Things We Already Know

On Election Day, remember that America has already shown us who it is.

Hamilton Nolan

An upside down American flag is waved in front of the United States Capital on December 18, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

World his­to­ry books are not sto­ries of peace. They are sto­ries of war, jeal­ousy and mur­der on a grand scale, stretch­ing back thou­sands of years. They are sto­ries of empires that rise vio­lent­ly, taste momen­tary glo­ry, and are then destroyed — either by the rot of their own cor­rup­tion, or by the rage of those they stole from. The times of pros­per­i­ty and sta­bil­i­ty are just pass­ing inter­reg­nums between cycles of pow­er strug­gles dri­ven by human nature. When we find our­selves faced with uncer­tain­ty, it’s use­ful to stop and think about the things that we already know. 

We know that for the past 40 years, inequal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca has been grow­ing. Our nation has got­ten wealth­i­er and wealth­i­er, and all of that wealth has gone to peo­ple who were already rich, while wages for reg­u­lar peo­ple stag­nat­ed. We enjoyed a peri­od of low­er inequal­i­ty for decades after World War II, but right around the time Ronald Rea­gan took office, the rich began tak­ing more and more. They took even more wealth under the first Pres­i­dent Bush, and even more under Clin­ton, and even more under the sec­ond Pres­i­dent Bush, and even more under Oba­ma. And even more under Trump. In this sense, we have expe­ri­enced great con­ti­nu­ity. We already know this. 

Though Amer­i­can pol­i­tics often has the appear­ance of being a vocif­er­ous argu­ment, the fact is that the dis­agree­ments of our lead­ers are much less sig­nif­i­cant than the con­sen­sus that they have all agreed upon. For more or less the entire past half cen­tu­ry, the mil­i­tary has got­ten stronger, labor unions have got­ten weak­er, the stock mar­ket has gone up, and big busi­ness has got­ten big­ger than ever before. Tril­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies are no longer remark­able, which is remark­able. The pow­er in this coun­try belongs to cap­i­tal. The gov­ern­ment belongs to cap­i­tal. Polit­i­cal par­ties belong to cap­i­tal, though they dis­agree on var­i­ous social issues, like sib­lings who claim to be dif­fer­ent because they wear dif­fer­ent col­ored shirts. 

Among the peo­ple who actu­al­ly wield pow­er in this coun­try, the left-most side of the pol­i­cy con­sen­sus has long been, Cap­i­tal can do what it wants as long as long as you give work­ing peo­ple enough to live,” and the right-most side of pol­i­cy con­sen­sus has been, Cap­i­tal can do what it wants,” and we have set­tled in the mid­dle of those two posi­tions. Glob­al cap­i­tal­ism, the actu­al sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that we all live under, has its own log­ic, and is hap­py to arrange the affairs of Amer­i­can by itself, accord­ing to its own needs. It is a steam­roller inex­orably creep­ing for­ward, and our elect­ed gov­ern­ment occa­sion­al­ly erects lit­tle bar­ri­ers that may slow it down briefly, but which tend to be no match for its momentum. 

Don­ald Trump him­self is not inter­est­ing. Once you under­stand that he is dri­ven by just a few base impuls­es — nar­cis­sism, aggres­sive igno­rance, and fear — his out­rages become drea­ry and repet­i­tive. His val­ue to the pub­lic has been as bait to attract the rats. The Trump era is inter­est­ing for what it has shown about a large class of peo­ple who were once con­sid­ered to be respectable by the stan­dards of main­stream dis­course. In many, many cas­es, respectabil­i­ty is just an inch of make­up cov­er­ing a bot­tom­less will to debase your­self and harm oth­ers in return for prox­im­i­ty to pow­er. This, too, is a nat­ur­al part of human nature, a dri­ving force of his­to­ry. Dan­ger­ous lead­ers are always car­ried along on the shoul­ders of cow­ards who have been wait­ing for a chance to show their true face to the world while obscured in the midst of a mob. The answer to the time­less ques­tion Who Goes Nazi?” is always: More peo­ple than you would think. 

We already know, before the votes have been count­ed, that the Repub­li­can Par­ty does not believe in democ­ra­cy. It does not want every­one to vote. In fact, it is com­mit­ted to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­en­fran­chis­ing as many peo­ple as nec­es­sary in order to win elec­tions. This is not an extra­or­di­nary occur­rence, but instead a bedrock fea­ture of par­ty strat­e­gy that is vital to their suc­cess. We already know that in pur­suit of elec­toral pow­er, the most respectable main­stream Repub­li­can offi­cials will lie, cre­ate bald pro­pa­gan­da, cater to racists, vil­lainize pow­er­less immi­grants, unleash state vio­lence on pro­test­ers, and lock mil­lions of peo­ple in jail. (Democ­rats have their own flaws, but the sim­ple fact that they are the oppo­si­tion par­ty has kept them away from pur­su­ing the worst of these abus­es as lusti­ly as their friends across the aisle.) They have done these things for­ev­er, in the shad­ows, and over the past few years they have had the chance to do them more open­ly. These are not the actions of a fringe group, but of the rul­ing par­ty in the most pow­er­ful nation on earth. This is who we are. 

I don’t think a good per­son can be pres­i­dent. Or if he’s good when he takes the job, he won’t be by the time it’s over. He may be bet­ter than the oth­er guy, but that’s all. There are too many bad things that will be done on his behalf. Too many fatal com­pro­mis­es are nec­es­sary to get there in the first place. Bad men have always had an advan­tage in jobs like that. They are less tor­tured by what they know, less trou­bled by the lies they tell, more at peace with the cut­throat neces­si­ties of main­tain­ing power. 

For the past four years, I’ve been think­ing about what this president’s rise to pow­er tells us about our­selves. And you know what? I don’t think it tells us any­thing that we didn’t already know. We feel like we are in a cri­sis because this pres­i­dent, in par­tic­u­lar, refus­es to offer us the sooth­ing appear­ance of nor­mal­cy that allows us to for­get how the Amer­i­can pie is made. He delights in drag­ging the ugly parts out of the shad­ows and flaunt­ing them. But he didn’t invent them. They were always there, polite­ly ignored by the rest of us. Now they’re all being waved around in pub­lic, and it freaks us out. The appear­ance of insan­i­ty has pro­found­ly shak­en us. But not the sub­stance of the insan­i­ty itself. That’s been there for­ev­er. We just need a new smil­ing face to make us for­get it. Our lit­tle slice of world his­to­ry only seems extra­or­di­nary because it hasn’t end­ed yet.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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