The cumulative, intended effect of the ritual is to revive our belief in the good intentions of our entire political class, and of our own innocence. Just as they ensure that we won’t be disturbed by outliers, they assure us that innocent Eden is both safe and honorable. Together, they reaffirm our denial with the implied message that nothing is wrong, that our fear – which they exploit at every possible opportunity – is ungrounded. “Whomever you vote for, the King will be here,” they seem to tell us, “…Everything is under control.” Thus, they invite us to share the fiction that, despite our fears, democracy will survive, and there will be a peaceful, cooperative transition when the next king-figure is anointed.
Is the system broken or has it been working quite well? This is not an “either-or” choice; it’s both. However, the fact that fewer and fewer of us have been willing to expect anything more than flowery phrases from these con-men – only half of us vote at all, and many of the rest of us have been choosing the “lesser of two evils” our entire lives – is, I think, a source of concern to the kingmakers and gatekeepers. It indicates, in mythological terms, that the holes in the fabric of the myth of innocence are growing. All the more need, then, for them to create another opportunistic ritual: the next war to protect “freedom” in Iran or Venezuela.
Nicholas Maduro is only the latest in a long tradition of Third World leaders whom the U.S. has labeled as the face of evil. As I wrote in Chapter Eight of my book:
Around 1985, the Other became more personal when television identified many charismatic Third World villains. After the first generation (Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro) came Muammar Gadaffy, Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Manuel Noriega, Kim Il Sung, Slobodan Milosevic, Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden…
Note three themes here. First, U.S. propaganda attacks were often timed to impact (or obscure) domestic issues. Second, only Milosevic was white (but Slavic). Third, several of these men had previously worked for the U.S. Back in 1932, Roosevelt had said of Nicaragua’s Anastacio Somoza, “He’s an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.!” It is as if the U.S. keeps them on ice, allowing them to quietly do their work until it needs to reveal them as the Devil’s latest incarnation. Then they become expendable, or, as with Bin Laden, even more valuable as fugitives, hiding in caves and bazaars, plotting more evil.
None of this is to advise you to stay home on Election Day 2020. If you choose to support the Democratic nominee, go ahead, especially if you live in a contested state. But do so with eyes wide open, as a practical decision to support the centrist (regardless of how he or she defines himself) over the outright fascist.
Idealization says more about our own psychological projections than it does about the candidates. When, after one of these debates, you hear yourself say (about either candidate), “He seems like a nice enough guy; I just don’t agree with his positions,” know that the ritual has been successful. The “nice guy” has proven that he can play the role if called upon; he has passed the audition.
That audition has been primarily for the edification of that part of the population that still holds to the naïve, liberal view that the debates might actually provide some input into a system with authentic choices. The Republican base, however, is not – and for a long time has not been – so innocent. They know perfectly well what scoundrels their leaders are, and they don’t care, as long as such leaders play the game of tweaking the noses of the east coast intelligentsia who have been telling them how to live. That Trump – He’s no racist, but he says what he means!
In 2016, Trump effectively reversed the “nice guy” rule. Apparently, quite a few people of the evangelical persuasion perceived quite correctly – they weren’t stupid – that he was a liar, braggart, misogynist and serial marriage cheat, and concluded that “He’s a bastard, but I agree with his policies.” For them, he passed the same audition, which had been defined primarily by fear, racism and xenophobia.
After two years of unparalleled corruption, scandals, contempt for the Constitution, war threats, climate denial, permission to hate, tax cuts for the mega-rich – and normalization by the media – they still support him. Indeed, in a mass epidemic of cognitive dissonance, many are convinced that he has been sent by God.
Is there any other explanation for their willingness to tolerate such a blatantly insincere gesture as his hugging of the sacred totem fetish? I mean, really, even this accomplished con-man couldn’t keep from smirking. Don’t matter none. He is their Divine King, and because of him, they – not unlike their liberal opponents with their Russiagate meta-narrative – can proclaim their innocence.
On the other hand, as Chomsky has said, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.” Amanda Marcotte suggests another explanation for Trump’s enduring popularity among his base:
In truth, Republicans have been priming their voters for decades to accept, defend and even adore a shameless criminal in the White House…First, Republicans normalized the idea that all politicians are corrupt by electing a series of deeply corrupt politicians themselves. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have all been warm-up acts to Trump…Second, (they) trained their base to think of investigations as bad-faith political power grabs…They are now thoroughly primed to interpret the investigations into Trump’s very real corruption as nothing more than Democrats seeking revenge…
That’s why polls that measure whether Republican voters “believe” Trump is telling the truth are somewhat beside the point. The real problem is that they don’t believe it matters whether Trump is a criminal…if it helps their team win.
So: in 2019-2020 we have a Republican base that isn’t simply unashamed but proud of its criminal leadership. We have a Democratic base that still thinks everyone is playing by the same rules, that logical argument will convince others. We have a Democratic leadership that participates in these rituals of innocence as long as the corporate money flow lasts. And we have the other fifty percent of the population who, like those Honduran peasants, don’t vote because they see no reason to. Finally, we have media – print and social – that serve the same wealthy class who fund these two political parties by marginalizing progressive voices.
In the next round of presidential debates – our seasonal, contrived rituals – watch as most Democrats studiously avoid any mention of the military budget and our imperial wars, especially in Venezuela and Palestine. For the time being, it will still be the children of other nations who are sacrificed. But the group – we – will remain vigilant, prepared for those conditions when the next opportunistic rituals of sacrifice and regeneration become necessary. Then, once again, it will be our children (well, not really ours, unless we live in the crossover states or in urban ghettos) who will be asked to enter the fire to glorify their parents.
Perhaps I’m being too cynical; I hope so. Perhaps it serves no purpose to simply point out our failures without offering an alternative vision. Perhaps it does serve a deeper purpose to point out that these are not failures; that the system continues to run smoothly for the one percent. And certainly, there has been much good news since the 2018 election, especially in the fact that Republicans are obsessed with demonizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They just can’t stop talking about her, and the Green New Deal has become the kind of meme or positive frame that George Lakoff has been asking the Democrats to come up with for years.
But the fact that the Democratic leadership have dug in their heels to marginalize her, Bernie Sanders and other progressives indicates that the fix is still in, that the next election cycle will conclude with more rituals of denial and self-congratulation. In other words, the great shift in mythological thinking that is necessary for a transition to a sustainable world has yet to manifest.
What will it take to change things? Really change things? Certainly, the passing of the Mitch McConnells of the world – and the Diane Feinsteins – is absolutely necessary. Could this millionaire warmonger have stated the generational divide – not just that, but her absolute contempt for children – any more clearly? Let’s thank her for clarifying that, in case anyone thinks she has anything worthwhile to offer.
Significant demographic changes are right around the corner. America is getting darker and younger, less individualistic, more communitarian, more critical of this death culture. Death culture? Is that too strong a phrase? As I wrote in Chapter Eight, nearly fifty years ago the social critic Phillip Slater was appalled by the carnage Americans were inflicting upon the Vietnamese:
…obsession with the body count, rather than control of territory, became an end in itself. General Westmoreland set the tone when he smugly dismissed civilian casualties: “It does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?” With this kind of permission coming from the top, massacres became commonplace, as they had been in Korea and would continue to be, wherever the U.S. would oppose dark-skinned people. Phillip Slater argues, “This transfer of killing from a means to an end in itself constitutes a practical definition of genocide.” He asks, “Do Americans hate life? Has there ever been a people who have destroyed so many living things?”
The three great Athenian playwrights – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – were, after Homer, the storytellers of their culture. Sophocles said that he wrote about how people might be, while Euripides (author of The Bacchae) wrote about how people really are.
I don’t think that a culture can rebirth itself until it has fully acknowledged what has no longer been serving it, and what needs to die. We will not be fully able to imagine new stories until enough of us realize – like alcoholics – that we have hit bottom. This is why I must continue to write about who we are and leave the imagination of who we might be to more optimistic voices.
It may still be possible for significant change to occur through elections – may it be so. But without addressing a much more profound level, the causes of our condition – the vast well of grief and self-contempt at the core of the white American psyche – we condemn ourselves, and the Earth, to more of the same.
The new story of Who We Are is waiting for enough of us to call it forth. We are capable of creating new public rituals that affirm the values of community without sacrificing our children. The old knowledge is still in our bones. Our indigenous souls remember. At this point in history, perhaps only poets can write about who we might be. It might be about remembering who we once were:
The Ancient Ones
From the beginning, we have been with you.
We are the ancient ones and we remember.
We remember the time when there was only Love,
The time when all breathing was one.
We remember the seed of your being
Planted in the belly of the vast, black night.
We remember the red cave of deep slumber.
The time of forgetting,
The sound of your breath, the pulse of your heart.
We remember the force of your longing for life,
The cries of your birth bringing you forth.
We are the Ancient Ones and we have waited and watched.
You say that you cannot remember that time
That you have no memory of us.
You say that you cannot hear our voices
That our touch no longer moves you.
You say there can be no return,
That something is lost, that there is only silence.
We say the time of waiting is over.
We say the silence has been broken.
We say there can be no forgetting now.
We say listen.
We are the bones of your grandmother’s grandmothers.
We have returned now.
We say you cannot forget us now
We say we are with you and you are us.
— Patricia Reis