When Were We Great?
by David Todd McCarty | Thursday, July 27, 2017
With Donald J. Trump systematically dismantling our political and government institutions on a daily basis; the Republican party doing everything in its power to leave the most vulnerable open to catastrophe; and the Democrats pretending to be the party of the people while selling out to the same corporations, it’s convenient to think that we’re doing real damage to a country built on public norms, common decency, freedom of speech and respect for your fellow man.
Nothing could further from the truth; that is simply the lie we’ve been telling ourselves all these many years. The myth of American exceptionalism.
The truth is, America has a long history of racism, bigotry, and misogyny. For all our talk of freedom and democracy, many times throughout history, we have put aside the rule of law in favor of fascism in the guise of security. We have censored free speech, we have jailed dissidents, we have suspended habeas corpus, and we have allowed free citizens to be murdered without trial or cause. We have violated every precept of what we claim we stand for. Every one.
The moral high ground that the United States has assumed is a farce, and is the cause of much consternation in the international community. It’s something we were taught in schools, and reinforced in the mythology of our founding fathers. The government and the media have been a constant source of support for this narrative. We are constantly told America is exceptional. The greatest country on earth. Whether it’s a movie, a country song, or the halftime show of the NFL. America is a great country, we are told. Or at least it used to be.
The truth is, almost none of that is true. America is a paternalistic, white supremacist, xenophobic country, and always has been. Democracy in America has been an interesting experiment, but we continue to fail as a society to allow everyone access to the so-called American Dream. The dream, of course, is that anyone can achieve success through hard work. That’s just another part of the American myth. It’s not accurate.
Let’s take a look back through history, starting with the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of Africans, America has perpetrated every evil capable of a “civilized” society. We have lagged behind other, more established nations in almost every category worth noting; from allowing women to vote to treating homosexuals like human beings. We have led in only two categories, the number of people killed by guns each year, and the number of citizens we put in prison. That is not the land of the free or the home of the brave, which for the record, are just lyrics from a song, not the basis for our system of government. It’s just part of the American myth of exceptionalism.
The problem with exceptionalism, is that it leads to the belief that you are entitled and destined for greatness. It endows the society with the idea that it has earned all its rewards, and the luck was not a factor. When something undermines that idea, it must be attacked and destroyed.
America has had many enemies and started more than a few wars, and always there was a common enemy who had to be stopped. Our very freedom hung in the balance.
This is why American’s have been sold the idea that to be patriotic, one must also be militaristic. You can’t just support the troops, you must never question the sacrifices that brave men and women have made in duty to defending your freedom. This is logic only tyrants could come up with.
Kim Jung-un, the supreme leader of North Korea, uses the threat of enemy occupation to convince its citizens that they live in poverty so that he can protect them. Military might is why they are free. Meanwhile, this is one of the most oppressive countries in the world.
American military action has often been a justification for defending freedom at home, but in fact, it’s been the cause of much of the instability around the world. It’s self-fulfilling prophesy and the wealthy who run the military industrial complex continue to profit from our endless parade of wars.
America has many strengths, but even more weaknesses. It’s time we recognize them and enact an air of humility and compassion.
The problem is rooted in another myth: The folk theory of democracy.
The folk theory of democracy: The common perception holds that the people elect their leaders at the polls and then hold them accountable for representing their will. The folk theory is appealing because it puts the will of the people and their interests at the heart of government. Sovereignty resides with the people who control the agenda. Voters act as government watchdogs to enforce shared values and curb abuses. Voters correct their mistakes or punish failure at the polls by changing governments, while rewarding competence with continued time in power.
Despite concerns about something being “wrong” with current American democracy, people the world over still believe in the folk theory and how it ought to work. The belief is deep and entrenched. Most people on Earth believe they live under a democracy even when it is obviously and objectively false, at least from the American point of view. Surveys of Chinese citizens show two things: first they value democracy as much as Americans, and second, they believe that China is just as democratic as America. That confusing reality reflects the staggering power of wishful thinking (cognitive bias), the profoundly subjective (personal) nature of political concepts (“democracy”) or, more likely, some combination of both.
“One consequence of our reliance on old definitions is that the modern American does not look at democracy before he defines it; he defines it first and then is confused by what he sees. We become cynical about democracy because the public does not act the way the simplistic definition of democracy says it should act, or we try to whip the public into doing things it does not want to do, is unable to do, and has too much sense to do. The crisis here is not a crisis in democracy but a crisis in theory.”
Give that observation a moment to sink in. Don’t overlook the phrase “is unable to do.” That reflects the reality that most people (> 90% ?) don’t pay attention to politics, often can’t pay attention and are biologically too limited to really understand what’s going on even if they tried:
“. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. . . . cherished ideas and judgments we bring to politics are stereotypes and simplifications with little room for adjustment as the facts change. . . . . the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. Although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.”
From the biological point of view, that’s reality, not a criticism of people or their limitations. Almost everything in politics, if not everything, is far more complex than people give it credit for. Worse, most if it is either at least partially hidden from the public, distorted under the “free speech” shield, or both.
Source: “Democracy: It isn’t what you think”
So Americans believe they live in a system of government that doesn’t exist and believe they are somehow special and destined for greatness, despite evidence to the contrary. This is how political leaders, corporations and even government institutions can convince ordinary citizens to go along with policies that are in direct opposition to their own self interests. It is how we get poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich. It’s how we convince a country to go to war. It’s how we elect a boorish, unqualified amateur to lead the country.
Much of our national politics are racist at their core. They’re either straight up white supremacist, as in the case of the Republicans, or paternalistic towards minorities, as in the case of the Democrats. Both are inherently racist, it’s just that Democrats think they’re trying to help, and Republicans don’t even pretend.
Another aspect of American Exceptionalism that causes problems, mostly because we believe it’s a defining characteristic, and something to be proud of, is the American ideal of Individuality. We so identity with the strength and power of individuality, that we have ceased to believe in the common good. It’s all about me.
When you combine a society that thinks their exceptional, with the idea that each individual is exceptional, you get a culture where everyone is only out for themselves, and that anyone who isn’t pulling their weight deserves what they get.
It also leads to nationalism, and when things don’t go well, you need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat becomes a target for hate.
We’re in real dangerous times and I think most Americans are too afraid, or too deceived, to know it. America isn’t even 250 years old. My house in New Jersey is older than that. Many countries before us thought they were destined by God to rule. Many of them failed or fell from power. We are not so exceptional that it’s not possible here as well. Our grasp of the reality of Democracy is weak. Our faith in our institutions is far too strong.
The middle class is shrinking into oblivion. The working class has been decimated by decades of corporate greed and Republican acquiescence. The poor and minorities are under attack by cruel policies and the militarization of police. Even our political and government institutions, which were always somewhat beholden to the wealthy, have become so corrupt that they cease to operate as a Republic, let alone a Democracy.
Yesterday, without consulting Congress or the Joint Chiefs, the President of the United States declared in less than 140 characters on his personal phone, that a segment of the population was no longer worthy to wear a military uniform and kill foreigners.
Donald J. Trump believes he is above the law. He believes in power and absolute loyalty. He is a fascist.
I’d like to end with a excerpt by Matthew Filner who wrote:
What are the specific elements of Trump’s American fascism?
First: a story of the nation. According to Trump, “America” is a nation with its own ontology. America isn’t “the United States,” a state with a Constitution, a republican form of government, institutions, and laws. Instead, America is an embodied form; an almost life-like being that exists independently of its people and the government. When Trump declares that he wants to “Make America Great Again,” he articulates a vision of America in which there is a national essence akin to the German volk or the Italian “We dream of a Roman Italy.” For Trumpian fascism, America is not its state institutions; it is its essential character. And, of course, the people who hear this ultranationalism see themselves as the “we” embodied within the American nation, and everyone else as enemies of that nation.
Second: a story of decline. For Trump, America is “collapsing,” much of our society is a “disaster,” “outsiders pour” over the border, and “everything is broken.” Too often, Trump’s rhetoric is dismissed as out-of-control, aggressive hyperbole. But Trump’s hyperbole is so much more than evidence that he is “temperamentally unfit” as Hillary Clinton argued, or a “carnival barker” as Martin O’Malley famously said. Instead, Trump is presenting a fascist story about what has happened over time to “our” nation. Rather than specifying when and where America was “great,” he leaves that vision up to the imagination of his audience. Instead, he shouts the imminent collapse of this mythic “America” that holds such emotive meaning for so many people. And millions of Americans came to view their own plight (both economically and culturally) as essential part of the national decline.
Third: a story of rebirth. Because so many Americans have been experiencing economic, political and social distress, they are hungry for a story of rejuvenation. We are going to make America “so, so great,” Trump averred. His opponents, too often, described his speech as bumbling incoherence, but his supporters hear it as reawakening for America. Trump’s supporters are so enthusiastic not because they are raging bigots, or because they are uniquely in agreement with his policies, but because they are hungry for a story of greatness. That’s why critiques of Trump’s policy ideas that focus on his lack of specificity and ideological-coherence miss the point: the policies are immaterial to the story of rebirth.
Fourth: a story of one person’s unique place in history. When Trump declares that “I alone” can fix what ails America, he is being so much more than a bombastic, egotistical maniac. He is placing himself organically at the center of the national rebirth. While it appears to some that Trump is the very definition of a power-hungry egomaniac, to his supporters Trump is an altruist, offering himself as a warrior for the rebirth of the nation. This is commonly known as the “charismatic leader” component of fascism, but those words tend to normalize the sense in which Trump’s followers see him as a soldier for the nation.
Finally: a story of communal sacrifice. Trump calls on his supporters to sacrifice for their nation much as soldiers do. These fascist soldiers willingly devote themselves to their nation, achieving a transcendent sense of meaning. In his speeches — which in a different context, could have been characterized as a call to service — Trump asks of his supporters to sacrifice with him. He calls on his supporters to help him “blow up” the institutions of government in Washington and the “rigged system,” and to stop the “establishment” from protecting that system. In effect, then, Trump’s fascism turns the nation against the state.
These are the essential elements of American fascism. When we focus on what he says — the misogyny, the racism, the xenophobia, the policy incoherence, the inability to articulate complete sentences — we miss why he is saying it: to frame American fascism. And now we will have to live with American fascism. It is difficult now to know the contours of American fascism. What policies Trump pursues, what police powers he expands, what rights he limits. But we can be sure that during this period of American history we will witness at home something we thought was relegated to other times and other places.
American fascism is upon us.