In Peter Beinart’s review of books, he summarizes his collection as “chronicling both the decline of American power and the decline of American exceptionalism: [that is,] the belief that the United States is immune to tribalism and authoritarianism that plague other parts of the world.” As we now know, it is not. As the New Right busies itself with making America a full-blown tyranny, the most common and sometimes cavalier comparison is Nazi Germany. (Clichés are clichés for a reason.) However, when it comes to political sects, as Brookings Institute’s Jonathan Rauch shows, ideology is irrelevant; fanatics of both Left and Right operate in the same manner as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and now Trump have demonstrated. For many humans suffering from disconnected modernity, our fix is a tribal cult based on who we hate — or more accurately, who we can be made to hate.
Ashamed to be Americans after four years of Trump, laughed at and pitied by the world, even incapable of facing a common viral enemy thanks to an all-rights-no-responsibilities faction stoked by our propaganda networks, we watch America retreat. Dazed and impotent like a 3rd world country with a 1st world economy, “alternative facts” have lacerated truth and trust to dismember the social body, from our highest institutions to the man on the street. As moral philosopher Stuart Rachels illustrates, no civilization long survives without trust and the capacity for truth.
With such pervasive, rampant, and gleefully embraced corruption, Trump and his legion of followers seem to have marked the end of an age. With their insurrection and state-by-state vote-rigging, perhaps the end of the Founder’s experiment in self-governance, but certainly a sad sendoff and sayonara to the World War II generation. Remember “duty, honor, country”? The Greatest Generation’s moral leadership seems to have died with them and the last Cold War president.
Though not entirely. As Trump and his enablers denied, dithered, and diverted from the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline nurses and doctors risked and sometimes lost their lives to fight a virus that couldn’t be bullied by liars. While refrigerator trucks filled with dead people in blue-state New York, then a defiant red-state Texas as it swaggered into the record books, medical staff showed those with a spine can still stand up to evil. We expect that every person they saved praised the science and expertise of someone who knew what they were doing, rather than vilify them under oath of tribal creed in a nation whose scientists and experts once put men on the moon. All the while, Trump and his bootlickers nurtured their conspiracy theories spoon-fed by comrade Putin, and still do.
As America appears to imitate 1934 Germany, have we really arrived at a turning point? Can the original system—one that depends on a clash of ambition between government branches — survive if the Executive and Congressional branches of one political party coordinate to destroy it? At this juncture, it might do to assess what’s been learned from Trump and his disciples:
1. Crime pays. Consider Trump’s money laundering through his casinos and real estate; his fake university scam; his bribery of Ukraine; Russian collusion (not conspiracy) as proven by Mueller and validated by the Republican Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; his fleecing of U.S. taxpayers and foreign nations, all elaborated by IRS, Treasury, Senate, House, and media investigations. Trump is a walking crime wave, but a lucrative one. After 40-years immersed in New York and Russian mafia, surrounded by convicted felons, “law and order” Trump stumbled into a position he had no idea could be so safe for a life of crime. The only person in a nation of 330,000,000 above the law. As the 2020 National Loser, he’ll need to regain that position to keep running his scams with impunity.
2. The stage was set, and we didn’t know it. Economists “assumed” their domestic models applied worldwide. Jobs lost in one location would be offset by jobs created through innovation elsewhere. Instead, under “hyper-globalization,” when we paid China for manufactured goods, we also gave them our jobs. Such are the economic “experts” blue-collar Americans rightly denounce — though the New Right includes hard science experts to make themselves feel better and because for years Rush Limbaugh told them to. For labor, this was groundwork, like Germany’s economic collapse delivered by a punitive Versailles Treaty. Add to this: corporations more powerful than nations; authoritarian political correctness; death of the Fairness Doctrine spawning our propaganda-silos; a U.S. K-12 educational system ranked near bottom in the industrialized world to yield attenuated reasoning and scientific illiteracy; collapse of Right-wing Christian morality; isolation through loss of belonging predictable in individualistic modernity, and the stage was set for a rise in primate behavior. With demise of an external enemy in the USSR, The End of History turned out to be The Bumbling Superpower. Bush-Cheney’s Iraq Calamity and laissez-faire pandering to unregulated Wall Street gamblers who gave themselves a $20B bonus for wrecking the world economy further depleted American confidence as the working Joe lost his job and home. People were pissed. They wanted to break things. Trump was just another dumb hammer.
3. The supremacy of our reptile brain. The reptilian structure in our brain is the most primitive to ripen in the long line of human mental development. Responsible for feelings of urgency — gag, vomit, defecation, sex, fight or flight — it’s the oldest structure, fundamental to blind survival in a man-eating world, and irresistibly mighty. Commandeered by primate tribalism, this tool can make people defraud everything they once stood for. Evolutionary mechanisms adapted to ensure species survival guarantee that any clan-threatening reason, proof, or science is rejected to save the clan. What social philosopher Eric Hoffer termed that “fact proof screen between the faithful and realities of this world.” “We are wired…so that our reasoning [supports] in-group solidarity,” writes Jonathan Rauch. “Presenting people with facts that challenge group-defining opinions does not work. Instead of changing their minds, they [reject] facts to double down on false beliefs…regardless of educational and cognitive firepower.” Polarization is not a byproduct, “polarization is the product [as] cravings for shared outrage against a common adversary.”
4. The internet is smarter than we are. With laws established to protect social media from litigation other media is subject to, anything goes on the internet. We invented and built a platform for hostile powers to upend nations for low cost and no risk, except for complaints about it. The internet proves how poorly humans sift fact from fake. We even prefer fake news over real news as more sensational. Without regulation, social media business models profit off this sabotage of open Western society.
5. As students of history, our Founders anticipated despots, but this? Could America’s Founders have conjured Trump and his true-believers hell-bent on subverting Constitutional governance? Trump defied Congressional subpoenas under claims of “absolute immunity” (“Wrong,” said the Court); hid or destroyed classified documents; appointed family members to the highest security positions despite Defense Investigative Service rejections; fired Inspector Generals as retribution and to hide his corruption; persisted in secret meetings with America’s enemy, Putin, unphased by Putin’s bounty on U.S. troops because, as Trump said, American soldiers are “losers” and “suckers;” and installed inept loyalist to intelligence and Health and Human Services amid a persistent KGB/FSB cyberwar and coronavirus pandemic to teeter this Republic and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. All as Congress proved helpless to do anything about it, other than momentous but symbolic gestures of a record two impeachments. Who knew just how toothless Congress really is?
6. Politics trumps religion. What is a Christian? Complex as that answer can be, might we simplify it as one who at least attempts to practice the teachings of Christ? But if someone who identifies as a Christian makes no such attempt, proudly rejecting those teachings for political orthodoxy, are they Christian? Is their “faith” simply a crutch when fate calls? For these people, their in-group is the party, not the church. Their idol is Trump, not Jesus. Per David Hume, “the highest zeal in religion and the deepest hypocrisy, far from being inconsistent, are commonly united in the same individual.” Judged not by their commitment but by their actions, since 2016 we’ve witnessed Trump-supporting Christians betray their Savior for politics countless times. As evangelist Pat Robertson expressed Trump’s “Mandate of Heaven,” so too in 1937, Hans Kerrl said, “The Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation.”
7. A large faction in America is no different than any other totalitarian. Surveys show half of “Republicans” want an authoritarian dictatorship, discharging that Constitution they pretend to revere. Over half of “Republicans” favor Putin. Their House and Senate representatives promote Putin’s talking points. Those like ex-Representative Devin Nunez, assisted by Rudolph Giuliani, actively sought Russian assistance in coming elections.
Once upon a time, the U.S. was the world’s champion of democratic governance. The post-WWII order implemented worldwide institutions (not worldwide government) to stall WWIII. For 70 of the most prosperous years in all of human history, it worked. But the Greatest Generation gave way to the next, economists bumbled #2 noted above to stimulate that reptile brain of #3 inflamed by asocial media of #4, thus inviting America’s Carnival Barker in #5, only to find a large faction of Christians and Americans noted in #6 and #7 aren’t so special after all. On the heels of National Book Award winner George Packer’s conclusion that America is now a failed state, Reagan conservative George Will wrote, “This is what national decline looks like.”
As 44 B.C. Rome, 1934 Germany, and January 6, 2021 America remind us, pathologies rooted in human mental circuitry have not changed since the rise of Homo sapiens. The Right-wing is not alone in this as campus free-speech bans, “Cancel Culture” (practiced by both sides), and despotic leftist postmodernism will attest. American “exceptionalism” Peter Beinart noted, is now a fallacy.
But there are glimmers in the dark. With midterms in four months and presidential elections two years after that, America’s tyranny will harden, or it won’t. We are witness to history — live, not in a book.
References not linked to above:
Paragraph 1: Peter Beinart, Obama’s Idealists: American Power in Theory and Practice, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2919, pg. 162–169.
Paragraph 2: Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Paragraph 7: Dani Rodrik, Globalization’s Wrong Turn, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2019. As Rodrick writes, “Globalization became the end, national economies the means.”
Paragraph 8: Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Perennial, 1989.
Paragraph 11: David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Penguin, 1990 (1779), pg. 133. William L. Shrirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, Touchstone Simon & Shuster, 1990, pg. 239.