Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man : Critical Edition

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Surviving Trump: Lewis Lapham Wants Democracy to Rise from the Ashes

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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.

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