Let's start with this: The spectacle of our moment is so overwhelming, dominating every screen of our lives and focused on just two outsized individuals in a country of 300 million-plus on a planet of billions, that it blocks our view of reality. Whatever this "election" may be, it blots out much of the rest of the world. As far as I can see, the only story sure to break through it is when someone picks up that assault rifle, revs up that truck, gets his hands on that machete, builds that bomb, declares loyalty to ISIS (whatever his disturbed thoughts may have been 30 seconds earlier), and slaughters as many people as he can in the U.S. or Europe. (Far grimmer, and more repetitive slaughters in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and other such places have no similar value and are generally ignored.)
Of course, such slaughters, when they do break through the election frenzy, only feed the growth of the campaign. It's a reasonable suspicion, though, that somewhere at the heart of Election 2016 is a deepening sense of fear about American life that seems to exhibit itself front and center only in relation to one of the lesser dangers (Islamic terrorism) of life in this country. Much as this election campaign offers a strife-riven playing field for two, it also seems to minimize the actual strife and danger in our world by focusing so totally on ISIS and its lone wolf admirers. It might, in that sense, be considered a strange propaganda exercise in the limits of reality.
Let's take, for instance, America's wars. Yes, the decision to invade Iraq has been discussed (and criticized) during the campaign and the urge of the two remaining candidates and everyone else previously involved to defeat and destroy the Islamic State is little short of overwhelming. In addition, Trump at least has pointed to the lack of any military victories in all these years and the disaster of Clinton's interventionist urge in Libya, among other things. In addition, in an obvious exercise of super-patriotic fervor of the sort that once would have been strange in this country and now has become second nature, both conventions trotted out retired generals and national security officials to lecture the American public like so many rabid drill sergeants. Then there were the usual rites, especially at the Democratic convention, dedicated to the temple of the "fallen" in our wars, and endless obeisance to the "warriors" and the U.S. military generally -- as well as the prolonged Trumpian controversy over the family of one dead Muslim-American Marine. One of the two candidates has made a habit of praising to the heavens "the world's greatest military" (and you know just which one she means) while swearing fealty to our generals and admirals; the other has decried that military as a "disaster" area, a "depleted" force "in horrible shape." For both, however, this adds up to the same thing: yet more money and support for that force.
Here's the strange thing, though. Largely missing in action in campaign 2016 are the actual wars being fought by the U.S. military or any serious assessment of, or real debate or discussion about, how they've been going or what the national security state has or hasn't accomplished in these years. Almost a decade and a half after the invasion of Afghanistan, the longest war in American history is still underway with no end in sight and it's going badly, as American air power has once again been let loose in that country and Afghan government forces continue to lose ground to the Taliban. Think of it as the war that time forgot in this election campaign, even though its failed generals are trotted out amid hosannas of praise to tell us what to do in the future and who to vote for. Meanwhile, a new, open-ended campaign of bombing has been launched in Libya, this time against ISIS adherents. The last time around left that country a basket case. What's this one likely to do?
Such questions are largely missing in action in campaign speeches, debates, and discussions; nor is the real war and massive destruction in Iraq or Syria a subject of any genuine interest; nor what it's meant for the "world's greatest military" to unleash its air power from Afghanistan to Libya, send out its drones on assassination missions from Pakistan to Somalia, launch special operations raids across the Greater Middle East and Africa, occupy two countries, and have nothing to show for it but the spread of ever more viral and brutal terror movements and the collapse or near-collapse of many of the states in which it's fought its wars.
At the moment, such results just lead to "debates" over how much further to build up American forces, how much more money to pour into them, how much freer the generals should be to act in the usual repetitive fashion, and how much more fervently we should worship those "warriors" as our saviors. Back in 2009, Leon Panetta, then head of the CIA, talked up America's drone assassination campaign in Pakistan as "the only game in town" when it came to stopping al-Qaeda. Seven years later, you could say that in Washington the only game in town is failure.
Similarly, the U.S. taxpayer pours nearly $70 billion annually into the 16 major and various minor outfits in its vast "intelligence" apparatus, and yet, as with the recent coup in Turkey, the U.S. intelligence community seldom seems to have a clue about what's going on.
Failed intelligence and failed wars in an increasingly failed world is a formula for anxiety and even fear. But all of this has been absorbed into and deflected by the unparalleled bread-and-circus spectacle of Election 2016, which has become a kind of addictive habit for "the people." Even fear has been transformed into another form of entertainment. In the process, the electorate has been turned into so many spectators, playing their small parts in a demobilizing show of the first order.
And speaking about realities that went MIA, you wouldn't know it from Election 2016, but much of the U.S. was sweltering under a "heat dome" the week of the Democratic convention. It wasn't a phrase that had previously been in popular use and yet almost the whole country was living through record or near-record summer temperatures in a year in which, globally, each of the first six months had broken all previous heat records (as, in fact, had the last eight months of 2015). Even pre-heat dome conditions in the lower 48 had been setting records for warmth (and don't even ask about Alaska). It might almost look like there was a pattern here.
Unfortunately, as the world careens toward "an environment never experienced before," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the two parties to the American spectacle continues to insist that climate change is a hoax. Its politicians are almost uniformly in thrall to Big Energy, and its presidential candidate tops the charts when it comes to climate denialism. ("The concept of global warming," he's claimed, "was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.") Meanwhile, the other party, the one theoretically promoting much-needed responses to climate change, wasn't even willing to highlight the subject in prime time on any of the last three days of its convention.
In other words, the deepest, most unnerving realities of our world are, in essence, missing in action in election 2016.
You want to be afraid? Be afraid of that!
The Shrinking Election Phenomenon
So you tell me: What is this spectacle of ours? Certainly, as a show it catches many of our fears, sweeping them up in its whirlwind and then burying them in unreality. It can rouse audiences to a fever pitch and seems to act like a Rorschach test in which you read whatever you're inclined to see into its most recent developments. Think of it, in a sense, as an anti-election campaign. In its presence, there's no way to sort out the issues that face this country or its citizens in a world in which the personalities on stage grow ever larger and more bizarre, while what Americans have any say over is shrinking fast.
So much of American "democracy" and so many of the funds that we pony up to govern ourselves now go into strengthening the power of essentially anti-democratic structures: a military with a budget larger than that of the next seven or eight countries combined and the rest of a national security state of a size unimaginable in the pre-9/11 era. Each is now deeply embedded in Washington and at least as grotesque in its bloat as the election campaign itself. We're talking about structures that have remarkably little to do with self-governance or We the People (even though it's constantly drummed into our heads that they are there to protect us, the people). In these years, even as they have proved capable of winning next to nothing and detecting little, they've grown ever larger, more imperial, and powerful, becoming essentially the post-Constitutional fourth branch of government to which the other three branches pay obeisance.
No matter. We're all under the heat dome now and when, on November 8th, tens of millions of us troop to the polls, who knows what we're really doing anymore, except of course paving the way for the next super-spectacle of our political age, Election 2020. Count on it: speculation about the candidates will begin in the media within days after the results of this one are in. And it's a guarantee: there will be nothing like it. It will dazzle, entrance, amaze. It's going to be... the Greatest Show on Earth. It will cause billions of dollars to change hands. It will electrify, shock, amuse, entertain, appall, and...
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