Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

by Bob Schwartz

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

I am tempted to include the entire Preface to Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly in this post. Instead, I include excerpts and then encourage you to buy the ebook for just $2.99. As with all lucid insights into the current situation, it will not make you happier, but it will provide enlightening perspective.

The book is a collection of Latham’s essays, “essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air.”


Preface

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

It’s been six months since Donald Trump moved into the White House with his Twitter account, but I’m still talking to people unable or unwilling to believe he is president of the United States. Eager to bring late-breaking reports of Trump’s uncivil and unconstitutional behavior, they come bearing gifts of high-minded outrage and condescending mockery soon followed by variations on the question, How can such things be?

The short answer is Edith Wharton’s. A longer answer is the one spread across the pages of this book, essays arranged in order of their composition and stepping off on a march of folly with America’s 1991 invasion of Iraq—a reality TV show armed with self-glorifying high explosives and a nonsensical casus belli—and ending with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a self-glorifying photo-op bursting star-spangled bombast in air. Over the course of the twenty-five years from point A to point B, a weakened but still operational democracy gives way to a stupefied and dysfunctional plutocracy.

To regard Trump as an amazement beyond belief is to give him credit where none is due. He is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. Product and mirror of an age distinguished by its extravagant displays of vanity and greed, Trump’s positioning of government as trivial pursuit is the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century….

The camera doesn’t do democracy. Democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens and therefore worth the knowing what they say and do. The work is difficult and slow; too many words with too little action doesn’t move the merchandise. The cameras on the road with the biggest name on earth weren’t covering a play of ideas; they were attracted to the splendor and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of overripe celebrity.

Because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it makes no meaningful distinction between a bubble bath in Las Vegas staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath in Palmyra staffed by headless corpses. The return on both investments is the bankable flow of wish and dream drawn from the bottomless wells of human ignorance and fear, from the always rushing river of mankind’s limitless desire. It didn’t matter what Trump said or didn’t say, whether he was cute and pink or headless.

Trump pitched his campaign on the storyline the movie-going American electorate loves beyond all others—the one about the knight errant up against the system and the odds, the lonesome-pine hero in the trail-weary saddle riding into town to gun down the degenerate sheriff and rescue the God-fearing settlers, to set the crooked straight, restore civic virtue, distribute a fair share of the loot to the schoolteacher, the shepherd, and the store-keep.

It didn’t matter that Trump was a prosperous fool. He sold newspapers, boosted television ratings. He was maybe short on sense and sensibility, but he was long on market share. The infotainment media in all of its factions and instrumentations (CNN and the New York Times as well as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads) recognized Trump as a preposterous clown and transparent fraud but nevertheless framed him in the gilt-edged cliché of the underdog outlaw—up there in lights with robber barons Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, gunslingers Eastwood and Stallone, Mafia dons Corleone and Soprano. The unifying and all-purpose product placement won the election for Trump, rewarded the media with a Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Already in the first months of the primary season the numbers moving up in the opinion poll leaderboards encouraged Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, to assure the network’s bankers at JPMorgan Chase that “Trump’s candidacy may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”…

In office as president of the United States, Trump presents himself as signature endorsement of concentrated wealth, a camera-ready product placement promoting money as the hero with a thousand faces, all of them the face of Trump. Trump at the top of every hour on the networks and cable channels, on page one in every morning’s newspaper. Trump overruling the rule of law, under investigation for obstructing justice, withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, firing FBI director James Comey, ordering fifty-seven cruise missiles into Syria, dropping the Mother Of All Bombs on Afghanistan, signing executive orders lifting regulation of the oil, gas, coal, and banking industries. Trump embodying the Time magazine sales promotion of America, dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome, reshaping norms and creating new realities, saying and doing whatever it takes to discredit government by the people, of the people, and for the people—to nullify it in theory and dispose of it in practice.

The self-glorifying opposition to Trump is as foolish as the man itself. The “Resistance” composed of outraged sensibilities unable or unwilling to believe that Trump is president of the United States—Hillary Clinton voters, Democratic Party nomenclatura and crowd-sourced Pussy Hats, NeverTrump reactionaries, Bernie or Bust revolutionaries, sit-down protesters and stand-up comics—devotes its efforts to the project of Trump’s impeachment. Impeachment will be sought on whatever grounds (yet to be discovered or manufactured) can be cultivated to yield political scandal and tabloid entertainment.

Meanwhile in the White House gilded cage the unscripted and overweight canary sings his ferocious songs of sixpence, and on all sides of every story the voices of objection and dissent rise to near hysteria. Trump accuses former President Barack Obama of tapping his telephones, denounces the news media as “the enemy of the people”; the news media liken Trump to the Devil, accuse him of treason, hear in his frivolous noise the sound of Nazi boots marching into Poland.

The consequence is the destruction of a credible political discourse without which democracy cannot exist. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, made the point in his 1838 political essay, The American Democrat. The vitality of America’s democracy, said Cooper, is the capacity of its citizens to tell the truth, speak and think without cant….

Age of Folly fills in at least some of the backstory behind President Donald Trump’s appearance as Time magazine’s 2016 “Man of the Year.” The essays in Part I proceed in the order of their composition as monthly columns in Harper’s Magazine; the essays in Part II, all but one written to introduce issues of Lapham’s Quarterly, construe history as means rather than end, a hedge against the despairing of the present and a weapon to defend the hope of the future against the inertia of the past. History doesn’t save the day or provide a PowerPoint presentation of a new and better world. It is the fund of energy and mind that makes possible the revolt against what G. K. Chesterton once called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who only happen to be walking about.” We have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday.

July 4, 2017

Advertisements