State of Disunion
Trump’s America Is An Oligarchy
Journalists are missing the bigger picture of what is going on at the White House: It isn't chaos. It's consolidation.
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In Harvard Square, I recently had coffee with an elegant, well-traveled colleague who announced, “I live in a bubble. I don’t know a single person who voted for Trump.” She said this as if this were an accomplishment, which I thought was odd. So, I told her that I know quite a few, including some that bought memberships at Mar-A-Lago after the election. She looked at me in astonishment, and blurted, “How? How do you know any?” Lots of liberals know Trump supporters. They just don’t know that they do. They aren’t listening to what people are saying, instead hearing only what they want to hear. Inside the bubble, they hear: Democracy is stronger than Trump. Eventually, reason will prevail, and we’ll be back to upholding truth, justice, and the American way. Outside the bubble, I hear: Support Trump, or else. Oh, and FU, traitors. Democracy is already out of the political equation.
Here is the thing: It’s been out of the equation for a while.
Aghast at the churning subversion of political norms, liberals are furiously handwringing over democracy “in rot,” as institutions crumble in the face of a foul-mouthed, flagrant liar as Leader of the Free World. We stand, gape-jawed, as state legislators, following the president’s lead, refuse to condemn neo-Nazis, even as that supposed bastion of progressive values, the New York Times, has gone stealth sympathizer, just as it did for the original Nazis during WWII. Meanwhile, nothing that Trump says or does seems to affect the loyalty of his base. Even as apparent scandals mount, his approval rate hasn’t significantly budged. Forty percent of the population is consistently thrilled by Trump’s anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigration policies. He’s doing the Lord’s work! his base trills. As for that democracy thing, good riddance. We never liked it anyways.
The U.S. is not a democracy. In terms of political organization, the U.S. is a republic. In reality, it is an oligarchy.
What a government claims itself to be, and how it operates, are not necessarily the same thing. Russia calls itself a democratic republic and just “re-elected” Putin, but functions as a dictatorship. The National Socialist German Workers Party—the Nazi Party—was neither socialist nor pro-worker’s rights. It was fascist, supporting the merger of corporate interests with genocidal authoritarianism. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea—is neither a democracy or a republic. It is a dynastic dictatorship.
If a man walks like a dictator, quacks like a dictator, and holds the codes to a nuclear arsenal, he’s a dictator.
In a true democracy, a fully enfranchised citizenry decides elections directly, with laws being enacted through a majority vote. In a republic, citizens elect representatives who go to Washington, D.C, to vote on their behalf. But “voting on their behalf,” does not necessarily mean “voting according to their wishes.” Once in office, elected officials are not rule-bound to faithfully represent the majority views of their constituents. The Native councils of Alaska unanimously opposed opening the Arctic Circle for oil drilling, protesting that it will damage the environment and irrevocably destroy their way of life. Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, voted against their objections, clearing the way for the Trump administration to enact a law that opens the area for drilling. Similarly, the tax reform bill of 2017 was historically unpopular, with only 25 percent of all voters supporting it. In the end, because Republicans control the House, Senate, and Oval Office, a few dozen men overruled the wishes of 200 million Americans, and passed a bill that exacerbates income inequality, while openly benefiting the wealthy.
The U.S. is an oligarchy.
Under these conditions, Trump-as-president not only makes perfect sense, but the hollowing-out of the federal government is proceeding as planned. This is not to say that I believe Trump’s a genius mastermind who’s always three steps ahead of everyone else. I’m pointing out that the journalistic interpretation of what is happening is consistently backwards, and that the seeming “chaos” in the White House is, rather, the symptom of power being consolidated. Before the presidential election, I wrote a bunch of think pieces, trying to state as clearly as possible that candidate Trump was shaping up to be a Hegelian man of history, this being an individual rising to prominence because he manifests the unconscious truth of a particular moment. The particular truth of our time is not pretty. The day before the election, I posted on my timeline:
By logic, Trump should not be standing at all. And yet, he IS. Enabled by his father’s wealth to buy his way to prestige. Enabled by banks to get out of unprecedented numbers of bankruptcies. Enabled by the tax code to avoid paying taxes for 18 years. Enabled by misogyny to repeatedly humiliate and assault women without consequence. Enabled by credulity and ignorance to con the masses. Those same masses—and the moguls of social media, who profit handsomely from despair—now want to see the world burn, and they want an insider to light the torch. That’s Trump. Who better to understand the systemic moral failures of capitalism than the opportunist who has taken advantage of them for all 70 years of his existence?… Around the world, people WANT the economy to go to hell. They WANT the cities to fall. They WANT the catharsis of chaos. The resentment is misguided and inchoate and will only hurt the meek, the poor, the huddled praised by the Psalms because theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. But this earth, not so much.
And so Trump won,* precisely because he doesn’t represent We the People. Inside a republic of consumers—this being the inevitable outcome of late-stage capitalism—he represents corporations-as-people, and dollar bills are the only votes that count. The consequences of his administration are easy to predict. It’s neofeudalism, where wealth and resources are concentrated in the hands of very few, and the disempowered grovel for crumbs. There will be no more professional class, no bourgeoisie or educated “elites,” who are bothersome because they challenge theocratic hierarchies from within. This cratering is already visible in Kansas and Oklahoma, where Republican-controlled governments have bankrupted their states, wreaking havoc among ordinary citizens who no longer have funds for public schools, repairing roads, or other public works. However, these social disasters are not side effects of “pro-business” tax laws, but the obvious purpose of policies that favor a structural system enabling the wealthy to gather more power.
The U.S. is an oligarchy.
* The caveat to Trump’s win, of course, is election meddling by Russia, which, among other things, used American social media to manipulate voters. Specifically, via Facebook, a firm called Cambridge Analytica accessed the private data of more than 50 million users, and used it to help elect Trump. “Facebook has styled itself as a neutral platform for information,” reporter Megha Rajagopalan wrote earlier this year. “But its role in spreading propaganda and fake news, as well as its relationship with the … government, shows how easily that neutrality can be exploited by autocrats.” She was writing about Cambodia, but could easily have been written about many other countries including the U.S. Consider that Mark Zuckerberg is the fifth wealthiest person in the world, and Putin is rumored to be No. 1. Eliminate the nationalist frameworks, and suddenly it becomes obvious that the world’s wealthy want the foxes to run the henhouse. Which is precisely what was revealed by the fact that Hillary won the popular vote, yet Trump won the election.
The U.S. is an oligarchy.
Back in 2010, The New Yorker ran a profile of Zuckerberg, who had a revealing exchange with another student. He told his friend that he had personal information on thousands of students at Harvard College thanks to his control of Facebook. Astonished, his friend asked “What?! How’d you manage that one?” Zuckerberg messaged back: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They trust me. Dumb fucks.”
And so we’re back at Harvard, that bastion of privilege from whence so many of Trump’s people graduated—Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Rob Porter—or were invited to teach as fellows of the college. Dina Powell, Kellyanne Conway, Cory Lewandowski. And what I hear, as I sit in a nearby café, is Support Trump, or else. Oh, and fuck you too.
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