Why no amount of well-meaning activism can turn the tide of history
Imagine you’re sitting outside a café on a pleasant street in Roma in October 1922. Benito Mussolini has just seized power. Or you’re drinking in a bierkeller in München in late 1933. As a thoughtful and well-informed person you’re naturally disturbed by what you see around you, but as a decent person you also hope that what you’re seeing is a temporary aberration. Surely people will come to their senses? Surely the Great Leader won’t actually do what he’s been proclaiming for ages? Surely things will carry on much as they have always seemed to do?
Or imagine we’re back in Rome, only now it’s circa 238 CE and near year’s end you’re eating a roast leek and pondering the state of the Empire, which is under the rule of its sixth Caesar in the space of a single year. Over the last few hundred years there have been great achievements: an astonishing road system connecting nearly every part of the Empire, the granting of full citizenship to all, and a level of literacy and sanitation unprecedented in history. Yet wherever you look, you see it crumbling away: retreats from the borders, massive corruption among officials, one law for the rich and none for the poor, general cynicism, strange religious cults popping up all over the place and capturing the minds of many citizens, populist movements that are full of rage but missing any semblance of coherence or reason. Surely people will come to their senses? Surely things can carry on much as they have always seemed to do?
Now let’s look at the USA at the end of 2019. What do we see? A President who clearly belongs in a mental institution being supported by a thuggish gang of the most corrupt, stupid, and venal politicians of the last fifty years. An Administration packing the courts with incompetent ultra-right-wingers eager to push the USA further toward neo-medieval theocracy. Incompetence and corruption at every level of government agency from local city to Washington DC. The gradual waning of both economic and military superiority, leading to confused and resentful knee-jerk reactions by those in power. Strange religious cults capturing the minds of many citizens, and populist movements that are full of rage but utterly incoherent and lacking anything resembling positive proposals for the future.
Many in the USA, fixated on small details and moment-by-moment sensation, fondly imagine that once Trump leaves the scene things will magically return to “the good old days.” This is to miss the tide of history, which is on the way out for the USA and likely for the West in general.
The Republican Party has been targeting the simple-minded, the ignorant, and the bigoted since the Nixon campaign on 1968, and has refined its approach over the intervening decades. Although Obama won the Presidency, his legislative record is nearly empty (aside from the disastrous window-dressing of the Affordable Care Act) because he was persistently blocked by the Republican Party. Even his Constitutional right to propose a new Supreme Court judge was blocked by the Republican-dominated Senate that illegally refused to hold the necessary Hearings.
The USA slipped past the point of no return during the Baby Bush era when 9/11 provided the excuse ultra-right-wing Republicans such as Cheney and Rumsfeld required to establish the essential underpinnings of a future dictatorship. A few astute observers noted at the time that the legislation pushed hastily through the Congress was a disaster for justice and liberty but most of the population, swept up in a media-driven outrage and desire for safety at any price, was happy to sign away their freedom.
Trump is merely a repellent symptom of a body that began to rot decades ago. The USA was never going to live up to its glossy well-marketed image; it’s always been profoundly corrupt and dysfunctional. Mark Twain observed over a century ago that “America has the best government money can buy” and the railroad barons were adept at paying politicians to create laws that made them wealthy beyond measure at the cost of impoverishing millions of ordinary citizens. Black people were always subject to violence across large swathes of the nation. Over the last 20 years 86% of Republican votes have been for laws that favor the super-rich, unarmed black men are still being shot by police without any consequences, and ineptitude and corruption are everywhere.
Meanwhile education continues to be more and more sub-par, leaving US citizens among the most ignorant people and least educated in the OECD. Religious organizations, thanks to the blocs of votes they can deploy, have captured the Republican Party and thereby are imposing a neo-medieval view of social order that is utterly antithetical to humane and civilized values. Populism is resulting in a race downhill towards ever-greater ignorance, stupidity, and violence. And whereas European societies are looking for constructive ways out of the mess, the USA blithely continues to arm its citizens to ensure that even a minor disagreement or grudge can result in mass slaughter, thus adding to the hysteria and mindless panic.
When we step back from the transient ephemeral noise of the daily news and Internet memes it’s clear that the USA is so badly broken that no amount of band-aiding can do anything more than slightly slow down the rush to complete collapse.
Most US citizens don’t notice how badly broken the USA is because they’ve never known anything else. The few that travel abroad usually do so either on business or as tourists. In the case of the former they’re speaking English inside an office building, insulated from whatever culture and norms happen to exist outside, as everyone else in the meeting politely attempts to accommodate US norms. In the case of the latter they’re shuffling between one US-style hotel and another, snapping pictures and buying souvenirs, unable to understand the local language and seeing everything around them as a quaint Disneyesque movie set.
When you stop to take a hard look at the USA it becomes apparent that everything is broken.
Healthcare: the USA spends twice as much of its GDP on health services than the nearest high-spending OECD nation yet its outcomes are near the very bottom of the pile.
Education: the USA reliably lands near the bottom of the PISA charts, and several US States in the deep south score beneath even benighted countries like Somalia.
Social norms: with more guns in circulation than people, US citizens are traumatized by a constant diet of gun violence; because of mass religiosity, US attitudes are frequently medieval compared to other OECD nations. And US mass entertainment is so deeply unhealthy that it should carry an official warning.
Sustenance: the US diet is abysmal, with the USA becoming the first known country in history in which individuals suffer from both obesity and malnutrition simultaneously. Meanwhile millions receive drinking water that would fail EU standards by a long way.
Politics: the US Republican Party is so deeply corrupt, cynical, and devoted entirely to serving the needs of the rich and powerful that it is not a Party so much as a gang of hired stooges. Lying and blustering have become default behaviors.
Sadly, politicians elsewhere around the globe have noted that this is a recipe for success and so the USA has powerfully contributed to the demise of Western civilization by malignantly influencing those least suitable to exercise power in their own countries.
Of course here and there it’s possible to find someone doing a small amount of good. Of course daily life goes one, the supermarket shelves are still crammed with SugarCocoBreakfastFlakes and cola and other sugar-rich drinks and various fried potato products and tons of processed foods. Of course gas-guzzling vehicles still fill up at the petrol pumps. Of course people still go about their business.
Just as they did in Italy until 1939. Just as they did in Germany until 1939. Just as they did in the dying centuries of the Roman Empire until 476.
When we look at the broad sweep of history it’s difficult to see how any of these large-scale shifts could have been altered. Would Italy really have gone a different way if Mussolini hadn’t been on the scene, or would some other blustering nincompoop have risen in his place? If someone had assassinated Hitler, would an equivalent shouty little man appeared instead? The details likely would have been quite different, but would the general outcome have been much altered? Perhaps a less self-confident Fuhrer wouldn’t have made so many strategic blunders during WWII and so Europe would today be a German-speaking Empire, but it seems likely that economic chaos combined with deep resentment over losing WWI would have resulted in a right-wing militaristic government under nearly any circumstance.
Moving to today, even if someone executed Trump this afternoon, it’s clear that the Republican Party is so corrupt and so repellent that nothing would actually change. Indeed, while everyone is agitated about Trump because he’s such an inadequate creature, the real lesson of Trump is that the GoP will do absolutely anything whatsoever in order to cling to the illusion of power. And that, above all else, is why the USA is finished.
After Trump will come a more self-controlled and more intelligent man who will exploit the lesson Trump has accidentally taught. This man will manipulate the mindless mob even more capably than the infantile orange halfwit. This man will have a plan, a direction, not a Fox-driven knee-jerk reaction to whatever Rupert Murdoch happens to think he should see that day. And this man, whoever he is, will be the USA’s last elected President.
After that, there will of course still be elections and the USA will of course remain a democracy, just like the former Democratic Republic of Germany and the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea. And just like in today’s democratic Russia and in shining democracies like the Congo, Chad, and Sudan, the votes will be decided months in advance and will always ensure the (ultra)Right people win.
That’s why the USA is over. Enjoy what’s left of it, while you can.