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  • Richard Farr

After the cataclysm: thoughts from the deck of a sinking ship

This great ship, the USS America, is in deep trouble. Captain Barry Hope — “Audacity” to his friends — is about to be helicoptered off into the sunset, and the passengers have elected as his replacement a bullying, ignorant, unstable five-year-old who has never before seen the ocean. “Donnie Boy” has now revealed his plans to fire the America’s crew, and he will be replacing them with (a) his own relatives — mostly people born with silver spoons sticking like daggers from their prefrontal cortex, and (b) an assortment of people dragged gibbering and grinning from the sick-bay’s psychiatric unit. Some of the latter are already at work sawing holes in the hull. Dark water is rushing in, threatening the lives of people trapped on the lower decks.

In January, when Donnie’s people take over the wheelhouse, their first order of business will be to smash and discard the lifeboats, the theory being that lifeboats are dead weight, only used as spare accomodation by “undesirable” passengers anyway. Many of these undesirables never even bought tickets, having been smuggled aboard as children. Like the lifeboats, they will be tossed overboard.

Meanwhile, barometric data indicates an unprecedented storm on the horizon. But the new weather soothsayers says the old weather forecasters are just a bunch of fear-mongering conspirators. To prove the point, the soothsayers will be turning the America around, and steering it directly into the storm.

(Donnie himself claims that the America was once an airplane, and that by making enough vroom noises he will make it fly again.)

What follows was written largely as therapy to get me through the days since the election. It is colored by astonishment, anxiety, and the fear of drowning. Not to mention the fear that many of my fellow passengers are already getting used to the newly sloping decks, and are nothing like as much afraid of drowning as they should be. If the tone is sometimes angry, or intemperate, I apologize. Dark days. In lighter ones, we could have an interesting conversation about whether anger and intemperance are always flaws, or whether some conditions make them (as another, different kind of President once said) “altogether fitting and proper.”

(1) How bad can it be?

About half of all Americans thought they thought it would be appalling if Mr. Syphilis won. But many, I think, never really took seriously just how appalling it might turn out to be. Day after day, he kept demonstrating ever more vividly that he is a horrible person who has done horrible things, and is proud of the fact. But that’s just the icing on the poisoned cake: it’s what his people will actually do, as policy, that matters far more. I wrote about this phenomenon before the election, and stand by what I said then — both about how the coming horror has the potential to be terminal for the project of democracy, if not the planet, and about what our attitude should be to the moral character of the people who did most to put us here.

In the last few days we have seen almost everyone, even the New York Times, opine that maybe things aren’t so bad after all, because the Shrieking Day-Glo Maniac has said one or two things that are conciliatory, back-pedalling, almost reasonable. Hope is a dangerous game, this time around, and the danger was well-illustrated by a NYT columnist who with palpable relief described the new Buffoon-in-Chief as “open-minded about torture.” Roll that one around on your tongue; be sure to get the full flavor of what it means to lose one’s sense of irony along with the capacity to remember what it was like to live in a society that was, so recently and emphatically and rightly, not open-minded about torture.

(2) A thought-provoking conversation

Last week I had an interesting and very civil conversation with a Trump supporter. Once we’d got beyond “Oh goodness: we disagree so profoundly about, um, everything,” the thing that struck me most was the one thread in what he was saying that rang true for me.

Of course, yes, some Trump supporters are the usual run of cynical faux-patriotic pole-climbers, some are pining for the good ol’ days of segregation, and others are quite simply fascists; worse, some of exactly those people are about to move into the White House, because Donnie Darko himself is wholly comfortable with them. However, many or perhaps most of those who voted for the Great Dorito are not even casual racists, much less despicable “alt-wrong” White Power scum-nuts with a teenage pash for Mussolini. (That’s right, Mr. Spencer, with the taste for ugly 1930s rhetorical cliché and that Schicklgruber haircut: we’re talking about you.) No: many of the 61 million Trumpistas voted for their Abuser-in-Chief on the basis of what was, in one way, simply a sound political calculation about how to have a voice, instead of no voice, in the corrupted and broken system sometimes known as The World’s Greatest Democracy.

The fundamental problem being this: both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party claim to care deeply — much more deeply than the other! — about the interests of ordinary working Americans. And this has been, for at least two generations, two slightly different kinds of lie.

(One telling sign of this: the uniformly well-heeled satraps of both parties go on and on, ad nauseam, about saving the middle class. But even the Democrats — who differentiate themselves from their opponents by at least feeling guilty from time to time about being more beholden to their wealthiest supporters than to their constituents — long ago lost the ability to get their tongues around the phrase that describes the people whose interests they should actually be defending, the most vulnerable, the “working class.” Quaint phrase! See below under “Responsibility.”)

In other words, millions of voters felt wholly unrepresented, yet again, by either of the two parties on offer. As my Trumpian friend said: “our democracy has been stolen by elites.”

To someone like me, who (from the left) has never much liked what either party had to offer, that seemed like insight. (An old insight, for sure: see the quotation below.) And it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that politics really can’t be about Republican versus Democrat, but only about who offers the Disruption Candidate and who offers the Establishment Candidate.

Now, as polls repeatedly showed in the summer — to the astonishment and disbelief of the chatterati — Bernie Sanders had a far better chance of beating the Great Orange Toad (or, even more, any other Republican) than Hillary did. How could that be? Because, to many of the angriest voters, he would have been a different Disruption Candidate, and therefore a real alternative at last to the uniquely depressing, uniquely predictable, uniquely narrow chicken-or-beef of America’s Two Party State.

Anger at this ossified system was the key motivation of many Orangina supporters, then. Alas, like the Brexit Brits, the choice they made was akin to being mad with anger, getting out the shotgun, and blowing off your own feet.

Oh yes, and everyone else’s feet.

(3) A note on labels

This was an election featuring Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, a bunch of astoundingly vacuous ninnies who were more or less (sometimes less) mainstream Republicans, and Donald Trump.

Of some interest, and too little noted: the liberal, Hillary Clinton, is not a liberal, but a breathlessly pro-capitalist neoliberal hawk — which is to say, a sub-species of traditional conservative. The self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders, is not a socialist, not even close — the mystery of why he calls himself one remains unsolved — but a kind of mildly left-of-center Euro-style social democrat. Many of the ninnies, although Republican, were not conservatives, but rather one flavor or another of quasi-libertarian, market-fundamentalist, radical anti-government revolutionary — a type almost completely absent from the Republican mainstream until St. Ronald of Laissez-Faire, and marginal even then. The winning “conservative” candidate, Don Corleotrumpe, is not a conservative either — or indeed anything else, other than a gruesome cartoon caricature of a greedy, apolitical opportunist.

On the whole, Hillary Clinton would have been very much at home in the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Personally they’d have got on too. It’s an interesting question whether Eisenhower would have been more repelled by the modern GOP’s fundamentalist ninnies, or they by him. As for Eisenhower’s reaction to Rump, one does not wish so violently to disturb his ghost.

“Conservative” was once the name of an honorable if timid view, leery of any but the slowest and most piecemeal social change. Since the time of Nixon, it has become progressively uglier, and meaner, and more radical in its aspirations, and less and less intellectually or morally defensible. Now it has become something else again: the rosy-cheeked ring-bearer of a great and potentially terrible evil.

(4) Flooding the swamp: It’s worse than you thought

The Liar-Elect said that he would “drain the swamp” of lobbyists. He sounded almost like one of those few people who remember a time in America when the very profession of lobbying would have been considered sleazy, and shocking, and immoral on its face. Predictably, however — since his formulation of a coherent proposition, though rare, is almost a guarantee of falsehood — he has proceeded to fill his transition team with … lobbyists. For the full ugly story, listen to Elizabeth Warren give the details:

Stephen Bannon: A fascist? I don’t mean the word as the cheap insult it so often is: it seems simply to be the most plausible actual interpretation of his political inclinations to date. Compare Mussolini in the early 1920s, when he first championed the term, or his expert Austrian imitator a decade later, when sensible, no-nonsense opinion in England and America still had it that AH was a sensible, no-nonsense sort of chap. Bannon seems to have exactly their taste for rabble-rousing, grievance-nurturing, and racially-tinged finger-pointing. Anyway, he will now have an office in the White House, and is already busy lying about his beliefs — he has said recently that he is not a white nationalist but merely a nationalist (a slippage that I heard echoed, just today, by the usual limp-minded suspects on NPR.) How ordinary-sounding that “nationalist” is, so long as you don’t ask whose nation — but Bannon’s own record belies him. And now, in a move no novelist could have invented, Loathsome Don has defended his hench-creep as “a decent guy.” Thus does acute, life-threatening dysentery receive a character reference from mere diarrhea.

Jeff Sessions: An ogre out of a cheap horror movie set in a swamp. But then we’re now in a cheap horror movie set in a swamp.

Michael Flynn: As far as one can tell, a once-vaguely-sensible man who has turned into a mentally unstable racist—with views about security that are, how shall we put this? Stupid. This is the man who was fired as head of the DIA after proving himself one of the most incompetent managers in recent government history. Colin Powell described him as “abusive” and “right-wing nutty.” He seems to live a waking nightmare about Muslim extremists, I mean Muslims, I mean brown people, any or all of whom might be part of the massive world-wide Islamic conspiracy — not even a religion at all, you poor naïfs, but a political ideology, bent on world domination, though cleverly disguised as a religion. In fact, quoth Flynn, it’s the single greatest security threat of all to the people of the United States — as long as you don’t think about North Korea, or nuclear proliferation generally, or how many Americans per year have their lives ended unnecessarily because of air pollution, texting-while-driving, or the US’s uniquely magnificent healthcare system.* And you definitely don’t want to compare the plausible future death rates from Islamic terrorism and global warming, because it’s so darned inconvenient to fit the two graphs on the same page.

(* Strange to relate, but US health outcomes have somehow improved lately, despite the Stalinist horror that is Obamacare — otherwise known as tens of millions of once-free people newly enslaved by access to a doctor. Despite ACA, though, a recent study (an American study) still ranks the US healthcare system as both by far the most expensive in the industrialized world and by far the worst. In particular, those in the US who are lucky enough to be fully insured pay three times as much per head to stay healthy as do the French, in return for inferior care. But thank the Good Lord we don’t have Death Panels, eh, Sarah? Only hysterical know-nothings with an eye for the main chance.)

Myron Ebell: Industry shill Myron Ebell has accused climate scientists of “cooking the data.” Oddly, he has not yet accused ExxonMobil of cooking the data, though it’s the latter’s decades of planet-poisoning lies that are now well-documented. (Presumably the US military, which has been working hard on climate change planning and mitigation for a decade, is part of the radical left-wing conspiracy too, along with all those benighted European conservative parties and the more-recently-awakened Florida real estate industry.)

Like many of Mr. Cheesemelt’s pet monsters, Ebell raises an interesting question. In science, you often have to debate whether a given body of evidence provides better support for Theory A, or Theory B. So here’s my scientific question. Theory A: Ebell knows perfectly well that climate change is happening, and has the potential to do vast damage to all of us, but especially those least responsible for it and least able to defend themselves against it; yet he finds it convenient and profitable to lie about it. Theory B: he really believes what he says — and thinks (I’m hunting for a fuller causal theory here) that all the world’s scientists and environmental activists have been corrupted by the vast fortunes that can be made by marching, and signing petitions, and taking kick-backs from the yet unborn. Sometimes it’s so very hard to pick the more plausible explanation.

This also to consider. Just suppose for a moment that coal-funded non-scientist Mr. Ebell is right, and virtually the entire scientific community, the US military, the US environmental movement, and sane people of every political stripe in the entire rest of the world are wrong. If we don’t put a stope to this green hysteria, we face the threat that some corporations will have their profits reduced somewhat, while others will do well, and that some people will lose their jobs, while others will gain new ones. On the other hand, if by some chance Mr. Ebell really is a corrupt and lying toady with no relevant expertise, and the people with the meteorology Ph.D.’s are, shockingly, right after all — and we don’t put a stop to Mr. Ebell — then what we lose is what used to be called “nature”: the planet; the only place we currently have, pace Elon Musk; everything. See ‘And goodbye,’ below.

By comparison with these lurid, Grand Guignol, almost-surreal new crew members, a figure like Mitch McConnell might seem ordinary, mainstream, almost comforting in his familiarity. But now that he is rubbing his hands with undisguisable glee, over the prospect of re-opening coal plants, killing environmental legislation, and saving the frail beating heart of liberty from the cruel threat of Obamacare, it’s worth pausing to consider how richly disgusting a man this ordinary Republican pol really is: a careerist’s careerist, utterly without principle except the twin Molochs of influence and money. He loathes the Carpet-Creeper, of course, but now can’t do without him, and will bend as necessary. See Alec MacGillis’s The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell — and leave time to take a shower afterwards.

Betsy “Kill Public Education” DeVos for Education Secretary —yet another rich person blithely convinced that she can solve the educational problems of poor people by scattering the pixie dust of Market Solutions over their unwashed heads. Ben “Pyramids” Carson for HUD — a man so foolish he is almost charming. Reince Priebus, a fire-breathing, pop-eyed, ultra-right radical who under the new dispensation counts as (some talking head on NPR again—there was a trace of irony, this time) “a relatively mainstream Republican.”

I could go on. No, I can’t go on.

Wait. The Supreme Court list … no. Sorry. Can’t go on.

(5) Blaming the Republican Party

As indicated above, it’s hard to keep track of how far right the GOP has lurched — how completely it has abandoned what historically counted as conservatism. A useful starting point is the fact that both Clintons would count as conservatives, not liberals, in both the Republican Party of yesteryear and within the party structure of most other major democracies now. Most current Republicans, on the other hand, would not count, because in most other countries conservatives think competent government is necessary, think respecting tradition is at the core of their principles, think education and science matter, think religion and politics should not mix, and do not take seriously people who pretend, for the sake of a vote, to think that evolution is a myth and that the world was created by an invisible man with anger-management issues in 4,000 BCE.

Corrupted beyond repair by the influence of money, the GOP has been little more than an extraordinarily successful shell game since the time of Nixon. In this game, the political butlers of the fuck-democracy rich persuade the poor that, according to the dark magic of something superficially resembling economics, it’s best for them to vote in the interests of … the fuck-democracy rich. Now those political butlers find themselves making nice not just to the greedy and unprincipled, but to people with black shirts in their closets. And for this — as well as their success in turning many state governments and the House of Representatives into parodies of representation — they deserve nothing but our undying contempt.

(Yes, yes, even and perhaps especially you, John McCain: you could and should have said Enough. You could and should have said: Now that Mr. Contemptiblebastard has insulted the family of a military hero, it is morally incumbent on me to oppose him all the way, up to and including campaigning for and voting for Hillary, so as to ensure his defeat — even if this has political costs for me. It’s a clear matter of principle. But you just didn’t have the cojones, did you? After all the years of respect people gave you, adulation even, sadly you have turned out to be, in your dotage — what’s that word? — oh yes, a coward. Counter-arguments? Anyone?)

One day, perhaps, there will be a genuine American conservative party again. If it is genuine, it will bar 90% of all current Republican politicians from membership, for life.

(6) Blaming the Democratic Party

The GOP has something of a taste for the Extremely Ignorant Leader, who can be more easily manipulated by the world’s Richard Cheneys once in “power” — Saint Ronnie, for example, or the hapless princeling George II. The Democratic Party has a different institutional taste: the Smart, Wonky Elitist Who’s Politically Tone-Deaf — Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, H. Clinton. (Recall that the DNC’s only two genuinely talented politicians in recent memory, B. Clinton and B. Obama, were figures they fought not to have on the ticket.)

How can these two disastrous sets of preferences be changed? There really are, or were, intelligent Republicans capable of thinking clearly about complex issues and yet speaking honestly and well, without lies or condescension, to ordinary voters; there are certainly people like that in the Democratic Party now. But will they ever get a chance to lead? In the Democratic Party, not unless the DNC is drowned in a bucket, and the Party faces up to just how epically terrible it has been at (a) picking leaders, and (b) making its central purpose what it ought to be, which is representing and defending the victims of the Grand Old Shell Game.

Writing in 1891, and looking all the way back to the Civil War, Friedrich Engels said something about American politics that has always struck me as exactly right:

It is well known that the Americans have been striving for 30 years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and that in spite of all they can do they continue to stink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption…. [W]e find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends — and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it.

It goes without saying that many genuine servants of democracy have worked within both parties. But the parties themselves? The GOP deserved to be destroyed by this election cycle; it will still deserve to be destroyed if and when America rebuilds itself in the aftermath of President Octopus. What’s harder to see, especially for upper-middle-class-Americans-who-like-to-think-of-themselves-as-liberals, is how richly the Democratic Party deserves the same fate.

(7) What should we find most terrifying?

Misogyny, homophobia, racist bullying, and hate crime: they never stopped, but they did get less bad than they once were; they are already getting sharply worse again. Everyone, from kindergarten up, knows how to play Follow the Leader.

Mass deportation: it will happen, it will cause vast suffering, and it won’t even do anyone else the slightest good. And the great debate will be between the Wall Street Criminal, arguing that it’s not happening fast enough, and some benign putz at the New York Tame saying how relieved we should be that it’s only a million people after all.

Roe v. Wade: two years left, at the outside.

Destruction of ANWR and other public goods, for immeasurable private profit without public gain: count on it. Which is just a special case of …

Infrastructure investment: Infrastructure is complicated, and much of what we need most — water, sewers, a better electric grid, publicly accessible internet in poor neighborhoods, rebuilt schools — is both the least politically sexy and the least likely to provide marquee investment projects for economically needy real estate developers with ties to Ivanka Industries. This is being touted as a silver lining in the cloud. It could be — but it could be one of the worst things of all, on our route to a full-blown kleptocracy.

Excepting the real nightmare scenarios, anyway …

Nuclear war: Former Defense Secretary William J Perry’s recent book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink made for heart-palpitation reading, even before the election. Its central message — that we’ve never had control of this stuff, and that things have become substantially worse, not better, in the decade or so during which we’ve been distracted from our MADness by global warming — is far starker and more urgent now. Few people have taken on board the fact that President Tweet-Rant, who demonstrated just before the election that he doesn’t know what the ‘nuclear triad’ is, will be able to start a nuclear war at three in the morning without any other checks, balances, or authorizations of any kind. That’s the way the system works. (See also Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control for how many and how close our close calls have already been.)

And goodbye: As recently as a year ago, the concern was that 2 degrees of warming would be an unprecedented disaster, just because of changes in weather patterns, while 3+ degrees would drown half the world’s major cities and imperil civilization as we know it. The latest data suggests a different take: even preventing 3+ degrees will now require a heroic and extraordinary effort, which the US plans to spend at least 4 years deliberately undermining; 5+ degrees by 2100 is now a real possibility, and that number puts in question not your average winter snow pack but the very survival of this and every other species.

This is why Noam Chomsky recently said, with perfect accuracy, that the Republican Party has the chance now to become the single most destructive organization in human history. Hysteria, surely? Well, buy some binoculars and check out Venus. She’s famously pretty, because she’s famously bright; she’s bright because she has a runaway greenhouse effect; at her surface, lead is a liquid.

(8) What in the world to do? What should the rest of the world do?

The one bright moment in election week, for me, was seeing masses of young people take to the streets, in solidarity with the most threatened among them, and say No; this is not us; we stand together against these values. So long as people insist in this way that our current situation is not normal, there’s hope. Hitler’s ascent was made possible by much the same things that made Donnie Catvomit possible — but Hitler was made powerful by the German people coming to accept his goons and their diseased values as normal. Continued resistance; continued rejection; continued solidarity — those are key.

(A passing thought. If they do the Muslim Registry thing, could mass conversion be one answer? I’m a life-long atheist, but in those circumstances I’d join any mosque prepared to have me.)

And the rest of the world? With respect to many areas of policy, it’s hard to know what attitude other countries should take to the newly diminished, newly absurd United States. But with respect to climate change — the single most important issue, because it threatens to submerge, literally, all others — things are very simple. The rest of the world now has a clear and stark responsibility to forget that the US was once a leader, of sorts, or at least an important reluctant partner, and to do its own leading instead. The world’s second-largest carbon source (far the largest source, historically, and still far the largest per head) is, for the next four years at least, a failed state.

Oh Donnie Boy, your thugs are calling. From Tower to Tower, and round the Golf Resort. The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling. It’s you, it’s you, must go: that’s our hoarse retort.

(9) Was the election “stolen”?

Many factors, some of them substantial, tipped the scales: possibly the Russian hacking of DNC emails; probably Julian Assange’s release of ditto; certainly Republican voter suppression efforts in southern states; most obviously and powerfully, James Comey’s non-announcement announcement about newly discovered emails that he had not even seen and were, as it turned out, either not new or of no interest anyway. (The full landscape of Comey’s derelictions is examined by law professor David Cole recently in the New York Review of Books.) But for these factors, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by an even larger margin … but probably, still, not the Electoral College.

Should the EC be abolished, then? Lawrence Lessig of Harvard has made the point recently that this a legal pipe-dream, rendered virtually impossible in practice by the structure of the Constitution. But he also makes the case that the current disaster is exactly what the EC was invented for: Electors are not just free to upend the election, but have a clear constitutional duty to do so, precisely in the case where that is necessary to save the country from the election of a purulent demagogue with no principles, a toxic personality, orange hair, abysmal taste, wandering hands, nary a clue, and a voice and mannerisms that make one’s skin crawl … but I digress.

The EC fantasy won’t happen, of course: the Electors will dutifully fail to perform the very duty for which they exist. Which, in an almost-amusing twist, means that the EC really is a useless institution, indeed has cemented the very result against which it was designed to be a safety mechanism — and therefore should-be-abolished-but-won’t-be after all.

Chalk it up as just one more small difficulty for the theory that the Framers were Gods among us, and the Constitution itself a never-drying fount of lambent and ineffable wisdom.

(10) Those Trump supporters again

Chicken or beef? Chicken or beef? Many ordinary working Americans were sick of being told, by condescending moneyed patricians, that they should be proud and grateful to live in such a great democracy. What many of them wanted to feel was that they could actually change the system, and thus, for once, taste what democratic power was like.

Harsh irony: the result has been a choice that makes that dream far more distant than it was, if the USS America stays afloat at all. But still — wresting America from the stranglehold of the Parties, and turning it at last into a democracy that ordinary people can call their own— that’s worth fighting for.

January, 2017. Calm water, dark horizon. Working upwards from the sloping lower decks, the frantic patching and bailing begins.

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