America, a Theory

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May 21, 2020

This commentary will be my last. These somewhat rambling—and often too long—essays have had the purpose of helping me think through the present American crisis. I want now, for reasons of my mental and spiritual health—I am 80 years old—to return to the sort of writing I think I do better than analytic prose. 

In the words that follow, I’ve tried to pull together a number of the diverse threads I’ve been following in the past 26 issues—political, historical, psychological, philosophical—and weave them into a theory about what has happened to America.

In past issues, I focused, too much I now realize, on Trump—it has been like watching a boa constrictor crush and consume a goat,  fascinating but horrible. I believe now that I should have been thinking about his enablers, the Republican Party. That a man like Donald Trump—unqualified morally, psychologically, and experientially—could become, and remain, president of a major world power is possible only because a major political party supports him.

I conclude then that Trump somehow serves their purposes every bit as much as they serve his. I conclude that the Republican Party is complicit in a crime against nature and against reason, and under their auspices America has become a tragic farce. Is there such a thing. I think there is and we are it. Why have the Republicans done this? What follows is a theory. 

America’s bard, Walt  Whitman, in his famous poem about the death of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War, likens America to a ship that has weathered a terrible storm. Wracked by the unresolvable tensions between conflicting moralities and economic systems—the North, powered by free citizens who were paid for their labor, and the South, a plantation aristocracy powered by slaves—the Union had lost its way. The ship came perilously close to breaking apart. We are back to that condition of extreme divisiveness in all respects except for the slaughter on fields of battle. How did this come about? 

The answers, I think, will be found in the American past, in the conflicts and contradictions that were present in America from the beginning, things we’ve forgotten or perhaps never understood. We wanted to ignore them. I know I did. Born during the Second World War, I grew up believing in an heroic, almost invincible, America, a vessel well-constructed and on a voyage through history that was worth taking. Much of the world saw that America too. There is no doubt that I believed in it and that I had a patriotism more nuanced than just a deep love for the grandeur of the American landscape.

After the Second World War many of us believed that America was on course toward an ever more humane, tolerant, and just society. We went off course from time to time, but the ship always seemed to right itself and we sailed on. I have not forgotten, however, the terrible things that have happened in America in my lifetime.

Images of Bull Connor’s cops and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, have played in my nightmares ever since. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery, bullying, and lies prefigured the political obscenity we are now experiencing. With the assassinations of two Kennedys and Dr. King,  I wondered how a nation in which such tragedies happen could call itself civilized. 

But chaos, I would remind myself, turning to history and philosophy for my comfort and my lesson, is endemic in the human condition; so I sailed on. I remember the race riots of Detroit in 1963. I toured the city in 2016; it is still a ruin. I was in Los Angeles in 1968 and heard nights filled with sirens, and in 1992, far from Watts, the smell of smoke lay heavily on the white neighborhood secured by private patrols where my mother lived.  Vietnam divided the country over a war as it had not been since 1940, when isolationists and interventionists fought so bitterly about America’s entering the fight against Nazism. I have not forgotten the crimes against Native Americans or against women … Plus ça Change the more things stay the same.  

I forgot just enough to find comforts and even joys, but cumulatively, as knowledge built,  I came to the conclusion that Thomas Hobbes was more right about human nature than was Thomas Jefferson: “The condition of man,” wrote Hobbes, “is one of war, everyone against everyone.”

I still resisted. A perverse sort of optimism, something in my DNA, perhaps, a creaturely urge toward life itself, something as basic as the little birds who are singing for a mate this April 2020, while a terrible plague is carrying off so many of us higher creatures. Or is it something in the nation’s cultural myth, in the notion of American “exceptionalism,” the belief that the worst can’t happen here. Of course, it can and it is. 

History may not repeat itself, but as Samuel Clemens said, it often rhymes. With that insight I listen to the present sturm und drang  and I conclude that the Civil War never really ended. We tend to think of it too simply, the Red Badge of Courage version, the blue and the gray. But it was much more.

It was a war between two incompatible ideas about the kind of government the country was to have. Autocratic government was the hallmark of one of those conflicting ideas, an oligarchy of wealthy white men whose money came from the labor of the dispossessed and unfree, people whose inferior status was made obvious by the color of their skin. This was a system that allowed and, indeed, required suppression.

The other idea was democracy, government by all and for all. The 1860 conflict contained a paradox present in the foundation of the republic. The Founders feared tyranny, arbitrary power in the possession of a single class, political party, or individual. But they were also worried about democracy, fearing the ignorance and the passions of “the people.” The Constitution was an attempt to split the difference, the famous checks and balances. A ruling class has an inherent goal of remaining the ruling class and keeping the lion’s share of the wealth.

The analogous goal of the middle and working classes is to rearrange the hierarchy of political power and thus to change the distribution of the public wealth. If this difference cannot be reconciled, if each class has not been able to get enough for itself, winning political battles enough of the time, we end up where we are today, a paralyzed legislative process.

It was a similar political crisis, a government unable to act that, in 1933,  that brought a “strong man,”  an unfettered executive, Adolf Hitler, to power. Through the last two decades I’ve watched the same sort of bind ever tightening, a crisis of partisanship. I tried, however, to convince myself that Democrats and Republicans were talking about the same America, an America that both sides believed in. I was wrong. For today’s Republicans there can be no compromise.  Trump may not have been their first choice as a strong leader, but he is the one who emerged and they stick with him. 

How often have I waited for the outrage that would so clearly expose the president for what he is that even the most Republican of the Republican leadership could no longer stay silent! I remember an old lawyer named Joe Welch who brought the end to Senator Joe McCarthy’s reign of lies and fear simply by asking the senator, on national TV, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Senator McCarthy clearly didn’t.

And clearly the Republicans don’t either. The moment has never come.  Do they remain silent out of fear of Trump’s tweets, or is it something more? In December 2019, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy explained it for me. Speaking about America’s conflicts, he said, “It is about ideologies.” I think he is right. It is about ideologies, a particular ideology.

The ideology, which defines a true Republican, especially the financial elites and the Republicans in the Congress, is, of course, that venerated construct called capitalism. It is ideology writ large, so large in fact that the ideas and beliefs that characterize it, no matter how unverifiable, have been dressed up to sound scholarly and codified into doctrine.

For serious Republicans it is more than an economic system; it is a model for society, one that privileges males of the white race and measures human activity in terms of wealth. There are formal components to the ideology, beliefs that all share—that cutting taxes for the wealthy, for instance, produces benefits for the poor. And there are unconscious components that most Republicans would deny or be unaware that they had, biases, myths, misconceptions, memes. It is a system, like a religious faith, that in the mind of the true believer is unquestionable. 

A belief, as even the bumper stickers tell us, is not necessarily true, but when everyone has the same beliefs they become accepted as truths. Circuitously, perhaps, we have defined ideology. Ideology is, as Sir Isaiah Berlin, put it, “an intellectual cramp.” It creates a world divided into us and them. And they are always wrong. Us are Republicans. 

The power of today’s Republican Party derives from a strategy of exploiting the resentments of people whose sense of well-being has been eroded by the policies of lower taxes for the rich and reduced government services for the rest, of holes opened deliberately in the safety net. It has been a masterful slight-of-hand.

These Americans have been shaped into the “populist uprising” that carried Trump to Washington. They, with legitimate issues, but voiceless, think of themselves as patriots, defending America against what the Republican strategists have painted as the problem,  dark-skinned immigrants, liberal elites, and big government. They are led by the party of plutocrats whose policies created their dilemma in the first place, a party that in fact cares nothing for them. It is a con.

The second strategy involves the co-opting of the Evangelicals by playing on their authoritarian tendencies and by catering to their single obsession, abortion. The Republican embrace of the abortion issue is, for many, cynical. Together these two groups form the Republican base that reliably votes Republican, often against their own interests. Trump’s role is to keep them aroused and distracted, so they do not notice what the Republicans are really up to. 

And what are they up to? Their ambition is to turn the United States into a one-party state and to establish Capitalism as an official doctrine. It is ideological capitalism, not capitalism as an economic theory. Representative McCarthy finished his statement about ideology with these words: “This is about socialism vs. freedom.” He depicts socialism, a body of thought and policies about how best to design a society, as an ideology,  which It isn’t. 

As practiced in most of the Western European countries it is a practical political system characterized by a strong social safety net and a meaningful role for government in many aspects of civil society. It is a form of government that Republicans denounce as being downright Godless and about which, thanks to Fox News, most Americans have a completely false idea. (I’ve attached a link to a New York Times article about how Danish “socialism” works. It exposes the fraud in the Republican descriptions of European socialism.) 

Socialism attempts to smooth out inequalities and promote a sense of security for workers while still allowing businesses to flourish. Capitalism distributes by far the greatest share of the wealth generated by an economy to the ownership and management classes. Mixed economies on the other hand, as one finds in western Europe, attempt to strike a balance between wealth for the few and well-being for the many.  The Republicans refuse to parse such issues. They instead offer a slogan, “Freedom.” 

Republican freedom includes the ability to own any sort of gun one chooses, to have virtually unlimited consumer choices regarding brands and colors, and to quit a low-paying job in search of a better one—if one exists.

One survives or not, as best one can. To survive any of the misfortunes that can befall a man—the worst being unemployment or poor health—without receiving any, or precious little, assistance from one’s government is proof that one lives in a free society. Our poor man should count his blessings. This is the most peculiar dispensation of the Republican notion of freedom.

Insecurity is freedom. It has Kafkaesque aspects. The government deports immigrant laborers as illegal until those workers are deemed essential because they work in a meatpacking plant and then force them back to work. It does not give  them the freedom to say “We will not work until it is safe to do so.” 

Republican freedom, in fact, is quite limited and not offered to everyone. It does not include the ability to vote without hindrance and obstacles. It does not include the right for a woman to manage her reproductive life. To distract us from the contractions, the Republicans will keep telling us that they are the guardians of what is most important for Americans,  freedom. What they are actually protecting is their master ideology, Capitalism. 

My effort to understand ideological capitalism, began, curiously, not with economics but with what is perhaps the overarching characteristic of American society, its intense Christian religiosity. As a religion, across all its sects, Christianity has clearly defined tenents and proscriptions, with nothing obscure or difficult about its teachings. 

Knowing those teachings, having been raised a Christian,  I have marveled at the indifference, and worse, the cruelty Republicans, of whom 82% self-identify as Christians, exhibit toward the poor, the homeless, and marginalized minorities. Formerly, I thought this was just hypocrisy, but I’ve come to the opinion that something deeper is involved.

This glaring moral discordance is caused by the existence of a more powerful ideology, one that effectively cancels out the Christian message and its call to compassionate action. Orwellian double-think is at work. Trying to understand this conundrum,  I found my way back to the beginnings of post-classical political thought in England, to Thomas Hobbes and The Leviathan, (1651). 

Hobbes turned the core Christian message of love, which one finds in “The Sermon on the Mount,” out the door and into the cold,  and in its place, he installed the idea that self-interest is the prime motivator of all human behavior; for individuals, he called it selfish egoism; for states it becomes nationalism.

Hobbes’ iconic statement is that human life is  “a permanent condition of man against man,” and it appears that Hobbes was right. What Jesus taught has been noticeably unsuccessful in taming greed, indifference, and cruelty, or in ending poverty. In the Hobbesian world there are only winners and losers. Hobbes wrote, “In the state of nature,  profit is the measure of right.”  The Leviathan is the Old Testament of the Republican world order.

The Beatitudes, Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1776, a Scottish political philosopher, Adam Smith, published its New Testament, The Wealth of Nations.  That famous treatise on the workings of economies and free markets  is cited by Republicans to justify the “miracle of Capitalism.” It is a masterful exploration of the workings of societies and economies and for the Republicans it is Scripture.

But they have missed, or dismissed, the complete thought of Adam Smith. Smith was a man of the Enlightenment who thought of himself as a moral philosopher. He believed that rational judgments—not selfishness, egoism, or appetites—by ordinary individuals—not corporations—guided the behavior of a healthy society.  Those judgments, he wrote “are founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.” 

Human beings would be guided not just by their “interests,” but also by virtues, values that he identified as justice, prudence, and self-control, and by the capacity for empathy and sympathy with one’s fellows. Since these virtues were not likely to contain the Hobbesian impulses, Smith knew that some regulation and constraint was necessary.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith attempted to civilize Hobbes’ dog-eat-dog world by replacing the law of the jungle with the rules of the market place. Violence and dead enemies are replaced by economic competition and profit.  Republicans believe that wealth held by an individual, and only that, is the measure of success in life. I suspect that this is not a conscious distortion of Adam Smith; it is unlikely that many modern Republicans have read either Hobbes or Smith. They are operating on an autopilot that suits this new gilded age, sailing before a wind of avarice that needs no scholarly or scriptural justification. 

“Freedom,” like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, hides their true motives and intentions. There are religious undertones to the Republican cult of the golden calf;  If you are wealthy, you are, de facto, virtuous. I encountered an educated man, not long ago, who said “If a person can’t afford to buy health insurance, he doesn’t deserve to have it.”  That gangsters and insider traders are also wealthy are the exceptions that prove the rule. 

A grotesque religiosity infuses American capitalism. Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm wrote in the Wall Street Journal (December 24, 2019)  that “most working Americans see our economy and its demands as hard and challenging, but ultimately redemptive.” But what was the sin?  Being poor, dark-skinned, or unlucky? Poverty is the poor man’s fault; he didn’t work hard enough or wasn’t a true believer.

Purist capitalism, with luxury as salvation and the gated community as paradise, is a sort secular religion;  it is not, however, a compassionate one. The belief that wealth equates with virtue is what makes it possible for the Republicans to despise the poor,  to justify the cruelty, the indifference, and the extremes of inequality that are gnawing away at America’s soul.

If Capitalism seems un-Christian, it is because it is. These two belief systems are like parallel ecologies that do not cross-fertilize, like languages that cannot be translated into the other. Orwell described such profound dissonances: war is peace, ignorance is strength.  

The second axiom in the Republican doctrine is that anything that interferes with making money is bad: Since regulation, rules, and standards come from government, Government itself is bad. Ronald Reagan brought this down from the mountain in 1981: “The government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”  Reagan raised this idea from a perennial complaint to a principle. Shrinking government is an ideological absolute for Republicans. Community guard rails or moral considerations are anathemas. Corporations exist to make money, not to do good. 

As doctrine it requires a systematic shrinking of the government agencies, including those that are needed to deal with the current public health crisis. When it has come to the pandemic, the hollowed-out federal government had no plans, no mission, and no understanding of its powers or abilities. It hadn’t a clue of how it might even find enough swabs for Covid-19 testing. The setting of standardized weights and measures is one thing. but standards for environmental protection, worker safety, childhood nutrition, drug efficacy, bank lending, and public health are quite another.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Oxycontin drug addiction crisis, the Boeing 737-Max airplanes that fell out of the sky, and the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis that almost sunk the world’s economies, were caused by the weakened or non-existent oversight and regulation. The federal government in the midst of Covid-19 is looking as the Republican ideologues would like it to look: irrelevant. The United States, as a result, looks like a failed state. 

The anti-government ideology requires that loyal Republicans also be anti-science. Good science threatens the Republican agenda because, in respect to the environment, especially climate-change, facts would require regulation. Now, during the pandemic, science might mean accepting a more careful reopening of the economy; commerce, Republicans believe, should trump safety, and, besides, their elites are safely barricaded in their second homes.

Republican climate denial is an ideological absolute, one as absurdly irrational as the medieval Church’s denial of the Copernican planetary model. For defending the truth, the facts, and the science, Galileo was charged in 1633 with heresy and barely escaped the stake. While watching Trump’s scowling surveillance of Dr. Fauci at the pandemic briefings I am reminded of Galileo and the Inquisition.

For a healthy society, good science and reliable information are as basic as clean water, but for Republicans this is not so. Indeed, their object is to keep the benefits of science from reaching the public. The motive is beyond malicious: any visible government role, or worse, any government successes, might encourage people to trust the government. Objective truth is the enemy. Again freedom rears its mesmerizing head: everyone is free to come up with their own “truth.” 

The anti-government, anti-science ideology has now taken on an alarming new dimension with the anti-confinement demonstrations occurring in state capitals. The men, all white, carrying assault weapons, project menace against government. The demonstrators have adopted a grotesque restating of Patrick Henry famous cry; on placards and T-shirts we see, “Give me liberty or Give me Covid-19.” They want the bars reopened; their wives want to get their hair done.

From the White House, Trump takes out his twitter-whip and goads them on. He is inciting violence, encouraging acts that are in direct opposition to the official recommendations of the national health experts. Le Monde (April 20) called Trump the “insurgent in the White House.”

Merriam Webster defines insurgent as “a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government.”  These angry men are the Founders’ nightmare actualized. They represent a danger to the republic from within, something we do to ourselves, and the Republicans are encouraging it. Their support of gun “rights” over the years has introduced a clear and present danger to constitutional government.

A real insurgency in which the ideological clash described above breaches the guard rails set by law and things spin out of control is increasingly possible.  We forget how violent these divisions in America have been. The ideological struggle that grips America today is, in essence, the same that caused the Civil War and the Jim Crow violence in the decades after. It is a question of what kind of government was America to have and how would the benefits of national success be distributed.

Violence, suppression, and terror have everywhere and always been part of the arsenal of plutocrats and the propertied classes, and the United States is no exception. Today the fuse is lit. There are anywhere from 5 to 10 million military-type weapons in private hands in the United States. No one knows for sure how many because Republican legislators have blocked efforts to study the issue.

A significant number of these gun owners have been radicalized by Republican anti-government propaganda. “They are coming for your guns” was a Trump campaign theme in 2016.  There are dozens of self-declared “militias,” accountable to no civic authority, that imagine themselves as patriots. Their existence, supported covertly by rightwing millionaires like the DeVos family and the Koch brothers, is a particularly frightening aspect of the Republican ideology.* 

These men fantasize about the violent overthrow of the national government and they talk of a civil war, which Trump does as well; it might erupt, he said, if he is not returned to office. The threat of violence dismissed as a serious problem or called freedom of expression, and besides, the guns are legal under the 2nd Amendment, but it is acceptable to the Republican unconscious.

The boundary between Republican public postures and a dark unconscious is very thin; we see this clearly in their gun policies. These ultra-right protestors may be a numeric minority, but the threat of violence has outvoted many majorities across history. Hitler employed street violence as an integral part of his campaign to bring down the Weimar Republic. Fear kept ordinary people away from peaceful demonstrations and out of politics. It is noteworthy that the stormtroopers of 1933 were nowhere near as well-armed as is the American extreme right in 2020.

The Republican goal is more sinister than just reducing the power of the regulatory state. Beneath their open opposition to effective government is the desire to put an end to the democracy itself. They do not, of course, have a declared platform to this effect, for that would constitute the crime of sedition. Subversion is their method.

They are destroying the idea that there is such a thing as truth, systematically degrading the norms of American society, and attacking political democracy by propaganda, lies, gerrymandering, and the many forms of voter suppression that they employ. In the Senate they have blocked funding to the states to make the election more secure. They say nothing when Trump and his surrogates  attempt to sow doubts about the reliability of American elections, even when Trump suggests that the 2020 election might be canceled because it will be “rigged.” 

Many Republicans, I suspect, don’t recognize that the end of democracy would be the logical end to their efforts. The voiding of key features of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Citizens United decision are steps along this path. But make no mistake: the underlying structure of democracy—power shared among all the stakeholders—is under attack. And the values of democracy—tolerance and diversity, social justice, and the rule of law – are as well.

Thus issues of income inequality, the environment, and equitable health care, are denigrated and demonized as  “socialism.” Socialism is the Republican equivalent of heresy, the crime of not believing an absolutist ideology. The psychological profile of the Republican ideology includes cruelty, radical selfishness, and toleration of the most outrageous behavior by Donald Trump who embodies the Party’s Id, a chaotic force a healthy psyche would suppress. But politically he is just the man they needed, a man who, not by any ideology, but by personal psychopathology, is perfectly fine with destroying the constitutional government of the United States. 

So back to my original question: the Republicans behave the way they do  because, yes, without question, they approve of what Trump does. He acts on and expresses what they cannot openly express. The elite Republicans are generally wealthy, are almost all males, and are white. There are no Republicans among the 52 black members of the House of Representatives; there are 88 Democratic women and only 13 Republican women.

All Republicans can see that the demographic tide of people of color and women, combined with white Americans whose values are progressive, is against them. The conservative, white, and nativist numbers are proportionally shrinking.

White supremacy has always been very much a part of the Republican ideology. Capitalism is a false meritocracy based on wealth. It has a very practical financial calculation at its bottom: how to get the most labor for the least cost. In modern terms this means whom can one get to work for the least and whose political power is too weak to change the rules. The front line workers in the pandemic, work that is skilled and very dangerous, are mostly people of color, black or brown; nurses’ aides make on average $16 an hour,  meatpackers make $11.  So, just as in 1860, the issue is still how money and class intersect with race. The Civil War, I insist, never ended.  

The Republicans, to save themselves, their advantages and their power, are undertaking is a desperate gamble. They believe that an unstable and corrupt president, even one as dangerous, odious, and ridiculous as Trump, is worth the prize. But Trump is more than just a pathological narcissist. He is an evil man. He has become absolute master of a significant portion of “the people.” 

Hitler did the same in Germany, creating a populist mob of devotees who would do anything he asked and who tolerated any incompetence and any crime. The German elites lost control of the man they initially dismissed as “the little corporal,” and, as they discovered to their dismay, a dictator, one as sociopathic and ruthless as Hitler turned out to be, once unbound, devours all around him, devours morality, rationality, and lives.

Thirty-five years ago I wrote a book—A European Education—about the rise and consequences of Nazism.  I’ve tried to shy away from the conclusions that I formed during the study that went into the project. I have reassessed our situation. I am convinced that it can happen here. I don’t think I am being alarmist. 

Whitman’s great poem, “O Captain, my Captain” comes to me. It is a melancholy coda to this effort. President Lincoln has just died of his wounds, but the republic had been saved. 

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

The Republicans have removed the keel and are selling it off in pieces. They have installed a madman in the wheelhouse. We are at great risk of sinking. 

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