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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, When Reality Sneaks Through

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

With our news world crashing down around us thanks to Attorney General William Barr's actions and the president's bizarre tweets and post-impeachment purges of "deep state" figures, not to speak of the next screw-up in the Democratic primary season, who even noticed that last month you could have spent vacation time not in sunny Florida or southern California but in Antarctica? There, temperatures hit levels associated with, say, Los Angeles. Hmm... and given what's being discussed endlessly on the TV news, why would you have paid the slightest attention to the news that last month was also the warmest January globally since records began to be kept nearly a century and a half ago? Why would you have registered that 2019 was the second warmest year on record (the five warmest having all occurred since 2014)?

I mean, it's important to keep the news in proportion, especially when William Barr and the president are rendering the American legal system next to meaningless... or did that happen in 2010 when the Supreme Court turned money into speech and opened the gates for corporations and billionaires to buy the American political system? And speaking of that system, aren't you awed that the next presidential race could, for the first time in history, be between insult-tweeting billionaires (one of whom might, in fact, be the ninth-richest person on Planet Earth)? I mean, that's news, right? Not the slowly rising waters of coastal cities or the way Australia was recently transformed into a Mad Max-version of global warming or... well, you get the idea.

The way what passes for the news these days plunges us all into the moment as if that moment were everything is the subject of TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich's new post on a Trumpian world that has become an unending "pseudo-event." And by the way, if you want a little genuine perspective on this moment of ours, a vision of it that's anything but pseudo, you should get your hands on Bacevich's just published, aptly titled new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. Tom

How "Historic" Are We?
Or Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump
By Andrew Bacevich

The impeachment of the president of the United States! Surely such a mega-historic event would reverberate for weeks or months, leaving in its wake no end of consequences, large and small. Wouldn't it? Shouldn't it?

Truth to tell, the word historic does get tossed around rather loosely these days. Just about anything that happens at the White House, for example, is deemed historic. Watch the cable news networks and you'll hear the term employed regularly to describe everything from Oval Office addresses to Rose Garden pronouncements to press conferences in which foreign dignitaries listen passively while their presidential host pontificates about subjects that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with him.

Of course, almost all of these are carefully scripted performances that are devoid of authenticity. In short, they're fraudulent. The politicians who participate in such performances know that it's all a sham. So, too, do the reporters and commentators paid to "interpret" the news. So, too, does any semi-attentive, semi-informed citizen.

Yet on it goes, day in, day out, as politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk collaborate in manufacturing, propagating, and consuming a vast panoply of staged incidents, which together comprise what Americans choose to treat as the very stuff of contemporary history. "Pseudo-events" was the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to describe them in his classic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The accumulation of such incidents creates a make-believe world. As Boorstin put it, they give rise to a "thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life."

As substitutes for reality, pseudo-events, he claimed, breed "extravagant expectations" that can never be met, with disappointment, confusion, and anger among the inevitable results. Writing decades before the advent of CNN, Fox News, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Boorstin observed that "we are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision." So it was back then during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a master of pseudo-events in the still relatively early days of television. And so our world remains today during the presidency of Donald Trump who achieved high office by unmasking the extravagant post-Cold War/sole superpower/indispensable nation/end of history expectations of the political class, only to weave his own in their place.

As Trump so skillfully demonstrates, even as they deceive, pseudo-events also seduce, inducing what Boorstin referred to as a form of "national self-hypnosis." With enough wishful thinking, reality becomes entirely optional. So the thousands of Trump loyalists attending MAGA rallies implicitly attest as they count on their hero to make their dreams come true and their nightmares go away.

Yet when it comes to extravagant expectations, few pseudo-events can match the recently completed presidential impeachment and trial. Even before his inauguration, the multitudes who despise Donald Trump longed to see him thrown out of office. To ensure the survival of the Republic, Trump's removal needed to happen. And when the impeachment process did finally begin to unfold, feverish reporters and commentators could find little else to talk about. With the integrity of the Constitution itself said to be at stake, the enduringly historic significance of each day's developments appeared self-evident. Or so we were told anyway.

Yet while all parties involved dutifully recited their prescribed lines -- no one with greater relish than Donald Trump himself -- the final outcome was never in doubt. The Republican Senate was no more likely to convict the president than he was to play golf without cheating. So no sooner did the Senate let Trump off the hook than the fever broke. In an instant, the farcical nature of the entire process became blindingly apparent. Rarely has the gap between hype and actual historical substance been so vast.

The effort to oust the president from office had unleashed a tidal wave of angst, anxiety, anger, and hope. Yet a mere handful of weeks after its conclusion, the impeachment of Donald Trump retains about as much salience as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which concluded in 1868.

What does the instantaneous deflation of this ostensibly historic event signify? Among other things, it shows that we still live in the world of pseudo-events that Boorstin described nearly 60 years ago. The American susceptibility to contrived and scripted versions of reality persists, revealing an emptiness at the core of our national politics. Arguably, in our age of social media, that emptiness is greater still. To look past the pseudo-events staged to capture our attention is to confront a void.

Pseudo-events Gone Wrong

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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