All onus, no bonus

By Gene Miller, September 2016

What’s creating all that weird energy to our south?

Donald TrumpSO, YOU DON'T SPEND HALF your waking moments trying to work out the difference between “cloudy with sunny periods” and “sunny with cloudy periods?” Well, lucky, nuance-free you! If the sky falls, it’s all your fault, you… you hippie.

And speaking of falling skies, even in this transmundane publication, no self-respecting catastrophist could fail to confess to spending obsessive amounts of time reading and fretting about the foreboding political weather south of our border—code, of course, for news and commentary about Donald Trump, who is both Republican presidential candidate and personification of the crazy vibration, the soul echo, the steadily coalescing angry Om emanating from a worryingly large percentage of US society.

I poach from a recent James Fallows piece in The Atlantic: “Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, layered with dog whistles and emotional words that modify no actual nouns or verbs, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.” 

Of course. Trump doesn’t want to be president of an accommodationist United States that goes quietly into the night, or slinks offstage, or mediates reality. He wants to be president of a United States that is numero uno, calls the shots, grabs the prize—a country with big brass balls and sheer ego. A country, in other words, cocky in victory, not unlike… why, Donald Trump!

I could swap Fallows for The Atlantic’s Senior Editor David Frum, or for the NY Times’ quartet of terrific opinion writers David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Tom Engelhardt, and Thomas Edsall, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, Media-Post’s Bob Garfield, Joel Kotkin in the Daily Beast, the Guardian’s George Monbiot, and many others in the commentariat.

Pitched at the tone of gnawing worry and genuine existential panic, recent columns by such writers reveal an unsettling ditto: “Dangerous World.” “Are We on the Path to National Ruin?” “Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?” “The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy.” “Revolt of the Masses.” “Why the World is Falling Apart.”

Why is the world falling apart?

Writing about the loss of a binding social identity, in the US and elsewhere, New Perspectives Quarterly Editor Nathan Gardels (a friend and colleague of our former prime minister, the senior Trudeau) labels it a “mutiny against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature.” After all, what, in such a context, do normative and normal even mean? Gardels adds: “the greater the threat—of violence, upheaval or exclusion—the more rigid and ‘solitarist’ identities become.”

That is, you have to stand back far enough from this election to study not the man, but the historical moment. Trump the presidential candidate is nothing—a “bizarre political footnote,” a writer in Salon calls him. But like Hitler, Mussolini and other oratorically skillful demagogues who found their opportunity and caused endless mischief, Trump, with his eponymous, self-amplifying real estate and his freedom to promote his life in some heady realm of self-glorification, tugs at the souls of millions who want to consider him only as a personification, a champion, of some pop-infused American Promise. Their promise. 

And what does Hillary have to throw against that? Policy. A political world almost immobilized by its own complexity. A reminder that the game is rigged by big capital. Stewardship over a more mature, gravitic and less hopeful stage in national identity. 

Oh, you can’t translate those whispers in Mandarin you’re hearing? They’re saying “We’re Number Two, but not for long!” 

David Frum in The Atlantic, channelling his inner Canadian, fusses there are now “so many marginalized Americans who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.” Any Canadian would resonate with Frum’s threnody; but what else could one expect from the American social experiment dedicated, as it is, to a long-developing imbalance between appetite and obligation?

There’s something doom-y, fourth-act-y in the air south of us. The case for a social climax is ripening. The pressure’s up and the social particles are moving faster, orbiting eccentrically and drifting toward collision. Increasingly, media reports of violence—mass killings, cop-shootings and all the rest of that gruesome menu—are passing beyond news and into the realm of metaphor. You say you don’t understand? You mean, folks are not murdering and graphically face-eating their neighbours in the front yard in your part of town? Catch up, huh?

Okay, a bit less hyperbolically, the meaning of what is going on right now may be seen as a mainstream revolution, an open revolt, taking place in America against an economic aristocracy and all of the institutions, policies and programmes through which it operates. That Trump, a high-flying (in his own plane) billionaire should personify the revolt, and not the aristocracy, is perverse, but not entirely beyond explanation.

Putting his pathological self-absorption and other loony traits to the side, Trump makes it clear that he opposes the entire trans-national framework that supports and protects the interests of capital not labour, the banker not the worker.

I was just reading an Economic Policy Institute study revealing that the top 1 percent of American income earners captured 20.1 percent of all the US income in 2013 and took home 85.1 percent of total income growth. “In the face of this national problem, we need national policy solutions to jumpstart wage growth for the vast majority,” the study thunders. That kind of fist pounding and 20 bucks gets you home in a taxi, but it’s also why the keys to the White House seem to dangle within Trump’s reach. 

Jill Lepore, offering notes from the Cleveland Democratic Convention in a political diary for The New Yorker, quoted a delegate—presumably, a Sanders supporter—who didn’t believe the US will last much longer if Hillary Clinton is elected, and who imagines the country is poised for a descent into anarchy. “It won’t take as long as four years. I give it two or three, tops.”

Now, all of this column’s moody content has a purpose: It’s not the colour, but the setting. The NY Times’ Ross Douthat cites surveys registering a “general dissatisfaction with the American trajectory” and a public that doesn’t feel sweeping optimism about the country’s future. Ask yourself: Is this just a shocking, novel moment in history, a blip, a ping, a nervous dream we will soon wake from, or is this some spreading social virus, a new game with new rules, worrying not just for its near-term impacts but also because it pushes us toward some precipitous, risky, unknowable and sweeping social future, one of history’s corner-points? In other words, a new normal may come eventually, but for now it’s a new crazy between normals.

I say again, it’s the why of Trump, not the man, that’s interesting: The historical inevitability, the accident that had to happen now, the social expression America has been building toward. Trump himself? Just a “ludicrous outrider of the apocalypse.”

Writing six hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli, analyzing the mutations and reversals of Florentine and Italian politics in the 1400s, noted recurrent oscillations between “order” and “disorder.” He theorized: “When states have arrived at their greatest perfection, they soon begin to decline. In the same manner, having been reduced by disorder and sunk to their utmost state of depression, unable to descend lower, they, of necessity, reascend, and thus from good they gradually decline to evil and from evil mount up to good.”

In a spasm of late springtime worry, I registered the domain, trumpisanasshole.com, but did nothing with it, mostly because everyone knows Trump is an asshole and the domain increasingly seemed like nothing more than a franchise to re-state the obvious. And while I truly don’t want to see Trump in the White House, I’m not sure that Hillary, or anyone else, can raise an imperial hand before history’s rising tide.

James Kunstler, my favourite we’re-all-gonna-die-nik (he makes me look sunny), suggests broadly: “The techno-industrial fantasia is drawing to a close. The financial structures of everyday life look more fragile than ever. We are heading into a long-term contraction of activity, productivity, and population and the salient question is how disorderly will the long emergency of the journey be to that new disposition of things? What we face is discontinuity, the end of old spent dynamics and the beginning of new dynamics.”

It would be foolish to believe that the trends noted in this column will be contained by US national borders. The economic and social tectonics ripple out far beyond the American geography. These aren’t things we’ll be simply reading about in the “Elsewhere” section over morning coffee. 

It must be an absolute coincidence that “jump” and Trump rhyme, but right now, in my view, things in America and elsewhere are all jump, no parachute.

A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.