World history books are not stories of peace. They are stories of war, jealousy and murder on a grand scale, stretching back thousands of years. They are stories of empires that rise violently, taste momentary glory, and are then destroyed — either by the rot of their own corruption, or by the rage of those they stole from. The times of prosperity and stability are just passing interregnums between cycles of power struggles driven by human nature. When we find ourselves faced with uncertainty, it’s useful to stop and think about the things that we already know.
We know that for the past 40 years, inequality in America has been growing. Our nation has gotten wealthier and wealthier, and all of that wealth has gone to people who were already rich, while wages for regular people stagnated. We enjoyed a period of lower inequality for decades after World War II, but right around the time Ronald Reagan took office, the rich began taking more and more. They took even more wealth under the first President Bush, and even more under Clinton, and even more under the second President Bush, and even more under Obama. And even more under Trump. In this sense, we have experienced great continuity. We already know this.
Though American politics often has the appearance of being a vociferous argument, the fact is that the disagreements of our leaders are much less significant than the consensus that they have all agreed upon. For more or less the entire past half century, the military has gotten stronger, labor unions have gotten weaker, the stock market has gone up, and big business has gotten bigger than ever before. Trillion-dollar companies are no longer remarkable, which is remarkable. The power in this country belongs to capital. The government belongs to capital. Political parties belong to capital, though they disagree on various social issues, like siblings who claim to be different because they wear different colored shirts.
Among the people who actually wield power in this country, the left-most side of the policy consensus has long been, “Capital can do what it wants as long as you give working people enough to live,” and the right-most side of policy consensus has been, “Capital can do what it wants,” and we have settled in the middle of those two positions. Global capitalism, the actual system of government that we all live under, has its own logic, and is happy to arrange the affairs of American by itself, according to its own needs. It is a steamroller inexorably creeping forward, and our elected government occasionally erects little barriers that may slow it down briefly, but which tend to be no match for its momentum.
Donald Trump himself is not interesting. Once you understand that he is driven by just a few base impulses — narcissism, aggressive ignorance, and fear — his outrages become dreary and repetitive. His value to the public has been as bait to attract the rats. The Trump era is interesting for what it has shown about a large class of people who were once considered to be respectable by the standards of mainstream discourse. In many, many cases, respectability is just an inch of makeup covering a bottomless will to debase yourself and harm others in return for proximity to power. This, too, is a natural part of human nature, a driving force of history. Dangerous leaders are always carried along on the shoulders of cowards who have been waiting for a chance to show their true face to the world while obscured in the midst of a mob. The answer to the timeless question “Who Goes Nazi?” is always: More people than you would think.
We already knew, before the votes had been counted, that the Republican Party does not believe in democracy. It does not want everyone to vote. In fact, it is committed to systematically disenfranchising as many people as necessary in order to win elections. This is not an extraordinary occurrence, but instead a bedrock feature of party strategy that is vital to their success. We already know that in pursuit of electoral power, the most respectable mainstream Republican officials will lie, create bald propaganda, cater to racists, villainize powerless immigrants, unleash state violence on protesters, and lock millions of people in jail. (Democrats have their own flaws, but the simple fact that they are the opposition party has kept them away from pursuing the worst of these abuses as lustily as their friends across the aisle.) They have done these things forever, in the shadows, and over the past few years they have had the chance to do them more openly. These are not the actions of a fringe group, but of the ruling party in the most powerful nation on earth. This is who we are.
I don’t think a good person can be president. Or if he’s good when he takes the job, he won’t be by the time it’s over. He may be better than the other guy, but that’s all. There are too many bad things that will be done on his behalf. Too many fatal compromises are necessary to get there in the first place. Bad men have always had an advantage in jobs like that. They are less tortured by what they know, less troubled by the lies they tell, more at peace with the cutthroat necessities of maintaining power.
For the past four years, I’ve been thinking about what Trump’s rise to power tells us about ourselves. And you know what? I don’t think it tells us anything that we didn’t already know. We feel like we are in a crisis because this president, in particular, refused to offer us the soothing appearance of normalcy that allows us to forget how the American pie is made. He delighted in dragging the ugly parts out of the shadows and flaunting them. But he didn’t invent them. They were always there, politely ignored by the rest of us. Now they’re all being waved around in public, and it freaks us out. The appearance of insanity has profoundly shaken us. But not the substance of the insanity itself. That’s been there forever. We just need a new smiling face to make us forget it. Our little slice of world history only seems extraordinary because it hasn’t ended yet.
This is reprinted from In These Times, a 501(c)3 nonprofit publication, that does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.