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What we already know about the idea of “healing”

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.


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