Every once in a while you get a development that nicely symbolizes the present state of American culture (or, perhaps, "culture").
Like Madonna, for example.
Or Jersey Shore.
Presently, it's the rise of Donald Trump, who has lately been sitting at the top of polls conducted among Republican voters as to their presidential choice for 2012.
It's worth remembering - as a rather not inconsequential side note - that this is a person who could be the next president of the United States. Clear thinking people scoff when I say that, as they did when I used to argue that Sarah Palin could be the next president. But in so doing, they forget three rather significant points quite to the contrary.
First, lots of Americans not only don't think the way progressives do, they don't think at all. Instead, they fear. Emotion - and especially fear - is their salient approach to politics.
Second, the American presidential selection process occurs in two distinct stages, and this routine creates outcomes that would not be possible under other scenarios. In the first stage, Republican voters - and only Republican voters - will select their nominee. Remember, these are people for whom both John McCain and Mitt Romney are considered too liberal. In the second stage voters (now the entire electorate) will have two - and only two - viable choices to pick from: whomever the Republicans nominate, and an incumbent president likely at that point to have haplessly presided over four years of economic disaster. However much swing independent voters might find the Republican nominee to be noxious or embarrassing, a lot of them will see Oval Office turnover of any kind as a chance worth taking given the alternative four more years of ineffectiveness and economic stasis. Kinda like... uh, well, the last election! Does the slogan "Change you can believe in" sound at all familiar?
Finally, to anyone who says "It can't happen here", I have two simple one-word responses: "Reagan" and "Bush". That George W. Bush was a buffoonish character straight from slapstick central casting is incontrovertible, though the degree to which he has been left off the hook for the crime of his presidency is both nauseating and frightening. It is also as predictable as sunrise that the Ann Coulters of this world will, sufficient time having passed, seek to rehabilitate his image, just as she literally tried to do a few years ago for Joe McCarthy (yes, that Joe McCarthy, and no, I'm not kidding).
And just as has been done for decades now by a whole cottage industry on the right, which has turned another president who by conventional standards was mediocre, and by honest standards would be considered fully treasonous, into some great deity in the consciousness of the American public. No room on Rushmore? No worries, why not give Reagan his own entire mountain? Indeed, why not a whole state? Reaganland sounds so much better than South Dakota, doesn't it? In any case, whatever Reagan has become today, people forget what a total joke he was before he won the presidency (under political and economic conditions very much like the present). I can remember, during the 1970s, when comedians could literally get a laugh just by saying the words "President Reagan". I'm not kidding. The concept was that ludicrous.
Who is the joke on now? And, more importantly, who would be foolish enough to insist that Donald Trump or Sarah Palin - or anyone whom Republican voters are gaga enough to choose as their standard-bearer, and who would be the only viable alternative available to a nation full of really dissatisfied voters - couldn't be president? Definitely not me.
But, more importantly, what does this say about America in the 21st century (assuming that 'contemporary America' isn't too oxymoronic a notion on its very face)?
I have often noted that it isn't like the disconnect these days between the vast majority of Americans and the elites of the political right is simply a matter of two sets of honest-to-goodness patriots who just happen to have rather different ideas about how to make America a better place. That is an extremely naive view, in its most generous form, and I am positively slayed when I hear the president articulate it, because I sometimes think he actually believes what he's saying. In reality, the difference between these two camps is the difference between victim and criminal. It is an entirely false premise upon which to base any analysis of American politics to believe that the plutocrats and their Republican and Democratic marionettes have any interest whatsoever in the bettering of the country and its citizens. Indeed, their interests are quite to the contrary. Of course, they cannot market themselves that way, so instead do so by pretending to be hyper-patriots, and marching out a series of bogus enemies of the state du jour, whether those are Saddam or Castro or homosexuals or immigrants. Anything to keep the hoi polloi distracted from the fingers rummaging around in their pockets.
Similarly, the disconnect between the likes of Donald Trump and, say, a Mutt Romney or a Mike Huckabee represents a new sort of low for a large segment of the American body politic that had already been very much feeding off the bottom of the ocean floor. Think about who Trump is and what an astonishing commentary on that part of the country - and on the direction the rest of us may inevitably wind up taking - his popularity represents. Trump is a circus act, a blustering blowhard who regularly makes a fool of himself in that most disheartening of venues, 'reality' TV, a man whose hair is the perfect metaphor for his overstuffed suitcase chock full of transparent insecurities masked by faux arrogance, an overt philanderer, a serial divorcee, a bailed-out, bankrupt, gambling mogul, a likely moderate on social issues such as gay rights, an advocate for universal health care, a contributor to the campaigns of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, a cryptic Catholic, and a New Yorker to boot. What more could there be for Billy Bob Bumpkin from the hollows of Arkansas to not like in the person of Donald Trump?
And yet he leads in the polls. How can that be? Of course, Trump offers fervent and requisite prayers to the tax cutting gods, just like any other regressive vying for the Republican nomination. And he certainly won't be an advocate for progressive social or environmental values (whatever his actual positions on abortion or gay rights - if he has any - might be). And he's shown himself every bit as capable of chauvinistic American jingoism as any John "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" McCain or George W. "Bring it on" Bush.
But so what? They all do the same. What's the attraction to Trump over the other goobers in the running who do all that and more, plus have been active in Republican politics all their adult lives, which Trump has not?
The answer to that question is as obvious as it is grim. The Donald is winning the hearts of the Troglodyte set because he's turned Obama's supposed foreign birth into his central campaign issue.
From his perspective, of course, this is the height of cynicism. Trump no more cares about minor provisions of the Constitution than he does about fighting poverty. But what does it say about the tens of millions of Americans who like what they're hearing from this guy, and what does it say about this country that such a segment of our society is so powerful, and probably about to get a lot more so?
It says that this is an empire in steep decline. It says that some of us - particularly those who are older, whiter and maler than the general population - liked it better the way things used to be. And it says that that group is willing to cling on to any seeming handrail they can grasp - even those that look suspiciously like the drowning bodies of other people - as the earth trembles below their feet. These are the same people for whom racism and sexism have traditionally served a similar function, that of distraction, that of dividing and conquering a potentially angry underclass. These are the folks for whom providing the perverse psychological satisfaction of a false sense of social superiority is more than adequate to facilitate their own looting.
Of course, the great irony here is that they remain among the most privileged of Americans, yet they are by far and away the most likely to bitch about their condition. Nobody is better off as a group than older white males, and nobody foams at the mouth more about how screwed up the country is. Nobody gets more assistance from government programs than those who receive Social Security and Medicare benefits, and nobody races faster to the front of the barricades to rant about the evils of socialism. Nobody receives more in transfers of wealth than deeply red states like Alaska and those of the Bible Belt, and nobody complains more about having government on their backs. Enough, already. Y'know, as somebody who pays for that evil and oppressive government, I'd be quite happy to make an exception to my rigid socialist tendencies and volunteer to remove my tax dollars from off of their backs (not to mention their very distended fronts), and stick that money back into my pocket. Hey, how about this for a new motto?: "From those according to their ability, to those according to their needs, skip those according to their ingratitude".
The rise of Trump is surely the latest pointed indicator of the fall of Western civilization, or at least the stuff on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe I was just asleep at the switch, but the America of my misspent youth - which was a very wild and violent place in many ways, ostensibly far more so than now - seems so tame compared to the politics of our era. And so much more hopeful. We were nearly as stupid then, but there seemed much more reason to believe things could get better.
People are dumber now, certainly about politics. That's the reason why the notion of "President Reagan" was a laugh-out-loud joke in 1975 but a source of reverence in 2005. That's why George W. Bush is regarded as a basically benign-but-not-so-brilliant president, as opposed to a walking crime against humanity. That's why people continue to vote for politicians who will assist them in their own looting, and who have successfully carried out the greatest transfer of wealth in all of human history, while pretending to serve the public interest instead. And that's the reason why a Donald Trump kind of buffoon could actually lead in the polls for the presidential nomination of one of the country's two major parties.
It isn't so much a core civics education that is missing, though reading poll data on the public's comprehension of the most basic facts regarding their supposedly revered system of governance will positively singe your eyeballs. (What, senators have six-year terms? No! The Bill of Rights applies to us? Get outta here!) It's more of a kind of street smarts that's missing. More of a sense that people don't any longer have the ability to recognize their enemies - including, all too often, themselves.
To choose just the most obvious example, we live in a world in which unregulated private sector actors, greedily pursuing their boundlessly rapacious instincts, have crashed an entire global economy around our - not their - heads, then turned to governments in order to bail them out. And even though the whole notion of the capitalist system they so vehemently espouse is rooted in the idea of risk, they in fact came to believe retrospectively that they should take none, receiving in many cases full coverage for their obligations from the governments they so often and so vociferously deride, when their bets went south. Keep that in mind as I ask you to ponder when was the last time your heard anyone in American politics say, "Businesses should be run more like the government!"? Wouldn't that make a whole lot of sense, given the very recent history just chronicled? I mean who screwed up royally and who didn't? Who got bailed out and who did the bailing?
Of course that would make sense. Instead, however, you'd be more likely to locate Dick Cheney's pulse before you'll ever hear anyone say that. In fact, you will be constantly barraged with politicians saying just the opposite, talking about how government should be run just like businesses are. Really? Does that mean that government should take wild risks and let the public pay the bill when those risks come a cropper? Does that mean that government should pay elites at the top of the system five hundred times what the average federal worker makes? Does that mean that America should export the jobs of letter carriers and Army corporals to the nice folks sitting in Bangalore call centers? Does that mean that we should give to Social Security and education and the US military all the gifts that bringing a business ethos to medicine has bequeathed us these last three decades?
That worked out really well, didn't it? Who wants to visit the family doctor when you're sick, if you can now instead visit a corporation? A health maintenance organization. That is, in reality, a revenue extraction organization. A feat which is often performed precisely by not maintaining people's health. Oh, I get it now! This is like the old Twilight Zone episode where the aliens are continually consulting their handbook entitled "To Serve Man", which turns out to be a cookbook. Health maintenance organization means maintaining the health of the organization!
In any sane world, these ideas would be laughed off the theater stage at the conceptual level. Moreover, given the real world pain they have inflicted on the audience just in the last three years alone, a rather darker response than laughter might be expected on the basis of people's very tangible, very proximate, empirical experience. But not in America, of course. We are going all in. More of the same. "Waiter, another round for the house, please!" Good money after bad. Trump casinos.
Truly, we are in a very bad way. But is it a devastated economy which has raised the ire of the angry regressive electorate? Is it the fear of environmental devastation caused by climate change which is animating the tea party set? Does the prospect of America's third concurrent and endless Middle Eastern war in Libya (or is fourth, counting Pakistan? or fifth, counting Yemen?) have them so agitated that they're screaming at members of Congress during constituent town-hall meetings?
No, no and no. Truth be told, what's really got them upset is that things are moving a bit too fast for them, which is to say that they are moving at all. Now there is a black man in the white house. And even though this nice negro is pleasant enough, and never speaks about race, and is every bit as fully corporate-owned as his predecessor, well, that just can't be right.
So, prolly he's not really American. Prolly he's the product of some 1950s Indonesian plot to take over America by infiltrating the country with sleeper presidential candidates. You know, The Jakartan Candidate. Like that. And weren't those Indonesians (where the hell is that, by the way?) especially clever, too? Using an underprivileged black kid from Hawaii as their secret, subversive plant, somebody especially well positioned to win the presidency fifty years later.
No, this is not right. This must be stopped. We have to take our country back.