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Lewis Lapham: "Trump is an exemplary embodiment of our age of folly"

Lewis H. Lapham24 October 2016

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In the preface from Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy (40% off until October 30th), award-winning journalist and magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham introduces how the past 25 years of imperial adventure have laid waste to the principles of democracy. Donald Trump, he writes, is “undoubtedly a menace, but not a surprise,” as the United States has embraced Aristotle’s “prosperous fool" as a model for governance. 

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. 
—Edith Wharton

The voices of conscience in every sector of the opinion-making news media stand united this fall in their fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul, reality TV star, Republican nominee for president of the United States. The viewing with alarm is non-partisan and heartfelt, but the dumbfounded question “How can such things be?” is well behind the times. Trump is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. His smug and gloating face is the face of the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century.

The age of folly of which Trump is an exemplary embodiment spreads across the pages of this book from America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq (reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli) to Trump in 2016 marching in triumph on the White House (self-glorifying photo op bursting star-spangled bombast in air). Over the course of the twenty-five years from point A to point B, America changes regimes; a weakened but still operational democracy gives way to stupefied, dysfunctional plutocracy.

The spectacle of a frivolous society seeking dramatic significance doesn’t lend itself to the telling of an uplifting tale. For the ancient Greeks it served as a proof of Aristotle’s hypothesis that forms of government follow one another in a sequence as certain as the changing of the seasons—monarchy dissolving into despotism, despotism overthrown by democracy, democracy degenerating into plutocracy, plutocracy prompting a return to monarchy. All government, according to Aristotle, is the means by which a privileged few arrange the distribution of property and law to the less fortunate many—an oligarchy, its life span dependent on the character of the men charged with the management of its moral, political and economic enterprise.

Oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese. Sooner or later they turn rancid in the sun. Wealth accumulates, men decay, and a band of brothers that once might have aspired to forming a wise and just government acquires the texture of what Aristotle likened to that of the “prosperous fool”—a class of men so besotted by their faith in money “that they therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.” Afflicted with the illness diagnosed by the Greeks as pleonexia, the unbridled appetite for more—more laurel wreaths and naval victories, more banquets, dancing girls, and mirrors—the fatted calves forget why sovereign nations go to war or how it comes to pass that money doesn’t grow on trees.

By 1990, America was showing vivid signs of the disease. President Ronald Reagan’s dancing onto the White House stage in 1981 foretold the second coming of an American Gilded Age more selfish than the first; greed was good, money the hero with a thousand faces, the notion of such a thing as democratic self-government slipping from the mind of an electorate asking of its rulers what the rich ask of their servants—comfort us, be good to us, tell us what to do.

Democracy degrading into plutocracy was the work in progress when the unlooked-for collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 confronted the prosperous bourgeois statesmen in Washington with a problem undreamed of in their philosophy: What to do without the Russians. For half a century, as long as anybody inside Washington’s Beltway bubble could remember, the Evil Soviet Empire—stupendous enemy, world class and operatic, menace for all seasons—had furnished nine American presidents with a just and noble raison d’etat, fattened America’s gross domestic product on the seed of profligate defense spending, smothered the mutterings of American political dissent with the fear of nuclear annihilation.

A precious asset, the Communist ogre in the totalitarian snow, and in 1990 sorely missed. Absent the Cold War with the Russians, how then defend, honor, and protect the cash flow of the nation’s military–industrial complex pumping air and iron into the conspicuous consumptions of the American dream? The government had on hand a war machine marvelous to behold and expensive to maintain—gun platforms of every conceivable caliber and throw-weight, aircraft, tanks, and naval vessels at all points of every compass, guidance systems endowed with the wisdom of angels and armed with the judgments of doom. But other than as a means of changing lead into gold, who could say what the thing was supposed to do? Where was the tactical or strategic objective, and to what end the patriotic call to arms?

In search of dramatic significance, President George H. W. Bush in 1991 sent the gunboats, the cameras, and the flags to the Persian Gulf; his historically illiterate adjutants at the Pentagon (among them Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell), drafted a Defense Strategy for the 1990s appointing America Keeper of World Peace. As subsequently published in 1993, the policy paper envisioned an invincible military establishment capable of waging, simultaneously, major wars on two continents, while at the same time attending to the minor nuisances of terrorists here and there in the slums of the Middle East and bandits in the mountains of Afghanistan and the jungles of Colombia. The claim to the crown of world empire set forth the doctrines of “Forward Deterrence,” “Anticipatory Self-Defense,” and “Preemptive Strike,” informed the lesser nations of the earth of their inferior and subsidiary status. Let any failed or upstart state even begin to think of challenging American supremacy, and America reserved the right to strangle the impudence at birth, bomb the peasants or the palace, block the flow of sympathy and bank credit, change the sheets in the brothels and the information ministries.

During the decade of the 1990s, the Pentagon’s pitch for unlimited subsidy gathered the force of an obligation to rule and save the world. President Bill Clinton seconded the motion, approved and carried by a clear majority of the nation’s self-glorifying media—conservative and neoconservative, liberal and neoliberal, literary and academic. How could it be otherwise? The Soviets had lost the Cold War, their weapons gone to rust, their economy in ruins, the statues of V. I. Lenin reduced to scrap. History was at an end, America “the single model of human progress.” The American way was the only way, and if not America bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus, who else to lift the burden once borne on the back of Imperial Rome?

Reinforced by the fortunes accruing to the Silicon Valley marketers of virtual reality and by the high-rise speculation floating the Dow Jones Industrial Average across the frontier of a new millennium, the delusions of omnipotent omniscience bubbled upward to so condescending a height that in March 2001, six months before the destruction of the World Trade Center, Time magazine gave voice to what on Washington’s think tank and cocktail party circuits had become a matter of simple truth and common knowledge:

America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in the position to re-shape norms, alter expectations and create new realties. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.

The old Greeks also had a word, hubris, for the unbridled vanity that goeth before a fall, men tempted to play at being gods and drawn to the flame of their destruction on the wings of braggart moths. Thus President George W. Bush, prosperous fool, and braggart moth, on May 1, 2003, six weeks after launching a second American invasion of Iraq, stepping aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln stationed close inshore the coast of California to pose for the news cameras under a banner headlined MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Wonderful news; magnificent photo-op. Boy wonder as deus ex machina in Top Gun navy fighter pilot costume. But what was the mission to which the banner headline referred? Not the winning of the war on terror, unwinnable because nobody wins wars against an unknown enemy and an abstract noun. Not the nondiscovery of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Nothing so pedestrian. The accomplishment was the dramatic significance of the invasion as prime time television spectacle. Frivolity unbound. An act of folly more glorious than any since the Athenians in 415 B.C. sent a splendid and costly fleet of gilded triremes to its destruction in Sicily, and by so doing lost both the Peloponnesian war and the life of their democracy.

Like Bush the elder staging the made-for-reality TV show invasion of Iraq in 1991, Bush the younger in 2003 didn’t make tiresome distinctions between reality and virtual reality. Neither did the masters and commanders at the Pentagon. With an army that hadn’t fought a war in forty years—hadn’t won a war in seventy years—they weren’t in the business of securing a military objective. They were in the business of making war movies with live ammunition, directed at unarmed civilians; the reworks displays overhead scenic Baghdad (like those overhead Hanoi, Panama, Grenada, Libya, and Belgrade) were show instead of tell, intended to gain status, not territory. Not to conquer the natives but to awaken them to the worship of America’s divinity as advertised in Time magazine.

The invasion of Iraq was undertaken to demonstrate America’s omnipotence; the ongoing turmoil throughout the Middle East testifies to its military failures and continues to downgrade the country’s standing as moral precept and example. The damage done to America’s reputation abroad is extensive, but not as extensive as the damage done to the American democracy at home, the missions accomplished over the last twenty-five years by the servants of a stupefied plutocracy—the bulk of the nation’s wealth amassed by 10 percent of its population, class warfare waged by the increasingly selfish and frightened rich against the increasingly debt-burdened and angry poor, the democratic electing of an American president overruled by the Supreme Court, a national security apparatus herding the American citizenry into the shelters of heavy law enforcement and harmless speech, the 2008–09 devastation of the nation’s wealth and credit, the public good systematically shuffled into the private purse, occupants of the White House pleased to hold themselves above the law, futile but unending foreign war, both houses of Congress reduced to a state of impotent paralysis, a political discourse made by a celebrity-besotted news media posing demagogues on selfie sticks.

An age of folly worthy of the name, its consequence the presence of Donald J. Trump, prosperous fool and braggart moth, on November’s presidential ballot. The book in hand doesn’t speculate on the outcome of the election; it offers an acquaintance with the past as a hedge against the despairing of the present. History doesn’t save the day or provide a PowerPoint projection of a new and better world; it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G. K. Chesterton once called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

What’s been happening for the last twenty-five years stands camera ready and picture-perfect in this year’s presidential campaign—Trump’s frivolous magnificence walking about with Hillary Clinton’s remorseless selfishness, Washington housewife celebrity bride and reality game show groom atop the wedding cake of a stupefied plutocracy. They make an ugly couple, the opinion polls showing them feared and loathed by a majority of the prospective electorate. The curtain coming down on an age of folly, revolt the work in progress on the part of an electorate no longer willing or able to afford it and therefore given the best chance in nearly two generations to recover its wits, possibly revive the American idea of democracy in a way that meets the terms and conditions of a century not likely to be remembered as America’s own.

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis H. Lapham is 40% off until October 30th at midnight (UTC)

Filed under: us-politics, uselection2016