For a long time now, only half of American adults have considered it worth their time to vote. They are not stupid. Stop calling them stupid. We make up the lowest turnout rate in the world because so few of us see any significant differences between the two major parties. And the twin curses of massive voter suppression and computer fraud have ensured that millions of votes that are cast are not counted. That is reality. But the mystery is why the Democrats have done so little about it through the last five election cycles.
Here’s another mystery. What does it say about the public’s appreciation of the Democratic Party that, with the most profoundly unpopular and deeply reviled president in U.S. history, it took a pandemic with 140,000 dead and an economic depression with forty million unemployed to finally push Biden’s poll numbers past those of Trumpus? Here’s another one: Michael Bloomberg spent nearly a billion dollars convincing you that Bernie Sanders was unelectable. Can you imagine the good that money would have done had he spent it fighting voter suppression? Have you heard a word about him since he dropped out?
Here’s another one: Do the Democrats really think they can win with a candidate who has no constituency, no charisma and few platform positions that would attract more voters other than not being Trumpus? Do they really care about winning? Does Joe Biden really care about being President (see below)?
I hope I’m wrong. May the future bring us something better than this. We deserve better, or so we’d like to think. But here I want to present some mythological and psychological speculations.
What exactly are these two old white guys contending for? Liberals lament that the system is dysfunctional or broken, while radicals will argue that it has been doing quite well in terms of its actual functions of maintaining the military empire abroad and redistributing wealth upwards at home. As a mythologist, I see both points of view, and I suggest that the myth of American innocence holds it all together.
One aspect of what Joseph Campbell called our demythologized world, especially in America, is that the distinctions between religion, politics and entertainment have collapsed (this week Trumpus sat at the Oval Office desk and endorsed a brand of beans. You can’t make this stuff up). This is perhaps because all three of these areas of public life are the realm of the con man’s main interests: making money and aggrandizing the self. For more on this American archetype, read my essay The Con-Man.
Please understand that anything spoken (well, nearly anything; see below) for the public by anyone at that level of power has been carefully vetted in front of multiple focus groups and edited precisely to fit the perceived needs of a very specific audience so as to manipulate its views of the politician. If in the Age of Trumpus (or for the past several election cycles) you haven’t noticed this, you haven’t been paying attention. But it began long before this particular con man entered the White House. I have written much more on these issues in these essays:
Trumpus and Biden (and everyone around them, including the entire press corps) know very well that every American president since Harry Truman, and arguably for much longer, has been essentially a spokesperson for interests far more powerful than he; a “master of ceremonies” in the lesser sense; a salesman for the myth and the empire. He certainly is not its ruler, not even the primary “decider,” as G.W. Bush described himself.
I also want to suggest that all contenders for the Presidency in the United States, far more than in any other country, are well aware of a particularly complex role they will be called upon to play, which they have been practicing for their entire adult lives (quite literally, in the case of Joe Biden). They will face a unique political dilemma created by two conditions.
The first is the capitalist domination of politics, which require a spokesperson to direct the national narratives toward the grand aims of the military-industrial-petrochemical-pharmaceutical-carceral complex. The second is his symbolic role. As head of state, he must embody the mythic figure of the King for his people. And these two conditions require that he play two opposite aspects of the myth of innocence against each other.
As spokesman for the Empire, he must continue at all times to amplify the national mood of paranoia and fear of “the Other” so as to justify a continuing national military state and repression of people of color at home. In other words, he must manipulate the traditional white American sense of being the innocent victim, or at least the potential victim, of some dark (and dark-skinned), irrational, violent, predatory outsider.
This of course would be nothing new to him, since anyone even aspiring to his office, not to mention those actually vetted, would be perfectly aware of it. And to be sufficiently convincing, he must, in a sense, play the victim himself, so that his followers can identify with him.
As King-figure, however, his job is to absorb the idealistic projections of millions of people. I write “absorb” because in myth this is a two-way process. The Sacred King takes in our projections and hopes and then radiates them back out as fertility, as abundance, as blessing. (Not to do that is simply to suck those dreams in like a black hole of narcissism and give nothing back. This has been Trumpus’ game for decades, and perhaps the consequences are finally catching up to him.)
Any person who assumes the presidency automatically takes on this public projection. At the level of image, metaphor and deep narrative, these men are the nation because they embody it, and the nation must endure. Why must the nation endure? In this demythologized world authentic myth and ritual have disappeared, and they have been replaced by consumerism, fundamentalism, substance abuse – and nationalism, in which the individual identifies completely with the state, and is willing to sacrifice its young to its aims.
Here we have to take a detour through what I consider to be one of the most important books ever written, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, by Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle. It is summarized in a short article here. And I wrote of it here:
…“nationalism”…for the past 150 years has supplanted mass religion in most advanced countries. But it retains much religious symbolism. The familiar Christian God has long been replaced by the group, which is symbolized in the totem fetish – the flag. A fundamental aspect of America’s civil religion is our unique cult of the flag. Curiously, we display it in our churches as well as in many places of business, as if to reinforce the notion that in America there is little difference between them. We worship it by pledging allegiance, and occasionally by kneeling and kissing it. And we are horrified at the thought of its desecration, because, they write, it is “the ritual instrument of group cohesion…the god of nationalism.” Such rituals nearly equate God with America, writes Robert Bellah. Often “…the most jingoistic identity of nation and church has come not from our political leaders but from the churches themselves.” And the flag is embodied in the totem leader, the President.
In this view, the purpose of ritual at the level of the large, national state is to sustain the group by repeating, at various levels of intensity, the act of group creation. Participants in such rituals – especially in our culture of radical individualism – achieve a kind of communion and learn that their God demands human sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of the defeated, which implies the preparedness to kill for one’s country, but willing sacrifice, the willingness to die for it. Or at the very least, the willingness to send one’s children – the best of the best – to die for it.
Body sacrifice lies at the core of nationalism. Warfare is the most powerful enactment of the ritual of blood sacrifice…The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the death of a significant portion of its members. In short, society depends upon the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group.
We, dear readers, are the group. Well, not really, since our children won’t be among the sacrificed, those who will die for capitalism. But in the broader sense, who could argue that our generation has not condemned them all to a collapsing ecosystem and polluted bodies?
In a twisted sense, there is some good news here. The fact that so few of us are willing to soil ourselves by voting actually indicates that very large numbers of us (not including conventional liberals) can see through the ritual charade. The bad news, well…not voting gave us Trumpus.
Back to the presidential dilemma. Another consequence of the loss of myth is that we have conflated two archetypes, the King and the Warrior, who is in service to the King. In doing so, we minimize the creative potential of each of them. This Warrior-King must continually re-affirm the fantasy that his intentions (and ours) are noble, protective and altruistic, that America is truly exceptional, that America has a divine mission to save the world and will always prevail.
And to do that, he must play the exact opposite of the victim, the Hero (the immature form of what Jungian writer Robert Moore called the Warrior archetype) He must reassure us of his – and our – ability to meet all threat and defeat them, while simultaneously bringing the Good Word of our Christian compassion to those evil ones who would – for no apparent reason – harm us. As Bush endlessly repeated after 9/11/2001, it is absolutely certain that America will prevail against the external Other (formerly the Native Americans, then Mexicans, then Communism, now Islamic terrorism, which is shifting before our eyes into “the Russians” and “the Chinese”), because the nation, which he embodies, is charged with the divine mission of defeating evil and spreading freedom and opportunity. Not to do so would be to call our most basic national and personal identities into question.
He must simultaneously and repeatedly tell us, be afraid, be very afraid – and – we are absolutely unconquerable! He must prove to be a professional storyteller of the double-bind, conflicting messages that some psychologists consider to be the genesis of schizophrenia. And after many generations of hearing and ingesting these crazy-making narratives, it really is a sad commentary on all of us that we have come to expect nothing better from our leaders.
The media gatekeepers face an even more complicated dilemma. As fascism threatens to descend upon us, liberal America has been attempting to walk a fine line: alternately normalizing and de-legitimizing the Trumpus regime, especially since this spring, while carefully refusing to examine any of the bedrock assumptions of our myth of innocence.
For the sense of “nation,” with all its white privilege, economic disparities and permanent warfare to endure, the media must continually try to shore up each new crack in the veneer of American innocence. So controlling the narratives and manipulating our perception of really terrible people is one of the primary functions of our media gatekeepers. The classic analysis of the media’s gatekeeping role is Noam Chomsky’s article, “A Propaganda Model.”
One of the ways they do this is by re-habilitating the reputations of previous presidents, such as Bush and his father. In this context, it really shouldn’t be surprising that Bill Clinton eulogized Richard Nixon, that Barack Obama lavishly praised Ronald Reagan, that Hillary Clinton is a close friend of the war criminal Henry Kissinger, or that even Trumpus should be granted an insane sort of normalization.
War criminals. I don’t want to belabor this point, but it is critical to understand what the people we vote for – all of them – are willing to do in order to prove their loyalty to the power brokers. As Chomsky has said, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”
It is equally important to understand how those same oligarchs require the same proof of loyalty from the media gatekeepers, who have responded by creating a mainstream consensus that the madness of normal life is normal. This is the “normal” to which Biden promises he will return us.
So it is useless and counter-productive to criticize Trumpus as merely a negative, even terrible exception to the story of American exceptionalism, or even as someone who has corrupted this story. There is nothing to be gained by arguing, for instance, that he is dangerous, incapable, racist, misogynist, stupid or unpatriotic because he won’t listen to the “intelligence community” — as if progressive-minded people have any business aligning themselves with the murderers and regime-changers of the CIA.
Here is another aspect of our diminished American reality: if the CIA “leaks” any “alleged” information about “events” anywhere in the world, they are doing so because they want you to consume a narrative of their own construction, to serve the long-term aims of the American empire. In 2020, from Russia to China to Syria to Israel / Palestine to Afghanistan to Venezuela, and sometimes even Iran and North Korea, most leading Democratic politicians have been criticizing Trumpus from the right. And this bizarre truth takes us a long way into the mystery of how they shamelessly stole the nomination from Bernie Sanders, as we’ll see in Part Three.