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Entering Uncharted Territory in Washington
Are We in a New American World?
By Tom Engelhardt
The other week, feeling sick, I spent a day on my couch with the TV on and was reminded of an odd fact of American life. More than seven months before Election Day, you can watch the 2016 campaign for the presidency at any moment of your choosing, and that's been true since at least late last year. There is essentially never a time when some network or news channel isn't reporting on, discussing, debating, analyzing, speculating about, or simply drooling over some aspect of the primary campaign, of Hillary, Bernie, Ted, and above all -- a million times above all -- The Donald (from the violence at his rallies to the size of his hands). In case you're young and think this is more or less the American norm, it isn't. Or wasn't.
Truly, there is something new under the sun. Of course, in 1994 with O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco chase (95 million viewers!), the 24/7 media event arrived full blown in American life and something changed when it came to the way we focused on our world and the media focused on us. But you can be sure of one thing: never in the history of television, or any other form of media, has a single figure garnered the amount of attention -- hour after hour, day after day, week after week -- as Donald Trump. If he's the O.J. Simpson of twenty-first-century American politics and his run for the presidency is the eternal white Ford Bronco chase of our moment, then we're in a truly strange world.
Or let me put it another way: this is not an election. I know the word "election" is being used every five seconds and somewhere along the line significant numbers of Americans (particularly, this season, Republicans) continue to enter voting booths or in the case of primary caucuses, school gyms and the like, to choose among various candidates, so it's all still election-like. But take my word for it as a 71-year-old guy who's been watching our politics for decades: this is not an election of the kind the textbooks once taught us was so crucial to American democracy. If, however, you're sitting there waiting for me to tell you what it is, take a breath and don't be too disappointed. I have no idea, though it's certainly part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.
Actually, before we go further, let me hedge my bets on the idea that Donald Trump is a twenty-first-century O.J. Simpson. It's certainly a reasonable enough comparison, but I've begun to wonder about the usefulness of just about any comparison in our present situation. Even the most nightmarish of them -- Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or any past extreme demagogue of your choice -- may actually prove to be covert gestures of consolation, reassurance, and comfort. Yes, what's happening in our world is increasingly extreme and could hardly be weirder, we seem to have the urge to say, but it's still recognizable. It's something we've encountered before, something we've made sense of in the past and, in the process, overcome.
Round Up the Usual Suspects
But what if that's not true? In some ways, the most frightening, least acceptable thing to say about our American world right now -- even if Donald Trump's overwhelming presence all but begs us to say it -- is that we've entered uncharted territory and, under the circumstances, comparisons might actually impair our ability to come to grips with our new reality. My own suspicion: Donald Trump is only the most obvious instance of this, the example no one can miss.
In these first years of the twenty-first century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system. As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can't bear to recognize it for what it might be. When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell -- the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack), and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier, and more dysfunctional version of the known.
Perhaps, however, it's increasingly a version of the unknown. We say, for instance, that Congress is "paralyzed," and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so "polarized," and we wait for something to shake us loose from that "paralysis," to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize. But maybe this is it. Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we're now labeling paralysis. Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied, and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.
Of course, I don't want to deny that much of what is "new" in our world has a long history. The present yawning inequality gap between the 1% and ordinary Americans first began to widen in the 1970s and -- as Thomas Frank explains so brilliantly in his new book, Listen, Liberal -- was already a powerful and much-discussed reality in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president. Yes, that gap is now more like an abyss and looks ever more permanently embedded in the American system, but it has a genuine history, as for instance do 1% elections and the rise and self-organization of the "billionaire class," even if no one, until this second, imagined that government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires might devolve into government of the billionaire, by the billionaire, and for the billionaire -- that is, just one of them.
Indeed, much of our shape-shifting world can be written about as a set of comparisons and in terms of historical reference points. Inequality has a history. The military-industrial complex and the all-volunteer military, like the warrior corporation, weren't born yesterday; neither was our state of perpetual war, nor the national security state that now looms over Washington, nor its surveilling urge, the desire to know far too much about the private lives of Americans. (A little bow of remembrance to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is in order here.)
And yet, true as all that may be, Washington increasingly seems like a new land, sporting something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics. The national security state doesn't seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me. Nor does the Pentagon. On certain days when I catch the news, I can't believe how strange and yet humdrum this uncharted new territory is. Remind me, for instance, where in the Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote about that national security state? And yet there it is in all its glory, all its powers, an ever more independent force in our nation's capital. In what way, for instance, did those men of the revolutionary era prepare the ground for the Pentagon to loose its spy drones from our distant war zones over the United States? And yet, so it has. And no one even seems disturbed by the development. The news, barely noticed or noted, was instantly absorbed into what's becoming the new normal.
Graduation Ceremonies in the Imperium
Let me mention here the almost random piece of news that recently made me wonder just what planet I was actually on. And I know you won't believe it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.