“The people who run this country have run out of workable myths with which to distract the public, and in a moment of extreme crisis have chosen to stoke civil war and defame the rest of us—black and white—rather than admit to a generation of corruption, betrayal, and mismanagement.”
Matt Taibbi, American author and journalist.
The recent defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential election is interesting for a number of reasons. As in 2016, he greatly outperformed his standing in the opinion polls, and in the end only a few hundred thousand votes in several crucial states made the difference. That he almost won is truly extraordinary, in the midst of a pandemic that has so far killed about 270,000 American people and that was handled by his government not only incompetently but with the most incredible callousness.
In normal times the current economic slump alone, the mass unemployment and the explosion of poverty and hardship that comes with it would be enough to ruin any candidate’s chances completely; but clearly we do not live in normal times.
What may have seemed barely plausible even after the Great Recession is no longer in serious dispute: the United States, as a great power, is now in precipitous decline. The Democratic Party spends its time trying to invent all kinds of straw men to blame for the country’s ever-deepening malaise, from foreign interference to “fake news,” while refusing to even timidly question the corporate interests to which they are utterly beholden. They have the unmistakable appearance of a once-powerful political class that now inspires no-one and finds enthusiastic support nowhere—the Fianna Fáil of the United States.
The Republicans meanwhile have transformed themselves from being a roughly similar, if more socially conservative, outfit into a cult of personality round a single man, infused with the power of religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism. This cult—for that is what it has largely become—also has its own fictional narratives to explain the world, likewise completely divorced from material reality, the most extreme of which is the Q-Anon conspiracy theory.
While the Democratic Party will celebrate their return to the presidency in January, they should not imagine that this will be the end of the paralysis and national decline that gave life to Trumpism in the first place—indeed it is only likely to deepen.
The heart of the Republican Party now see themselves as an insurgency—and one that regards their new government as being entirely illegitimate. Losing political power will probably radicalise them further, in both theory and practice. Meanwhile the pieces for a general conflagration continue to fall into place. There are no longer “US media,” a set of institutions that share a roughly similar view of the world—the empire’s view: there are now two media. Similarly, the alignment of the “big tech” companies behind the Democratic Party is causing the bisection of the population’s use of social media, along the same lines as those two, now irreconcilable, national factions.
The long and hot summer that followed the murder by the police of George Floyd, resulting in protests unprecedented in scale and intensity in modern times and leading to an additional twenty deaths and 14,000 arrests, was entirely beyond the control of the Democratic Party—or anyone else—and offered a glimpse of an organic progressive militancy, which will also not be going away.
We know that the crises in the political and social superstructure have their roots in the economic base, where all indicators appear to point to intensifying hardship and instability. The general stepping up of exploitation and precariousness in the conditions of labour that will be necessary to try to recover from the current economic crisis—the very degrading and performative nature of the low-wage, insecure services economy, and the extreme alienation that all this engenders—is akin to a dangerous mixture of unstable chemicals.
Even the loss of a common hegemonic narrative could be sustained so long as the economic base offered the promise of “upward social mobility” for at least a significant minority of citizens—but, as Nouriel Roubini spelled out earlier in the year in his article “Ten reasons why a Greater Depression for the 2020s is inevitable,” the forecast for this has almost never been weaker; and in these circumstances we would do well to consider again those myths that are being created by the parties of capital to replace objective reality, and then bear in mind the words of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”