The other week, feeling sick, I spent a day on my couch with the TV on and was reminded of an odd fact of American life. More than seven months before Election Day, you can watch the 2016 campaign for the presidency at any moment of your choosing, and that’s been true since at least late last year. There is essentially never a time when some network or news channel isn’t reporting on, discussing, debating, analyzing, speculating about or simply drooling over some aspect of the primary campaign, of Hillary, Bernie, Ted and above all — a million times above all — The Donald (from the violence at his rallies to the size of his hands ). In case you’re young and think this is more or less the American norm, it isn’t. Or wasn’t.
Truly, there is something new under the sun. Of course, in 1994 with O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase (95 million viewers!), the 24/7 media event arrived full blown in American life and something changed when it came to the way we focused on our world and the media focused on us. But you can be sure of one thing: never in the history of television, or any other form of media, has a single figure garnered the amount of attention — hour after hour, day after day, week after week — as Donald Trump. If he’s the O.J. Simpson of 21st-century American politics and his run for the presidency is the eternal white Ford Bronco chase of our moment, then we’re in a truly strange world.
Or let me put it another way: this is not an election. I know the word “election” is being used every five seconds and somewhere along the line significant numbers of Americans (particularly, this season, Republicans) continue to enter voting booths or in the case of primary caucuses, school gyms and the like, to choose among various candidates, so it’s all still election-like. But take my word for it as a 71-year-old guy who’s been watching our politics for decades: this is not an election of the kind the textbooks once taught us was so crucial to American democracy. If, however, you’re sitting there waiting for me to tell you what it is, take a breath and don’t be too disappointed. I have no idea, though it’s certainly part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession and part media money machine.
Actually, before we go further, let me hedge my bets on the idea that Donald Trump is a 21st-century O.J. Simpson. It’s certainly a reasonable enough comparison, but I’ve begun to wonder about the usefulness of just about any comparison in our present situation. Even the most nightmarish of them — Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or any past extreme demagogue of your choice — may actually prove to be covert gestures of consolation, reassurance and comfort. Yes, what’s happening in our world is increasingly extreme and could hardly be weirder, we seem to have the urge to say, but it’s still recognizable. It’s something we’ve encountered before, something we’ve made sense of in the past and, in the process, overcome.
Round Up the Usual Suspects
But what if that’s not true? In some ways, the most frightening, least acceptable thing to say about our American world right now — even if Donald Trump’s overwhelming presence all but begs us to say it — is that we’ve entered uncharted territory and, under the circumstances, comparisons might actually impair our ability to come to grips with our new reality. My own suspicion: Donald Trump is only the most obvious instance of this, the example no one can miss.
In these first years of the 21st century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system. As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can’t bear to recognize it for what it might be. When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell — the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack) and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier and more dysfunctional version of the known.
Perhaps, however, it’s increasingly a version of the unknown. We say, for instance, that Congress is “paralyzed,” and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so “polarized,” and we wait for something to shake us loose from that “paralysis,” to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize. But maybe this is it. Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we’re now labeling paralysis. Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.
Of course, I don’t want to deny that much of what is “new” in our world has a long history. The present yawning inequality gap between the 1 percent and ordinary Americans first began to widen in the 1970s and — as Thomas Frank explains so brilliantly in his new book, Listen, Liberal — was already a powerful and much-discussed reality in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president. Yes, that gap is now more like an abyss and looks ever more permanently embedded in the American system, but it has a genuine history, as for instance do 1 percent elections and the rise and self-organization of the “billionaire class,” even if no one, until this second, imagined that government of the billionaires, by the billionaires and for the billionaires might devolve into government of the billionaire, by the billionaire and for the billionaire — that is, just one of them.
Indeed, much of our shape-shifting world can be written about as a set of comparisons and in terms of historical reference points. Inequality has a history. The military-industrial complex and the all-volunteer military, like the warrior corporation, weren’t born yesterday; neither was our state of perpetual war, nor the national security state that now looms over Washington, nor its surveilling urge, the desire to know far too much about the private lives of Americans. (A little bow of remembrance to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is in order here.)
And yet, true as all that may be, Washington increasingly seems like a new land, sporting something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics. The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me. Nor does the Pentagon. On certain days when I catch the news, I can’t believe how strange and yet humdrum this uncharted new territory is. Remind me, for instance, where in the Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote about that national security state? And yet there it is in all its glory, all its powers, an ever more independent force in our nation’s capital. In what way, for instance, did those men of the revolutionary era prepare the ground for the Pentagon to loose its spy drones from our distant war zones over the United States? And yet, so it has. And no one even seems disturbed by the development. The news, barely noticed or noted, was instantly absorbed into what’s becoming the new normal.
Graduation Ceremonies in the Imperium
Let me mention here the almost random piece of news that recently made me wonder just what planet I was actually on. And I know you won’t believe it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.
Given the carnage of America’s wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which I’ve been following closely these last years, I’m unsure why this particular moment even got to me. Best guess? Maybe that, of all the once-obscure places — from Afghanistan to Yemen to Libya — in which the US has been fighting recently, Somalia, where this particular little slaughter took place, seems to me like the most obscure of all. Yes, I’ve been half-attending to events there from the 1993 Blackhawk Down moment to the disastrous US-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006 to the hardly less disastrous invasion of that country by Kenyan and other African forces. Still, Somalia?
Recently, US Reaper drones and manned aircraft launched a set of strikes against what the Pentagon claimed was a graduation ceremony for “low-level” foot soldiers in the Somali terror group al-Shabab. It was proudly announced that more than 150 Somalis had died in this attack. In a country where, in recent years, US drones and special ops forces had carried out a modest number of strikes against individual al-Shabab leaders, this might be thought of as a distinct escalation of Washington’s endless low-level conflict there (with a raid involving US special ops forces following soon after).
A new, informal constitution is being written in these years in Washington. No need for a convention or a new bill of rights.
Now, let me try to put this in some personal context. Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked globes and maps. I have a reasonable sense of where most countries on this planet are. Still, Somalia? I have to stop and give that one some thought to truly locate it on a mental map of eastern Africa. Most Americans? Honestly, I doubt they’d have a clue. So the other day, when this news came out, I stopped a moment to take it in. If accurate, we killed 150 more or less nobodies (except to those who knew them) and maybe even a top leader or two in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
I mean, don’t you find that just a little odd, no matter how horrible the organization they were preparing to fight for? 150 Somalis? Blam!
Remind me: On just what basis was this modest massacre carried out? After all, the US isn’t at war with Somalia or with al-Shabab. Of course, Congress no longer plays any real role in decisions about American war making. It no longer declares war on any group or country we fight. (Paralysis!) War is now purely a matter of executive power or, in reality, the collective power of the national security state and the White House. The essential explanation offered for the Somali strike, for instance, is that the US had a small set of advisers stationed with African Union forces in that country and it was just faintly possible that those guerrilla graduates might soon prepare to attack some of those forces (and hence US military personnel). It seems that if the US puts advisers in place anywhere on the planet — and any day of any year they are now in scores of countries — that’s excuse enough to validate acts of war based on the “imminent” threat of their attack.
Or just think of it this way: a new, informal constitution is being written in these years in Washington. No need for a convention or a new bill of rights. It’s a constitution focused on the use of power, especially military power, and it’s being written in blood.
These days, our government (the unparalyzed one) acts regularly on the basis of that informal constitution-in-the-making, committing Somalia-like acts across significant swathes of the planet. In these years, we’ve been marrying the latest in wonder technology, our Hellfire-missile-armed drones, to executive power and slaughtering people we don’t much like in majority Muslim countries with a certain alacrity. By now, it’s simply accepted that any commander-in-chief is also our assassin-in-chief, and that all of this is part of a wartime-that-isn’t-wartime system, spreading the principle of chaos and dissolution to whole areas of the planet, leaving failed states and terror movements in its wake.
When was it, by the way, that “the people” agreed that the president could appoint himself assassin-in-chief, muster his legal beagles to write new “law” that covered any future acts of his (including the killing of American citizens), and year after year dispatch what essentially is his own private fleet of killer drones to knock off thousands of people across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa? Weirdly enough, after almost 14 years of this sort of behavior, with ample evidence that such strikes don’t suppress the movements Washington loathes (and often only fan the flames of resentment and revenge that help them spread), neither the current president and his top officials, nor any of the candidates for his office have the slightest intention of ever grounding those drones.
And when exactly did the people say that, within the country’s vast standing military, which now garrisons much of the planet, a force of nearly 70,000 Special Operations personnel should be birthed, or that it should conduct covert missions globally, essentially accountable only to the president (if him)? And what I find strangest of all is that few in our world find such developments strange at all.
A Planet in Decline?
In some way, all of this could be said to work. At the very least, it is a functioning new system-in-the-making that we have yet to truly come to grips with, just as we haven’t come to grips with a national security state that surveils the world in a way that even science fiction writers (no less totalitarian rulers) of a previous era could never have imagined, or the strange version of media overkill that we still call an election. All of this is by now both old news and mind-bogglingly new.
Do I understand it? Not for a second.
This is not war as we knew it, nor government as we once understood it, nor are these elections as we once imagined them, nor is this democracy as it used to be conceived of, nor is this journalism of a kind ever taught in a journalism school. This is the definition of uncharted territory. It’s a genuine American terra incognita and yet in some fashion that unknown landscape is already part of our sense of ourselves and our world. In this “election” season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. So don’t blame it all on Donald Trump. He should be far less of a shock to this country than he continues to be. After all, a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.
Who knows? Perhaps what we’re watching is the new iteration of a very old story: a 21st-century version of an ancient tale of a great imperial power, perhaps the greatest ever — the “lone superpower” — sinking into decline. It’s a tale humanity has experienced often enough in the course of our long history. But lest you think once again that there’s nothing new under the sun, the context for all of this, for everything now happening in our world, is so new as to be quite literally outside of thousands of years of human experience. As the latest heat records indicate, we are, for the first time, on a planet in decline. And if that isn’t uncharted territory, what is?