate change. Once societies unplug themselves from reality, those who speak truth become pariahs and enemies of the state. They are subject to severe state repression. Those lost in the reverie of the crisis cult applaud the elimination of these Cassandras. The appealing myths of magical thinking are pleasant opiates. But this narcotic, like all narcotics, leads to squalor and death.