The final stages of capitalism, Karl Marx predicted, would be marked by global capital being unable to expand and generate profits at former levels. Capitalists would begin to consume the government along with the physical and social structures that sustained them. Democracy, social welfare, electoral participation, the common good and investment in public transportation, roads, bridges, utilities, industry, education, ecosystem protection and health care would be sacrificed to feed the mania for short-term profit. These assaults would destroy the host. This is the stage of late capitalism that Donald Trump represents.
Trump and the reactionary capitalists he has installed in power, and who have seized most state legislatures and governorships, plan to oversee the last great campaign of corporate pillaging of America. It will be as crass and brazen as the fleecing of the desperate people, hoping for a miracle in the face of dead-end jobs and ruinous personal debt, who patronized Trump’s casinos – and the casinos springing up around the country — or who shelled out thousands of dollars for the sham of Trump University. He is unleashing a kleptocracy — the word comes from the Greek klépto, meaning thieves, and kratos, meaning rule, so it is literally “rule by thieves” — one that will rival the kleptocracies carried out by Suharto in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. It is not that Trump and his family will use the influence of government to increase their wealth, although this will certainly take place on a massive scale; it is that hundreds of billions of federal dollars will be diverted into the hands of cronies, sleazy bankers, unethical financial firms and scabrous hedge fund managers. Everything will, to use a business term, be “harvested,” including Social Security. The decaying pillars of the liberal state will be obliterated.
It may be that the deep state, disturbed by Trump’s impulsivity, irrationality and incompetence will move to replace him. This was certainly the idea when the organs of internal security used a wiretap to discredit and remove Michael Flynn from power, but the ascendancy to the White House of Michael Pence, a more polished and disciplined politician who will vigorously advance the agenda of the Christian Right, will not make things better – indeed they may make things worse.
Those being placed into positions of power are agents of destruction. Betsy DeVos will defund our system of public education and use government vouchers to expand corporate charter school chains and those run by the Christian right. Scott Pruitt will dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief counselor, was the dark hand behind the ban on Muslims entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries — a ban you can expect to see extended if the Trump administration is successful in removing a stay issued by a district court or issuing a new executive order. He was behind the order to the Department of Homeland Security to draw up lists of Muslim organizations and individuals in the United States that, in the language of the executive action, have been “radicalized” and have “provided material support to terrorism-related organizations in countries that pose a threat to the United States.” Such lists will be used to criminalize Muslim leaders and the institutions and organizations they built. Then, once the Muslims are dealt with, there will be new Homeland Security lists that will allow the government to target the press, activists, labor leaders, dissident intellectuals and the left.
“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too,”Bannon told the writer Ronald Radosh in 2013. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, or by what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called America’s “excess of democracy,” built and funded counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties. They imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping corporate coup d’état that 45 years later is largely complete.
The destruction of democratic institutions, places where the citizen has agency and a voice, is far graver than the ascendancy to the White House of the demagogue Trump. The coup destroyed our two-party system. Labor unions are a spent force. The press is corporatized and distrusted. Universities have been largely purged of dissidents and independent scholars who criticize neoliberalism and decry the decay of democratic institutions and political parties. Public broadcasting and the arts –places where voices not beholden to corporate power should find a sanctuary — have been defunded and forced to beg for corporate money, which, comes, of course, with corporate censorship. The courts have been stacked with judges whose legal careers were spent serving corporate power, a trend in appointments that continued under Barack Obama. Money has replaced the vote, which is how someone as unqualified as Betsy DeVos can buy herself a Cabinet seat. And the Democratic Party, rather than sever its ties to Wall Street and corporations, is naively waiting in the wings to profit from a Trump debacle.
This coup also destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power. The revolt we see rippling across the country is a revolt not only against a corporate system that has betrayed workers, but also, for many, the ideas and values espoused by a bankrupt liberal democratic elite. This is very dangerous. The discrediting of liberal democracy will allow the radical right to cement into place an Americanized fascism.
Presidential adviser Stephen Miller, in an interview on Face the Nation on CBS last Sunday was quite blunt about what to expect: “We have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become in many cases a supreme branch of government,” he said. “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
History may not repeat itself, but it echoes. The framers of our Constitution, steeped in the hostory of ancient Greece and Rome, attempted to provide checks and balances to keep the American republic from falling, like their ancient counterparts, into oligarchy and tyranny. This kind of historical knowledge – dismissed as frivolous by our consumer culture and business elites – allows us recognize the warning signs and dictatorial blueprint of the past being imposed in the present. If we studied the collapse of ancient Greece, Rome, the Weimar Republic or the former Yugoslavia we would be far more alert to the current march towards despotism. Thucydides, who wrote that the tyranny the Athenian empire imposed on others it finally imposed on itself, is a better guide to our future than Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand. So for that matter, are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth, Max Weber, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Sinclair Lewis. Perhaps those who make war on the humanities know what they are doing by pushing these oracles out of school and college curriculums.
The historian Fritz Stern in “The Politics of Cultural Despair,” his book on the rise of fascism in Germany, warned repeatedly of the danger of a bankrupt liberalism. Stern, who saw the same dark, irrational forces at work today that he watched as a boy in Nazi Germany, argued that the spiritually and politically alienated are the prime recruits for a politics centered around cultural hatreds and personal resentments. He said that in Germany there was a yearning for fascism before the word fascism was invented.
“They attacked liberalism,” Stern wrote of the fascists emerging at the time in Germany, “because it seemed to them the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it; the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sense in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this, liberalism denied. Hence, they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith.”
It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine — the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians or even the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists and businesspeople cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian absurdity of neoliberalism.
In the twilight phase of capitalism, wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing. It is created by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. Our casino capitalism has merged with the gambling industry. It is parasitic. It is designed to prey on the desperate — young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit card debt and mortgages, towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
Casino magnates such as Sheldon Adelson and hedge fund managers such as Robert Mercer add nothing of value to society. They do not generate money but instead redistribute it upwards to the 1 percent. They use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rewrite laws and regulations and built monopolies — this is how the drug company Mylan raised the price of an EpiPen used to treat allergy reactions, from $57 in 2007 to about $500. They have given themselves the legal power to carry out a tax boycott, loot the U.S. Treasury, close factories and send the jobs overseas, gut social service programs and impose austerity. They have, at the same time, militarized our police, built the most sophisticated security and surveillance apparatus in human history, put over 2 million people who in Marxian terms are redundant or surplus labor in prison cages, and used judicial fiat to strip us of our civil liberties. They are ready should we rise up in defiance.
These corporate mandarins are, if we speak in the language of God and country, traitors. They are parasites. Financial speculation in 17th-century England was a crime. Speculators were hanged. The heads of most of today’s banks and hedge funds and the executives of large corporations, such as Walmart and Gap, that run sweatshop death traps for impoverished workers overseas deserve prison far more than most of the poor students of color I teach within the prison system, people who never had a fair trial or a chance in life.
When a tiny cabal seizes power — monarchist, communist, fascist or corporate — it creates a mafia economy and a mafia state. Trump is not an anomaly. He is the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy. Trump and his coterie of billionaires, generals, half-wits, Christian fascists, criminals, racists and deviants play the role of the Snopes clan in some of William Faulkner’s novels. The Snopeses filled the power vacuum of the decayed South and ruthlessly seized control from the degenerated, former slave-holding aristocratic elites. Flem Snopes and his extended family — which includes a killer, a pedophile, a bigamist, an arsonist, a mentally disabled man who copulates with a cow, and a relative who sells tickets to witness the bestiality– are fictional representations of the scum now elevated to the highest level of the federal government. They embody the moral rot unleashed by unfettered capitalism.
“The usual reference to ‘amorality,’ while accurate, is not sufficiently distinctive and by itself does not allow us to place them, as they should be placed, in a historical moment,” the critic Irving Howe wrote of the Snopeses. “Perhaps the most important thing to be said is that they are what comes afterwards: the creatures that emerge from the devastation, with the slime still upon their lips.”
“Let a world collapse, in the South or Russia, and there appear figures of coarse ambition driving their way up from beneath the social bottom, men to whom moral claims are not so much absurd as incomprehensible, sons of bushwhackers or muzhiks drifting in from nowhere and taking over through the sheer outrageousness of their monolithic force,” Howe wrote. “They become presidents of local banks and chairmen of party regional committees, and later, a trifle slicked up, they muscle their way into Congress or the Politburo. Scavengers without inhibition, they need not believe in the crumbling official code of their society; they need only learn to mimic its sounds.”
The Trump regime is empowering fanatics. They believe in one truth, which is whatever they proclaim at the moment (any such declaration may contradict what they said a few hours before). They are possessed with one idea — conflict. They sanctify violence, misogyny, a disdain for empathy, and the self-appointed right to engage in bouts of frenzied rage. These characteristics, they insist, are a sign of masculinity. The highest aesthetic is militarism, violence and war. Without conflict, without enemies real or imagined, their ideological structures and racism collapse into a heap of contradictions and absurdities. They will attempt to thwart nonviolent, nationwide resistance with force. And they will attempt to stoke counterviolence, including through the use of agents provocateurs, as a response to justify greater state repression.
The Christian fascists are the vanguard of this movement. They ferret out facts and formulas that buttress their peculiar worldview and discard truths that contradict their messianic delusions. They mouth a few Biblical clichés to justify bigotry, chauvinism and governmental repression. It is propaganda masquerading as ideology. These Christian fascists are singularly incurious. They are linguistically, culturally and historically illiterate about the Muslim world, and about most other foreign cultures, yet blithely write off one-fifth of the world’s population – Muslims — as irredeemable.
The inability of white supremacists and Christian fascists to recognize the humanity of others springs from their spiritual impoverishment. They mistake bigotry for honesty and ignorance for innocence. They cannot separate fantasy from reality. Such people are, as author James Baldwin said, “moral monsters.”
Evil, for them, is embodied in the dehumanized other. Once the human personification of evil is eradicated, evil itself is supposed to disappear. Except, of course, that as soon as one group of human beings is annihilated, another human embodiment of evil rises to take its place. The Nazis began with Jews. Our fanatics are beginning with Muslims. History has shown where they will go from here.
“The nationalist is by definition an ignoramus,” the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis writer said. “Nationalism is the line of least resistance, the easy way. The nationalist is untroubled, he knows or thinks he knows what his values are, his, that’s to say national, that’s to say the values of the nation he belongs to, ethical and political; he is not interested in others, they are no concern of his, hell — it’s other people (other nations, another tribe). They don’t even need investigating. The nationalist sees other people in his own images — as nationalists.”
Like all utopians they believe their authoritarianism is being implemented for our benefit. They are like Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who oversaw the burning of Giordano Bruno at the stake and who argued that eradicating heretics does them a favor because it saves them from their own damnation. It is impossible to have a rational dialogue with people who view reality through the binary lens of black and white — us and them. They do not recognize the right of dissent. Dissent is at best obstruction and probably treason. Fanatics, in power, always become inquisitors. Trump himself has no coherent belief system or coherent ideology. This vacuum will be filled with by the Christian Right.
What comes next, history has shown, will not be pleasant. A corrupt and inept ruling elite, backed by the organs of state security and law enforcement, will transform workers into serfs. This will come with or without Trump. The most benign dissent will be criminalized. The ravaging of the ecosystem will propel us towards extinction. Hate talk will call for attacks against Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, feminists, intellectuals, artists and dissidents, all of whom will be scapegoated for the country’s stagnation. Magical thinking will dominate our airwaves and be taught in our public schools. Art and culture will be degraded to nationalist kitsch. All the cultural and intellectual disciplines that allow us to view the world from the perspective of the other, that foster empathy, understanding and compassion, will be replaced by a grotesque and cruel hypermasculinity and hypermilitarism. Those in power will validate racism, bigotry, misogyny and homophobia.
Reality and a discourse based on verifiable fact and truth is under assault. Verbal confusion reigns. Truth and illusion have merged. Mental chaos makes it hard to fathom what is happening. We feel trapped in a hall of mirrors. Revealed lies are answered with new lies. The rational is countered with the irrational. Cognitive dissonance prevails. We endure a disquieting shame and even guilt. Tens of millions of Americans, especially women, undocumented workers, Muslims and African-Americans, suffer the acute anxiety of being pursued by a predator. All this is by design. Demagogues always infect the governed with their own psychosis.
The lies pour daily out of the White House like flocks of pigeons: Donald Trump’s election victory was a landslide. He had the largest inauguration crowds in American history. Three million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally. Climate change is a hoax. Vaccines cause autism. Immigrants are carriers of “tremendous infectious disease.” The election was rigged—until it wasn’t. We don’t know “who really knocked down” the World Trade Center. Torture works. Mexico will pay for the wall. America will be great again.
Trump, a 70-year-old with orange-tinted skin and hair that Penn Jillette has likened to “cotton candy made of piss,” is, as Trump often reminds us, “very good looking.” He does not read. He knows little of history, politics, law, philosophy, art or governance but insists, “my IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” The mediocrities he has installed in his Cabinet have “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.”
It is an avalanche of absurdities.
This mendacity would be easier to repulse if the problem was solely embodied in Trump. But even in the face of a rising despotism, the Democratic Party refuses to denounce the corporate forces that eviscerated our democracy and impoverished the country. The neoliberal Trump demonizes Muslims, undocumented workers and the media. The neoliberal Democratic Party demonizes Vladimir Putin and FBI Director James Comey. No one speaks about the destructive force of corporate power. The warring elites pit alternative facts against alternative facts. All engage in demagoguery. We will, I fear, be condemned to despotism by the venality of Trump and the cowardice and dishonesty of the liberal class.
Trump and those around him have a deep hatred for what they cannot understand. They silence anyone who thinks independently. They elevate pseudo-intellectuals who adhere to their bizarre script. They cannot cope with complexity, nuance or the unpredictable. Individual initiative is a mortal threat. The order for some employees of several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service, the National Park Service and the Department of Health and Human Services, to restrict or cease communication with the press or members of Congress, along with the attempt to impose 10-year felony convictions on six reporters who covered the inauguration protests, is part of a campaign to marginalize reality itself and replace it with fantasy. Facts for demagogues depend solely on those who have the power to create them. The goal of the Trump administration is to create an artificial consistency that conforms to its warped perception of the world.
“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations,” wrote Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” “The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.”
The loss of credibility by democratic institutions has thrust the country into an existential as well as economic crisis. The courts, universities and press are no longer trusted by tens of millions of Americans who correctly see them as organs of the corporate elites. These institutions are traditionally the mechanisms by which a society is able to unmask the lies of the powerful, critique ruling ideologies and promote justice. Because Americans have been bitterly betrayed by their institutions, the Trump regime can attack the press as the “opposition party,” threaten to cut off university funding, taunt a federal jurist as a “so-called judge” and denounce a court order as “outrageous.”
The decay of democratic institutions is the prerequisite for the rise of authoritarian or fascist regimes. This decay has given credibility to a pathological liar. The Trump administration, according to an Emerson College poll, is considered by 49 percent of registered voters to be truthful while the media are considered truthful by only 39 percent of registered voters. Once American democratic institutions no longer function, once large sectors of the public believe, as Trump says, that the press is “the enemy of the American people,” reality becomes whatever absurdity the White House issues.
Most of the rules of democracy are unwritten. These rules determine public comportment and ensure respect for democratic norms, procedures and institutions. Trump has, to the delight of his supporters, rejected this political and cultural etiquette.
Arendt noted that when democratic institutions collapse it is “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which have become pious banalities.” The chatter of the liberal ruling elites about our democracy is itself an absurdity. “Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories,” she wrote, infects political discourse. This vulgarity is “mistaken for courage and a new style of life.”
Trump’s theatricality works. He forces the press and the public to repeat his lies, inadvertently giving them credibility. He is always moving. He is always on display. He has no fixed belief system. Trump, as he consolidates power, will adopt the ideology of the Christian right to fill his own ideological vacuum. The Christian right’s magical thinking will merge seamlessly with Trump’s magical thinking. Idiocy, self-delusion, megalomania, fantasy and government repression will come wrapped in images of the Christian cross and the American flag. The most effective agent of a Christianized Fascism will be Pence, not Trump.
The corporate state, hostile or indifferent to the plight of the citizens, has no emotional pull among the public. It is often hated. Political candidates run not as politicians but as celebrities. Campaigns eschew issues to make people feel good about candidates and themselves. Ideas are irrelevant. Emotional euphoria is paramount. The voter is only a prop in the political theater. Politics is anti-politics. It is reality television. Trump proved better at this game than his opponents. It is a game in which fact and knowledge do not matter. Politicians, like celebrities, are manufactured personalities. Reality is what you create. Entertainment is paramount. The skillful manipulation of emotion is confused with knowledge. We were conditioned for a Trump.
“The demagogue relies for his effectiveness on the fact that people will take seriously the fantastic accusations he makes, will discuss the phony issues he raises as if they had reality, or will be thrown into such a state of panic by his accusations and charges that they will simply abdicate their right to think and verify for themselves” Joost Meerloo wrote.
The lies create a climate in which everyone is assumed to be lying. The truth becomes suspect and obscured. Narratives begin to be believed not because they are true, or even sound true, but because they are emotionally appealing. The aim of systematic lying, as Arendt wrote, is the “transformation of human nature itself.” The lies eventually foster somnambulism among a population that surrenders to the magical thinking and ceases to care. It checks out. It becomes cynical. It only asks to be entertained and given a vent for its frustration and rage. Demagogues produce enemies the way a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat. They wage constant battles against nonexistent dangers, rapidly replacing one after the other to keep the rhetoric at a fever pitch.
“Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go out and kill him in self-defense,” Arendt wrote. “This certainly is a little crude, but it works — as everybody will know who has ever watched how certain successful careerists eliminate competitors.”
To recover our mental balance we must respond to Trump the way victims of trauma respond to abuse. We must build communities where we can find understanding and solidarity. We must allow ourselves to mourn. We must name the psychosis that afflicts us. We must carry out acts of civil disobedience and steadfast defiance to re-empower others and ourselves. We must fend off the madness and engage in dialogues based on truth, literacy, empathy and reality. We must invest more time in activities such as finding solace in nature, or focusing on music, theater, literature, art and even worship — activities that hold the capacity for renewal and transcendence. This is the only way we will remain psychologically whole. Building an outer shell or attempting to hide will exacerbate our psychological distress and depression. We may not win, but we will have, if we create small, like-minded cells of defiance, the capacity not to go insane.
The Trump regime’s demented project of social engineering, which will come wrapped in Christianized fascism, can be implemented only if it quickly seizes control of the bureaucratic mechanisms, an action that Max Weber pointed out is the prerequisite for exercising power in industrial and technocratic societies. Once what the historian Guglielmo Ferrero calls the “silken threads” of habit, tradition and legality are gone, the “iron chains” of dictatorship will impose social cohesion.
We cannot, as the Democratic Party appears to be doing, hope that the 2018 0r 2020 elections solve our dilemma. These reactionary forces, which have been plotting for four decades for this moment, which have seized most of the governorships and state legislatures, extend far beyond Washington.
As the state increases the level of violence against nonviolent dissent we must never respond with violence. The use of violence, including property destruction, and taunting the police is a gift to the security and surveillance state. It allows the state to demonize and isolate a mass movement. It drives away the bulk of the population. Violence against the state is used by the authorities to justify greater forms of control and repression. The corporate state understands and welcomes the language of force. This is a game the government will always win and we will always lose. If we are perceived as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob that embraces violence, we will be easily crushed.
We can succeed only if we win the hearts and minds of the wider public and ultimately many of those within the structures of power, including the police. When violence is used against nonviolent protesters demanding basic forms of justice it exposes the weakness of the state. It delegitimizes those in power. It prompts a passive population to respond with active support for the protesters. It creates internal divisions within the structures of power that, as I witnessed during the revolutions in Eastern Europe, paralyze and defeat those in authority. Martin Luther King Jr. held marches in Birmingham, Ala., rather than Albany, Ga., because he knew Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor would overreact and expose the city’s racist structures.
The acts of resistance — including the massive street protests the day after the inauguration and later the demonstrations that grew out of the ban on Muslims, the Department of Energy’s refusal to give the Trump administration a list of employees that worked on climate change, acting Attorney General Sally Yates’ refusal to enforce the travel ban and hundreds of State Department staff members’ signing of a memo opposing the immigration restrictions — terrify those around Trump.
We have the power to make the country ungovernable. But we do not have much time. The regime will make it harder and harder to organize, get into the streets and carry out the nationwide strikes, including within the federal bureaucracy. Resistance alone, however, is not enough. It must be accompanied by an alternative vision of a socialist and anti-capitalist society. It must reject the Democratic Party’s attempt to ride anti-Trump sentiment back into power. The enemy is, in the end, not Trump or Bannon, but the corporate state. If we do not dismantle corporate power we will never stop fascism’s seduction of the white working class and unemployed.
“The evil which you fear becomes a certainty by what you do,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his play “Egmont.”
Now is the time not to cooperate. Now is the time to shut down the systems of power. Now is the time to resist. It is our last chance. The fanatics are moving with lightning speed. So should we.
The tension between the Trump White House and segments of the establishment, including the courts, the intelligence community and the State Department, has been misconstrued as evidence that the elites will remove Trump from power. If the elites can work out a relationship with the Trump regime to maximize profits and protect their personal and class interests they will endure the embarrassment of having a demagogue in the Oval Office.
The corporate state, or deep state, also has no commitment to democracy. Its forces hollowed out democratic institutions to render them impotent. The difference between corporate power and the Trump regime is that corporate power sought to maintain the fiction of democracy, including the polite, public deference paid to bankrupt democratic institutions. Trump has obliterated this deference. He has plunged political discourse into the gutter. Trump is not destroying democratic institutions. They were destroyed before he took office.
Even the most virulent fascist regimes built shaky alliances with traditional conservative and business elites, who often considered the fascists gauche and crude. “We have never known an ideologically pure fascist regime,” writes Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism.” “Indeed, the thing hardly seems possible. Each generation of scholars of fascism has noted that the regimes rested upon some kind of pact or alliance between the fascist party and powerful conservative forces. In the early 1940s the social democratic refugee Franz Neumann argued in his classic Behemoth that a ‘cartel’ of party, industry, army, and bureaucracy ruled Nazi Germany, held together only by ‘profit, power, prestige, and especially fear.’ ”
Fascist and authoritarian regimes are ruled by multiple centers of power that are often in competition with each other and openly antagonistic. These regimes, as Paxton writes, replicate the “leadership principle” so that it “cascades down through the social and political pyramid, creating a host of petty Führers and Duces in a state of Hobbesian war of all against all.”
The little führers and duces are always buffoonish. Such strutting demagogues appalled liberal elites in the 1930s. The German novelist Thomas Mann wrote in his diary two months after the Nazis came to power that he had witnessed a revolution “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice.” He lamented that the “common scum” had taken power “accompanied by vast rejoicing on the part of the masses.” The business elites in Germany may not have liked this “scum,” but they were willing to work with them. And our business elites will do likewise now.
Trump, a product of the billionaire class, will accommodate these corporate interests, along with the war machine, to, I expect, build a mutually acceptable alliance. The lackeys in Congress and the courts, puppets of corporations, will, I expect, mostly be submissive. And if Trump is impeached, the reactionary forces that are cementing into place authoritarianism will find a champion in Pence, who is feverishly placing members of the Christian right throughout the federal government.
Hope comes from the numerous protests that have been mounted in the streets, at town halls, held by members of Congress and at flash points such as Standing Rock. It may also come from the 2.5 million civil servants within the federal government if a significant number refuse to cooperate with the authoritarian project.
“The new president is clearly aware of the power wielded by civil servants, who swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, not to any president or administration,” Maria J. Stephan, the co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works,” writes in The Washington Post. “One of Trump’s first acts as president was a sweeping federal hiring freeze affecting all new and existing positions except those related to the military, national security and public safety. Even before Trump’s inauguration, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reinstated an obscure 1876 rule that would allow Congress to slash the salaries of individual federal workers. This was a clear warning to those serving in government to keep their heads down. Trump’s high-profile firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, who refused to follow the president’s immigration ban, sent shock waves through the bureaucracy.”
We must engage in these battles on the local and the national level. We must, in our own community, mobilize to prevent the deportation of undocumented workers, the evictions from their homes of the unemployed, those with disabilities, the elderly or those living on small, fixed incomes.
The assault on the vulnerable, including our children most in need, is taking place even within our own community. Only 3 percent of the students at the Princeton Charter School are African-American and only 3 percent are Latino. At Princeton public schools, 16 percent are Latino and 6 percent are African-American. Only one percent of the students at the charter school are low income while 15 percent are low income at the public school. And 13 percent of public school students are in special education, which costs substantially more, while only 3 percent of charter school students are in special education.
The charter school extracts over 5 million a year from the public school budget. Its unelected, unappointed and unaccountable board of trustees, nearly all of whom come out of the corporate world with little or no educational background, are now demanding an additional yearly $ 1.2 million for expansion. The decision to grant this expansion will be made by Governor Christie’s acting commissioner for education. This is anti-democratic. It is educational apartheid. It must end in Princeton. Just as it must end in Red Hook, Franklin, Morris Township in New Jersey and communities across the country, especially as Trump proposes cutting $ 20 billion from the federal education budget to funnel government funds into charter schools. This is a body blow to our democracy.
We must be good neighbors, not only to those in this community, but in the neighboring city of Trenton, where families are enduring food shortages and a fiscal crisis has seen its four public library branches shut down. Surely there is enough money and enough human capital in Princeton to reopen these branches, a vital lifeline to the poor, and stock the food pantries. I can only imagine the nightmare that will soon beset the Trenton public school system.
The reclaiming of our democracy will only happen only when we make our physical presence felt in public spaces.
We once had within our capitalist democracy liberal institutions—the press, labor unions, third political parties, civic and church groups, public broadcasting, well-funded public universities and a liberal wing of the Democratic Party — that were capable of responding to outside pressure from movements. They did so imperfectly. They provided only enough reforms to save the capitalist system from widespread unrest or, with the breakdown of capitalism in the 1930s, from revolution. They never addressed white supremacy and institutional racism or the cruelty that is endemic to capitalism. But they had the ability to ameliorate the suffering of the poor and workingmen and women.
These liberal institutions exist now only in name. They are props in the democratic facade. Liberal nonprofits, from MoveOn to the Sierra Club, are no better. They are pathetic appendages to the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party, as the community organizer Michael Gecan said, is not a functioning political party but “a permanent mobilization.” It is propped up with corporate money and by a hyperventilating media machine. It practices political coronations and manipulates voters, who have no real say in party politics. There are, as the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin reminded us, no institutions left in America that can authentically be called democratic.
We will have to build new, radical movements and, most importantly, new, parallel institutions that challenge the hegemony of corporate power. It will not be easy. It will take time. We must not accept foundation money and grants from established institutions that seek to curtail the process of reconstituting society. Trusting in the system, and especially the Democratic Party, to carry out reform and wrest back our democracy ensures our enslavement. We have to be able to pit power against power. We have to defy the rules. We cannot be predicable. We have to disrupt the machinery of governance. None of this will come by forming flash mobs on the Internet. It will come by building real and enduring relationships within our communities the old way – person by person. It will come when we take the time to listen. We have to surprise those in authority. And these kinds of protests – not the choreographed boutique activism where you stay within free space areas or are politely taken to sit in a jail cell for a few hours — are greeted with real anger by the state.
If we are to succeed we will have to make alliances with people and groups whose professed political stances are different from ours and at times unpalatable to us. We will have to shed our ideological purity. The Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky argued that the ideological rigidity of the left — something epitomized in identity politics and political correctness — effectively severed it from the lives of working men and women. This was especially true during the Vietnam War when college students led the anti-war protests and the sons of the working class did the fighting and dying in Vietnam. But it is true today as liberals and the left dismiss Trump supporters as irredeemable racists and bigots and ignore their legitimate feelings of betrayal and very real suffering. Condemning those who support Trump is political suicide. Alinsky detested such moral litmus tests. He insisted that there were “no permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent power.”
Our only hope now is an unwavering noncooperation with the systems of corporate control. We must rebuild democratic institutions from the ground up. We must not be seduced into trusting the power elites, including the Democratic Party, whose seven leading candidates to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee have demonstrated they have no interest in defying corporate power or backing democratic populism. We must also acknowledge our own failures on the left, our elitism, arrogance and refusal to root our politics locally in our communities. Rosa Luxemburg understood that unless we first address the most pressing economic and physical needs of the destitute we will never gain credibility or build a resistance movement. Revolt surges up from below, exemplified by the water protectors at Standing Rock.
Politics is a game of fear. Those who do not have the ability to make power elites afraid do not succeed. The movements that opened up the democratic space in America — the abolitionists, suffragists, labor movement, communists, socialists, anarchists and civil rights and labor movements — developed a critical mass and militancy that forced the centers of power to respond. The platitudes about justice, equality and democracy are just that. Only when power is threatened does it react. Appealing to its better nature is useless. It doesn’t have one.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening. But as Immanuel Kant reminded us, “if justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.”
The moment we rise up to defy radical evil we are victorious. The moment we stand alongside the oppressed, and accept being treated like the oppressed, we are victorious. The moment we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see another narrative, another way of being, we are victorious. The moment we reopen a public library or save a public school we are victorious. The moment we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, we are victorious. And the moment those in power fear us, we are victorious.
Let those who come after us say we tried. Let them say of us that we kept hope alive. Let our lives be an example of the empathy and justice that all dictatorships seek to eradicate. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves.
I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I do know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.