Like most writers with too much to do and insufficient time, I set out to skim Don Watson’s essay on the American political scene, seeking its gist and leaving it at that. I soon gave up: there is too much to be missed in Watson’s piece. This is always the mark of excellent eyes and ears – these being the sine qua non of first-rate writing.
I wish more Americans might see Watson’s elegantly wrought rumination. It is nearly always arriving foreigners who get to the pith of a people. Tocqueville, who filled two volumes on America with exceptional insight after nine months’ travel, is the best-known example. The only Americans able to see as Americans and also as others see them are returning expatriates, and, as Joyce more than once noted, the exile gone home is punished savagely for all he sees and says.
Watson went after something deep and difficult during his time among Americans last summer, it seems to me. We are in crisis, let there be no doubt, but this is far more profound than mere politics. One cannot possibly grasp the American condition as we have it in the reports carried in the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian – or, still less likely, any American newspaper. They are not the right technology, for we – we Americans – are amid a crisis in consciousness, to bring it to a single word. The questions we face are psychological, having to do with identity and who we think we are, as against what we have actually made of ourselves. One must learn from Tocqueville, as Watson plainly has, and then set out for that high, thinly populated ground where journalism and literature meet. People such as Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski dwell there. It is where work that matters gets done when the project is to capture a people and their society as in an immense, panoramic Polaroid.
One way to get to the bottom of a place, paradoxically, is resolutely to explore its surfaces and signifiers, and Watson has this, the semiologist’s method, down to an art. The mall-ified landscapes, the clapboard-and-green-shutters houses that seem lost to the lives lived amid them, the downtowns that are “not entirely deserted but it feels that way,” the beer-and-burger bars that seem like re-enactments, for Americans do not authentically gather anymore: perfect. In such evocations one grasps the vacancy of our public space and the emptied-out lives we live in consequence – we who bay incessantly about “community.” Watson quotes Richard Ford to good effect: “It’s really we who’re threatened with not quite fully existing. It’s we who’re guilty of not having something better on our minds. It’s our national malaise.”
“We” is a fraught word among Americans. Nobody wants to own up to the mess we have made of ourselves and our country. It is always their fault – somebody else’s, that “enemy within” in Watson’s title. What passes for political process has been reduced to sheer spectacle in the way Guy Debord used this term. “We don’t have politics in America,” Gore Vidal once wrote. “We have elections.” It is essential not to miss this: were Tocqueville writing today, he would have to choose another title: there is no democracy in America, and we, all of us, are responsible for this tragedy. This, it seems to me, is Watson’s quarry.
Consider the evolution of mainstream reactions to Donald Trump’s rise. When he first announced his candidacy, in mid-2015, he was dismissed as an entertainer. Then he was marked down as a passing political oddity, and then a kind of suicide bomber who would destroy the Republican Party from within but was of no interest to anyone else.
Things changed as the opinion polls began to indicate a very close contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Suddenly Trump is a threat to our national security and our very existence. Every derogatory descriptive in Webster’s Third is hauled out and hurled Trump’s way, usually more than once. It is all Trump, all horror, all the time. It grows tedious, to be honest.
There is something obsessive-compulsive in this. At writing (early October) it has come to resemble a Salem witch-hunt conducted – supreme irony – in the name of our liberal values. Supposedly liberal, I should say. I see two explanations, as follows.
One, few Americans – drifting as they do in the mainstream of opinion – want to see the “we” in the Trump phenomenon. Most of us are desperate to avoid admitting that the political culture that pushed Trump to the fore belongs to all of us and that many of us benefit from it just as it is. No, the Donald must be cast as some kind of “other” – along with his followers, of course.
The second point has to do with the matter of despotism. Watson dwells eruditely on fascism and those of its characteristics one may find in the Trump phenom. He is correct to do so – and correct again to dismiss the thought of a fascist order arising were Trump to be elected president. But he barely flicks at a political current that is just as pronounced, harder to see because it is everywhere, and arguably more pernicious. Tocqueville, in the second of his America books, calls it soft despotism. So can we.
American conservatives sometimes deploy Tocqueville’s views on the “species of oppression” he so defined, so as to rip into the welfare state, federal regulation and other such right-wing obsessions. This is not my meaning. (And I question whether Tocqueville would accept it as his, either.) I refer to the oppression of the neoliberal order as consolidated in the post–Cold War period, notably during the triumphalist 1990s.
No threat of cataclysm in this, no Trump-ite catastrophe. “It would have a different character,” as Tocqueville wrote presciently of this democratic despotism. “It would be more extensive and gentler or softer, and it would degrade men without tormenting them.” This is the project of the end-of-history crowd: we are correct about everything, no need to think about it, and if you do manage to think a thought for yourself, it had better match ours. This is what I mean by perniciously dangerous, or vice versa.
As just implied, one of the most powerful features of neoliberal ideology is its intolerance of all deviation and difference. Abroad, one finds this at the root of our reigning Russophobia. At home, I see intolerance, various forms of prejudice, demonisation and the exploitation of fear – the last like shooting at the side of a barn, in the American context – at work in our Trumpophobia. This is the soft despotism of the American neoliberal. Hillary Clinton, to state the obvious, is the faith’s high priestess.
Some mainstream Americans – meaning all who accept neoliberal thinking as a given, in no need of inquiry – prefer to pretend that the people Trump claims to speak for do not exist. It is easy enough, since mainstream-dwelling Americans rarely see them. Most, safe to say, are probably aware of their presence but find the thought that they should have a voice in the national conversation wildly unacceptable. Those people are to be confined to their “basket of deplorables,” as Clinton artlessly but very succinctly put it this autumn. Among the most interesting questions posed late-ish in the campaign season is whether Trumpism will go away if he is defeated in November. Translation: can we resume ignoring them?
It is hard, honestly, to know how to apportion one’s contempt in late 2016 America.
Return to Watson’s blighted landscapes, desiccated towns and communities of the stupefied. All this we must lay nowhere but at neoliberalism’s door. I see no alternative explanation of our fate. It is what a nation gets when it elevates market value to the only value – so surrendering to the corporatisation, commodification and marketisation of more or less everything.
Watson writes extensively of “malaise” in this context but never mentions “decline.” This is another charged term in the American vocabulary. To be a declinist is quite unpatriotic. It puts one outside the tent urinating in, as L. B. J. would have put it. While many of our torments are mere indulgences, Americans’ fear of decline is perfectly legitimate. This fear is the source of our malaise. Depression, I have long thought, arises out of feelings of powerlessness, and many of us understand that our corrupted political process renders us so.
I am not a declinist if this means I view the prospect as inevitable. The decline of America is possible, which is a very different thing. And it is a choice, even though most of us do not recognise it as one. Americans face many choices, and one might logically expect their magnitude to prod us into action. Just the opposite is the case: we have drifted so far from anything like an authentic political life, let so much go slack for so long, and so left ourselves with so much to do that the choices before us leave us paralysed. Which is to say the sensation of powerlessness is prevalent. The grim reality around the next corner, or the next, is that flinching from our choices in this way will amount to our choice, and decline will then await us: we will have chosen it.
Watson quotes Camus as wondering, “Shall I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” The attribution is common but mistaken, but we can leave this aside: Watson is wise to pose the question in his essay’s context. To my mind we Americans have but one way forward. Let us begin with a good strong cup – our first order of business being, as Watson suggests, to awaken from our long, troubled sleep.
Patrick Lawrence is foreign affairs columnist at the Nation. He was a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune and the New Yorker. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century (Yale).
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 64, The Australian Dream.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY