Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime IV
In late November 2004, following the election of George W. Bush to a second term of the Presidency of the United States, I published an article in the journal, Economic and Political Weekly, which remains the principal vehicle in India of wide-ranging and often scholarly commentary on social, historical, and political issues. The article is called, “What the US Electorate Voted For” (Vol 39, no. 37), and shorter versions of it appeared as “The Bitter Pill of ‘American Democracy’” in the Bangladesh Observer (Dhaka; 12 November 2004, p. 4) and as “The Morning After: The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, Sunday Island (Colombo, Sri Lanka; 14 November 2004).
I take the liberty of reproducing this piece, since on reading it again earlier today I find that the same piece could be published today virtually intact, with only obvious changes—substituting the name of Donald J. Trump for George W. Bush, and so on. This by no means should be interpreted to mean that just as the US muddled through the years of the Bush Presidency, it will do so through the years of the Trump Presidency. Nor am I trying to suggest that I may have been prescient, though a systematic study of American politics suggests that Trump is not at all an aberration, as Barack Obama would have us believe, but rather the logical outcome of the American political system. This is not the time for complacency. But it does mean that unless the profoundly systemic evils that characterize the American political system are addressed, we shall lurch from one dangerous buffoon to another, from one ‘democratic despot’ to another. Speaking at UCLA on November 9th this year, the day after the election, the French philosopher Alain Badiou adverted to ‘democratic fascism’. In my 2002 book, Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press), I wrote about the “democratic totalitarianism of the United States”; and, in the concluding lines of “The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, in pointing to Bush’s frequent references to the war on terrorism, I said: “Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.”
Many of those who have studied German’s descent into totalitarianism have long pondered how a country that, in popular parlance, produced Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Kant, Schiller, Goethe and an extraordinarily long list of intellectual and artistic luminaries could embrace the demagoguery, naked militarism, brutal authoritarianism, and eventually the machinery of killing that would characterize the Nazi regime. No one should suppose that the United States, which is well-versed in methods of genocide, is immune to the perils have struck and brought down empires and totalitarian states alike. The havoc that the US has brought down upon external others—Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians—may one day, which is perhaps not all that distant, be brought down upon many of its own citizens and residents. Donald J. Trump is only the logical outcome, not the culmination, of a process that has long been at work; much that is deplorable may come in his time, but it is certain that much worse will come after his time.
I have placed in bold italics such of my remarks from the previously published piece, which follows, which appear as they could have been written apropos of this election. Take, for instance, this sentence: “Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspects.” I submit that if we were to replace Bush with Trump, not a single word of this sentence would have to be altered in order for it be persuasive.
How often will the world have to swallow the bitter pill of American Democracy? The fetus may be aborted by the ‘morning after’ pill; but if the ‘morning after’ pill has to be taken too often, it will wreck the woman’s body. The body politic of the American Republic, in particular, is now in an advanced stage of decomposition.
The Morning After: The Bitter Pill of “American Democracy”
The recently concluded American elections, which have given George W. Bush the victorious verdict that he so vigorously sought, were being touted as the most marvelous demonstration of the success and robustness of American democracy even before the polls had closed in some states. The lines to vote were reported to be unusually long in many places around the country, the prolific predictions about fraud, voting irregularities, and the unreliability of electronic voting machines largely fell flat, a record number of new voters made their presence felt at the polls, and more Americans cast their vote than at any time since 1968. The usual platitudes, calling upon all Americans to “unite” after a bitterly “divisive” election campaign, were heard from Senator Kerry in his concession speech, and once again Bush, who poses as an archangel of “compassionate conservatism” when he is not being a cowboy, has promised his opponent’s supporters that he will attempt to win their trust. Only the future lies ahead of this, as Bush puts it, “amazing country”.
The United States may be “amazing” for reasons quite at odds with those commonly imagined by Bush and the American electorate which so evidently resonates to his schemes for the upliftment of America and, strictly in that order, the rest of the world. In the state of Oregon, a ballot cannot physically be cast at an electoral booth; it must be mailed to the appropriate authorities beforehand. Fewer people vote in elections in the US than in almost any other democracy, though no country has done more to peddle the idea, especially to that portion of the world which is resistant to electoral democracy, that voting constitutes the ultimate fulfillment of a person’s political life. If dictators understood, at least from the American example, that voting absolves people from further political responsibility, one suspects that they would be much less hostile to the vote as an expression of political sentiment. I vote, therefore I am; man votes, Bush disposes — with some aid from God. All these must surely constitute grounds for thinking of America as an “amazing country”.
Quite to the contrary, these elections furnish the most decisive illustration of the sheer mockery that electoral democracy has become in America. The iconoclastic American thinker, Paul Goodman, observed four decades ago in Compulsory Miseducation that American democracy serves no other purpose than to help citizens distinguish between “indistinguishable candidates”. Both parties are utterly beholden to the culture of the corporation and what used to be called ‘monied interests’, and both have contributed to bloated military budgets; besides, however short the memory of those who fetishize Democrats as paragons of liberalism, decency, and civility, Democratic administrations have been scarcely reticent in exercising military power to subjugate enemies or ensure American dominance. The current debacle in the Democratic party owes much to Bill Clinton, though he has been so lionized — the consummate diplomat, the “comeback kid”, the supposed engine behind the growth of the American economy — that any criticism of him, barring the “moral turpitude” he is said to have displayed when he was caught with his knickers down in the Oval Office, is all but impossible. Many Democrats instead held Ralph Nader, who understands better than most people the elaborate hoax by means of which one party has been masquerading as two for a very long time, responsible for sprinting votes away from Al Gore in 2000. This served as one long-lasting excuse to which the Democrats could resort to explain why Gore was unable to prevail at the polls, and also explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to keep him from appearing on ballots in 2004; the other excuse originated in the circumstances under which a tenacious Bush, whose ambition for power is just as ruthless as his ignorance and arrogance are colossal, was able to get his brother Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court to hand over the White House to him. The dictators who run banana republics were doubtless imbibing a very different meaning from the axiom that America leads the way.
The present elections have blown these excuses, under which the Democrats have been sheltering and smoldering, to smithereens. Bush’s victory margin, by the standards of democracy, is comfortably large. Nader, the so-called “spoiler” and “traitor”, won a mere few hundred thousand votes, and his presence doubtless even emboldened more Democrats to go to the polls. If Americans could not much distinguish between Bush and Kerry, and indeed how could they when Kerry, with his promise to “hunt down” the terrorists and wipe them from the face of this earth, sounded entirely like his opponent, the Democrats must ponder how they could have moved so far to the right and thus surrendered what little remains of their tattered identity. Considering the horrendous record that Bush has compiled in nearly every domain of national life — an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, the occupation of a sovereign nation, the strident embrace of militarism, the reckless disregard for the environment, the shameless pandering to the wealthy, the transformation of a 5-trillion dollar surplus into a 400-billion dollar deficit, the erosion of civil liberties, the insouciant disdain for international treaties and protocols, and much else — one cannot but conclude that the American people have given Bush carte blanche to do more of the same. One thought of the Butcher of Crawford as the arch executioner, under whose jurisdiction Texas sent more men to the death chamber than any other state, but his appetite for destruction extends even to the English language. Edmund Burke, with his inspiring mastery over English, indicated Warren Hastings, a proconsul of an earlier generation, with the terrible observation that when Hastings ate, he created a famine; but when Bush opens his mouth, words come out horribly mangled, as unrecognizable as the bodies which litter the streets of Iraq. Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspects. No extenuating circumstances can be pleaded on behalf of Americans, however much progressive intellectuals might like to think that Americans are fundamentally “good” and merely “misinformed” by the corporate media.
It is no secret that the defeat of George Bush was, from the standpoint of the world, a consummation devoutly to be wished for. Many well-meaning Americans deride Bush as an “embarrassment”. Used with reference to him, the word sounds like an encomium. The best of peoples are embarrassed by their own actions at times, and embarrassment can, at least on occasion, be read in the register of modesty, awkwardness, and innocent virtue. “Embarrassment” seems wholly inadequate as an expression of the visceral anger and hatred Bush unleashes among some of his detractors. Those even more critical of Bush are inclined to view him as a liar. There is, however, scarcely any politician in the world who does not lie, though one can say of Bush that he almost always lies. But what if the American electorate understood, as appears to be the case, his lies to be desirable, necessary, and premonitions of truth? Bush lied to the world about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he lied about the purported imminence of a threat against the United States from Iraq, and he falsely claimed a link between the al-Qaeda network and Iraq. Yet none of these revelations about the insidious modes in which consent is manufactured made an iota of difference, and Bush charged ahead with insistent reiterations of the same falsehoods.
Consequently, more arresting clues to the danger that Bush poses to the world must be located elsewhere. One did not expect him to act any differently; but that a large chunk of the American population has boldly declared its affinity for him is proof enough that, at the end of the day, many Americans share with Bush his contempt for the world and the view that the United States can never fundamentally deviate from the path of good. A very substantial number of Americans have declared that they found Bush to embody “moral values”, presumably the same moral values that they hold sacrosanct. Bush’s moral vision, as is well-known, extends to clear and unambiguous distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and he is emphatic in his pronounced belief that “those who are not for us, are against us”. The success of Bush points, in other words, to something much more ominous, namely the sheer inability of Americans to comprehend complexity and retain some degree of moral ambivalence. The fear that Bush is charged with exploiting, namely the fear of terrorism, is more broadly the fear of the unknown, the fear of ambiguity. Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.
Elections in India have consequences mainly for the Indian sub-continent, just as those in Australia largely impact Australia. But the American elections impact every person in the world, and there are clearly compelling reasons why every adult in the world should be allowed to vote in an American presidential election. However much every American might balk at this suggestion, it is indisputable, as the striking examples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Iraq so vividly demonstrate, that the United States has never considered sovereignty an inviolable fact of international politics. We shall, then, have to radically rethink the received notions of the nation-state, sovereignty, democracy, and internationalism. These elections will widen the gulf between Americans, ensconced in their gigantic Hummers and endlessly adrift in the aisles of Cosco and Walmart, and most of the rest of the “civilized world”. One nonviolent way of moving the world towards a new conception of ecumenical cosmopolitanism is to allow every adult an involvement in the affairs of a nation that exercises an irrepressible influence on their lives.
Meanwhile, there is no morning after pill to abort the nightmarish results of 2004, and the rest of the world will have to swallow the bitter pill of “American democracy”.