This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
A billionaire in the White House. Only in America, right?
In an age of billionaires, whether the voters who elected him thought that he was the one who could do what was needed in the nation's capital or were just giving the finger to Washington, the effect was, as Donald Trump might say, of "historic significance." His golf courses, hotels, properties of every sort are thriving and the money from them pouring into his family's coffers. His Mar-a-Lago club doubled its membership fee after he was elected; the new Trump hotel in Washington has become a notorious hotspot for foreign diplomats eager to curry favor with the administration; and so it goes in the new America. Already three lawsuits have been filed -- by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (a watchdog outfit), the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington D.C., and 200 Democratic congressional representatives -- challenging the president for breaching the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Investigations of presidential obstruction of justice and possibly even abuse of power are evidently underway (to the accompaniment of voluminous tweets by you know who), and the president has been lawyering up bigly, as has Vice President Pence and just about everyone else in sight, including the president's personal lawyer who now has a lawyer of his own. President Trump has, in fact, been filling in his roster of personal lawyers far more effectively than he's been able to fill basic posts in his government.
And speaking of historic significance, around him is the richest crew ever to serve in a cabinet, the sort of plutocratic A-team that gives government of, by, and for the 1% genuine meaning. Now tell me, if this isn't a classic only-in-America story, what is? Okay, maybe it's not classic classic, not unless you go back to the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century. It's certainly not the version of American promise that was in the high-school history books of my youth, but if it isn't the twenty-first-century version of the American story, then what is? In a land that's released so much plutocratic money into politics that it's buried Washington in Koch brothers dollars, in a country where inequality has in recent years hit historic highs, Donald Trump seems to have been our own El Dorado (or perhaps El Mar-a-Lago). He's the destination toward which this country has evidently been traveling since, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and the United States, in all its triumphalist glory, became the "sole superpower" on planet Earth.
If anything, Trump's ascendancy should have been the equivalent of a klieg light illuminating our recent American journey. His rise to... well, whatever it is... has lit up the highway that brought us here in a new way and, in the spirit of his coming infrastructure program for America, it turns out to have been a private toll road that wound through a landscape of Potemkin villages en route to the Oval Office. One thing's for sure: wherever we've landed, it certainly isn't where the "end of history" crowd of the last years of the previous century thought we'd be when the historians finally stopped typing and "liberal Democracy" reigned supreme. With that in mind, join Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch regular and author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, in considering just how, at this moment, historians should start reimagining our American age amid the rubble of our previous versions of history. Tom
Kissing the Specious Present Goodbye
Did History Begin Anew Last November 8th?
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Forgive me for complaining, but recent decades have not been easy ones for my peeps. I am from birth a member of the WHAM tribe, that once proud, but now embattled conglomeration of white, heterosexual American males. We have long been -- there's no denying it -- a privileged group. When the blessings of American freedom get parceled out, WHAMs are accustomed to standing at the head of the line. Those not enjoying the trifecta of being white, heterosexual, and male get what's left.- Advertisement -
Fair? No, but from time immemorial those have been the rules. Anyway, no real American would carp. After all, the whole idea of America derives from the conviction that some people (us) deserve more than others (all those who are not us). It's God's will -- so at least the great majority of Americans have believed since the Pilgrims set up shop just about 400 years ago.
Lately, however, the rules have been changing in ways that many WHAMs find disconcerting. True, some of my brethren -- let's call them one percenters -- have adapted to those changes and continue to do very well indeed. Wherever corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, tech gurus, university presidents, publishers, politicians, and generals congregate to pat each other on the back, you can count on WHAMs -- reciting bromides about the importance of diversity! -- being amply represented.
Yet beneath this upper crust, a different picture emerges. Further down the socioeconomic ladder, being a WHAM carries with it disadvantages. The good, steady jobs once implicitly reserved for us -- lunch pail stuff, yes, but enough to keep food in the family larder -- are increasingly hard to come by. As those jobs have disappeared, so too have the ancillary benefits they conferred, self-respect not least among them. Especially galling to some WHAMs is being exiled to the back of the cultural bus. When it comes to art, music, literature, and fashion, the doings of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, and women generate buzz. By comparison, white heterosexual males seem bland, uncool, and passe', or worst of all simply boring.
The Mandate of Heaven, which members of my tribe once took as theirs by right, has been cruelly withdrawn. History itself has betrayed us.
All of which is nonsense, of course, except perhaps as a reason to reflect on whether history can help explain why, today, WHAMs have worked themselves into such a funk in Donald Trump's America. Can history provide answers? Or has history itself become part of the problem?
Paging Professor Becker- Advertisement -
"For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be." So remarked Carl Becker in 1931 at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Professor Becker, a towering figure among historians of his day, was president of the AHA that year. His message to his colleagues amounted to a warning of sorts: Don't think you're so smart. The study of the past may reveal truths, he allowed, but those truths are contingent, incomplete, and valid only "for the time being."
Put another way, historical perspectives conceived in what Becker termed "the specious present" have a sell-by date. Beyond their time, they become stale and outmoded, and so should be revised or discarded. This process of rejecting truths previously treated as authoritative is inexorable and essential. Yet it also tends to be fiercely contentious. The present may be specious, but it confers real privileges, which a particular reading of the past can sustain or undermine. Becker believed it inevitable that "our now valid versions" of history "will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths." It was no less inevitable that beneficiaries of the prevailing version of truth should fight to preserve it.
Who exercises the authority to relegate? Who gets to decide when a historical truth no longer qualifies as true? Here, Becker insisted that "Mr. Everyman" plays a crucial role. For Becker, Mr. Everyman was Joe Doakes, John Q. Public, or the man in the street. He was "every normal person," a phrase broad enough to include all manner of people. Yet nothing in Becker's presentation suggested that he had the slightest interest in race, sexuality, or gender. His Mr. Everyman belonged to the tribe of WHAM.