Beyond the Myths of American Greatness
By Kevin Lentz
On the night of November 8th a certain popular understanding of “How the World Works” finally collapsed. Now, three months into the chaos of the Trump administration, many of the old certainties that were espoused and taken for granted for decades have turned out to be little more than hollow idols, carried off easily by the flow of history.
Oddly enough, as the old regime has imploded and the new one has begun attempting to stabilize itself, instead of seeing the emergence of genuinely new ideas of “How the World Works” what we’ve seen is in fact the re-emergence of a set of founding ideas even older than those of the previous regime. From the national narrative of “progress,” “democratic inclusivity,” and a “post-racial” society we’ve returned full stop to the old narrative of “America First,” with career white nationalists in top White House posts, a ban on Muslim immigrants, ICE raids targeting undocumented Latinx, promises of mass deportation, intolerance for the autonomy of women, overt war-mongering with various eastern countries, massive border walls, economic protectionism, and so on.
The reigning image of the US as a land flush with people of all races and ethnicities peacefully co-existing together in one giant rising middle class tax bracket upholding world peace and democracy has been abolished.
Instead, we are confronted with the reality of a hungry nation torn apart by dire socio-economic inequality; a nation stratified into violent racial hierarchies; set adrift in a stormy sea by unending waves of confrontational social movements with an angry rich white man and his goons at the helm intent on ending this chaos by steering us all safely back in time to the golden shores of “Great America.”
This new national narrative, arriving in the White House amidst heavy fire from all sides, is obviously false. Not only is it false, it’s comically unpopular. Trump lost the popular vote by close to three million, and took only eight days to reach a majority disapproval rating. As a result, his fledgeling regime has had trouble securing much of anything—from the suspension of his immigration ban, to the withdrawal of his Secretary of Labor, to the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump grows more isolated and whiny by the week.
Although this is undoubtedly good, as the inauguration week executive order blitz and recent wave of ICE raids have made it clear that his team intends to try and deliver on some of their more odious campaign promises, we should refrain from letting the smug elites who catapulted him into the White House off the hook.
It is in fact through their actions that the really novel and uncanny truth revealed by the election can be glimpsed: not merely that the white populist regime currently looking to grow in the White House is false and hollow, and that the Centrist Democratic-led regime that preceded it had things right, but rather that both were and are massively unpopular regimes propped up on equally absurd myths. The sudden implosion of the Democratic regime and its national narrative was just as well earned and necessary as Trump’s embattled reception.
The Democratic National Convention, both before and after kneecapping Bernie Sanders’ rebellious campaign, looked to do little more than effortlessly coast back into the White House off the name-brand recognition of Clinton. There never was a substantial positive message associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign, just “I’m with Her,” an implicit line of succession drawn straight from the relatively “Good Times” of Bill Clinton, through Obama, and onto Hilary. Bill, who won his two terms by doubling down on Reagan’s tough on crime and welfare stances, and Obama, who finished W’s mission to kill Bin Laden, bailed out Wall Street with taxpayer money, and quietly deported over two million immigrants over his eight year term. This was the middle of the road electoral strategy that the Clinton campaign drew on and promised four more years of.
What the pampered elites who plotted this course somehow managed to overlook was the fact that the catastrophic global economic recession of 2008, and how Obama “fixed” it threw millions of Americans into blood-chummed waters to sink, swim, or be eaten alive by loan sharks; that the godless system of mass incarceration accelerated by Clinton has sucked millions of americans into absurd prison sentences and overwhelmingly targeted already underprivileged Black and Brown folks; that endless warmongering and intervention in the Middle East for oil actually does nothing for the average American, and so on.
They overlooked, in other words, the everyday reality that most of us actually live through. An everyday reality dominated by debt, minimal prospects for the future, rising rents, violence in the streets, lack of healthcare, abysmal wages, no vacations, longer hours, the looming threat of ridiculous jail sentences for minor offences, a sense of losing control, creeping anxiety, and isolation. Few have seen the spoils of the so-called “Economic Recovery”, our nation-wide “Broken Windows” policing policies, the constant imperial interventions, or the now defunct federally subsidized private health care coverage that the DNC arrogantly campaigned on. Things have actually been going pretty terribly in the country for most Americans (despite the good face we all put on to get by), so why on earth would anyone continue to vote for four more years of the same?
What the increasingly dismal state of affairs in the US under Obama, Clinton’s pitiful call to double down on this state of affairs, and the timely intervention of the alternative politics presented by the Sanders campaign helped reveal, on a national level, is the basic hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the Democratic Party itself: claiming to champion the cause of “The People” while simultaneously making sure that the billionaires who keep “The People” broke, starving, and laboring have final say over how the country is run.
In other words, that though the Democratic party may be the left wing and the GOP the right wing, both ultimately belong to the same bird of prey.
For a certain social group and the media it adheres to this long-overdue revelation has been a profound shock that has been difficult if not impossible to register. It went straight over the ego to nestle invisibly in the unconscious. To them, the elections proved nothing, or rather only proved that the country is just too stupid or lazy to see that Hilary Clinton was the really beneficial choice, that the system is working despite opportunistic grumbling from the Republicans.
Tellingly, this self-consciously defensive stance marked Clinton’s campaign from the start. How else to explain the wailing wall of finger pointing, name-calling, and blame-gaming that proceeded alongside the entirety of the Presidential elections from the national Liberal establishment on down through the various avenues of the media apparatus, even before Clinton’s loss seemed remotely possible by the establishment’s standards? It’s as if somehow, within the comfortable walls of the overwhelmingly white Liberal echo-chamber, it was pre-emptively understood that Hillary Clinton was probably going to lose. As if somehow they knew that the lesser evilist party had been directly responsible for summoning the inevitability of the greater evil.
Even after she did lose on the lesser-evil platform, many establishment loyalists are still loathe to acknowledge the centrist establishment’s self-induced defeat and burial and pine for a return to “normalcy.”
As a result, we arrive at the strange situation in which an oversimplified false-narrative is hopefully countered by another overly simplified false-narrative. “Love trumps Hate,” which emerged spontaneously during the nationwide protests of Trump’s election and inauguration, when given proper context essentially boils down to, “the false harmony of the status quo is more true than combative white nationalism.” It may seem to be a harmless enough sentiment, but it’s ultimately an uncritical complicity, a discrete psychological self-defense mechanism to protect oneself from the reality of total immersion in the violent web of social relations that binds us all together and upholds the “normal” functioning of US society.
Burying one’s head in the sand, in other words.
Having said as much, condemnation of naiveté and blissful ignorance is not really a productive practice, nor is it the objective for our present purposes. The more egregious sin of the shocked crowd and its media adherents lies elsewhere—in the fact that the perpetual prioritization by individuals and institutions of the naive majority-white Liberal reaction and understanding of “How the World Works” actively obscures a more balanced and urgent point of view that has existed in its shadow since the settling of the first Spanish and British colonies in “the New World,” over four hundred years ago.
This is the point of view of the colonized, the demonized, the exploited, and their descendents still struggling for liberation hundreds of years later. The point of view of the excluded, in other words, which knows that the popular triumphant image of the US, and the West in general, has always been predicated on self-serving myth.
The Declaration of Independence, for instance, which stated that every man was created equal, and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” was written by a slave-owner in a country where, at the time, each member of a third of the total population was recognized as only comprising three-fifths of “all other persons” and wasn’t allowed to vote.
When this founding contradiction was no longer sustainable, we fought the bloodiest war to ever occur on our nation’s soil over the question of slavery, and then passed an amendment to settle this question which allowed slavery as the punishment for a crime. Is it any surprise that over one hundred and fifty years later we have the world’s largest prison population at over two million people? The majority of whom are Black and Brown? These are basic historical facts, and a point of view perpetually buried under the behemoth output of media institutions that cater exclusively to the ‘shocked’ crowd.
Our country’s territories were carved out of land stolen from massacred Native Americans who were then death-marched out of their homeland to reservations hundreds of miles away. Is it any surprise that decades later a US fortune 500 company would violate standing land and water treaties to resume drilling for a pipeline, despite months of internationally covered protest led by a native tribe?
Is it surprising that a country whose national policy was to suck in as many immigrants from the Western Hemisphere as it could to perform brutal agricultural labor while denying them legal rights would be carrying out immigration and customs deportation raids to keep some eleven million undocumented immigrants from demanding political and economic access to the professed Land of the Free? And this, concentrated in the original state which oversaw the systematic disenfranchisement of Tejano ranchers and farmers at the hands of white vigilante and state violence?
Is it really that surprising in a country with over ten million undocumented immigrants and over two million prisoners who are forced to toil endlessly while being denied the franchise, a country that pioneered the study of and application of eugenics, a country that attempted to intern an entire ethnicity, a country that was established by massacring the original inhabitants of this land, a country that saw millions of jobs get shipped overseas so hyper-wealthy business owners could save money, a country where over five hundred million women are (unevenly) at the risk of losing a basic right that they won less than fifty years ago to control their bodies, and so on, that an angry, rich, elderly white man upholding in so many ways the myth of America’s greatness should find himself in the White House? One could go on.
The point is that from the perspective of the excluded and marginalized, such an outcome is really not surprising at all. Why would it be? There is in fact an almost unbroken continuity between atrocities of the past and the situation of the present in this country—things didn’t suddenly get bad. The only people really shocked by Trump’s election are those who benefited, to varying degrees, from the centrist Democratic regime’s status quo.
Moreover, ‘shock’ is actually the uniting ideological practice of adherents to both the white populist and centrist Democratic regime—in the ritual of being shocked, both parties reveal a prior thoughtless faith in some fairy tale unity and harmony that is assumed to have existed in the US at some point. Such a period has never existed—neither some lily white US that was totally harmonious and functional before it became tainted by outsider browns, nor some virtuous melting pot middle class nation where race and gender didn’t overwhelmingly determine access to social and economic resources. Both are myths, and though one is indeed a nicer image to contemplate as we mill about our daily lives, they both flow from and uphold the same “normal.”
At any rate, the good news is that these two regimes, and the myths they run on, have been slowly tearing one another to shreds in front of our eyes. Both have been rendered equally absurd by the culminating dysfunction of the current government and the election it came in on.
As such, the opening for a genuine alternative to the two versions of shock and reaction in both politics and the media has rarely been wider. We’ve no need to take another trip around the merry-go-round. It’s high time to leave behind the well worn emotional territory of shocked colonizers and attend to the emergence of perspectives and practices which have always seen through the charade, precisely because the charade is what has kept them obscured—emancipatory, decolonial perspectives.