When Was America Great?
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When Was America Great?

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

Donald Trump ran for President on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” implying that America had been great once, but no longer is.

True to form, Hillary Clinton’s rejoinder was clueless.  America is great now, she would insist every chance she got — indispensably great, “exceptional” even.

Could there be a more empty-headed exchange of views!

After all, Trump was neither asserting nor implying anything; he was pitching a line to a demographic that he, advertising himself, wanted to target.  Therefore, no rebuttal was called for; least of all, one as inane as Clinton’s.

But, of course, she was pitching a line too.

A cottage industry has lately sprung up analyzing the pathologies of Donald Trump’s personality.  His public persona is inscrutable, however; it defies analysis for the simple reason that there is no there there.

Trump is a con man for whom reasons and evidence matter only insofar as they serve his purposes.   He is whatever he needs to be at the moment.

Meanwhile, Clinton took her lead from the Ronald Reagan, “morning in America” playbook.  The Gipper sold his snake oil by projecting a shallow, but infectious, optimism.  However, for that to work, a sunny disposition is required.  Hillary isn’t a good enough actor to pull it off.

All she could do was scare a lot of voters – a majority of them, it turned out — with the specter of the orange haired monster.  As for promoting herself, she was hopeless.

Moreover, her take on the morning in America meme only fed the hostility of her detractors.   How could it not?  In their minds, she represented the “elites” behind the losses they felt.

They were right about that.

Meanwhile, Trump knew exactly how to play his marks by making them think that he could restore a past that they look back upon with nostalgia.

In reality, though, Trump cannot do anything of the sort, and wouldn’t if he could.

This is why, before long, “Make America Great Again” will stick in the craw of Trump voters in much the way that Obama’s “hope and change thingee,” as Sarah Palin called it, still plagues disillusioned Obamaphiles.

Obama was vague about what he wanted people to hope for, and what changes he saw coming.  Trump is vague as well.

But it is obvious enough what he wants people to hear when he speaks of making America great — again.

Since Trump’s target audience was comprised mainly of people who are at least middle aged, it would be fair to say that his goal was to get them to think of post-War America as their personal Paradise lost.

This is nonsense, of course; but, by now, the span of time between the late forties and early sixties is remote enough to be looked back upon in ways that Trump could and did successfully exploit.

***

The man is anything but subtle.

He wanted his marks to yearn for a Golden Age in which hard working white men could make a decent living doing honest, productive labor in jobs that were not about to go away; and in which everybody else knew his or her place: blacks in the back of the bus, women standing by their men, gays in the closet, Hispanics in Mexico or Central America.

The pundits tell us that “Make America Great Again” is a dog whistle slogan – meaning that its meaning is audible to Trump’s target audience and no one else.   Like so much else that liberal pundits tell us, this is nonsense.  What Trump wanted people to hear was audible to everybody.

It is a noxious message, and a false one: even white men didn’t have it so good back in the day.

Nevertheless, as with much else that Trump says, there is something to it – just not what he intended.

For one thing, the political scene really was better in the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years.  Republicans were pernicious, of course, but no worse than Democrats are today.  And the New Deal spirit still survived in sectors of the Democratic Party.

Democrats now, especially since Election Day, are many times worse than they used to be.  Cold War Democrats had at least some measure of common sense and proportionality; Democrats today, for no plausible reason whatsoever, are hell-bent on taking the world to the brink of destruction, or beyond.

Hillary lost, but, within the ranks of the party she led, her Russophobic, neoconservative warmongering has taken on a life of its own.   Can any sane person not be nostalgic for a time when Democrats were better than that?

It is all well and good to question the “legitimacy” of Trump’s presidency.   There are so many questions that could be raised about that: voter suppression topping the list.

But Democrats cannot find it in themselves to do anything more edifying than blame those damn Ruskies.

This is not only preposterous; it is criminally reckless because all it does is prepare the public for war.

On this, “progressive” Democrats are as bad as the others; as bad even as Republicans like that perennial miscreant John McCain and his sidekick, Lindsey Graham.

Shame especially on “civil rights icon” and Clinton stooge John Lewis.  The guardians of the status quo now find it useful to place him on a pedestal, just as they find it useful to de-radicalize and then venerate Martin Luther King.

In exchange for the honor, he does them yeoman service – as when he conflated still unanswered questions about Russian hackers with the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election.

Civil rights icon indeed; the man belongs in a museum.  Along with most of the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus, and nearly the entire membership of the incongruously named Progressive Caucus, he should just get out of the way.

Cold War Democrats were anything but “great,” but at least they didn’t make starting World War III their life’s work.

Trump obviously has no interest in transforming the Democratic Party for the better, and neither did voters who thought that a Trump presidency would make America great again.

Nevertheless, along with all the really bad stuff that Trump, and many of his fans, actually did have in mind, the nostalgia for the fifties and early sixties that he churned up does suggest a thought that is well worth taking on board — that neither Republicans nor Democrats need be quite as awful as they actually are.

Ironically too, Trump’s implicit appeal to post-War American values and norms helps sustain (small-r) republican ways of thinking about politics that are generally progressive and diametrically opposed to all things Trumpian.

From the sixteenth century on, there have been political thinkers in Western countries for whom ancient Sparta and the Roman republic served as political models.  What they esteemed was their egalitarianism (applicable, however, only to free male citizens) and their ideal of civic virtue, according to which the public good takes precedence over individuals’ private interests.

In the ideal world envisioned by republicans, small, mainly rural, largely self-sufficient households prosper together – with no one rich, no one poor, and everyone happy.

America’s founders were influenced by republican thought – Thomas Jefferson, most famously – and, early on, strains of republican thinking found a welcome home in the collective consciousness of the American people.

The fortunes of republican thinking have waxed and waned in the years that ensued, as has the appeal of republican values – in part because republicanism’s fortunes and capitalism’s are thoroughly intertwined.

(Small-r) republican societies may not be full-fledged capitalist societies, according to one or another account of what capitalism involves, but they are relevantly like mature capitalist societies in supposing private ownership of major means of production and market relations.  They therefore give rise to concentrations of wealth that undo the conditions for their possibility.

In this sense, their vision of ideal political-economic arrangements is utopian, unrealizable in real world conditions.  Full-fledged capitalism, on the other hand, is astonishingly resilient; and, as everyone nowadays understands, it is capable of sustaining enormous levels of inequality.

In the years that people in Trump’s target audience look back upon yearningly, the inegalitarian tendencies inherent in the logic of capitalist development were effectively held in bounds by circumstances that cannot now be reproduced, and by the sustained efforts of a political class for whom memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s remained vivid.  Those days are long gone.

Moreover, for nearly the entire post-War period, rampant, corporate and state sponsored consumerism has been militating against republican notions of civic virtue.

Even so, vestigial republican attitudes survive in the deepest recesses of the American psyche.   In recent years, there has even been a revival of republican political philosophy in respectable academic precincts.

Therefore, one plausible understanding of “Make America Great Again” would be to see it as a call for America to recover its republican roots – by building a politics around the notions of freedom, equality, and virtue associated with the republican tradition.

Needless to say, this is not what Trump was promising.   He stands for everything republicanism rejects.

Trump voters are obviously capable of believing almost anything, but it would strain even their credulity to see Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan as a call for equality, virtue, and the simplicity of manners and morals inherent in the republican ideal.

Perhaps this is why, to hear Trump and his defenders tell it, what has been lost that is worth restoring is not exactly the ways that American society accorded a semblance of homage to what republicans care about but something more pedestrian associated with it: the economic security that existed when manufacturing jobs abounded. That is what he claims he can restore.

But, of course, he cannot – not with what he is peddling.  He can only do what mountebanks generally do: sell crap to the gullible and the desperate, counting on the power of suggestion to keep them on board long enough for him not to be run out of town.

This is all he can do for much the same reason that social democrats, these days, cannot hold back the neoliberal tide: because capitalism cannot be transformed or even tamed by government fiat alone.

Marxists were spot on right when they maintained that far-reaching changes of the kind that are desperately needed nowadays can only come about through class struggle.  This is why, in the absence of a collective agent, able and determined to transform the underlying structure of capitalism itself, the broad contours of the status quo are regretfully secure.

Because neoliberal economic realities, and neoliberal state policies, have effectively reduced the labor movement to a shadow of its former self, leaving no functional equivalent in its place, this is indeed the situation we now find ourselves in.

Therefore, even if Trump wasn’t just blowing air – even if he really did want to restore manufacturing jobs — he would be unable to do anything of the kind.

Being both an opportunist and a showman, he will likely collude with a few of his fellow capitalists for a while — making them offers, at the taxpayer’s expense, that they cannot refuse.  But without a counter-systemic social movement leading the way, he cannot defy the inherent logic of the system.   No one can.

At this point in its development, that system has two major requirements, both of which militate against restoring anything like the conditions that, decades ago, created a large and secure middle class.  It requires consumers able and willing to spend enough to keep aggregate demand at acceptable levels; and it requires a domestic work force that that is insecure and poorly paid, and therefore quiescent.   These exigencies are at odds; precarious work situations and depressed wages depress consumption.

Neoliberals square the circle by transferring manufacturing jobs to low wage countries and then flooding the domestic market with goods that are so cheap that most Americans can still afford them.

Obviously, this “solution” doesn’t address any of the fundamental contradictions of neoliberal capitalism.  If anything, it exacerbates them.

Trump owes his election, in part, to the discontents it generates.  If those discontents continue, or intensify, he will have hell to pay.

Barring a radical change of course, the day of reckoning is sure to come; the only question is when.

If, in a vain effort to keep his supporters on board for as long as he can, Trump ratchets up more of the same – and what else could he do with the cabinet of dunces he has appointed, and without being a traitor to his class and to his own venality? – it could well come on his watch.

This will be wondrous to behold.

Had the Democratic Party not rigged the nomination process against Bernie Sanders, he would probably now be President, and he would find his efforts to restore the gains of the New Deal – Great Society era, and then to move beyond them, thwarted not just by the obstacles that (big-R) Republicans and rightwing Democrats (is there any other kind?) would put in his way, but by the same fatal contradiction.

The problem with Sanders’ “political revolution” was not just that it wasn’t radical enough or that it was too empire friendly; it was that, after the neoliberal assault on what little (small-d) democracy we had, there can be no fundamental changes at the political level without taking on capitalism itself.

But since Sanders was denied the nomination, that is a problem for another day.  Trump is the problem now.

Surely, at some level, many, maybe most, Trump voters have known all along that there is nothing he could do that would restore the economic security they crave.  They voted for him anyway, however.  That is how desperate they were.

And so, he won; and, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, the shit will hit the fan.

Notwithstanding the willful blindness that is so rampant in liberal quarters, the problem now, had Hillary not flubbed so badly, would be to keep her and her fellow Russophobic neocons and “humanitarian” imperialists from vaporizing the world.

But because he is such a loose cannon, and in so far over his head, what lies ahead with Trump seems even scarier than that – even on matters of war and peace.  If he does derail the War Party, then more power to him.  But he is no more to be trusted to use the American juggernaut, nukes and all, wisely than any normally immature adolescent boy chosen at random.

Expect turbulence ahead!  The time when it is still possible to postpone the inevitable choice between socialism – not the social democratic – Sanders version, but the real deal — or barbarism is fading fast.  Thank Trump for that.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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