Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Decadence and prophecy

"When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label." - Jacques Barzun

The term decadence implies a falling off, a situation in which "there are no clear lines of advance."  It has long been an argument of this blog that we live in such times.

The difficulty in making such a proposition is that one cannot demonstrate a general falling off by mere anecdotes.  It must be pervasive.  And even in decadent times, there are positive developments, which are often reactions against that decadence.  Thus we have a resurgence in craft brewing and movements to support local agriculture. 

But on the whole, our culture is decadent.  As a certain presidential candidate reminds us, we just don't win anymore.  That could be the epitaph for the Bush and Obama administrations.  We remain bogged down in an utterly pointless war in Afghanistan, one which the President will not end to ensure that the inevitable blowback will be blamed on his successor.  Such are the absurdities we accept as normal.

To choose another example, real median family income has not increased as compared with almost two decades ago.  Historically, a few decades of wage stagnation are not abnormal.  But we do not live in normal times, and economic growth has become an assumed part of our experience.  We did experience a recession in 2001, as well as a more substantial one in 2007, but the jobless recovery has not benefited the average American.  That the rich might grab ever larger shares of an expanding pie is one thing; to do the same for a pie that is not expanding is quite another.  To make matters worse, the very banks whose reckless lending fomented the housing bubble (aided and abetted as always by the Federal Reserve) were bailed out by the taxpayers in a stalwart example of bipartisan cooperation.  Another perfectly normal absurdity. 

Which brings us to the present and Donald Trump.  Comparisons to Hitler are, frankly, ridiculous, but there is a strong whiff of Caesarism about his campaign.  This, to borrow from Barzun, is not a slur; it is a technical label.  Our government, like our other institutions, seems utterly incapable of doing the bare minimum to maintain the support of the masses it purportedly serves.

The State does not consistently enforce the law: it blatantly allows some--those who run banks, politicians like Hillary Clinton--to violate it with impunity, while those without political connections are punished for violating its smallest jot or tittle.  The State does not protect the citizenry from invaders: it insists that preventing unrestricted immigration is an affront to decency; its chief executive is utterly derelict in his duty to enforce that law, while the Congress makes no effort to hold him accountable.  The State does not mint honest money: the supply is fraudulently debased at the behest of the banking sector, and the populace is surreptitiously taxed through inflation. 

In short, the government is completely and totally corrupt.  And the citizens, who have also learned to embrace absurdity, have turned to a thrice married, narcissistic, sophistical billionaire as the best chance to reform the government.

The remarkable thing is that they are probably right to do so.  Not that Trump will necessarily arrest the decline, but that he is the right type of tool for the job.  Just as Caesar was required to shock the moribund Roman Senate, Trump, or someone like him, will be required to chastise our governing class.  That Trump does not have the character of Caesar is beside the point.  He remains the only Caesarian figure in the race.

Prophecy is a difficult art, but I can think of four possibilities for what follows:

1) Trump wins the Presidency and proves capable of reforming the government.  He bends the corrupt plutocracy to his will.  He builds his wall.  The State is reinvigorated and continues to be reformed in the years following Trump's presidency.  We rise a bit from decadence. 

2) Trump loses the race for the presidency.  It is difficult to see how either the people or the elites would learn their lesson from such an event.  The elites would probably try to run another establishment candidate under the guise of electability, while the people would search out another, more effective, Caesar. 

3) Trump wins, but proves either incapable or unwilling to reform the government.  I suspect this plays out just like number 2.

4) Trump wins and goes full dictator.  As much as I wish to discount the possibility, there's always that option.

I consider number 4 least likely.  When everyone is screaming that you're a dictator, you don't tend to be able to dictate many things.  Caesarian candidates can always theoretically become dictators, but there are a lot of people who depend on the status quo with whom Trump must contend before he can assume that kind of power.

Number 3 strikes me as most probable.  Trump has tapped into a deep dissatisfaction.  If he cannot quench the desire for something better, the masses will turn to someone who can.  Those who are scared of what President Trump might do should be much more frightened if he proves unable to deliver on his promises. 

Who comes after Trump?

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Dumping the GOP

In 2004, as a sophomore in college, I sat at my desk in my dorm room.  I was writing a piece (now mercifully lost) titled: Time to Dump the GOP?  My roommate, who fancied hockey more than politics, asked what I was up to and chuckled as I explained.  This was the impetus behind the creation of this blog, as well as the pieces I later published in the school newspaper.

By the end of the first Bush term, it was clear to me that despite the rhetoric about limited government, the Republicans were concerned with anything but.  If it wasn't quite clear what a disaster the war in Iraq had become, it was apparent that the Bush administration was much more preoccupied with curtailing civil liberties (via the Patriot Act) and expanding entitlements (via the not yet fully implemented Medicare Part D).  The man had even created an entire new department in the bureaucracy, that of Homeland Security, to ensure that no airline passenger ever flew unmolested again. 

In compensation for which, we got some tax cuts. Granted, they weren't offset by any reductions in spending, so they would be paid for through inflation, but this was before the Ron Paul campaign of 2008, and people took that sort of thing in stride. 

The truly damning thing about the Bush years was that the Republicans had control of the House and Senate.  The argument that the Republicans are powerless without complete autonomy has always been dubious; Congress controls the purse, and therefore can deny funding for any programs they deem unnecessary while the President wields the veto pen.  It was apparent that even with control, the Bush Republicans had no intention of enacting any of the reforms their party advocated in election years.

So with a disgruntled heart, I voted for the libertarian candidate, Michael Badnarik, in that year's election.  He got some small fraction of one percent of the vote.  It would be the last time I would exercise that privilege, though I did throw my support behind both of Ron Paul's campaigns.

This isn't the space for rehashing my reasoning behind refusing to vote.  Instead, I want to talk about the current GOP.  The question I asked twelve years ago appears to be on the minds of an electorate that seems even more disgruntled than I was.  Spurning the wishes of the donor class to nominate another Bush, or his Cuban clone, Rubio, the masses have turned to an outrageous billionaire and reality star named Donald Trump.

Trump promises to build a big beautiful wall and have Mexico pay for it.  He has other issues, though undoubtedly immigration restriction is the most significant, especially when the establishment candidates are supporting amnesty. 

There are many interesting things about Trump; one is that the voters seem totally unconcerned about his flaws.  That he has changed his mind on a significant number of issues is indisputable, but it doesn't seem to matter.  On the issue of the wall, voters seem to believe him more or less, and--this is the key point--they believe him more than they believe anyone else in the race.

The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that it is hard to take anything any of the candidates seriously.  The voters have been betrayed so many times (and in the case of Rubio, by these same candidates) that they expect little more this time around. 

If Trump betrays them, well, they know what that feels like.  But maybe he won't, and isn't that worth a shot?  Anyway, the people that have stabbed them in the back hate Trump, and this seems like a good way--perhaps the only way--to get back at them.

Trends seem permanent until they change, at which point the alteration seems obvious.  The establishment Republicans thought that with $100 million, Jeb Bush could outlast the other candidates and emerge the nominee, just as McCain and Romney had.  If Trump hadn't entered the race, it's distinctly possible he would have.  But nothing in history is inevitable, and instead of looking at a rematch between Bush and Clinton, the Republican Party looks set for the dustbin of history alongside the Whigs. 

I was off by twelve years, but better late than never.