Expendable America

Harlan County, Cumberland, Kentucky, 2015
Matt Black/Magnum Photos
Harlan County, Cumberland, Kentucky, 2015

     Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”
     —Les Moonves, President and Chief Executive Officer of CBS

The Ship of State is sinking and a rooster is chasing a hen in a neighbor’s yard. How can that be? A woman is hanging her husband’s underwear on the laundry line and singing to herself. The dead leaves are dancing on the ground while a few jump high in the air as if trying to get back on a branch they fell from. A strange dog in my driveway is looking off into the distance and wagging his tail. Don’t any of them have patriotic feelings? The Ship of State, festooned with Trump/Pence election signs, is sinking. Shouldn’t we all fall silent in awe? The bare trees look spooked though it’s past Halloween. The president-elect with a spyglass and his orange pompadour shouts from the crow’s nest that he can see thousands of Muslims on rooftops in New Jersey still celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers—unless I’m hallucinating, but who nowadays can be sure their eyes and ears work? If he is bonkers, as he surely is, many of us are too, like that woman hanging laundry to dry on a day cold enough to snow.

All of us who are familiar with rural areas and former industrial towns in this country know the impoverishment and hopelessness of many men and women who live there. Barely surviving by holding part-time jobs, since businesses now rarely hire full-time workers in order to avoid paying benefits, they are not just underpaid and constantly in debt, but know in their hearts that they and their children are expendable. Understandably, they are angry. When Democrats proclaimed that the economy was doing well and that we were still the greatest country in the world, they started listening to Trump, who told them what they could already plainly see, that we are in decline. These unfortunates, who’ve been cheated and swindled by bosses, mortgage banks, loan sharks, health insurance companies, and both political parties, have put all their hopes in a billionaire who has a long record of not paying taxes, cheating his workers and contractors out of their pay, and seemingly using his own “charitable” foundation as a slush fund. They voted for a buffoon who doesn’t care whether they live or die.

They got plenty of help in making that decision. Having a candidate as uninspiring as Hillary Clinton, whose weaknesses ought to have been obvious to the party that nominated her and even more so after she lost the white working classes and the young people to Bernie Sanders in the primaries, as it was to many other Americans, including those like me who voted for her, turned out to be a catastrophic error. Not that it is easy to run a national campaign in a country so polarized as ours, split between liberal and conservative voters, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, religious and secular, rich and poor, with the predictable class animosities between them; and with the Internet and social media as our main source of information, a medium ideal for spreading lies and brainwashing the gullible. Without it ISIS could not have gotten all those tens of thousands of recruits and an outright huckster could not have become president of the United States.

It took years of deliberate effort by vested interests to create this “proudly ignorant populism,” as someone called it, know-nothing voters who are easily led by the nose, incapable of distinguishing lies from truth, or an honest person from a crook. Easily duped, they can be depended on to act against their own self-interest again and again. Throw into the mix racism, misogyny, hatred of immigrants, gays, and other minorities, the dumbing down of the population by inadequate education, suspicion of learning, rejection of science and history, and dozens of other things like guns and violence, and you have the kind of environment in which people chose their next president.

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will,” Goebbels said. Everywhere one turns one hears people parroting lies as if they were their own carefully considered personal opinions. The upshot is that an alternate reality has been constructed for millions in this country over the last couple of decades thanks to TV, talk radio, and the Internet. Spreading falsehoods, of course, is very profitable, as con artists of every type from mealy-mouthed preachers addressing their mega churches to those touting loans that require no background check can tell you. Lies sell everything from fattening foods to “your computer is damaged and we’ll help you fix it” scams. The basic requirement for democratic governance—that the majority of the population agrees on the parameters of what is true and what is false—has been deliberately obfuscated in this country. The absence of accountability for repeated fraud by those in power, both in government and in the private sector, the proliferation of fake grass-root organizations, think tanks, and lobbyist firms funded by the wealthy to deceive their fellow citizens and turn them against one another, has become the most characteristic feature of our political life. A genuinely functioning democracy endangers powerful interests and those working so hard and making so much money to destroy it, since they may sooner or later end up in jail.

To mislead one’s fellow citizens on such a vast scale is evil. We’ve seen it before. Never the good old days, of course, but the vile stuff we imagined we’d never see again. How is it possible that mass murder and torture, till yesterday universally condemned, now have their proponents, not just among religious fanatics, but among millions of Americans, including those running for the highest office in the land? The world seems to be divided today between those horrified to see history repeat itself and those who eagerly await its horrors.

In the meantime, I bet the fortune tellers in their storefronts are all depressed, since their prospective clients already know what the future holds. Once the new president settles in and brings the dregs of our society into his administration and they appoint other corrupt and worthless men and women to other positions in the government and start settling scores with their political and personal enemies and keeping their most rabid followers happy by deporting, persecuting, or physically abusing some minority, we won’t need a crystal ball to tell us what’s in store for us. Thank God, there are all these leaves still to rake in my yard and take my mind off this subject, and the quiet waters of the lake to reflect the setting sun just before a great dark night descends upon us bringing the kind of quiet that makes one hesitate to go indoors just yet, despite the chill, and turn on the first light in the house.