CHRIS HEDGES THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL DESPAIR
Chris Hedges: The Politics of Cultural Despair
October 20, 2020
As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, we must face what is happening — not only around us— but within us.
(Art by Mr. Fish/Original to Scheerpost)
The physical and moral decay of the United States and the malaise it has spawned have predictable results. We have seen in varying forms the consequences of social and political collapse during the twilight of the Greek and Roman empires, the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Voices from the past, Aristotle, Cicero, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Roth and Milovan Djilas, warned us. But blinded by self-delusion and hubris, as if we are somehow exempt from human experience and human nature, we refuse to listen.
The United States is a shadow of itself. It squanders its resources in futile military adventurism, a symptom of all empires in decay as they attempt to restore a lost hegemony by force. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Libya. Tens of millions of lives wrecked. Failed states. Enraged fanatics. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 24 percent of the global population, and we have turned virtually all of them into our enemies.
We are piling up massive deficits and neglecting our basic infrastructure, including electrical grids, roads, bridges and public transportation, to spend more on our military that all the other major powers on Earth combined. We are the world’s largest producer and exporter of arms and munitions. The virtues we argue we have a right to impose by force on others — human rights, democracy, the free market, the rule of law and personal freedoms — are mocked at home where grotesque levels of social inequality and austerity programs have impoverished most of the public, destroyed democratic institutions, including Congress, the courts and the press, and created militarized forces of internal occupation that carry out wholesale surveillance of the public, run the largest prison system in the world and gun down unarmed citizens in the streets with impunity.
The American Burlesque
Marine One, carrying President Donald Trump, lifts off from the South Lawn, Oct. 14, 2020. (White House, Tia Dufour)
The American burlesque, darkly humorous with its absurdities of President Donald Trump, fake ballot boxes, conspiracy theorists who believe the deep state and Hollywood run a massive child sex trafficking ring, Christian fascists that place their faith in magic Jesus and teach creationism as science in our schools, 10-hour long voting lines in states such as Georgia, militia members planning to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia and start a civil war, is also ominous, especially as we ignore the accelerating ecocide.
All of our activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations, the work of NGOs and misguided trust in liberal politicians such as Barack Obama have been accompanied by a 60-percent rise in global carbon emissions since 1990. Estimates predict another 40 percent rise in global emissions in the next decade. We are less than a decade away from carbon dioxide levels reaching 450 parts per million, the equivalent to a 2-degree Celsius average temperature rise, a global catastrophe that will make parts of the earth uninhabitable, flood coastal cities, dramatically reduce crop yields and result in suffering and death for billions of people. This is what is coming, and we can’t wish it away.
I speak to you in Troy, New York, once the second-largest producer of iron in the country after Pittsburgh. It was an industrial hub for the garment industry, a center for the production of shirts, shirtwaists, collars, and cuffs, and was once home to foundries that made bells to firms that crafted precision instruments. All that is gone, of course, leaving behind the post-industrial decay, the urban blight and the shattered lives and despair that are sadly familiar in most cities in the United States.
Back street of Troy, New York, where the author delivered this article as a lecture. Photo taken April 2020. (Ricky Shore, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
It is this despair that is killing us. It eats into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifests itself in an array of self-destructive and aggressive pathologies.
It fosters what the anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls “poisoned solidarity,” the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, suspicion, envy and the lust for vengeance and violence.
The Death Instinct
Nations in terminal decline embrace, as Sigmund Freud understood, the death instinct. No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism. No longer able to build, they confuse destruction with creation. They descend into an atavistic savagery, something not only Freud but Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi knew lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilized society. Reason does not guide our lives. Reason, as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume, is the hard-pressed servant of the will.
“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked,” Freud wrote.
“They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule, this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”
Portrait of Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Max Halberstadt, Wikimedia Commons)
Freud, like Primo Levi, got it. The moral life is a matter of circumstances. Moral consideration, as I saw in the wars I covered, largely disappears in moments of extremity. It is the luxury of the privileged. “Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction,” Susan Sontag said.
To survive, it was necessary, Levi wrote of life in the death camps, “to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. “It was, he wrote, “a Hobbesian life,” “a continuous war of everyone against everyone.”
Varlam Shalamov, imprisoned for 25 years in Stalin’s gulags, was equally pessimistic:
“All human emotions — of love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellowman, compassion, a longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during our long fasts. The camp was a great test of our moral strength, of our everyday morality, and 99% of us failed it…Conditions in the camps do not permit men to remain men; that is not what camps were created for.”
Social collapse will bring these latent pathologies to the surface.
But the fact that circumstances can reduce us to savagery does not negate the moral life. As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, as the earth increasingly punishes us for our refusal to honor and protect the systems that give us life, triggering a scramble for diminishing natural resources and huge climate migrations, we must face this darkness, not only around us, but within us.
The dance macabre is already underway. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year from opioid overdoes, alcoholism and suicide, what sociologists calls deaths of despair. This despair fuels high rates of morbid obesity, some 40 percent of the public, gambling addictions, the pornification of the society with the ubiquitous of images of sexual sadism along with the proliferation of armed right-wing militias and nihilistic mass shootings. As despair mounts, so will these acts of self-immolation.
Disintegration & Upheaval
Those overwhelmed by despair seek magical salvations, whether in crisis cults, such as the Christian Right, or demagogues such as Trump, or rage-filled militias that see violence as a cleansing agent. As long as these dark pathologies are allowed to fester and grow — and the Democratic Party has made it clear it will not enact the kinds of radical social reforms that will curb these pathologies — the United States will continue its march towards disintegration and social upheaval. Removing Trump will neither halt nor slow the descent.
An estimated 300,000 American will be dead from the pandemic in December, a figure that is expected to rise to 400,000 in January. Chronic underemployment and unemployment, close to 20 percent when those who have stopped looking for work, those furloughed with no prospect of being rehired and those who work part-time but are still below the poverty line, are included in the official statistic instead of being magically erased from the unemployment rolls.
People on meal-distribution line in northern Manhattan during Covid-19, May 9, 2020. (#flyingoffthehandle, @Uptowncollectiv, via Twitter)
Our privatized health care system, which is making record profits during the pandemic, is not designed to cope with a public health emergency. It is designed to maximize profit for its owners. There are fewer than 1 million hospital beds nationally, a result of the decades-long trend of hospital mergers and closures that have reduced access to care in communities across the nation.
Cities such as Milwaukee have been forced to erect field hospitals. In states such as Mississippi there are no longer any ICU beds available. The for-profit health service did not stockpile the ventilators, masks, tests or drugs to deal with Covid-19. Why should it? That is not a route to increased revenue. And there is no substantial difference between Trump and Joe Biden’s response to the health crisis, where 1,000 people a day are dying.
Forty-eight percent of front-line workers remain ineligible for sick pay. Some 43 million Americans have lost their employee-sponsored health insurance. There are ten thousand bankruptcies a day, with perhaps two-thirds of them tied to exorbitant medical costs.
Food banks are overrun with tens of thousands of desperate families. Roughly 10 to 14 million renter households, or 23 to 34 million people, were behind on their rent in September. That amounts to $12 to $17 billion in unpaid rent. And that figure is expected to rise to $34 billion in past due rent in January.
The lifting of the moratorium on evictions and forecloses will mean that millions of families, many destitute, will be tossed onto the street. Hunger in U.S. households almost tripled between 2019 and August of this year, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture. The proportion of American children who do not have enough to eat, the study found, is 14 times higher than it was last year.
A study by Columbia University, found that since May there are 8 million more Americans who can be classified as poor. Meanwhile, the 50 richest Americans hold as much wealth as half of the United States. Millennials, some 72 million people, have 4.6 percent of U.S. wealth.
One Thing Matters
Only one thing matters to the corporate state. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate crisis. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy, taken from us our most basic civil liberties and left most of the working class in misery — and the increase and consolidation of its wealth and power.
Trump and Biden are repugnant figures, doddering into old age with cognitive lapses and no moral cores. Is Trump more dangerous than Biden? Yes. Is Trump inepter and more dishonest? Yes. Is Trump more of a threat to the open society? Yes. Is Biden the solution? No.
U.S. presidential debate, Sept. 29, 2020.
Biden cannot plausibly offer change. He can only offer more of the same. And most Americans do not want more of the same. The country’s largest voting-age bloc, the 100 million-plus citizens who out of apathy or disgust do not vote, will once again stay home. This demoralization of the electorate is by design.
In America we are only permitted to vote against what we hate. Partisan media outlets set one group against another, a consumer version of what George Orwell in his novel 1984 called the “Two minutes of Hate.” Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us.
The result, as Matt Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on manufactured political personalities. Civic discourse has been poisoned by invective and lies. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged.
Political coverage is modeled, as Taibbi points out, on sports coverage. The sets look like the sets on Sunday NFL Countdown. The anchor is on one side. There are four commentators, two from each team. Graphics keep us updated on the score. Political identities are reduced to easily digestible stereotypes. Tactics, strategy, image, the monthly tallies of campaign contributions and polling are endlessly examined, while real political issues are ignored. It is the language and imagery of war.
This coverage masks the fact that on nearly all the major issues the two major political parties are in complete agreement. The deregulation of the financial industry, trade agreements, the militarization of police — the Pentagon has transferred more than $ 7.4 billion in excess military gear and hardware to nearly 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies since 1990 — the explosion in the prison population, deindustrialization, austerity, support for fracking and the fossil fuel industry, the endless wars in the Middle East, the bloated military budget, the control of elections and mass media by corporations and the wholesale government surveillance of the population–and when the government watches you 24 hours a day you cannot use the word liberty, this is the relationship of a master and a slave — all have bipartisan support. And for this reason, these issues are almost never discussed.
Demographic Against Demographic
Retailer Saks Fifth Avenue added private security, fencing and barbed wire ahead of a Black Lives Matter protest, June 7. 2020. (Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)
This goal is to set demographic against demographic. This stoking of antagonism is not news. It is entertainment, driven not by journalism but marketing strategies to increase viewership and corporate sponsors. News divisions are corporate revenue streams competing against other corporate revenue streams.
The template for news, as Taibbi writes in his book Hate Inc., the cover of which has Sean Hannity on one side and Rachel Maddow on the other, is the simplified morality play used in professional wrestling. There are only two real political positions in the United States. You love Trump or you hate him, which comes from the playbook of professional wrestling.
By voting for Biden and the Democratic Party you vote for something.
You vote to endorse the humiliation of courageous women such as Anita Hill who confronted their abusers. You vote for the architects of the endless wars in the Middle East. You vote for the apartheid state in Israel. You vote for wholesale surveillance of the public by government intelligence agencies and the abolition of due process and habeas corpus.
You vote for austerity programs, including the destruction of welfare and cuts to Social Security. You vote for NAFTA, free trade deals, de-industrialization, a real decline in wages, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the offshoring of jobs to underpaid workers who toil in sweatshops in Mexico, China or Vietnam. You vote for the assault on teachers and public education and the transfer of federal funds to for-profit and Christian charter schools.
You vote for the doubling of our prison population, the tripling and quadrupling of sentences and huge expansion of crimes meriting the death penalty. You vote for militarized police who gun down poor people of color with impunity. You vote against the Green New Deal and immigration reform. You vote for the fracking industry.
You vote for limiting a woman’s right to abortion and reproductive rights. You vote for a segregated public-school system in which the wealthy receive educational opportunities and poor people of color are denied a chance. You vote for punitive levels of student debt and the inability to free yourself of those debt obligations even if file for bankruptcy.
You vote for deregulating the banking industry and the abolition of Glass-Steagall. You vote for the for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and against universal health care. You vote for defense budgets that consume more than half of all discretionary spending.
You vote for the use of unlimited oligarchic and corporate money to buy our elections. You vote for a politician who during his time in the Senate abjectly served the interests of MBNA, the largest independent credit card company headquartered in Delaware, which also employed Biden’s son Hunter.
Biden was one of the principle architects of the wars in the Middle East, where we have squandered upwards of $7 trillion and destroyed or extinguished the lives of millions of people. He is responsible for far more suffering and death at home and abroad than Trump.
If we had a functioning judicial and legislative system, Biden, along with the other architects of our disastrous imperial wars, corporate plundering of the country and betrayal of the American working class, would be put on trial, not offered up as a solution to our political and economic debacle.
Protest against U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, St. Paul, Minnesota,
March 19, 2011. (Fibonacci Blue, Flickr)
The Democrats and their liberal apologists adopt tolerant positions on issues regarding race, religion, immigration, women’s rights and sexual identity and pretend this is politics. These issues are societal or ethical issues. They are important. But they are not social or political issues.
The seizure of control of the economy by a class of global speculators and corporations has ruined the lives of the very groups the Democrats pretend to lift up.
When President Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, for example, destroyed the old welfare system, 70 percent of the recipients were children. Those on the right of the political spectrum — and we must never forget that the positions of the Democratic Party would make it a far-right party in Europe — demonize those on the margins of society as scapegoats.
The culture wars mask the reality. Both parties are full partners in the destruction of our democratic institutions. Both parties have reconfigured American society into a mafia state. It only depends on how you want it dressed up.
President Bill Clinton signing welfare reform legislation, Aug. 22, 1996. (Wikimedia Commons)
The power of politicians such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell comes from being able to funnel corporate money to anointed candidates. In a functioning political system, one not saturated with corporate cash, they would not hold power.
They have transformed what the Roman philosopher Cicero called a commonwealth, a res publica, a “public thing” or the “property of a people,” into an instrument of pillage and repression on behalf of a global corporate oligarchy. We are serfs ruled by the obscenely rich, omnipotent masters who loot the U.S. Treasury, pay little or no taxes and have perverted the judiciary, the media and the legislative branches of government to strip us of civil liberties and give them the freedom to engage in tax boycotts, financial fraud and theft.
In the midst of the pandemic crisis what did our ruling kleptocratic rulers do?
They looted $4 trillion on a scale unseen since the 2008 bailout overseen by Barack Obama and Biden. They gorged and enriched themselves at our expense, while tossing crumbs out of the windows of their private jets, yachts, penthouses and palatial estates to the suffering and despised masses.
The CARES Act handed trillions in funds or tax breaks to oil companies, the airline industry, which alone got $50 billion in stimulus money, the cruise ship industry, and a $170 billion windfall for the real estate industry. It handed subsidies to private equity firms, lobbying groups, whose political action committees have given $191 million in campaign contributions to politicians in the last two decades, the meat industry and corporations that have moved offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.
The act allowed the largest corporations to gobble up money that was supposed to keep small businesses solvent to pay workers. It gave 80 percent of tax breaks under the stimulus package to millionaires and allowed the wealthiest to get stimulus checks that average $1.7 million.
The CARES Act also authorized $454 billion for the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a massive slush fund doled out by Trump cronies to corporations that, when leveraged 10 to 1, can be used to create a staggering $4.5 trillion in assets.
The act authorized the Fed to give $1.5 trillion in loans to Wall Street, which no one expects will ever be paid back. American billionaires have gotten $434 billion richer since the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose corporation Amazon paid no federal taxes last year, alone added nearly $72 billion to his personal wealth since the pandemic started. During this same time period 55 million Americans lost their jobs.
Molding Public into Warring Factions
The molding of the public into warring factions works commercially. It works politically. It destroys, as it is designed to do, class solidarity. But it is a recipe for social disintegration. It propels us towards the kind of Hobbesian world Primo Levi and Sigmund Freud warned us about.
Protesters with Occupy Wall Street in NYC, Nov. 17, 2011. (Z22, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
I watched competing ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia retreat into antagonistic tribes. They seized rival mass media outlets and used them to spew lies, mythological narratives exalting themselves, along with vitriol and hate against the ethnicities they demonized. This poisoned solidarity, which we are replicating, pumped out month after month in Yugoslavia, destroyed the capacity for empathy, perhaps the best definition of evil, and led to a savage fratricide.
The United States, awash in military-grade weaponry, is already plagued by an epidemic of mass shootings. There are death threats against critics of Trump, including Rep. Ilhan Omar. There was an aborted plot by 13 members of a right-wing militia group to kidnap and perhaps assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginian and start a civil war. A Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN, an effort to decapitate the hierarchy of the Democratic Party, as well as terrorize the media outlet that is the party’s principal propaganda platform.
Memorial to victims of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, where 58 people were killed and 422 were injured. (Rmvisuals, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
The spark that usually sets such tinder ablaze is martyrdom. Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was wearing a loaded Glock pistol in a holster and had bear spray and an expandable metal baton when he was shot dead on Aug. 29, allegedly by Michael Forest Reinoehl, a supporter of antifa, in the streets of Portland.
A woman in the crowd can be heard shouting after the shooting: “I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight.” Reinoehl was ambushed and killed by federal agents in Washington state in what appears to be an act of extra-judicial murder.
Once people start being sacrificed for the cause, it takes little for demagogues to insist that self-preservation necessitates violence. Political stagnation and corruption, along with economic and social misery, spawn what anthropologists call crisis cults–movements led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and financial distress and champion violence as a form of moral purification.
These crisis cults, already well established among followers of the Christian Right, right-wing militia groups and many followers of Donald Trump, who look at him not as a politician but as a cult leader, peddle magical thinking and an infantilism that promises-–if you surrender all autonomy–-prosperity, restored national glory, a return to a mythical past, order and security. Trump is a symptom. He is not the disease. And if he leaves office far more competent and dangerous demagogues will rise, if the social conditions are not radically improved, to take his place.
I fear we are headed towards a Christianized fascism.
The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce the followers of the Christian right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant, it ceded religious legitimacy to an array of con artists, charlatans and demagogues and their cultish supporters.
It stood by as the core Gospel message — concern for the poor and the oppressed — was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The white race became God’s chosen agent. Imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation.
The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith.
Church in Greenbush, Wisconsin, in March 2020, during the pandemic. (Awkwafaba, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
The mega-pastors, narcissists who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neoliberalism and deindustrialization.
These believers find in Trump, who preyed on this despair in his casinos and through his sham university, and in these mega-pastors, champions of the unfettered greed, cult of masculinity, lust for violence, white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance, anger, racism and conspiracy theories that are the core beliefs of the Christian Right.
When I wrote American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America I was quite serious about the term “fascists.”
Tens of millions of Americans live hermetically sealed inside the vast media and educational edifice erected by the Christian Right. In this world, miracles are real; Satan, allied with liberal secular humanists and the deep state, along with Muslims, immigrants, feminists, intellectuals, artists and a host of other internal enemies, is seeking to destroy America.
Trump is God’s anointed vessel to build the Christian nation and cement into place a government that instills “biblical values.” These “biblical values” include banning abortion, protecting the traditional family, turning the Ten Commandments into secular law, crushing “infidels,” especially Muslims, indoctrinating children in schools with “biblical” teachings and thwarting sexual license, which includes any sexual relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman.
Trump is routinely compared by evangelical leaders to the biblical king Cyrus, who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and restored the Jews to the city.
Trump has filled his ideological void with Christian fascism. He has elevated members of the Christian right to prominent positions, including Mike Pence to the vice presidency, Mike Pompeo to secretary of state, Betsy DeVos to secretary of education, Ben Carson to secretary of housing and urban development, William Barr to attorney general, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the televangelist Paula White to his Faith and Opportunities Initiative.
Paula White, adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, at podium during the White House National Day of Prayer Service, May 7, 2020. (White House, Andrea Hanks)
More importantly, Trump has handed the Christian right veto and appointment power over key positions in government, especially in the federal courts. He has installed 133 district court judges out of 677 total, 50 appeals court judges out of 179 total, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, and with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination most likely three, out of nine.
This is nineteen percent of the federal trial judges currently in service. Nearly all of the extremists who make up the judicial appointees have been rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association, the country’s largest nonpartisan coalition of lawyers.
Trump has adopted the Islamophobia of the Christian fascists. He has banned Muslim immigrants and rolled back civil rights legislation. He has made war on reproductive rights by restricting abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood. He has stripped away LGBTQ rights.
He has ripped down the firewall between church and state by revoking the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches, which are tax-exempt, from endorsing political candidates. His appointees, including Pence, Pompeo and DeVos, throughout the government routinely use biblical strictures to justify an array of policy decisions including environmental deregulation, war, tax cuts and the replacement of public schools with charter schools, an action that permits the transfer of federal education funds to private “Christian” schools.
At the same time, they are building paramilitary organizations, not only through ad hoc militias but through mercenary groups of private contractors controlled by figures such as Erik Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos and the former CEO of Blackwater now called Xe.
I studied ethics at Harvard Divinity School with James Luther Adams who had been in Germany in 1935 and 1936. Adams witnessed the rise there of the so-called German Christian Church which was pro-Nazi. He warned us about the disturbing parallels between the German Christian Church and the Christian right.
German Christians celebrating Luther-Day in Berlin in 1933. (CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Adolf Hitler was in the eyes of the German Christian Church a volk messiah and an instrument of God — a view similar to the one held today about Trump by many of his white evangelical supporters. Those demonized for Germany’s economic collapse, especially Jews and communists, were agents of Satan.
Fascism, Adams told us, always cloaked itself in a nation’s most cherished symbols and rhetoric. Fascism would come to America not in the guise of stiff-armed, marching brownshirts and Nazi swastikas but in mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the biblical sanctification of the state and the sacralization of American militarism. Adams was the first person I heard label the extremists of the Christian right as fascists. Liberals, he warned, as in Nazi Germany, were blind to the tragic dimension of history and radical evil. They would not react until it was too late.
Trump’s legacy will, I fear, be the empowerment of the Christian fascists. They are what comes next. Noam Chomsky, for this reason, is right when he warns that Pence is more dangerous than Trump.
For decades the Christian fascists have been organizing to take power. They have built infrastructures and organizations, including lobbying groups, schools, colleges and law schools as well as media platforms, to prepare. They have seeded their cadre into positions of power.
We on the left, meanwhile, have seen our institutions and organizations destroyed or corrupted by corporate power and been seduced by the boutique activism of identity politics. FRC Action, the legislative affiliate of the Family Research Council, already gives 245 members of Congress a 100 percent approval rating for supporting legislation that is backed by the Christian Right.
Christian fascism is an emotional life raft for tens of millions of Americans. It is impervious to science and verifiable fact. The Christian fascists, by choice, have severed themselves from rational thought and the secular society that almost destroyed them and their families and thrust them into deep despair. We will not placate or disarm this movement, bent on our destruction, by attempting to claim that we, too, have Christian “values.”
This appeal only strengthens the legitimacy of the Christian fascists and weakens our own. These dispossessed people will either be reintegrated into the economy and the society and their shattered social bonds mended, or the movement will grow more virulent and more powerful.
The Christian Right is determined to keep the public focus on societal or ethical as opposed to economic issues. The corporate media, whether it supports or opposes the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, almost exclusively discusses her opposition to abortion and membership in People of Praise, a far-right Catholic sect that practices “speaking in tongues.”
What our corporate masters, along with the Christian fascists, do not want examined is Barrett’s subservience to corporate power, her hostility to workers, civil liberties, unions and environmental regulations. Since the Democratic Party is beholden to the same donor class as the Republican Party, and since the media long ago substituted the culture wars for politics, the most ominous threat posed by Barrett and the Christian Right is ignored.
The road to despotism is always paved with righteousness.
All fascist movements paper over their squalid belief systems with the veneer of morality. They mouth pieties about restoring law and order, right and wrong, the sanctity of life, civic and family virtues, patriotism and tradition to mask their dismantling of the open society and silencing and persecution of those who dissent. The Christian Right, awash in money from corporations that understand their political intent, will use any tool, no matter how devious, from right-wing armed militias to the invalidation of ballots, to block Biden and Democratic candidates from assuming office.
Capitalism, driven by the obsession to maximizing profit and reduce the cost of production by slashing worker’s rights and wages, is antithetical to the Christian Gospel, as well as the Enlightenment ethic of Immanuel Kant.
President Donald Trump and Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Sept. 26, 2020. (White House, Shealah Craighead)
But capitalism, in the hands of the Christian fascists, has become sacralized in the form of the Prosperity Gospel, the belief that Jesus came to minister to our material needs, blessing believers with wealth and power.
The Prosperity Gospel is an ideological cover for the slow-motion corporate coup d’état. This is why large corporations such as Tyson Foods, which places Christian Right chaplains in its plants, Purdue, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Warehouse, along with many other corporations, pour money into the movement and its institutions such as Liberty University and Patrick Henry Law School.
This is why corporations have given millions to groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to campaign for Barrett’s appointment to the court.
Barrett has ruled to cheat gig workers out of overtime, green light fossil fuel extraction and pollution, gut Obamacare and strip consumers of protection from corporate fraud. Barrett, as a circuit court judge, heard at least 55 cases in which citizens challenged corporate abuse and fraud. She ruled in favor of corporations 76 percent of the time.
Our corporate masters do not care about abortion, gun rights or the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. But like the German industrialists who backed the Nazi Party, they know that the Christian Right will give an ideological veneer to ruthless corporate tyranny.
These oligarchs view the Christian fascists the same way the German industrialists viewed the Nazis, as buffoons. They are aware that the Christian fascists will trash what is left of our anemic democracy and the natural ecosystem. But they also know they will make huge profits in the process and the rights of workers and citizens will be ruthlessly suppressed.
If you are poor, if you lack proper medical care, if you are paid substandard wages, if you are trapped in the lower class, if you are a victim of police violence, this is because, according to the Prosperity Gospel, you are not a good Christian. In this belief system you deserve what you get. There is nothing wrong, these homegrown fascists preach, with the structures or systems of power. Like all totalitarian movements, followers are seduced into calling for their own enslavement.
As the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels understood: “The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.”
The tinder that could ignite violent conflagrations lies ominously stacked around us. It may be triggered by Trump’s defeat in the election. Millions of disenfranchised white Americans, who see no way out of their economic and social misery, struggling with an emotional void, are seething with rage against a corrupt ruling class and bankrupt liberal elite that betrayed them. They are tired of the political stagnation, grotesque, mounting social inequality and the punishing fallout from the pandemic.
Millions more alienated young men and women, also locked out of the economy and with no realistic prospect for advancement or integration, gripped by the same emotional void, have harnessed their fury in the name of tearing down the governing structures and anti-fascism. These polarized extremes are inching closer and closer to violence.
The Three Options
There are three options: reform, which, given the decay in the American body politic, is impossible; revolution; or tyranny.
If the corporate state is not overthrown, then America will soon become a naked police state where any opposition, however tepid, will be silenced with draconian censorship or force. Police in cities around the country have already thwarted the reporting by dozens of journalists covering the protests through physical force, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. This will become normalized.
The huge social divides, often built around race, will be used by the Christian fascists to set neighbor against neighbor. Armed Christian patriots will attack those groups blamed for social collapse. Dissent, even nonviolent dissent, will become treason.
Peter Drucker observed that Nazism succeeded not because people believed in its fantastic promises, but in spite of them. Nazi absurdities, he pointed out, had been “witnessed by a hostile press, a hostile radio, a hostile cinema, a hostile church, and a hostile government which untiringly pointed out the Nazi lies, the Nazi inconsistency, the unattainability of their promises, and the dangers and folly of their course.”
Nobody, he noted, “would have been a Nazi if rational belief in the Nazi promises had been a prerequisite.” The poet, playwright and socialist revolutionary Ernst Toller, who was forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship when the Nazis took power in 1933, wrote in his autobiography: “The people are tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection. They ask, what has reason done in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge done us.”
After Toller committed suicide in 1939, W.H. Auden in his poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller” wrote:
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
Once the internal enemies are purged from the nation, we are promised, America will recover its lost glory, except that once one enemy is obliterated another takes its place. Crisis cults require a steady escalation of conflict and a steady stream of victims. Every new crisis becomes more urgent and more extreme than the last. This is what made the war in the former Yugoslavia inevitable. Once one stage of conflict reaches a crescendo it loses its efficacy. It must be replaced by ever more brutal and deadly confrontations. It is what Ernst Jünger called a “feast of death.”
These crisis cults are, as Drucker understood, irrational and schizophrenic. They have no coherent ideology. They turn morality upside down. They appeal exclusively to emotions. Burlesque and spectacle become politics. Depravity becomes morality. Atrocities and murder, as the federal marshals who wantonly gunned down the antifia activist Michael Forest Reinoehl in Washington State illustrated, becomes heroism. Crime and fraud become justice. Greed and nepotism become civic virtues.
What these crisis cults stand for today, they condemn tomorrow. There is no ideological consistency. There is only emotional consistency. At the height of the reign of terror on May 6, 1794 during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre announced that the Committee for Public Safety now recognized the existence of God.
The French revolutionaries, fanatical atheists who had desecrated churches and confiscated church property, murdered hundreds of priests and forced another 30,000 into exile, instantly reversed themselves to send to the guillotine those who disparaged religion. In the end, exhausted by the moral confusion and internal contradictions, these crisis cults yearn for self-annihilation.
The ruling elites will no more restore these ruptured social bonds and address the deep despair that grips America than they will respond to the climate emergency. As the country unravels, they will reach for the familiar tools of state repression and the ideological prop provided by Christian fascism.
It is up to us to carry out sustained acts of nonviolent, mass resistance. If we mobilize in large and small ways to fight for an open society, to create communities that, as Vaclav Havel wrote “live in truth,” we hold out the possibility of pushing back against these crisis cults, holding at bay the brutality that accompanies social upheaval, as well as slowing and disrupting the march towards ecocide.
This requires us to acknowledge that our systems of governance are incapable of being reformed. No one in power will save us. No one but us will stand up for the vulnerable, the demonized and the earth itself. All we do must have the single aim of crippling the power of the ruling elites in the hopes of new systems of governance that can implement the radical reforms to save us and our world.
The most difficult existential dilemma we face is to at once acknowledge the bleakness before us and act, and to refuse to succumb to cynicism and despair. And we will only do this through faith, the faith that the good draws to it the good, that all acts that nurture and protect life have an intrinsic power, even if the empirical evidence shows that things are getting worse.
We will find our freedom, our autonomy, our meaning and our social bonds among those who also resist, and this will allow us to endure, and maybe even triumph.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.”