“Well, the train has pulled into the station:
It’s putting out a poison steam.
The cloud is rolling across the platform;
It’s like you’re living in a fever dream…”
Don’t Get on the Train, by the Holy Fools
One reason why it’s so hard to get a handle on American politics, to say anything sensible about it, is that it takes place almost entirely in a hallucination. The country that most Americans feel they are living in does not actually exist.
In this, as in so many other ways, Trump’s reign has been a powerful – I would even say unprecedented – rending of the veils. Just as he has shown us the true face of the gangster capitalism that has long lurked behind the mask of law; just as he has revealed the howling, lashing race-hate and Other-fear at the root of American Exceptionalism; just as he has stripped bare our long-proclaimed, utterly hollow pieties about family, fidelity, personal morality, honesty, civility, knowledge and prudence; so has he revealed to us the genuine irreality and freakishness of American actuality. For where else but in a bizarre and brutal freak show could someone like Trump rise to the pinnacle of power — and what’s more, literally be worshipped by millions of people?
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” as that old Missouri tomcat, T.S. Eliot, once said. But Americans now seem unable to bear any reality at all. Witness the earnest liberals of today, those who tout their “complex” – even “dark” – view of American society. They “know” that the nation was built wholly on the hideous evils of slavery and genocide, sustained over centuries. They “know” that these foundational American systems of rapine and domination have been extended across the face of the earth. They “know” our military has committed (and enabled) sickening atrocities and mass murder throughout the whole of our history, right down to this very hour. They “know” our “intelligence community” (one of the more sick-making expressions in the American lexicon) engage in surveillance, subversion, coups, assassinations – skullduggeries of every imaginable stripe. (And no doubt some that we proles have not yet imagined.)
They “know” our “law enforcement agencies” have become bristling, militarized occupation forces, gunning down minorities with literal impunity while demanding blind obedience and copious tribute in form of tax money. (As I write this, the Attorney General of the United States has just stated openly that police work in America is a protection racket, not a public service. If certain unspecified communities don’t start paying more respect to cops, says Bill Barr, then “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” I’m also writing this on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark at the hands of Chicago police and the FBI.) These good liberals even watch Martin Scorsese movies and “know” that the criminal “underworld” is so intimately and corruptly entwined with the “overworld” of politics and business that there is no discernible borderline between these realms.
But dip into the timeline of any number of these earnest folks and you will find a touching, childlike belief in the essential goodness and rightness of the “American experiment” — however much the noble character of this bold and progressive adventure has been tragically perverted by one’s political opponents at any given time. You will find that despite “knowing” all of the above, they don’t actually live in that grim reality but in a dream world, where the CIA and FBI — known purveyors of murder, lies and gargantuan corruption — have become “heroes of the resistance,” moral champions motivated solely by selfless public service and faithful adherence to our “true” ideals. They’ll even enthusiastically push CIA agents and imperial warriors for public office.
Elsewhere, you’ll see ghastly imperial time-servers like Robert Mueller – who fervently pushed the lies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq – serenaded by “edgy” comedians on national television and beseeched by the millionaire “journalists” of MSNBC to save us. You’ll see Nancy Pelosi – the multimillionaire Speaker who, as I write, has just sneeringly dismissed her own party’s belated efforts to begin to address the climate catastrophe as “the green dream or whatever,” casually condemning generations of all those outside the cocoon of riches, power and privilege that she shares with Trump to a beastly future in a blighted landscape — treated with fandom gush as a “cool, badass woman,” fighting for the common people.
Again, we’re speaking here of good liberals, highly educated people “in the know,” people who are “savvy,” who are proud of their complicated, critical, conflicted patriotism — so much more nuanced than the blind, cartoonish faith of the Right. Yet even they feel there exists some normative, essential goodness in the American character: in the nation’s history, society, politics – indeed, in its very teleology, which they believe actually exists and is, like the arc of the universe in the 19th-century quote made famous by Martin Luther King Jr., forever “bending toward justice.” And thus all the manifest evils that have beset the “American experiment” since the beginning – and are overwhelming it like a tsunami today – are seen as aberrations and terrible distortions of what the country really is.
How can there be a sensible way forward for a people trapped in such a fever dream?
(This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch.)