American flag flying in the French Quarter New Orleans

It’s currently an exercise in pure capitalism.

Like many others, I have become a news junkie as American politics descend into farce and chaos. I am perpetually scanning the news for the latest Trump debacle. According to the pundits, this makes me a more unhappy person, but I can’t resist.

And I know people – normally peaceful – who advocate that Trump be assassinated, frightening evidence of the polarisation that his election has engendered.

I’m also cognisant of the fact that even writing this may preclude my entry to the land of the free at some time, which is a very scary example of the way things are (potentially) heading.

But, even though I am not American, I am alarmed at the outcomes of the recent elections. There are worrying overtones of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the demagoguery of Donald Trump (do I get a prize for using so many long words in one sentence) and potential effects on all of us.

Although everyone tiptoes around it, it is clear that America has elected the emperor with no clothes. I feel sad for many of those who voted for him, as he is doing precisely the opposite of what he promised them. If I were a poor American, I would be in despair as what little health care I have is under siege.

Hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions –  of words have been written about the current state of affairs. However, I have not seen much about the how the fragile flower of democracy is being not so much ignored as deliberately trampled underfoot.

Democracy requires attention and care to prosper. It is not a given, and it has failed in many countries. It is not a God-given right, as is the ‘right to work (I’m being ironic here).

Politicians - whom you might naively expect to be the keepers of the sacred flame - have clearly descended into the ‘swamp’, as Trump’s advisers so eloquently put it. As politics has become the preserve of the venal and corrupt, so democracy has begun to wither.

The few percent who control the vast majority of wealth and power in the world are actively conspiring to own the system. The evidence is clear, but again generally ignored. Money has always been able to buy much of what it wants, and it now wants to control American politics (and almost every other democratic political system in the world).

There is a general complacency. We take democracy and the rule of law for granted, not realising that it requires care and attention.  Perhaps political correctness is to blame: it is no longer fashionable to stand up for your opinions in the face of bombast and abuse, but I return to the quote I used in a previous post describing Libya under Gaddafi. (The irony of using a quote from my discussion of Gaddafi’s Libya does not escape me.)

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” (probably) Edmund Burke

In many democracies voter participation is low. And there is active gerrymandering and the discouragement of voter’s rights in some parts of the states.

Politicians are (rightly in my view) generally perceived to be disengaged and indifferent to their electorate. Many people are desperately looking for an authentic voice to represent them in the system, rightly detecting that the Washington elite is ignorant and indifferent to them. Over 40% of people who voted in the recent election clearly felt that Donald Trump was someone who represented them and who were responding to his claims to clear out the establishment, replacing it with someone who would listen. A similar phenomenon happened in the UK with Brexit, many people revolting, not so much against policy as the complacent politicians. Ditto France.

Sadly, many of those people suffer from a degree of cognitive dissonance and probably won’t change their minds, even as the policies Trump and his cronies implement will make them poorer.

I can’t blame them, especially with the blizzard of conflicting opinions and ‘alternative facts’ that currently bombard us. We are all belatedly developing the skills we need to filter the internet-driven news that we are blitzed with, and we are served the news that Facebook (and others) determine we want to hear.

News used to be news: it is now a weird melange of fact and fiction, with no apparent boundaries.

One group that voted for Donald Trump into the White House are white middle-class people who did not go to college, a group that is uneducated. At this point, before too many people start bombarding me with hate mail, I’m saying uneducated, not stupid. Sadly, the American educational system does not rate highly on anyone’s scale. Democracy needs to be appreciated in the context of the world’s history. Only them can it be seen to be a relatively new institution. And only then can one appreciate how delicate it is. I’m not sure that the American educational system equips its students to appreciate this; nor do many others, sadly.

The other thought-provoking fact about this group is that they are dying. I don’t mean demographically (although they may be becoming a minority) but literally.

Their average life expectancy is falling, at a time when it is largely rising. This group have clearly not been served well by the political elite. They number in the millions, and I sympathise with many of the fears and aspirations of ordinary conservative Americans. They need to be heard and it is important to have debate in a democracy.

But is there true debate in a society where money buys politicians, airtime, independent opinions’ and even entire news channels?

That's the point. Democracy is being overtaken by an experiment in pure capitalism in America and elsewhere. The rise of the ‘super-PACs’ has allowed the very rich to control much of what is heard. What also astonishes is that in such a litigious society commentators (and politicians) seem to be able to utter obvious falsehoods and assassinate character with impunity aas well as the fact taht the courts allowed it.

In an attempt to obtain a balanced view of the news, unfiltered by Mark Zuckerberg and the like, I watch Fox and read Breitbart (intermittently) to try and gather a spread of opinion. What shocks me is the ability of commentators on those outlets to make statements that are at best questionable and at worst frankly slanderous or lies (as well as the comments sections, which make fascinating, if disturbing, reading). To hear a Fox commentator saying that a senior politician is a stupid as a six-pound trout is amusing but not news or even intelligent. But it does play well.

Truth has truly become a victim of the political process in America. And populism (the new code word for demagoguery) is a good tool if you are indifferent to the truth and the long-term consequences of your actions.

“Politicians in America have learned how to harness hatreds and fears that people possess to get to their ends.” Trevor Noah

Politics is currently a game played by professional politicians, who often have no real-world experience to return to, so they are particularly vulnerable to individuals or organisations that can promise them continuance.

It has probably been thus since the Roman Senate, but the system is woefully biased. Look at the US Senate: apart from the fact that there are Senators who have been there for literally decades, their actions are utterly partisan and driven by external forces (for this, read money). It would not be so terrible – or obvious –  if it were not for the utter hypocrisy they have displayed as the reins of power have changed. Mitch McConnell is a shining example.

Will America survive Trump? I suppose the question is what you mean by ‘America’. There are clearly several Americas that uneasily coexist:  Currently, the right wing, God-fearing, gun-loving and sometimes misogynistic elements are in power, but the US is a terribly divided nation.

I guess it is a given that the uber-rich want to have a continuing system of pure capitalism. After all, they are the ultimate beneficiaries, for instance, Trump’s health care plans (almost an oxymoron) benefiting them the most, with huge tax cuts. They get to run their industries with almost no oversight. The coal industry can now pollute waterways with impunity as it lurches toward extinction.

Personally, I think America is doomed not to learn the lessons of history and to become one of the shortest empires on record. I believe that four years of President Donald Trump’s isolationism will produce a bit player in the global economy. Corporations will be the power brokers, and China will have seized their moment on the world stage.

Like the Russians, ordinary Americans will be angrily wondering where their standard of living has gone and looking for someone to blame.

Putin’s policy of posturing belligerently at the rest of the world and deflecting attention from the local issues works. It worked for Margaret Thatcher with the Falklands, and it would serve Trump well. We may have war, especially as mass migration increases due to the effects of global warming. War is good for business and the '1%' are therefore in favour (viz Vietnam).

It is important to recognise that the conditions that have generated a populist president run by a group of shadowy financiers are not confined to America. The (startlingly unreported) issue of the Conservative party in the UK driving a horse and cart through the rules about election funding show that it is widespread.  If we do not start to cherish and nourish our democracies, we are all at risk of a descent into some form of totalitarianism.

I did not see Donald Trump coming, but I still expect that right-wing populism will increase in Europe over time. Many of the EU countries have large populations of young men under 25 who are unemployed, disaffected and alienated. They are the perfect tinder for the rise of fascism: we have seen it before.

Lastly, climate change exists. There is no doubt.  It is actively opposed by big money who have delayed the inevitable, purely for profit. Now that the ‘climate deniers’ are in power in America the chances of passing more tipping points increases and bad things are going to happen faster. And this is - no shit - a global issue.

We are overdue to start addressing the effects of global warming, not to stop it but to minimise the terrifying consequences that lie ahead. So, we are all going to suffer from the effects of pure capitalism in action over the next few years, American or not.

I can only assume that the top 1% who own 90% of the world’s wealth believe that they will be able to survive, perhaps creating private archologies while the rest die. New Zealand is becoming a favourite of the ultra-wealthy; Peter Theil has secured his citizenship by promising money (and apparently turning a tidy profit)

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi paints a striking picture of a possible future that is a consequence of global warming. Unless we address the disproportionate effect of the uber-rich on our democratic processes we are heading for an era that that will not end well.

Pure capitalism is not democracy: it is just as much democracy’s enemy as communism. The main weapon at hand? Your vote.

The silver lining? The current political cycle has increased interest and awareness in the machinery of American politics like other else. Perhaps sanity and balance will arise if America survives four years of Trump. Or maybe he will be impeached…or resign…or be assassinated like Kennedy..?

Must go and turn on the news…

 

#democracyindanger

New Zealand 2017

DOI: I moved to New Zealand probably for the same reasons as Peter Theil.

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