The United States, that most grand of human political experiments, is, in early 2017, hurtling toward a catastrophe.
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Trumpism is ascendant, and Trump, narcissist, bigot, totalitarian thug, stands triumphant, the entire American political and military apparatus at his disposal. It is, by any measure, a revolutionary moment. And, like all revolutions, it privileges extreme personalities over more mundane, middle-of-the-road, technocrats.
In the year 2017, the American Republic – founded by Washington, Jefferson and other Enlightenment luminaries, saved by Lincoln, brought to its modern pre-eminence by Roosevelt – is being handed over to an unholy alliance-of-convenience made up of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, Russophiles, supporters of the ultranationalist wing of Israeli politics, billionaire plutocrats and conspiracists.
They use social media to bully and to intimidate, and they threaten violence, with increasing frequency, against their opponents – whom they view not as partners in a democratic discourse but as “enemies.”
Trump’s right-hand man in the White House will be Steve Bannon – who, while in charge of the Breitbart website, peddled a vast array of racially and religiously inflammatory ideas and shamelessly blurred the lines between real and fake news in pursuit of his political agenda. Breitbart has been instrumental in “normalizing” the so-called alt-right, all the way down to the Sieg Heiling neo-Nazi hoodlums who met for a triumphal post-election get-together in Washington D.C.; as well as the white nationalists in Whitefish, Montana who recently published the names and addresses of all Jews living in their vicinity, in the hope of ginning up a social media trolling war against them.
Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is a Big Oil man who believes in divvying up the world into spheres of influence that let large corporations plunder, without fear of local political protest or of environmental regulations, to their heart’s content.
The 45th president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn – the man who is supposed to counsel the president wisely and calmly in the event of an emergency – has called Islam a “cancer” and buys into pretty much every wack-job conspiracy theory out there. Flynn was one of those either gullible or amoral people who retweeted the fake news story about a D.C. pizzeria being a hub for a Clinton-led child pornography ring – in the wake of which a delusional gun-toter entered the restaurant, presumably to try to rescue the fictive children from its owner’s demonic clutches.
Members of Trump’s cabinet have called for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment and Trump himself whipped up his election crowds to demand her execution. Some in his inner circle have argued for dismantling Medicare, the healthcare safety net for the elderly. Others oppose the minimum wage and basic workplace safety standards.
His education secretary does not really believe in public education. His energy secretary does not believe in the energy department. His housing secretary is a neurosurgeon who has never worked in government before and who thinks the Egyptian pyramids were huge grain silos.
Trump’s nominee for Ambassador to Israel is his personal bankruptcy lawyer, a man who believes that liberal Jews who critique expanded settlements and other far right policies are worse than the Kapos who were coerced into cooperating with the Nazis in running the death camps.
This isn’t just an ideological shift in how the American government functions. It’s a vast tilt toward irrationality, a shattering of the sophisticated policy-making systems that have shaped America’s role on the global stage since World War Two. It is the world’s only hyper-power in the grip of a political nervous breakdown. One could not invent a more terrifying global scenario.
In such an Alice-through-the-looking-glass moment, it makes sense for the incoming president – a reality TV star and casino developer, a man who fetishizes bling and judges people’s worth by their physical appearance rather than moral or intellectual strength – to reshape long-standing nuclear policy via 140 character tweets. Just as it makes sense for a man who accused his opponent of treason because she set up an insecure email server to ally with Julian Assange and Russian President Vladimir Putin against the outgoing American government and the country’s intelligence community.
In such a moment, it makes sense for the world’s self-proclaimed greatest democracy to elect a man who enthusiastically embraces torture, and for a country wielding vast power and wealth to claim victim-status against such economic behemoths as Mexico. It makes sense to rip up trade agreements, human rights treaties, international environmental pacts and so on. It makes sense to replace international dialogue with a might-is-right narrative straight out of the 1930s – or akin to the agreement to divvy up the African continent arrived at by the Great Powers in 1884 during the Berlin Conference.
The American political system has never experienced anything quite like this. In one election, entire structures of governance, as well as the credibility of the media and other watchdog structures, have unraveled. Trumpism is, with great rapidity, filling this vacuum. It is an extraordinary and vile project – as full of hubris as was the notion of the thousand-year Third Reich.
It aims to trade out America’s soft power cultural and political influence around the world exclusively for hard power: bullying trade partners, threatening regional adversaries, blustering about nuclear weapons to try to scare off smaller powers. That was always a large part of the American super-power tool kit; now, under Trump, it looks likely to become the whole deal.
And all of this is being implemented not in a failed state but in an ascendant power with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons. Taking over a superpower, Trump now has an opportunity to remake much of the world – especially the open societies of the West – in his totalitarian image. Never in the post-World War Two period has liberalism been so besieged.
If Trump succeeds in his remaking of America – and if electorates in other great democracies, such as France, follow the Americans down this vicious, intolerant, closed-minded path – the lights will go out on genuine, participatory democratic culture for decades to come.
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and author, whose most recent book is The House of Twenty Thousand Books. He is the founder of the Voice of Poverty project.