Over three years ago we wrote about The Complexity Of Hypocrisy In The Age Of Donald Trump. For those of us who value honesty, decency and courage things have only deteriorated since then. Those who believe in American democracy watch in horror as the Republican Senators break their public promises of 2016 to line up behind their Dear Respected Comrade Donald Trump, the Fat Cat President down whose runway they parade. There is nothing as gleeful as being rich and in power, just ask Vladimir Putin whose greatest wish, destroying our democracy, moves every day closer to fruition. We are about to witness a third Supreme Court Justice appointed by a President who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Republican Senators who represent less than half the population. America’s democracy is quickly moving toward “minoritarianism”—a government where the majority is ruled by a minority, in this case of High Muckety Mucks. How could this happen?
The founders of our democracy created the Electoral College and the concept of two Senators per state regardless of population. While both may have been necessary to establish the Union at the time, both contribute to the “minoritarianism” that has kidnapped our democracy today. We need to revisit both if we want a truly representative democracy. Secondly, there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
What is it about Donald Trump that attracts? I spoke with a close friend recently about this, a Trump supporter. Like so many, he claims not to like Trump personally but he does like the President’s policies, in particular the elimination of those pesky environmental regulations (the ones that keep our water and air clean among others) and the lower taxes (though he seems unaware that these lower taxes apply predominantly to the High Muckety Mucks, a category that excludes him). He told me about a friend of his, also a Trump supporter, who loves the show—the funny names, the mocking of everything from global warming to masks, the doing away with political correctness, the “Give’em Hell Harry” attitude that once fired up the Democrats against the Republicans.
“What about the fact that he lies?”
“They all lie.”
“What about his racism, sexism, xenophobia?”
“Nobody is perfect.”
As our discussion went on, I was reminded of a blog I posted not long after Trump was elected, Trompudo, A Literary Phenomena. In that blog I quoted from Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Barber.
In the 1940s, Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story, The Barber, about a politician named Mr. Hawkson, “Hawk” for short.
“You ever heard Hawkson talk?”
“I’ve had that pleasure,” Rayber said.
“You heard his last one?”
“No, I understand his remarks don’t alter from speech to speech,” Rayber said curtly.
“Yeah?” the barber said. “Well, this last speech was a killeroo! Ol’ Hawk let them Mother Hubbards have it.”
“A good many people,” Rayber said, “consider Hawkson a demagogue …”
“Demagogue!” The barber slapped his knee and whooped. “That’s what Hawk said!” he howled. “Ain’t that a shot! ‘Folks,’ he says, ‘them Mother Hubbards says I’m a demagogue.’ Then he rears back and says sort of soft-like, ‘Am I a demagogue, you people?’ And they yells, ‘Naw, Hawk, you ain’t no demagogue!’ And he comes forward shouting, ‘Oh yeah I am, I’m the best damn demagogue in this state!’ And you should hear them people roar! Whew!”
The writer Kurt Andersen provides some historical perspective to our current situation, cultural and political, in two sweeping books: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500 Year History and Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History. The first focuses on how we believe what we want to believe including conspiracy theories and magical thinking. (Think of Thomas Gilovich’s, How We Know What Isn’t So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life). The second recently published Evil Geniuses focuses on how the High Muckety Mucks have screwed the Hoi Polloi over the past forty years or so.
In Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History, Kurt Andersen lays out in exquisite detail how the policies of Roosevelt and Johnson were undone by Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys (among others) using a conservative formula laid out in the Powel Memo penned by Lewis Powell who later became a Supreme Court Justice. Andersen catalogues in exquisite detail how the changes happened slowly but steadily under both Democrat and Republican administrations. Read it and cry or laugh depending on your point of view and socioeconomic class. The argument (persuasive in my view) shows how big business and the wealthiest Americans used a well-paid segment of the media and educational elites to align themselves with the working class, with racists, with evangelicals and conspiracy theorists (a strange brew worthy of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth) to stab a knife through the heart of progressive America. Andersen himself might be accused of producing his own conspiracy theory but for his careful marshaling of the facts. Also, his history unfolds organically not according to some game plan knowingly carried out.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. Karl Marx
Since the beginning of time we’ve had to figure out how to deal with class conflict. In the Bible it was God establishing his power over Adam and Eve. In nature it was big guys with clubs then later with brains. Guns, ideas, politics—there are many ways to skin a cat. Human nature being what it is, there is a tension between compassion and greed, between morality and selfishness, between one for all and all for one, individualism and the common good. At least for most of us. Kurt Andersen shows how that tension has weakened over the past generation to be replaced by a Gordon Gecko “greed is good” ethic. This growing libertarianism has fostered a malaise among those left out, something noticed by any number of recent commentators on the current state of affairs. In a recent article (The Roots Of American Misery), James Galbraith wrirtes:
It seems that part of what America lacks these days are voices of an authentic radicalism capable of reaching a mass audience with the full, brutal honesty that the situation demands.
Kurt Andersen fills some of that void with his new book but he also advocates what he calls nonbinary solutions. These are just the kind of solutions we need in our “mixed economy.”
Running a society well and fairly requires optimizing more than maximizing, going for the greatest happiness of the greatest number and the smallest possible number being screwed. Single-minded maximization of any one thing turns into crazed binary thinking—maximum profits are everything, regulations are all bad or all good (as it also tends to do for individuals: never apologize, constantly apologize, practice celibacy, practice promiscuity, eat as much as possible, starve yourself, and so on). Before the 1970s and ‘80s, back when corporate CEOs were still supposed to worry about their employees and communities and the public good as well as the price of their stock, that was optimization.
The Republicans should take care not to overreach. Going back on promises solemnly made when the shoe was on the other foot will have consequences. The Democrats, should they take the Presidency and or the Senate, may be inclined toward revenge. The American people have a deep sense of fairness. They do not like hypocrisy. As a Republican economist from yesteryear once said: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The High Muckety Mucks have had a very good run over the past forty odd years at the expense of the Hoi Polloi. It feels like the wheel is turning. What form this will take is unknown but turn it will at some point.
Could we lose our democracy altogether? Yes, it is clearly breaking if not broken. Can we put it back together notwithstanding Humpty Dumpty? Yes, maybe. No doubt we will find out the answer in due time.