In mid-September, the EPSN host Jemele Hill tweeted an entirely reasonable series of statements including "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists," and "Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period." In response to the ensuing backlash, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled "Is Trump a White Supremacist?" In the piece, Charles M. Blow writes, "If you are not completely opposed to white supremacy, you are quietly supporting it," concluding: "Either Trump is himself a white supremacist or he is a fan and defender of white supremacists, and I quite honestly am unable to separate the two designations." While Blow offers a thoughtful assessment of Trump's white supremacism, the fact that the piece's central question—a query vaguely akin to "Should I Accept Anthony Weiner's Friend Request on Snapchat?"—needed to be asked in the first place indicates that we've officially descended into some surreal, fake-news hellscape where every red-blooded American can choose between facts and alternate facts, attend a lecture by Harvard Fellow Sean Spicer, and wait for the next Official Donald J. Trump Big League Box of the Month to arrive via a privatized U.S. Postal Service. To state the obvious: If you want to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep out all the "rapists," you're a white supremacist. If Jeff Sessions is your Attorney General, you're a white supremacist. If David Duke enthusiastically endorsed your presidential candidacy, you're a white supremacist. If you think "some very fine people" attended the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, you're a white supremacist. If you pardon Joe Arpaio and call him “an American patriot," you're a white supremacist. If you want to ban Muslims from entering the United States, you're a white supremacist. And if you support a president who does those things, that makes you a white supremacist, too. Of course, supporting/being white supremacists isn't something large segments of the American public has ever really had a problem with. In her latest book, The Second Coming of the KKK, historian Linda Gordon charts the rise of the reconstituted Klan—which at the height of its power in the 1920s boasted some 6 million members, including 16 senators, scores of congressmen, and 11 governors. The book not only offers a look back at how the hate group achieved unparalleled mainstream success, but also shines a light on our current political moment and the man who won the White House in 2016. The Millions chatted with Gordon recently by phone about bigoted feminism, the evil fusion of racism and religion, how the media misrepresents the women's movement, and the future of hate groups in Trump's America. The Millions: As I read the book, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics of the Klan of the 1920s and those of the alt-right and Donald Trump. Things like saying immigrants are taking jobs, blaming minorities for crime, fear about the collapse of law and order. In what ways do you see these two movements as similar or different? Linda Gordon: As a preface, I would say I decided very deliberately not to mention Trump, Trumpism, the alt-right, or anything contemporary in the book. Partly because I figured people would see these things themselves. And I wanted to retain my commitment to evidence. But the similarities are extraordinary. One is bigotry; another is the use of conspiracy theory. And conspiracy theory is very closely related to fake news because one of the advantages of conspiracy theories is that you can explain away the fact that there is no evidence for your claim as a kind of circularity. That because conspiracies are secret, of course there is no evidence. There is also something that is characteristic of only a very small part of the alt-right today. One of the Klan’s most brilliant moves was to fuse religion with bigotry. That was absolutely not characteristic of the first Klan with its terrorism and lynching. The choice to do that was extremely strategic and instrumental. In other words, to bring in a kind of evangelical notion that is related to the claim that America had a destiny—a destiny anointed by God to be a white Nordic Protestant nation. TM: You identify six “ancestors” that contributed to the ‘20s Klan’s makeup: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism. Of those six, it seems maybe temperance and fraternalism are less relevant today. How have the six pillars aged since the 1920s? LG: The temperance issue is more or less dead. I don’t think that you’re going to get traction from a prohibitionist point of view today. Although it may be related to people who have prohibitionist attitudes about drugs. The issue of fraternalism is a little bit more complicated because by fraternalism we can mean certain kinds of fraternal organizations. And over time, those organizations—the Elks, the Masons—they still exist, but they’ve lost ground to organizations that are more like Rotary Clubs, that are organizations designed to benefit people through networking. But, by fraternalism you can also mean the construction of the kinds of bonds that were once called brotherhood, which I think are really important to all social movements, whether on the left or the right. And one of the satisfactions of participating in a social movement is that very close feeling of brotherhood with other people. One of the things that’s a little different about that today, though, is that in many situations, like what happened in Charleston, the fraternalism of the white nationalists works by their sense that they are the persecuted minority. TM: That seems like something that the Klan of the ‘20s did to great success? LG: Exactly. And, they did it despite the fact—I think it is arguably the case—that the majority of white Protestant Americans would have agreed with the Klan’s basic principles, and it may be that they differed only in terms of the intensity of the way they wanted to promote those ideas. Whereas today I do think—and this is a little bit reassuring—that the alt-right remains a minority; that we do have a pretty solid majority of Americans who want to reject that kind of revving up of racist anger. TM: You devoted a chapter to the women of the Klan—many of whom could be described as feminists, and without whom the Klan of the ‘20s would’ve been much less powerful and less successful. But you describe it as a “bigoted feminism.” And you write, people “must rid themselves of the notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s.” That made me think of the large percentage of white women who voted for Trump, which surprised a lot of people. Not to equate female Trump voters with Klanswomen, but what parallels do you see between those two groups. LG: If I have any anxiety about people being offended by the book, it will have to do with that chapter because there are many people, including people I know and love, who want to think that you have to define feminism as a progressive, antiracist issue—and that any other claims are just not really feminism. Whereas my preference is to say, well, unfortunately, it’s not up to us to define feminism and that we have to use it in a generic sense in which anyone who is after greater rights for women or greater sex equality can be called a feminist. But I think that Klan feminism does illustrate something very important about the support that so many women gave to Trump, and that is that we cannot assume that women’s concerns with gender issues are always their prominent concerns—their most prominent concerns. In the ‘20s, once the women’s suffrage amendment passed, the Klan supported it energetically. They thought they’d get more votes that way. But today, I think there is a lot of resentment against the fairly powerful women’s movement that arose in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. I think that resentment has two different sources. One, I would argue, as someone who’s taught and studied social movements, that almost no social movement has been as misrepresented by the media as the women’s movement. Misrepresented in the direction of focusing almost exclusively on sex and reproduction issues. Sexual freedom, abortion, support for gay and transgender rights. The coverage usually neglected issues that just may not seem as newsworthy, like the enormous energy put into campaigns for subsidized childcare, for paid parental leave, for equal access to jobs and promotions. What you might call the more base economic issues. And those include campaigning for things that benefit women who are not employed as well as for women who are employed. I also think that, like it or not, we have to face the fact that some of the more prominent people, groups, and energy behind contemporary feminism comes from a more professional class. Highly educated women who often, just as men of that class do, speak rather disdainfully of people who don’t agree with them. And that leads to another point that I think is problematic today—and that is the way that people who are on the liberal side speak of people who are more sympathetic to the Trump side. And that is to speak of them very disdainfully—Oh, how can they be so dumb? How can they be so ignorant as to believe these things and to be taken in by these lies? That’s not only not productive, but it’s also not correct. One of the things we know from the polls is that very large numbers of very prosperous and very well-educated people supported Trump. I don’t think that lack of smarts can explain that phenomenon. TM: To turn back to the ‘20s Klan, that second incarnation was much more successful than the first and third, at least in terms of membership. And probably more successful than any other hate group in U.S. history. What do you attribute that success to? LG: At base, the success came from broadening the repertoire of who were the targets, of who were the bad guys. So a lot of people could be pulled in. Part of the reason they went that way is that something built strictly on anti-black racism would not have had traction in the ‘20s in the North because there were so few African-Americans living in the North. In a lot of places of the core Klan strength— say, Indiana—people probably had never seen a Mexican-American and had never seen an Asian-American. So, the Klan was very effective in adapting to local issues. In the State of Washington, they were very focused on anti-Japanese bigotry. You have to keep in mind another aspect of the Klan—that it became very big, but it also declined very fast. And people who have been able to look closely at some of the actual records of memberships and collection of dues have found that there was tremendous turnover. People got drawn in and lost interest. Now, partly it was because belonging to that Klan was pretty expensive, and partly it was because people just got tired of one part of what attracted them, which is all this kind of arcane hocus-pocus ritual that at first seemed like entertainment. But you also have to consider the background of the so-called opposition. Between the ‘20s and today, we do have a much stronger consensus around civil liberties, around antidiscrimination—at least hostilely to legal discrimination. The whole country has moved closer toward an acceptance of what you might call a liberal democratic perspective, as opposed to the Klan’s democracy for the “right people.” One major difference is that today’s Klan is completely decentralized. There is no Imperial Wizard who can command the allegiance of people and can head what was really a giant moneymaking machine. That’s not the case today. Possibly people today are a little more of the view that social movements should be separate from profitmaking enterprises. TM: The success the Klan had in the ‘20s, do you think that could ever be replicated by a similar hate group today? LG: I would never say never. I would never rule out anything. We have seen the way in which American foreign policy ventures can rev up a tremendous spirit of patriotism, and the notion that if you don’t support them you’re not a good American. It was three decades after the Klan that we saw the enormous impact of McCarthyism and its ability not just to persecute a relatively small number of people—but that persecution functioned in a manner that was designed to be intimidating to masses of people. It certainly made lots of people more reluctant to speak out and willing to assume that anything that was being labeled as un-American or unpatriotic was something they should not even bother to find out about. TM: Based on your study of the success of the Klan from the ‘20s, what lessons should people committed to fighting hate and racism take away from that period of history? LG: One really important takeaway is that bigotry is all of a piece. You can’t be antiracist if you’re not also anti-anti-Semitic. There are a number of reasons for that. One is it all comes from the same place in the psyche, that is an inclination to direct your anger downward rather than upward. Another feeling that I have—though it doesn’t precisely come from my work on the Klan; it comes perhaps from a little bit of anxiety I have at some of the responses to the alt-right—is that trying to fight them on their own terms is a mistake. I probably lean toward almost 100 percent passivism. I really dislike violence unless it’s absolutely a last defensive resort. I’m a little disturbed by the rise of these antifa groups. We have to remain clear about our commitment to freedom of speech, but at the same time about the enormous importance of standing up against these ideas in every possible nonviolent way. One of the problems in social movements on the liberal side in the last 30 to 40 years is that a lot of what used to be social movements have really become professional organizations. So, for example, NARAL, which I certainly support. What they want of me is simple: they want a contribution. That’s all they want from me. One of the geniuses of the Klan and of many social movements is that they ask people to do something, not just to contribute money… Some of the most successful [social movements] are those that literally demanded a certain level of active participation and basically communicated that you’re not a member of this unless you actually participate. Invoking a little discipline on members. That was very, very characteristic of the Civil Rights Movement and very much behind some of its victories. We can’t defeat these kinds of things simply by giving money to professional lobbying groups. They’re extremely important. I don’t want to denigrate them in any way. But people have to be prepared to do more. And one of the hopeful signs is that people have gone to anti-Trump demonstrations that have never demonstrated before. TM: What does America need to do to survive Donald Trump? LG: One of the worst problems that we face is not Trump himself, but the relative unwillingness of any Republicans to really break with him, because their allegiance is, above all, to the votes they think that kind of thing can produce. I love all the comedians that make fun of Donald Trump. He’s a very easy target. One of the problems in that—and the focus on the Russia connection—is it takes people’s attention [away from] what is going on underneath. The deregulation of everything, the giving away of the National Parks, the deregulation of Wall Street, the stripping of the environmental safety regulations. So, one thing we could do, is to try to keep the focus on policy—on what is actually being changed in the Constitution and the network of laws that we have in this country that do what government is supposed to do, which is to protect us.
Let’s forget about Donald Trump. For just the next 10 minutes. For just as long as it takes to read this. I know, I know: it’s not easy, what with his threatening to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea and hiring lunatics and firing lunatics and breaking up with other, more evil lunatics and defending white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, the KKK, and other “very fine people” like this fellow from the march in Charlottesville. But we really need to forget about him for a moment. Or at least not pay attention to him—and that means not hanging on his every tweet or obsessing about his connection with Russia or his incoherent hate rallies, because if we mute the whole Donald Trump catastrophe, we just might have find time to focus on something a whole lot worse. In her latest book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean shines a light on that something a whole lot worse: Charles Koch. But more importantly, she traces the development of the billionaire’s libertarian ideology and political strategy back to one man: the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan and Koch’s brand of libertarianism prizes economic freedom and unfettered capitalism above all else. As such, its adherents are significantly less than chuffed when the federal government makes them pay taxes for things like public schools, health insurance, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and social programs. But here’s the kicker: Buchanan knew that American Democracy—the fact that a majority of Americans would never choose to eliminate all those social programs and cut taxes for the wealthy and basically bow down before a bunch of rich white guys—was standing in the way of his Libertarian Paradise. So, Buchanan devised a solution: a way to quietly subvert democracy—a very long game, but one that Charles Koch was more than happy to play and fund. The Millions chatted with MacLean over the phone about the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump’s general incompetency, the nightmarish prospect of President Pence, and where America goes from here. The Millions: Most people know about the Koch Brothers machine, but are unaware of its origins in terms of political philosophy. Can you give a quick-and-dirty rundown of how school desegregation in Virginia and James Buchanan came to shape not only Charles Koch’s vision but much of American politics today? Nancy MacLean: I first came across James Buchanan in the context of the State of Virginia’s massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education in the mid-1950s. Virginia was leading the wider South in fighting the Brown decision, calling it a federal overreach [and] unconstitutional. Buchanan came to Virginia in 1956 just as that was happening to set up a new outpost for free market economics in higher education. He had been trained at the University of Chicago and got this post at Virginia. And he arrived just as the state was fighting the federal government over this decision. I discovered that, as this fight went on—even though there had been the NAACP's fight, a mobilization of moderate white parents, and two court decisions—in 1959 he tried to keep the fight going with a push to what we today would call privatize public education. He and his colleague issued a report to the State Legislature calling for that. And that put him on my radar. And, to make a long story short, I started following the trail of his life’s work and found myself with Charles Koch. Beginning in the 1970s, the two started working together on various projects. And then I learned that Charles Koch’s main research and design center/academic base camp, was set up at George Mason University in 1997. And that was James Buchanan’s last institutional home. Essentially what I learned through this research is that—as we know well from the work of some incredibly talented journalists, among them Jane Mayer—Charles Koch has provided the money for efforts to transform our politics in recent years. And he’s convened a number of wealthy donors to do that. But, it’s actually James Buchanan’s ideas that are making that money successful. TM: If you had to describe Buchanan and Koch’s vision of ideal America, how does that look? NM: It’s a libertarian vision...That libertarian vision says that economic liberty is the highest value and that government is an agent of coercion of individuals’ private liberties, and therefore that government’s only legitimate roles are three: to provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law, and to maintain social order. To the libertarian perspective—at least the libertarians involved in organizations like the Cato Institute and a whole slew of others funded by Charles Koch and using James Buchanan’s ideas—to them, all the other functions that government has taken on are illegitimate. That includes economic regulation of corporations. That includes Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. That includes environmental protections. That includes measures to ease the burden of care work on women and families [and] federal anti-discrimination legislation. Basically, all the things that social movements have pushed for the government to do over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st—all of those things are illegitimate to these libertarians. TM: A lot of those are relatively popular programs. In that libertarian vision, the will of the majority is viewed as an oppressive force that needs to be stopped, correct? NM: That’s ultimately the position that they reach. And it was James Buchanan who taught Charles Koch that for capitalism to thrive—the kind of pure capitalism libertarians believe in—democracy must be enchained. And what I found in my research for this book—and what I think is its single most important contribution to our public understanding—is that this libertarian cause failed repeatedly to achieve what it wanted, it failed openly and it failed repeatedly. The best example of that is Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was the first candidate to talk about privatizing Social Security, to talk about turning Social Security into individual accounts, adopting a flat tax, selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority to private utilities, undermining labor unions…And he was a disaster. The only places he won, besides his home state of Arizona, were the five states of the Deep South that practiced massive voter suppression. Then Ronald Reagan talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. He said, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” which was encouraging language for libertarians. But as soon as Reagan understood that the libertarian who designed his first budget, David Stockman, planned to inflict massive cuts to Social Security and other popular programs, he drew back. There was this repeated experience of failing to get what they wanted when it came to the test of majority approval. And it was that repeated failure that led Charles Koch to look for what he called “the technology” to break through. And he is a much smarter man than his critics have allowed. He’s got three engineering degrees from MIT. He’s a voracious reader. He’s someone who has played the long game, both in his business and his politics. He was investing in intellectuals for three decades before he really shoved in his stack at George Mason. And when he did that, he said he had found the technology—again, that’s his word for the ideas that would enable this breakthrough for liberty. TM: When you say the technology, what are some examples of that technology? NM: Buchanan basically taught that the reason government expanded is that organized citizens kept putting pressure on government to expand. And also corporate lobbyists, he would say, but he wasn't as motivated on that front...The idea was that citizens make demands on government for things that involve tax revenues, and that leads to, in his terms, “exploitation” of the wealthier taxpayer. Towards the end of his life, he actually started using the language of “predators” and “prey.” The predators were all those people who looked to government for collective projects, whether it was unemployment insurance or environmental protection or family and medical leave. And the prey were the taxpayers, the wealthier taxpayers and corporations who will pay the bill. He was always concerned with the rights of that particular minority—not other minorities. The many fronts on which this cause is seeking to enchain that majority include—as we saw in Wisconsin beginning in 2011 under Scott Walker—measures to try to decimate public sector unions, and vehement attacks on teachers’ unions to try to eliminate their power as lobbyists, as people who might push for larger public budgets. We’ve seen massive voter suppression measures…Gerrymandering to over-represent rural, conservative interests. And that was something going on in the Virginia of the 1950s when Buchanan set to work. Deregulation has been important, other actions along what [Buchanan] depicted as “the spectrum of secession:” advocating to corporations that they use decentralization, federalism, privatization, etc. to essentially engage in coercive bargaining with states to drive down taxes and spending on public programs. They're all interlinked and they're all being promoted by these dozens of national organizations funded by Charles Koch's donor network. TM: What aspects of our government and society are the most vulnerable right now? NM: I’m in North Carolina. It was one of the states completely controlled by this radicalized Republican Party. And that’s half of the states, with both houses of the legislature and the governorship controlled by the Republican party. In those states, we have seen really radical changes. Wisconsin is an example, North Carolina, Kansas, Louisiana: devastating cuts to public education; sending public monies off to charter schools that are under no obligation to teach students anything; private, for-profit charter schools. Rejecting Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act. Radical changes to labor union rights and to unemployment insurance, changes to environmental protections. All of these radical things are being rolled out at the state level. The Trump administration, by some counts, has now 70 percent of its senior appointees from Koch-affiliated organizations. So, that includes his vice-president, Mike Pence. That includes the director of management and budget Mick Mulvaney. That includes Scott Pruitt at the EPA. That includes Mike Pompeo in the CIA. That includes the White House liaison to Congress Marc Short. There are all these Koch-affiliated operatives now in the White House and in various government agencies that are pushing this radical agenda. TM: How does Trump fit into all of this? He didn’t need any of the Koch Brothers money to run. And some of his positions aren’t—or weren’t—libertarian. But he’s surrounded by all these Koch operatives. Does he have any idea what’s going on? NM: That is a mystery to me. And I think that is something that future journalists and historians will have to sort out because he’s so surrounded with these Koch people [and] whether he’s aware of it or not, this agenda is moving through in significant ways under his administration. And he is so clueless about how government works, what’s in the Constitution, that certainly [Koch’s people] can run circles around him. But it’s not clear to me what he knew and when he knew it. Having Mike Pence as his vice-presidential candidate, and then having Mike Pence run his transition team and staff positions, that certainly enabled the Kochs to get a lot of the people in place. And Trump is not really carrying through on a lot of his rhetoric…He made it sound like was going to resist corporate control and resist all these special favors. And yet he’s done more than anybody else to corrupt the process with the kinds of appointments he’s making. So, the jury's still out and we don’t have enough information. TM: A lot of people think if we could just get Trump out of office, everything would be okay again. I doubt you’re one of those people. Which is scarier: President Trump or President Pence? NM: It’s such an important question. What’s been very frustrating to me—having done this 10 years of research and come to understand how the Koch network and its apparatus of organizations are operating—I cannot believe that so much of the mainstream media seem to have attention deficit—this notion that somehow the Koch story was last year’s story, and this year’s story is Donald Trump all the time. And that is not helpful to us at all. I understand why some people would like to see him, if he has done anything impeachable, be impeached. But they're not thinking very clearly about what the consequences of that would be...Domestically, I would certainly be much more afraid of a Pence presidency at this point, because Pence is more competent. He’s been in Congress. He’s been in these policy institutes. He has worked in Koch-related organizations over the years. He would be very determined, and he’d probably be pretty successful in pushing through change in a way that Trump has not been as successful. We’re just in really troubling territory. And the most important thing is to alert Americans to what an incredible turning point we’re at. I’m a historian; I teach the history of social movements in the United States going back to the Revolution. And I truly believe that we are at one of these fundamental national turning points now— that is like the 1860s, that is like the 1930s, or that is like the 1960s. And the choices that we make now will determine the future for the next few generations. The most crucial thing is to alert Americans to the scale of the transformation this Koch network is trying to push through. But that would, again, require paying less attention to the president’s antics and more attention to these other operations and what they’re achieving. TM: Usually we end these interviews by asking what Americans need to do to survive Trump? That no longer feels like the most pertinent question. So, what do Americans need to do to survive Charles Koch? NM: What Americans need to understand is that Trump is really, in a sense, not the problem. He is the symptom of a much deeper problem that has been developing for a long time. And it involves this Koch operation, the donors being able to take over one of our major political parties—the Republican Party—and turn it into a delivery vehicle for their agenda by changing the incentives and punishments in politics, which is exactly the kind of thinking that would come from James Buchanan. By creating these big pools of dark money, they are able to punish any Republican candidate who does not toe the line for them. And we already saw them threatening that on the healthcare bill. And, by doing that, they have made Republican elected officials answerable to these extreme-right billionaire donors, rather than to Republican voters. I would urge people to just avert their eyes from Trump. Just do an experiment even for one week. Ignore all the news about Trump, ignore all his tweets, all his provocations, and start paying attention to these other things. And start paying attention to this strange transformation of the Republican Party, in which it’s not responding to the majority of Republican voters. It is responding to these donors. There’s a huge need for citizen education and rebuilding the institutions of civil society, the kinds of organizations that we had in the mid-20th century that protected democracy. It’s not just a question of who occupies the White House.
As the Trump Administration and American Democracy rapidly mutate into something vaguely resembling a third-rate political thriller -- imagine James Patterson and Dan Brown teaming up for an afternoon of benzos and brainstorming -- it’s easy to get caught up in the nonstop melodrama, over-the-top plot twists, and credulity-straining storyline: Chapter 1: The American President -- obviously an elderly gameshow host and "alleged" sexual predator with a spray-on tan and fake hair -- is being investigated by the FBI for colluding with the Evil Russian President -- who just might have in his possession an incriminating Golden Shower Sex Tape of the American President -- to fix the U.S. Election. Chapter 2: The American President acts quickly: he fires the FBI Director, who, it turns out, had previously refused to pledge his undying loyalty at a fancy White House dinner. But wait -- ZANG! -- the FBI Director produces a secret memo indicating the American President asked him to kill the Russia Investigation before he was fired. Chapter 3: Unbowed, the American President logs into Twitter, telling the FBI Director in no uncertain terms that he'd better not leak anything to the press (a.k.a. the Enemy of the American People) because -- ZANG! -- there might be some super secret tapes of their conversations. Chapter 4: Feeling chuffed by his threatening tweet's 24,441 retweets and 76,219 likes, the American President hangs out in the Oval Office with some Russians, calls the FBI Director a "nut job," and jets off to the Middle East to sell a bunch of weapons to Saudi Arabia. After that, the American President heads to the Vatican and makes the Pope really sad before globetrotting to Europe, where he shoves the Prime Minister of Montenegro (in an effort to better pose for photographs) and tells NATO to go fuck itself. Chapter 5: The American President is feeling pretty ebullient as he prepares to head back home, but wait -- ZANG! -- did the Real-Estate Developer/White House Innovations Director/Son-In-Law really try to set up a secret communications channel with Russia after the election...only time will tell! While the last month has indeed been a roller-coaster thrill ride -- and who doesn't like to check the latest impeachment odds -- it’s important to remember that while TrumpGate slowly envelops the White House, these assholes and those assholes are working really hard to take away 23 million Americans' health insurance, let insurers deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and, give a bunch of rich guys tax breaks. As our Commander-in-Chief recently pointed out, health care is surprisingly "complicated," what with its death panels and out-of-network deductibles and government funding for abortions and pap smears -- all of which prompts an obvious question: How did health care in America become such a terrible mess? That’s what physician and journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal sets out to determine in An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, a bestseller that not only documents the commodification of our medical system, but provides readers with common sense tips for reducing health care costs and dealing with insurance company bureaucracy. Rosenthal recently talked with The Millions about fixing our health care system, why I can’t understand the forms my insurance company sends me, and the possibility of TrumpCare. The Millions: So, just yesterday I got this seven-page explanation of benefits from my insurance company, and I looked at it briefly and then just threw it away. I didn’t owe them any money, but I had no idea what any of it meant. How did health care become this thing that almost no one can understand? Elisabeth Rosenthal: It’s a hugely complex Rube Goldberg-like system now, much of whose revenue generation comes from the complexity, not from the health care. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because when you look at this health care system, you think who’d invent a system like this? It’s insane. No one would design something like this. What I wanted to do with the book was to say how did we get here? What created this monster of a health care system?…It’s a classic case of the road to hell is paved in good intentions because everything, at the moment it was proposed, made sense. It was like, “Okay, you know, we need insurance.” Of course, we need insurance...because health care got more complicated, it got more useful, there are much better drugs and treatments, but that means they’re more expensive. When we first got insurance—and my guess is you’re not old enough to remember this—it paid everything. Your employer bought it for you, if you were lucky enough, as most of us were then, to have employer-based insurance; you didn’t pay the premiums; there were minimal, if any, deductibles or co-payments. Then what happens is everyone gets insurance and if you’re [a doctor] charging $30 before—when someone has to write a check—you start feeling like, well, nobody’s paying, right? You’re not having someone write a check. It’s all in back rooms that this money is getting shuffled around. So the $30 visit becomes $300, and then becomes $500. There’s this kind of inherently inflationary incentive in a system where nobody seems to be paying. No one feels the price in that way. And then what happens, which is really a tipping point, is once you see this slow shift of looking at the finances of medicine rather than the care of medicine as being the driver of what we see and what we get. And what happens then—and particularly this accelerated during the ’90s where there was a lot of pressure to control costs from the early HMO movement—a lot of hospitals, feeling that pressure and really in financial troubles, start hiring, and the business consultants start offering, people from McKinsey and Deloitte to come in and say, “How can we make this right? How can we do this better?” These are people not with medical skills, but with business operational skills. And they look at it kind of like reorganizing a chicken processing plant or a widget factory. And what they come up with is to say, you’re not billing very well for this stuff. You do all this stuff for free which is what hospitals do. When I was practicing emergency medicine, there was a fee for the emergency room, but it included my services—nothing was billed separately. But when these consultants come in they go: Wow, you’re leaving all this money on the table—you could bill for the doctor separately. You could bill for the blood tests separately, you could bill for checking the oxygen, you could bill $17 for a Tylenol—that famous example—there’s nothing stopping you. And that sets off this inflationary cycle where hospitals start thinking how can we do the same stuff but make a lot more money by billing differently? And that sets off this crazy spiral where hospitals hire a lot more business people to help them with the operations. And then the physicians who are working in this system as it’s becoming more efficiency and business focused are kind of rebelling. They almost sound Marxist: We’re producing the labor, why are all these funny guys with MBAs running this hospital now? And they start wanting in on the money too, some of them, because they feel if 20 guys are making a million bucks, and I’m doing the work, why shouldn’t I get some too. So, the more entrepreneurial ones start charging more for what they do. And then the drug makers—it moves from sector to sector…And you kind of end up in this place where business is the driver and health care and what’s good for patients is kind of on the back burner. I’m not saying that no one cares about it. Many physicians care deeply about it, but the system is not geared to those values. The problem is the values of business and the values of health care may intersect in some circumstances—I’m not opposed to people making profits—but in the abstract, they’re not very similar a lot of the time. Business wants efficiency, revenue generation, profit maximization….But the values of health care are really different. They’re caring, listening, healing, spending time. And that’s not a very inherently efficient process and it also may or may not be a great way to make money. It is now. But if you’re a doctor is sitting with the person with new diabetes and talking to them for an hour—that’s a terrible way to make money. There’s no business model for that. TM: So what needs to change? How do we fix this? ER: Whichever system we go to—whether it’s more market based or single payer or price regulation—you need to see prices, you need transparency. And I don’t get why that’s not required…I think price transparency is really important including, just a small example at FDA hearings. When FDA panels convene to approve a drug, they have no idea how much it’s going to cost—like zero. Because the metric of FDA approval from 100 years ago—maybe not quite 100, but decades and decades ago—was is it safe and effective? And that is effective compared to nothing, compared to placebo… So, why don’t we—in a world where we have a lot of drugs for every condition—why don’t we say effective compared to the other drugs that are already on the market, and tell us how much you’re going to charge? What’s your price point? You see over and over again in FDA hearings where it’s like Voldemort, nobody’s allowed to discuss it. And the panels are trying to figure out, well, what are they going to charge…We need to change those standards. Likewise, doctor’s offices, hospitals—they can show you prices, they just don’t want to…If a hospital had to say, we’re charging $8,000 for an MRI of your abdomen—which actually my daughter’s was $13,000 at one emergency room—no one would actually charge that because people would be up in arms. And Australia is just a little example: if you’re going to the hospital for an elective procedure, you get a binding estimate of what the cost will be and what your expected charges are out of pocket. That can happen, it’s just there’s no business model for it happening. Price transparency is not good for the business in many cases. Likewise, doctor’s offices and labs could list prices. Someone in the book discovered, much to her distress, that the vitamin D test that she’d been asked to pay $700 for was $7 at other labs—but she had no way to know that ahead of time. With that kind of price variation, I think we deserve to see prices. Transparency, whatever system we go to, I think is an essential component. Every time there’s an EpiPen or Martin Shkreli episode, there’s outrage over high drug prices, and in Congress there are some hearings, and then nothing happens. Everyone promises we’re going to do something about it, including our new president, and nothing happens. There have been bipartisan bills, for example, Sens. McCain and Klobuchar have suggested, for several years now at least, that Americans be allowed to import prescription drugs from Canada in a controlled way. Other people on both sides of the aisle have suggested that Medicare should be able to negotiate drug prices for Medicare patients. Again, both ideas have had a lot of bipartisan support. Neither one ever gets through Congress because of pushback from the industry. That’s something we as patients and voters should be really on top of our representatives about. TM: You mentioned business taking over, which leads us to the current moment. What’s your assessment of the current health care legislation in the House and Senate? ER: The Republican proposals by everyone’s estimation will leave a lot more people uninsured. And I think the narrative that people choose to be uninsured, from where I sit as a reporter, is a really false narrative, you know: we want to give people the right to not have good insurance. I think most people want insurance. They desperately want good insurance, but it’s really, really expensive. And the reason it’s really, really expensive, meaning they can’t afford it, is that our prices are so high. Whether you’re talking about the new Republican act, or you’re talking about the [Affordable Care Act] and the ways in which it didn’t deliver some of its promises—the problem is the prices are just too high, and you can’t really make the system work in any way unless we face that first step head on. It’s true many of the Obamacare premiums rose a lot. And why did they rise a lot? Because prices are rising a lot. And insurers, they don’t eat those price rises. When a hospital changes from charging $60,000 to $100,000 for a heart attack, the insurer doesn’t eat that. They may negotiate it down a little bit, so maybe they’ll pay $80,000. But their primary response is to push those costs onto patients—and not directly, which is why we’re always so confused about it. It’s in the form of next year your premiums go up. Suddenly you have a deductible that’s $10,000 a year, so you can’t even really use your insurance. Whatever choice we make—even whether it’s single-payer or a much more market-based approach with a lot of transparency—you need to bring down the prices because nothing will work when we’re paying two to three times more than every other country for drugs, a hip implant, getting stitches in the ER. People are just kind of gobsmacked when you tell them what we pay here. TM: What do Americans need to do to kind of survive—and in the case of health care it’s more of a physical survival—Donald Trump? ER: They need to become health care voters…All during the campaign last year, health care didn’t really come up except to say, “We’re going to repeal and replace.” People were not health care voters. It wasn’t a voting issue. And now, you look at the town halls and see those same people, what are they talking about? What are they confronting their representatives on? It’s their health care. So, I think it did form a wakeup call to people that they need to be health care voters. They need to make noise about their health care, and they need to ask all those uncomfortable questions of their local doctors, hospitals, assemblymen, about what are you doing for me? We have to make sure that our political representatives who, believe me, are hearing day in, day out from the lobbyists on behalf of pharma, hospitals, insurers, that they need to hear from us too…So, it’s a lot of really grassroots political noise where we hold our representatives accountable.
As the Trump administration hobbles and flails in the vague direction of Day 100 – 96 down, just 1,364 to go as of this writing – it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day incompetence and surreal ineptitude of The Donald and his Legion of Doom: e.g. Sean Spicer on Hitler; e.g. Jeff Sessions on Hawaii, e.g. the taxpayer tab for all those weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago; e.g. Trump’s historically low approval ratings; e.g. Trump’s oratory prowess and display of patriotism during the recent Easter Egg Roll. But focusing on things like our Commander-in-Chief reviewing policy briefs in the Oval Office with Kid Rock and Ted “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” Nugent, would be to lose sight of what Donald Trump’s presidency has really been: a full-scale assault on America’s most threatened populations. From his bumbling attempt to strip 24 millions Americans of their health insurance to rescinding protections for transgender students to proposing a budget that cuts vital services for lower-income Americans to refusing to monitor troubled police agencies, President Trump has demonstrated a disregard – if not outright animosity – for our most vulnerable communities. However, that disregard and animosity is certainly nothing new or unique to the Trump Administration. In his latest book, Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, Marc Lamont Hill describes a growing group of citizens “made vulnerable, exploitable, and disposable” in contemporary America. In telling the stories of those regarded by the powerful and privileged as “Nobody” – people like the citizens of Flint, Mich., black men and women like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, like Sandra Bland and Walter Scott – Hill places our current moment in historical context while offering an examination of race, class, and capitalism in 21st-century America. Hill -- a distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College, host of BET News and VH1 Live, and a political contributor for CNN -- spoke with The Millions by phone about police brutality, American Empire in decline, the importance of black bookstores, and the power of everyday people to change the world. The Millions: Nobody was published while Barack Obama was president. The paperback comes out with a very different man in the Oval Office. Obviously, Donald Trump isn’t good for the vulnerable people you're writing about in Nobody—but how exactly does he alter your thinking? Does he change the way we need to approach fighting the oppression of people “marked as poor, black, brown, immigrant, queer, or trans"? Marc Lamont Hill: I'm not sure that he does. I think that's what's interesting. What I get at in the book is that we can't reduce the condition of our nation or the plight of the vulnerable to a set of dispositions, a set of attitudes, or a small group of people with a particular point of view. There's a deeper structural problem here. There's a deeper institutional challenge that we face…I don't ever think that a particular kind of tide turn or election outcome will alter the fundamental structural challenges that we face. If anything, it just reminds me that we have serious work to do, no matter who's in office. I do think, though, that Donald Trump represents a different moment. Part of the problem is that we've cried wolf so many times when a Republican runs for office. We say ‘Oh, this is the worst thing that's ever happened in the history of America, and if we elect so-and-so the sky's going to fall.’ TM: Meanwhile, Mitt Romney sounds wonderful right about now. MLH: Exactly. And then you get a Donald Trump. And it's like, oh wait, maybe the sky actually is falling this time. Even Republicans are saying, ‘Hey, this is not what we're used to, what we imagined.’ The Donald Trump moment represents something different in that it may feel more urgent, and some of the battles that we fought in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s are now forced to be re-fought and some of the legal victories that we achieved are now going to have to be relitigated. The Donald Trump moment may represent a greater urgency and a kind of re-tracking of previous moments…Despite the darkness of the moment, we can still change. The thing that gives me hope is the fact that since August 9, 2014, we have seen a sustained and protracted movement of activists, of students, of clergy, who are changing the game. We're watching social media become different in terms of its usage. We’re watching digital technology. We're watching all of this stuff become something else. It's an extraordinary moment with extraordinary possibilities. They say only in the darkness can you see the stars. The Trump moment is darker, but to me that just spotlights what's possible even more. TM: There are a lot of people who think the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner are part of a recent trend, a spike in police violence. But the truth is that the killing of black men and women by police is nothing new. What's different—and you point this out in the book—is that now people have cellphones and they can take video and upload it to the Internet. I'm interested in your take on technology's changing role as a tool in the struggle against oppression. MLH: The fact that the technology exists in some ways underscores a deeper problem, which is around the ability of black people to narrate their own experience with credibility. Black witness doesn't matter. The fact that black folks have been saying ‘Hey, we're getting killed,’ forever doesn't matter. We talk about police brutality, police terrorism. Every experience you've seen on these videos are experiences that are articulated by black people. And people say, ‘Oh, you're exaggerating.’ I mean Rodney King. People in South Central L.A. weren't shocked by that. They were just shocked that the police didn't see the camera. While some people are really excited about this moment, and there is reason to be, it's also a reminder that black witness in and of it itself means nothing. That it's only with the augmentation of the cellphone, smartphone technology, digital video streaming, that people believe us. And essentially, they're not believing us; they're believing their own eyes. The problem is that when you live in a nation-state that is undergirded by white supremacy, by anti-black racism, and by really irrational narratives about black people, the video still proves insufficient. How many times did we watch Walter Scott run away? He gets shot in the back and it didn't matter. We watched Sandra Bland get harassed, it didn't matter. We saw Eric Garner with his hands up, it didn't matter. So, this technology is helpful in a certain way. It certainly helped, it was a mobilizing tool and an organizing tool, and it certainly gives us a better chance at quote-unquote justice than we would have without it. But I never want to overstate or fetishize technology because that suggests that the system is functional in the interest of justice, and all we needed was just a little more proof and we'd be in there, and that's just not the case. TM: In a previous interview in this series, Pankaj Mishra talked about the unfulfilled promise of neoliberal capitalism and democracy and how it fuels both terrorism and populist rage. In Nobody you talk about the role of neoliberal capitalism—that valuing of unrestrained profit for the few over the public good, which obviously leads to more citizens that are vulnerable and disposable. What are the historical processes that led us to this point where we’re devaluing everything except increased profits at all costs? MLH: We've always valued democratic citizenship, and democracy is almost an obsession of America. What's contested is what democracy looks like, how it's constituted, and how we arrived there. And over the last few decades—not just here, but in Britain and other places around the world—the liberalization of the market, that is to say the unfettering of market forces, has led us to not just worship the market and to believe in the capacity of the market to yield all positive outcomes, but it's also led us to equate unfettered capitalism with full-fledged democracy. And therefore, citizenship becomes consumership. And so, over the decades…you find an increased sense that to be a citizen is to be a consumer. The more access you have to goods and consumption, the more rich and full your citizenship is, the more fully realized your democratic project is. The problem is as people don't have access to capital, as they don't have access to individual success and prosperity—which becomes the measure of progress; it’s no longer a collective vision, it’s no longer a valuing of the welfare state or a collective investment in the good of everyone, but rather individual success and merit—what you begin to see is the collapse of people's faith in the system when they're not accessing those notions of prosperity. If I look up 20 years later and I can't work at the assembly line in Flint anymore and I can't get a living-wage job anymore, I'm now thinking something's wrong. I'm now thinking something's wrong with the country. I'm thinking the country’s moving in the wrong direction. And it's very easy under those regimes and under those moments to not blame the system itself because it's easier to imagine the end of the world itself than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. You then blame all the people who weren't there before, all the forces that weren't there before, all the leadership structures that weren't there before. You blame the black president, you blame the Mexicans, you blame the Arabs for taking the jobs. You don't question the actual mechanisms of capital. You don't question the oligarchies. You don't question the one percent because you still aspire to be the one percent, even if it's against all empirical evidence to the contrary… If you normalize the idea that individual prosperity is the measure of who we're supposed to be as citizens and that collective consumership is the marker of an effective democracy, then you end up in a space where 99 percent of us—certainly 90 percent of us—are going to be profoundly frustrated at all times with the condition of our democracy. But again, you're not looking at the machinery of capital, you're looking at all these other factors, which are really symptoms and not the problem itself, not the illness itself. And that's how you end up with a Trump in office: because you've got a bunch of poor, disenfranchised people who decide to choose a billionaire to lead them out of the economic disaster—when Trump’s economic power and value itself hinges upon the accumulation of mass amounts of wealth at the expense of most people; when his market logic demands a small group of people having a whole bunch of stuff, when efficiencies demand that the job that was once in Flint is now in East Asia, that the job that was in Ferguson, Missouri, is now in the Far East. When that happens, you're signing up for more of the same problem, but it makes you feel better. It's like when your eye itches and you keep scratching it. It's like this isn't working, but nothing else is, so let me just keep scratching it, because this is supposed to be working. And that's what's happening right now. TM: In the book, you say the perfect complement to the current neoliberal economic moment is a turning away from community—people are more isolated, they're more fragmented; you don't have to leave your house, everything is online and everything is delivered. How does that shift exacerbate the war on the vulnerable and how can community help the fightback? MLH: We are always at our best when we're organized. We're always at our best when we're connected and we're working together and building together. The problem is the forces of neoliberalism…at the discursive and cultural level, they value the individual so much more—we live in the age of the selfie. Everyone's the star of his own show. Everybody's the big attraction of their timeline. Everyone's going live. Everyone's doing all the stuff that pulls people away, because we're only thinking about the self. But then the material conditions of community are also dismantled. So, the community bookstore can't exist anymore. The public experience we previously imagined—and however flawed and romanticized it was, overly nostalgic it was—there once was a café, there once was a salon, there once was a Masonic Lodge, there once was even a street corner—where we would stand on 125th Street or 52nd Street in Philly or wherever—and we would talk and we would engage and we would build with one another. I spent my childhood in black book stores engaging ideas. The problem is there's no black bookstore anymore, because Amazon comes, and Amazon comes because it's cheaper, it's more efficient. Big-box retailers break down the mom-and-pop stores. They break down the local places. Even the local corner store that would exist, you know? And we'd hang out in front and talk shit, right? But there's no corner store anymore because there's a Target up the street where I can get a flat-screen TV and a pack of steaks and my prescription filled all at the same place. The way community is engaged is now much more routinized, it's much more mechanical, it's much more technocratic where these big-box retailers all are online. And so much of the physical interaction and connection that we had has now been replaced into the digital sphere. I'm not saying the digital sphere can't yield its own kind of rewards. But we're still figuring that out. We're figuring out what it means to form community in a hashtag group. We're figuring out what it means to organize digitally. We're figuring out what it means to have even a reading group on Facebook. A book club on Facebook. All of it is different now because of technology, but the market exigencies may push that to happen. So, we're dealing on multiple levels with the way that neoliberalism kind of shifts and shapes our realities. TM: Given that so much of Nobody is about police violence against black people, you probably spend a lot of time talking about race and probably a lot of that time -- like this interview -- is spent talking to white people. Do you find that fatiguing, or are you hopeful about the willingness or ability of white people to examine their privilege and work towards dismantling white supremacy? MLH: Hopeful might be overstating it. I'm not pessimistic, though. I believe ultimately in the power of everyday people to change the world. I don't mean that as just some kind of liberal cliché. I legitimately believe in the people and I legitimately believe that with the right organizing, the right political education, we can do anything. Getting white people to abandon whiteness is—that might be quixotic, you know? I mean, it's incredibly difficult to get anyone in power to yield their power and privilege and control. I mean, getting men to dismantle patriarchy. Getting straight people to dismantle homophobia. It takes more than a notion. I think that's the challenge—that it's counterintuitive for people to do that. So, what do we do to get them there? We need some level of interest conversion. We need to convince people that ultimately, the center can't hold; that ultimately, capitalism will dismantle or will break down; that ultimately, the environment will suffer. Ultimately the jobs will leave. That ultimately, none of us can succeed like this. That white supremacy can't hold itself. That ultimately, these white people who are looking for—who are using white skin privilege as a kind of property and as a kind of capital ultimately are going to be disenfranchised, like the white worker who votes for Trump. We have to convince them through political organization, through political education, through activism, through teaching, and through a kind of revolutionary patience that it is possible to change all of this and to make a world that's better for everybody, but that they have to think long term and not short term. I believe that it's all possible. It's just a hell of a job. So, I'm not optimistic. I don't believe that it's just going to happen, but I am full with hope. That's probably the best way to put it. I'm not optimistic about it, but I am full of hope. That's all we have. TM: If we look the state of America—with Trump's racist travel bans, the ICE raids, Jeff Sessions, the budget Trump put out, the gutting of the EPA, the spike in hate crimes, the rise of the Alt Right, it's hard to see a happy ending. Where do you think we're headed? Is there a tipping point that we're traveling toward— MLH: Well, you could argue that America is an empire in decline. TM: For sure. MLH: Where that ends, is up to us. I believe we can dictate where we go. We're headed in a very dangerous direction, but the ship can be rerouted. It always can be rerouted. Where we're going right now is a dark morgue, but I think, again, we need a sense of history. If we think that we were moving in the right direction and then November 8, 2016 happens, then we're fundamentally wrongheaded about that. That makes us think that if we could have just elected a Hillary Clinton, if we could have just put in a Bernie Sanders, the world would be totally different. And that's simply not true. We need a bigger view of the world, a bigger analysis, a thicker analysis. If we do that, we can turn these things around. But to your question, yes, right now, at this moment, given where we're headed economically, socially, culturally, politically, morally, we are moving in the wrong direction and it's not going to end anywhere good for any of us. This is indisputably an empire in decline, but it doesn't mean that end has to be as dire as it would be if we don't do the work. TM: What do Americans need to do to survive Donald Trump? MLH: We need to resist. We need to resist. At all times, in all ways, Americans must resist. We must resist the idea that we respect the office. We don't have to. We have to respect his humanity. But we have to say this office, as it stands, is not worthy of respect and it's an imperial throne, and we have to resist it. We have to resist through the electoral process. We can't wait until the next presidential cycle to resist. We have to resist at the local level and the national level. We have to build coalitions that resist. Politicians don't have feelings; they have interests. And we have to make it so their interests converge with ours, so that it's safe for members of Congress to vote down a bill, that we make it safe for them to filibuster, that we make it safe for them to make Donald Trump's life a living hell. Not at a personal level, but at the political level. And not winning will automatically be a personal hell for him. We have to resist on the streets. As our Syrian or Somali or Sudanese brothers and sisters get turned away, we have to fight to bring them back in. As we've seen the assault on civil liberties, we have to push back. We have to fight at every turn. We have to resist through our classroom teaching. We have to resist through the books we write. We have to resist through everything from what we name our children to who we hang out with to the kind of art we make. We have to resist at all times. My Palestinian brothers and sisters have a word called sumud—and sumud is steadfastness. We have to be steadfast. You know, steadfast means that resistance doesn't happen just at a march or a rally. It's not just a momentary blip on the screen. It's a lifelong commitment to resisting. If we can remain steadfast, then I think we win. Can't get enough Surviving Trump? Check out previous installments in the series, featuring Lewis Lapham, Masha Gessen, and Pankaj Mishra.
As the fine-tuned machine that is the Trump Administration prepares to shift into high gear and begin the important work that will define its third month -- defending another blatantly racist travel ban; eliminating health insurance for 24 million Americans; gutting the EPA and killing the NEA and NEH; boosting spending on nuclear weapons by a white hot billion dollars; tripling down on madcap wiretap accusations; pouring tax dollars galore into that "big, fat beautiful wall;" threatening to take "pre-emptive action" against North Korea -- much of the national conversation about our new POTUS has shifted. Gone are those bad old days of the How-Did-Trump-Happen Think Piece. These are the bad new days of the Stop-Trump-from-Destroying-the-World Action Alert. Resisting the hateful, shortsighted policies of a narcissist and his cabal of autocratic henchmen is the new normal -- and a host of organizations like Swing Left and The 65 have sprung up to just that, joining long-time progressive institutions like the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and National Resources Defense Council. But as Americans fight to prevent Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt, and the rest of the Legion of Doom from dragging a kicking-and-screaming America back to its coal-powered, culturally homogenous glory days of the 1950s, it's perhaps equally vital for us understand our history and how we arrived at this point. In his latest book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra places in historical context the massive waves of populist rage sweeping the planet -- from the xenophobic populism that fueled Trump and Brexit to the hatred that drives al Qaeda, ISIS, and our own domestic terrorists -- and argues that all of it stems from the international pipe dream of unbridled neoliberal capitalism and democracy. While in New York, Mishra -- author of nine titles, including From the Ruins of Empire and Temptations of the West -- took time to speak by phone with The Millions about the victims of globalization, nihilistic despair, the responsibilities of citizenship, and repeating the mistakes of history again and again. The Millions: In Age of Anger you describe how around the world -- from the U.S. to the Middle East -- people are feeling rage and disenfranchisement at the unfulfilled promises of global capitalism and democracy. How did we get to this point, when not so long ago it looked like those same institutions were going to be the world’s salvation? Pankaj Mishra: Perhaps we should acknowledge that we have lived in a state of ideological intoxication since 1989, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of what was the great rival to capitalism—and the notion that there is an alternative. But to embrace these very harsh forms of neoliberal capitalism, which hollowed out working class communities, cause massive inequalities around the world, in a way what we’re seeing is the consequences of the state of ideological inebriation where we just did not, could not see any other way of being…The trajectory seemed to have been set; history appeared to have ended. And now we are really waking up to being shocked out of our state of intoxication. And that’s why so much in recent years has come as a huge shock to us. It’s because we were simply not prepared. We were simply not accustomed to thinking about all these processes, whether it’s capitalism or progress or growth, as essentially deeply problematic processes, and they have been, historically. TM: I think it’s easy to draw a line between someone who voted for Donald Trump and someone who voted for Brexit. Or to draw a line between Timothy McVeigh and ISIS. I think it’s harder for people to see how they’re all so intimately interconnected. Because, essentially, they’re all reacting to the same thing? They’re all offshoots of the same failed system? PM: We have seen so many political events in recent years through the lens of religious difference or cultural difference. When terrorism first erupted in a big way on 9/11, we tended to blame it on Islam or some defects or flaws within a particular community defined by religion. What we utterly failed to see was that terrorism always had deep political, socioeconomic roots, historically; that it has had very little to do with religion. And then, of course, you know, political disasters in other countries we blamed upon either their dysfunctional states or their failure to embrace democracy, which was the case in Russia. Which, let’s not forget, was the first country to elect a demagogue after a traumatic, calamitous experiment with free market capitalism. We forget that very conveniently. That was what enabled and empowered Vladimir Putin to become the demagogue that he is now. But we really did not linger on these experiences, not long enough to draw any kind of lessons for our own democracies, for our own politics. It’s important to see all these different manifestations of political anger and disaffection, whether it’s people joining ISIS in the Middle East, seceding from their respective nation-states; or people saying, “We’ve had enough of the European Union, we want to take back control over our lives,” which is what the Brexiteers were saying. And, the impulse to a greater protectionism and xenophobic nationalism in the United States. I think these are all deeply linked phenomena, and linked by shared feelings of humiliation and powerlessness on the parts of large numbers of people. TM: So, we have the same short-sightedness or the same inebriation with this system to blame for ISIS and to blame for Donald Trump? PM: I think so. And as long as we keep these separate, we keep them apart, we’re going to arrive at a very unhelpful diagnoses of the situation, unless we see that we all inhabit the same world beset by the same set of problems and anxieties and existential fears [that] many, many people have of great change, disruptive change, the fear of being uprooted, the fear of having to reinvent yourself, retrain yourself, upgrade your skills—all these new pressures that this rapidly changing economy imposes on people around the world. This process, this experience has been very disorientating for large numbers of people, and many people simply don’t want any part of it. And now they express their disaffection in different ways, some of them extremely militant ways such as embracing terrorism, blowing up people in public places. The other way is to vote for someone who promises to blow up Washington, D.C., and blow up, deconstruct—as Steve Bannon put it—the administrative state, or simply destroy the kind of politics or dysfunctional political system that many people blame for their suffering and their plight. TM: There’s no consensus about this, but some psychologists consider anger to be a secondary emotion, essentially something that people default to because it’s easier than feeling their underlying emotions like sorrow or despair. I’m interested in how you see emotions like sorrow, like despair, influencing or changing the growing populism we’re seeing around the world? PM: I think once we start to see, experience the toxic consequences of having populists in power in many powerful countries around the world, very soon anger will basically revert to being this sort of more original emotion of despair, and indeed sorrow and melancholy. Because this whole desire to empower populists emerges out of a deep despair. There’s no question about it. It’s a kind of nihilistic despair, it’s like one last gamble, like, okay, we are empowering this guy who is just simply not up to the job, but he seems better than all the other politicians on offer. I won’t be surprised if many people who voted for Donald Trump are now experiencing regret, if not also deep sorrow and despair. TM: In 2007, Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote an essay for The New York Times called “Folly’s Antidote,” in which he basically criticized George W. Bush’s administration for failing to learn the lessons of history. And that seems incredibly relevant because the populism we’re seeing today, it’s nothing really new. In a way, are we just repeating the same history over and over, generation after generation? PM: This is something I stress in my book, that this historical moment obviously has some completely unprecedented aspects, such as social media or Twitter and the fact that demagogues can come to power using social media platforms. But there are some very deep similarities between our situation and, say, in the late 19th century, when in America, particularly, populists of all kinds, on both the left and the right, demonized immigrants, minorities, turned them into scapegoats for the suffering of many people who had been exposed to unemployment or the uncertainties of a fast-changing, increasingly globalized economy. And populists always are the beneficiaries, or far-right demagogues are always the beneficiaries of such periods of fear and uncertainty. Fundamentally, our situation is not very different from that experienced by many peoples around the world in the last 150 years, and that includes the United States. But once you start believing in a narrative of irreversible and unstoppable progress, where you start thinking that everything is just going swimmingly and onward and upwards, then of course, it’s hard to remember these bitter lessons of history, which basically tell us that fascism, populism, far-right demagogues, they will reappear wherever the conditions of their possibilities exist. And that can be anywhere in the world, including the United States and Britain and the world’s leading democracy, India, where I come from. No matter how many times we tell ourselves, never again, this will never be repeated, we won’t do this again, we won’t empower crazies who speak lightly about war—but this is what we can see happening over and over again. TM: Do you see any way to prevent that from happening, to not let history repeat itself that way? PM: Probably not, because every generation comes into the world with its own set of memories, with its own set of experiences…so it’s hard to imagine people who are wise enough to absorb from previous generations the lessons of their experiences. All of us have limited time on Earth in which we try to make senses of our own experiences. And the ways in which we process our experiences, our memories, they’re all determined by very contingent factors. So, maybe artificial intelligence will be able to help us, but I sort of doubt it. TM: In a piece in The Guardian you wrote of our current political moment, of the Age of Anger, that “these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.” Do you think that understanding is setting in? Are you at all optimistic about the future? PM: I don’t know, to be honest. I think what the last 200 years have shown consistently is that giving up traditional religion does not diminish our fanatical desire to believe in something, to uphold one ideology or others. So, communism died and then we embraced this particular notion of progress in which history was to end with the universal triumph of capitalism and democracy. The kind of nuanced understanding of modern ideas that I’m asking for, or that any number of people from Rousseau onwards have asked for, I don’t see it happening on an extensive scale. What we seem to do in every historical phase is to lurch from one set of ideological certainties to another. So, we moved, in recent months, large numbers of people at least, from believing that progress is happening, it’s all working out, economies are growing more productive and all these kinds of fantasies to this fantasy of ethno-racial nationalism. To think we can go back and recreate a homogenous community, and recreate this sort of glorious past, which was unviolated by foreigners and immigrants and various minorities. We are in yet another phase of treacherous kind of fantasy really, ideological fantasy at this point. So, to answer your question, I mean I’m not very optimistic about the possibility of a more critical understanding of our ideals. TM: Given that globalism, capitalism, liberal democracy, they’re not going to go away any time soon—and here, in the U.S., Donald Trump isn’t going to go away for four to eight years, barring impeachment—what can people do to affect change? Are there historical strategies or strategies from other countries that we should be aware of when dealing with this kind of rise in populism? PM: It’s very hard to prescribe what should be done. But I do think there’s a good case to be made for what we should not do. And the most important is not chase after unattainable goals. This is what we’ve been doing since 1989, feeding ourselves fantasies of unlimited growth around the world without any regard for environmental constraints, without any accounting of the political risks involved in promising extravagantly to populations around the world. Once we realize that our resources are limited, we all have to live within our means…protectionism, end to free trade, end to globalization are not going to solve these problems. These are kind of quack solutions in many ways. Unless we really look at the broader picture here and have a historical view, we will simply keep on repeating the same mistakes and thinking of one-size-fits-all solutions that work for everyone around the world. And I think it’s important for any political movement that arises as a form of resistance to the current administration, I do think it needs to go deeper than just talk about economic inequality or, indeed the corruption and sort of incompetence of the current administration. It is important that it takes on these values that we’ve been we’ve been sold in the last two or three decades. These are all values of hyper-competitiveness and vanity; the notion that our societies should be organized along the lines of a marketplace. This is the most damaging idea, really. And that society as such, is almost superfluous; that we are all individual entrepreneurs competing with each other in a gigantic marketplace. I mean these are some of the dominant notions governing our politics and economy. Unless we really wrestle with these ideas and come up with different ideas of the good life, with a greater stress on solidarity and community and trust, and really some compassion, I think we will not make a great deal of progress. TM: You’ve written nonfiction, criticism, novels. With this latest book, what do you see as your intellectual responsibility in our current Age of Anger? PM: I’ve always thought since I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, when I started to write, that I am responding to certain tendencies in my own time, which I think are very dangerous and could lead to absolutely awful political outcomes. And, in a way, I’m certainly very shocked by a lot of recent political earthquakes. But I’m also not surprised because I have been warning about this consistently over two decades. And I feel that my responsibility today remains the same, which is to push back against dominant notions which people in power embrace because it helps them advance their own projects, whether it’s technocratic elites in business or politics or, indeed, people in the media, in the mainstream media, who’ve also been complicit in sort of this ideological project. I see my role as challenging some of these dominant and hegemonic ideologies. And this is what I’ve been doing, and this is what I think I will continue to do. If I’d been born in some other period, I would have probably raised myself against some of the dangerous tendencies of that particular age. But having grown up in the post-Cold War era, I’ve found that this sort of ideology of neoliberalism has been the most dominant, the most persuasive, the most seductive ideology of our time—and it has left a lot of people feeling, not only left behind, but pushed behind, and left them very angry and discontented. And now we are reckoning with the political consequences of that. TM: Focusing on the U.S. again, how do we survive Donald Trump? PM: I feel that Donald Trump, in at least one way, has been a great blessing to the United States and to all progressive-minded people in the United States. Finally, there is a cause around which all kinds of people with many different political agendas can come together. They can organize; they can pool their resources; they can, at least for the time being, moderate their differences, whatever ideological, political differences they might have. Because he really does unite a large part of the country’s population against him. And I think it’s a great opportunity to build bridges of trust and encourage feelings of solidarity amongst people who’ve felt themselves to be powerless all this time, and who are felt that they lack a sense of community. And political communities, the responsibilities of citizenship, when they are aroused, I think they are the best way of being in the world, being in the world as politically aware citizens. That is what politics ought to be all about, not something you entrust to someone you elect or someone you vote for once every four years. So, what we’re seeing today in America, with all of the marches and strikes and [a] galvanized public, is this kind of democracy from below, which is how it should work. Part of me is quite hopeful that what we will see over the next four years is a larger democratic consolidation. And that this would be a golden opportunity for a new kind of politics to emerge in the United States, separate from the corrupted, dysfunctional political party apparatuses that—both of them—lie discredited at this point.
In case you've already moved into a doomsday bunker in backwoods Maine and can only check the news when you're not stockpiling water purification tablets, cleaning your handgun, or mucking out the composting toilet, the first month of Donald Trump's presidency proved to be a frightening, cruel, incompetent, and heartbreaking trainwreck. Each passing day -- replete with its frenzy of twisted executive orders; abusive phone calls with long-time allies; obsessive lying about inauguration crowd size; reality-show parade of inept and fascistic underlings; and deranged late-night tweets -- brought fresh horrors that made it all but impossible to recall the fresh horrors of yesterday. Remember when Trump ordered the EPA to remove the climate change pages from its website? Remember that time Trump threatened to impose martial law in Chicago? Remember when Trump coordinated his response to North Korea’s missile test in front of a crowd of diners at Mar-a-Lago? Remember that time Trump failed to condemn the national spike in hate crimes, but got really upset at Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka's accessories and clothing line? While keeping up with a fast-moving autocrat bent on dismantling the free press and gutting democratic institutions is something new for most Americans, it's business as usual for Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen -- a long-time critic of Vladimir Putin and author of The Man Without a Face, The Brothers, and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. As our Commander-in-Chief was about midway through his now infamous Fine-Tuned-Machine Press Conference, Gessen spoke with The Millions by phone about conspiracy theories, trauma psychology, nuclear holocaust, and life during the Trump Years. The Millions: Can you please tell me what the hell is going on between Donald Trump and Russia. I mean there's Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, his creepy admiration for Putin, Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State -- and then this week alone Mike Flynn resigned, we learned that Trump campaign aides were talking to Russian intelligence, there's a Russian naval ship 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut. Given your experience of Russian politics and knowledge of Putin, what do you think all of this means? Masha Gessen: [Laughs.] I'm fundamentally opposed to conspiracy theories and I'm a proponent of the stupidity and incompetency of the world. I think that what's going on is, so far, consistent with the stupidity and incompetency of the world. It’s possible that there's a vast conspiracy to rig the American election and get Mike Flynn into the administration to lift sanctions, et cetera, et cetera. It’s very hard to believe that someone as, frankly, dumb as Mike Flynn and someone as incompetent as Vladimir Putin, and someone as equally as incompetent as—well, actually, someone even more incompetent, like Donald Trump, could have pulled off such a brilliantly divined, long-term operation. And until we see definitive evidence of that, I'm going to hold fast to that view. For another reason as well, which is that there's plenty in plain view to make the situation unacceptable, unimaginable, frightening as hell. What I think happened is that -- and using the available information -- Russia has a long-standing pattern and policy of disrupting elections in the Western world. They tried to do it during the Soviet period, they weren't very good at it. Then they started doing it in the post-Soviet period. They weren't that great at it either. What's interesting about this is they weren't good at it during the Soviet period because they didn’t have the slightest idea of how the Western world worked. What's disturbing is that their idea as to how the world works hasn't changed very much. It appears that the world has gotten closer to the way Russia thinks it works. There is a confluence of circumstances that is magical, that feels magical for Putin, that someone like Donald Trump has been elected president. I don't think he was elected president because of Putin's interference. He was elected president because Americans voted for him and because Americans have an archaic system for electing presidents and because America is a polarized country and because America has a broken system of political parties. And for all those reasons, and because right-wing populists like Donald Trump are basically irresistible. For all those reasons, America elected Trump. And I think that Putin was very much on top of the world. At his annual press conference -- and yes, annual press conference -- he actually had a question asked of him, because it’s a scripted affair, so he had a question asked: how does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world. That's very much how he's feeling, or was feeling after the election. He's already had a few unpleasant surprises. Sanctions haven't actually been lifted. And it's been a month…That points to the fact that there was no deal. But there were hopes and understandings on both sides. That is the reason for Russian's current increase in aggression. And what Russia's doing is aggression. It's not invasion, it's not acts of war. But it's sort of reminding Trump of what Putin thought was a wide understanding that they were now going to sit down and divvy up the world. And Putin has been very clear about the fact that that's what he wants America to do. He wants a Yalta number two, and that's what he was expecting from Trump. And one last point on that: why is the United States not responding? Because it's incompetent. Because it has an incompetent administration TM: What do you think Putin thinks of Donald Trump? Sanctions that might be lifted or might not be lifted aside, does having Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House impact Putin's culture war against the West? MG: Yes. Absolutely. Hillary Clinton in the White House was unimaginable. [Putin] personally hates her. He blames her for the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012. Also, she's a woman. It's bad enough he has to deal with Merkel…At least that's just Germany. It's not the most powerful country in the world. And he thinks Trump is a buffoon. He's made that very clear. When Trump thought Putin was saying that he was brilliant, he was actually saying that he was colorful, which is not much of a compliment. Putin is not the kind of guy who appreciates pure beauty in the world -- and if he says something is colorful, you can bet that he's not taking it seriously. TM: Do you think Russia has a Donald Trump golden shower sex tape? MG: This is the sort of thing that I'm very familiar with in Russia. Not in the sense of golden showers sex tapes—but I've seen lots of other sex tapes that I wish I hadn’t seen—but the believability standard of reporting. And the answer is, we don't know. I can't think anything about it because I don't know. Facts are not a thing that you debate. It exists or it doesn’t. One thing that I will say, though, is that I can't imagine -- with the description of that tape that has been made available -- how that could possibly serve as a tool of blackmail. [Trump] owned up to the grabbing-them-by-the-pussy tape and lost no traction with his electorate during a campaign. TM: Trump and Putin are such different kinds of men. But when reading The Man Without a Face, I was struck by the number of times I underlined something that Putin had done or said and wrote "Trump!" in the margin. What do you think their unifying characteristics are, and how do you see the relationship playing out over four years? MG: As it happens, I have list of nine similarities between Putin and Trump. Let me just focus on the ones that I can reel off the top of my head without looking at my notes. You're right, they're very, very different. They're very different in affect, they're very different in background. They're very different in the way that they address the public. One uses raw emotion and the other actually prides himself on never betraying an emotion. And they inherited vastly different political systems and historical legacies. That said, they have a number of traits that are actually typical of autocrats and bullies -- and they're both bullies and they're both autocrats…One huge one is the way that they lie. It’s taken Americans a while to understand how Trump lies. That he doesn’t lie in order to make you believe what he is saying. He lies in order to assert power over reality. And it's basically a bully in the playground kind of stance: ‘I'm going to say that it's not your hat that I'm wearing. What are you going to do about it?’ It's the 'What are you going to do about it?' that's always the message. And it's always about power. Another is their disdain for government as it had been constituted. And again this isn't unique to Putin and Trump -- Hannah Arendt described this in The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was a basic feature of the fascists who rose to power in Europe in the '20s and '30s, and certainly it was a basic feature of the Leninist revolution. When Trump said that he wanted to drain the swamp, he didn’t mean, I want to clean up American institutions so that they work better. He meant, American institutions are rotten to the core and they need to be destroyed. And you know, viewed through that lens, it suddenly makes sense that almost all of his cabinet appointments are basically people who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency that they are supposed to run. That's not an accident. It's a kind of nihilism that is typical of people like Putin and Trump…[When he said] drain the swamp, he meant just sweep the whole thing into the garbage and start over. TM: In The Man Without a Face is you illustrate how quickly after coming to power Putin dismantled the independent media and democratic institutions in Russia. And we have Trump coming in, and he's issuing all these executive orders that he may or may not have read, he's talking about voter fraud, he’s making these awful appointments. How much damage do you think Trump can do to American democracy? And how quickly do you think he can do it? MG: He can do an incredible amount of damage. I think, oddly, that the speed at which he has moved is actually a blessing because as fast as Putin was, his larger project actually took a long time. It took him a year to take over the media. It took him three years to dismantle the electoral mechanisms in a country that didn’t have a very strong media or very strong electoral mechanisms. So, he was methodical. But what I think is remarkable in terms of speed about Putin is that he started on day one and he wasted no time. But he moved methodically. Trump is not methodical, and this is one major difference between them…The fact that Trump hasn’t given us a second of normality is actually a blessing because it makes it easier to maintain a constant state of outrage. I keep waiting for the moment when people sit back and go, ‘Oh, okay. Well, this I can live with.’ It happens a little bit. I mean like Neil Gorsuch. Neal Gorsuch: this I can live with. As awful as he is politically, he's not fundamentally opposed to the mission of the Supreme Court, which is what I was really afraid of. I was really afraid of a Peter Thiel or somebody on the Supreme Court. Except for those tiny, tiny specs of normality, we haven't had a day when it's like, ‘Phew, I can think about dinner.’ The psychological effect of that is devastating because it is a very good instrument of control. There's a term that trauma psychologists use, and trauma psychology has its roots in studying totalitarian groups and totalitarian societies. They have a term: low-level dread…It’s a really important term because they view it as an instrument of control, because a person in a state of low-level dread can sort of function: can go to work, can get their children from daycare. But in that state, people lose their ability to plan for the future, which is an essential element of having human agency…It's not all great that he's moving so fast. Psychologically, it's devastating. But I also think that it may be good for the future of our institutions because it's so plain what's happening. And it does maintain a state of mobilization among those who are resisting. TM: You told Samantha Bee that your greatest fear about the Trump administration was nuclear holocaust. That actually seems pretty reasonable. How do you see that playing out, and why is that a possibility Americans should take seriously? MG: You asked me how I see the relationship between Trump and Putin playing out. I don’t see it playing out very well. What we're already seeing is Putin basically saying to Trump, ‘Look, I expected better.’ And these are two men with short tempers, with vengefulness as one of their main motivators, with masculinity issues, with their fingers on the nuclear button, and with no controls over when they push it. That's what makes it a real possibility. TM: You wrote in The New York Times recently about how much of the conversation about Trump has been focused on arguing over what is factual and what is not, at the expense of engaging in discussions that are essential to democracy. What should those discussions look like, and are they happening anywhere? MG: We need to focus much more closely on the nominations. Some of that has happened. Not enough has happened. We sort of breezed past the fact that most of these nominees bypassed the ethics checks, because so much else is going on. And it's this disorientating cacophony that keeps us from getting focused on one thing. I think we're back down the rabbit hole of investigating the Russia connection. There's nothing wrong with investigating the Russia connection. But the Russia connection, even in the extremely unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence -- and at most it can produce conclusive evidence of collusion, it can't ever produce conclusive evidence of the results of that collusion -- even in the unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence of collusion, it's extremely unlikely that it would depose Trump, which I think is everybody's hope. I think the magical thinking here is, ‘Oh, let's investigate Russia. We'll find out that Trump really is a Russian puppet. And then he goes and then this national nightmare is over.’ The chances of that are almost zero. I would turn attention to what he is doing to agencies, what else is going on with immigration and the ICE raids all over the country...What's actually happening in this country. We were focused for about three seconds on what's happening with the National Parks and environmental agencies, and that feels like ancient history, doesn’t it? But that’s the kind of reversal of the fundamental mission of the agency that we're probably going to see all over the place. TM: If you had to give the American people one piece of advice on how to survive the next four to eight years, what would that be? MG: Remember the future. There will be a time after Trump, and we have to keep remembering that -- not just because it gives us hope, but because it's essential to not do anything to undermine that future. There’re some disturbing things that have happened over the last few months, like the calls for the electoral college to vote against Trump, which I thought was just absurdly shortsighted. You can't establish precedent of breaking a system if you're planning to have another presidential election sometime. I'm really disturbed by psychiatrists who have now, on several occasions, stepped forward and said let's get this guy out of office because that's our professional opinion. I'm old enough to remember when being queer was a psychopathology. And I don't want psychiatrists deciding who is normal enough to be leading this country. Even if this guy is patently insane, that can't be the reason we get him out of office. And finally, the current situation with Flynn, which is unfolding through leaks from intelligence agencies, which are by definition unsubstantiated. That's the sort of thing that has gotten this country in trouble in the past. It's gotten a lot of other countries in trouble. In the history of the 20th century, a few countries were probably done a favor by their uniformed services who carried out pro-democratic coups -- but we have to be clear that that's the fire that we're playing with. Once you start following the lead of anonymous sources in intelligence agencies who release the information that is useful to them and that serves their cause and expect you to proceed on blind trust, we're in potential military coup territory. That's also not a great way to get rid of Trump.
Barring the act of some benevolent god, Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated tomorrow as the 45th president of the United States. That event will serve as a capstone to the grotesque electoral charade our nation has been forced to endure. And while the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Trump -- long on vitriol, pussy-grabbing, and pandering; short on serious policy ideas and honest debate -- was a disgrace to some, it was an inevitability to Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine and founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. In his latest book, Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, Lapham argues that the 2016 election was the culmination of a decades-long degradation of American democracy. Beginning with the greed-is-good polices of Ronald Reagan, Lapham describes America's age of folly -- see also George H.W. Bush's Excellent Persian Gulf Adventure; see also the hanging chads of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Volusia counties; see also Mission Accomplished; see also enhanced interrogation techniques and tax breaks for billionaires and the USA Patriot Act and the never-ending buzz of drone warfare -- illustrating how and why our democracy has given way to a dysfunctional plutocracy of the super-rich, by the super-rich, and for the super-rich. Taken together, the book’s essays, published between 1990 and 2016 in Lapham’s Quarterly and Harper’s, serve as a powerful and alarming American history. And for Lapham -- echoing Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. -- the failure to connect the past with the present has the potential to "lead to the death of the American enterprise...Children unfamiliar with the world in time make easy marks for the dealers in totalitarian politics, junk science, and quack religion." With Age of Folly, Lapham provides the historical context needed to understand our current political moment. A few weeks after the election, he sat down with The Millions at his office off Union Square and talked about how we got here, where we’re going, and what we can expect during the Trump Years. The Millions: You described the 2016 election as an exemplary embodiment of the age of folly. Do you think with the election of Trump, we're still in the age of folly, or did Trump bump us into the next era? Lewis Lapham: Yeah, we are. Now the question is, can we dig ourselves out? I mean, have we burned it down to the point where we have the ashes out of which, god willing, a phoenix will rise? We got to the ashes part...That’s where we are now. Because I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Trump Administration pulling us out of the mud. I think it will drive us further into the mud. But the question is, how deep in the mud do we have to go before we take it seriously? Before we’re suddenly saying, “Jesus, you know what? Politics does make a difference.” TM: In Age of Folly, you write “The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens. If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.” After this election, it seems that mutual respect has been pretty much abandoned. How can we repair that? LL: I make that point at the end of [“Hostile Takeover”]. The camera doesn’t hold one’s fellow citizens in regard because they are one’s fellow citizens. The camera holds them in regard because they are famous or rich or beautiful. And I don’t know how you get that back with, essentially, television. Democracy, at least in the American understanding of it, is words. And it’s complicated, it’s always ambiguous, and the people have differences of opinion, and it doesn’t reduce that well to 10-second soundbites. Fascism does, obviously. And so does the lack of historical consciousness. McLuhan talks about this. Understanding Media comes out in 1964: The medium is the message. The whole habit of thought, it’s about words, and it’s about sequence, and it’s about argument. The electronic media’s a circle. It just keeps going around, repeating ritually. You’ve seen one news show, you’ve seen them all. It really doesn’t change that much. It’s a whole different way of structuring a worldview. Forms of communication change the habits of thought and the styles of feeling. And so our problem is how do we make a political discourse out of emojis? TM: Trump's victory has been met with much hand-wringing on the left -- and some of it is justified. But in terms of our country as plutocracy, that would have continued under Clinton. It just wouldn’t have been as obvious. Do you think this election is going to serve as a kind of wake-up call? LL: I do. And I think the American people take very seriously the environment. And if Trump—I mean, look who’s he’s appointed to the head of the EPA, and look who he’s appointed to the head of the Labor Department. I think Americans take seriously income inequality, I think they’re waking up to that…I think the American people are apt to say, “Enough is enough.” TM: Looking at his other picks, today it was announced that Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn has been tapped to be the National Economic Council Director. He has Wilbur Ross, Steven Mnuchin. I mean this is a kind of bald-faced plutocracy. LL: Yes, it’s Wall Street’s plutocracy. TM: Do you think those nominees are they all that different from who Clinton would’ve picked if she won? LL: No, I don’t think so. Trump’s got the chairman of his economic advisors as Steven Schwartzman, and I think that’s who Hillary had in mind. I don’t know that for a fact...It might not have been Gary Cohn, it might have been Schwartzman, or it might have been Jamie Dimon, or it could have been Alan Patricof. But yeah, the same--Larry Summers, for Christ’s sake...look at who [Bill] Clinton had. He had Goldman Sachs, Paulson was Goldman Sachs...And the same thing with George W. Bush. TM: Given who Trump is appointing and the things he’s pledged to do, what institutions do you see as most vulnerable? Or is it an all-of-the-above kind of situation? LL: Well pretty much all. But certainly the EPA, certainly the environment. Because I think that’s the most important one, actually. Well, no, you can’t say that, because, Christ, what do you know about the Department of Defense? I mean, these people could...I don’t see the three guys that he’s got so far wanting to ease up on Iran. TM: Not Doves. LL: Not Mr. Flynn. TM: You hear a lot of people blaming a lot of things—racists, third-party candidates, white working class voters, the electoral college, identity politics. In your mind, who or what is really responsible for Trump? LL: I think what’s to blame is what Fraser says in The Age of Acquiescence—the failure to keep the argument going. Because democracy is tension, and it’s not supposed to be easy and orderly and safe. It’s supposed to be a really sharp argument between the governed and the government, between mind and matter, between men and women, between competing interests. The ascension of -- this is Fraser’s point -- the age of acquiescence. Starting in the ‘80s, there’s no real objection from the left -- no objection that was anything more than decorative. Media was all down on the side of money and the status quo. TM: I want to talk a little bit about the process of the normalization of Trump in the media. In the run-up to the election, people didn’t think that he was going to win, and his positions were absurd, and he was pandering to racist elements in the country. And then he becomes president-elect and he’s sort of normalized and— LL: No, there’s no question about that. Stock market’s gone up 500 points...And even David Brooks is edging over...And Thomas Friedman: I’ll advise Donald about climate change and he’ll listen to me because I’m Thomas Friedman. I mean, where you really saw it was -- where it was beautiful, where it happened in a week, was in 2001. In August, George W. Bush was being portrayed as a complete fool. Stock market was down, he was piss plain dumb, couldn’t talk...And then 9/11, and a week later, The Washington Post is comparing him to Lincoln, and The New York Times is comparing him to Churchill. It was magnificent...And they’ll find reasons to normalize Trump, sure. TM: How can Americans resist Trump’s agenda, and what role do you see writers playing in that? LL: Trouble is that writers have been discounted in the American scheme of things over the last 50 years now. I’m old enough to remember -- I’m at Yale in 1952 to 1956, and to be a writer was an important thing. There was the belief that writers could change the world. And the heroes were people like Camus, Yeats, even Auden, and Hemingway, Mailer. The notion that literature was going to come up with important answers. Solzhenitsyn -- the novel as heroic. And again, that’s an idea that comes out of the 19th century. That’s Victor Hugo in exile from the Second Empire in France. That’s what Flaubert was trying to do. Balzac was trying to do the same thing. Dickens. William Dean Howells in this country, Twain -- the writer was a heroic kind of figure, or at least had that possibility. That’s what Mailer was trying to be. And in the 1960s, they actually had writers on the cover of Time magazine. I can remember that really, before 1962, Time magazine had on the cover Mailer, Roth, Bellow, not Vonnegut yet, and maybe not Heller. And then it was all over -- No, Updike. And then I don’t think they had another writer, then they had Solzhenitsyn on the cover somewhere in the ‘80s. And then for Christ’s sake, they come up with Jonathan Franzen, and compare him to Tolstoy. I mean, that’s farcical. And part of that I think is the atomic bomb. Once you get the atomic bomb, then man now has it in his power to destroy the Earth. Oppenheimer, quoting Shiva: I am the destroyer of the worlds. That’s what he said looking at the nuclear explosion. And so the heroes of our age are essentially money guys or politicians with their hand on the button or cosmetic surgeons and scientists who are going to discover the way for us to live to 150 years, and the Silicon Valley people, you know, the magicians. And so the writer seems to have less -- Nader explained this to me once. Nader said that when he, in the ‘60s, published Unsafe at Any Speed, within a year, there were hearings, rules got changed, safety belts got put on cars. And this was genuinely true in the ‘60s. Protest the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement -- civil rights legislation goes in with Johnson. It had an effect. Now, it doesn’t have an effect. We all know that we’re being governed by crooks, but we make a joke out of it. That’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. TM: The Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as the word of the year. And there’s that Corey Lewandowski quote: “This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes -- when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar -- you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.” How do you see covering President Trump, who’s so hostile to the media, as different from covering past presidents, and what increased responsibility does the media have? LL: I don’t know. I’m really curious to see it, because I think [the media] hurt themselves with crying wolf so much. And now they’ll come across something that’s real. I mean seriously real. And who’s going to believe them. And I don’t know what you do with a president who tweets? What do you with it in the media? Do you tweet back? I mean, shit...it is really scary. It’s to where -- who knows or who cares what the truth is, is the point. And we will maybe not care until we find ourselves impoverished or in jail or conscripted. I mean, I don’t know how many times you got to get poked in the stomach before you get it. This article is the first in a series of interviews with authors, journalists, artists, and activists about life and resistance during the Trump Administration.
After my grandmother died, all I could do was read P.G. Wodehouse. She had always been a fan, and while various relatives squabbled about who should inherit which silver teapot and why, I quietly made off with her collection of orange-spined paperbacks, taking with me Bertram Wilberforce Wooster – vapid but amiable young clubman of early-20th century England -- and his peerless gentleman’s personal gentleman, Reginald Jeeves. Evelyn Waugh famously said of Wodehouse’s fiction and its characters: Their desperate, transitory, romantic passions are unconnected with the hope or fear of procreation; age in their world is usually cantankerous, extreme youth, obnoxious; they all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. To my knowledge, no one ever dies in Wodehouse – there’s no real pain or suffering, no real consequences at all. If Madeline Basset breaks her engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle, there will be no lasting sorrow or heartbreak. And if Madeline turns her attentions toward young Bertie, we all know that no matter how knotty the imbroglio Jeeves will save the day. Another thing about Wodehouse – and something my wife is fond of noting -- you can pretty much turn to any page of any book and find a sparkling sentence. To wit: I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping. For months I escaped into The Inimitable Jeeves, Joy in the Morning, Thank You, Jeeves – the same yellowed books my grandmother had read, most likely sitting up in bed, an ill-tempered Jack Russell at her feet, a glass of sherry within arm’s reach. But soon reading Wodehouse wasn’t enough: I listened to audio editions of the short stories read by Martin Jarvis while doing the dishes; I downloaded BBC full-cast radio dramas and listened to them at work; I binge-watched Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s Jeeves & Wooster; I even read Jeeves & the Wedding Bells, the only pastiche fully authorized by the Wodehouse estate. I had developed a full-blown Wodehouse Addiction. And it takes no advanced degree in psychology – no call need be placed to noted nerve specialist and Bertie Wooster antagonist Sir Roderick Glossop -- to identify the void Jeeves and Wooster were filling. Due to a significantly less-than-ideal home life – the sort of thing Wodehouse would never have touched upon in his fiction – I spent much of my childhood at my grandparents’ house. Most of my fondest early memories take place in and around that vast white Victorian with the secret passageway between bedrooms. The house now sits empty and for sale. But for the better part of my youth, a trip to my grandparents was like something straight out of Wodehouse. At their house, almost anything could and did happen: cars burst into flame in the driveway; strange neighbors fed cat food to small, unsuspecting children; massive vats of ice cream fell off passing trucks; uncles cracked nephews over the head with glass ashtrays; dead shark carcasses turned up in the muddy brook; and strange and distant relatives were always stopping by and helping themselves to my grandfather’s single malt: various great aunts and second uncles and cousins thrice removed with unfortunate names like Otis McNutt Sr., Otis McNutt Jr., Otis McNutt III. While my grandmother and the weird, wonderful world she created are gone now, I like to think I visited her again – that I can always visit her -- in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse. But retreating to Wodehouse Land for months at a time does present certain problems. Chiefly that the world goes on without you. And one day you look up from your copy of The Code of the Woosters to discover you’re suddenly the father of a rather charming infant daughter, that you’ve become an uncle, that you’re possibly too old for shoulder-length hair, and that the country has elected president the real-life equivalent of that consummate Wodehousian villain, the “amateur dictator” Roderick Spode. Well, what do you do then? As far as I can figure, you put down that book, you scoop up that charming daughter, and you move forward. And if you’re lucky, you can make for her a place half as magical as the white Victorian by the cove that you knew once upon a time. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
It's a brand new week and Football Book Club is reading Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan. For those of you scoring at home, that's an exorcism novel written by a former executive editor of Playboy. Plus posts about Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk and Filth.
This week the Band of Merry Men/Women that is of Football Book Club is reading Carmen Giménez Smith's poetry collection Milk and Filth -- and posting about Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction. Also: Check in later this week for possible guest posts by Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Also: There will be no guest posts by Ben Carson and Donald Trump.