The election of Donald J. Trump to the American Presidency in 2016 represents a stunning victory of ignorance over intelligence, a triumph of fraudulent salesmanship over honest customer service. To the extent that Trump succeeds in boosting irreversible climate change and preventing the global phase-out of fossil fuels, and to the extent that he helps authoritarian/dictatorial regimes become more entrenched in their own nations and more important in world affairs, and tries to send America towards authoritarian government, it seems likely that Trump’s election represents the beginning of the Suicide of Civilization.
Led by the most powerful actors in politics and economics, short-sighted selfishness at the top of society will eventually result in mass disaster; any surviving people will most likely be at the hunter-gatherer level of organization and ability.
This breakdown of American leadership towards greater global peace and prosperity — which of course relied on the stable societies, honest workmanship and business practices, and ordinary people in all the world’s nations doing their best to better themselves and their families — has been a long time in the making. Among many factors, I would point out the degradation of American news media over the decades. At one time, American media owners considered it a social responsibility to actually inform the public. Yes, this was an elitist attitude, and information was provided within the context of prevailing social attitudes — yet it was a much better model than what we got as “news” became a form of entertainment and distraction, as the 1970’s progressed into the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the focus became the visual image of the news reader as a powerful male or sexy female, when actual background and context and nuance were eliminated in favor of rote, coded and very brief news items. This did contribute a general lowering of the public’s intelligence, and these trends did accelerate as we moved into the 21st Century.
The breakdown of social behaviors which were once normal and taken-for-granted, among American political leaders of all types, proceeded with significant momentum after Jan. 20, 2009, when Republican lawmakers gathered on the very day that Barack Obama first took office, and pledged to oppose every single action he took as President, no matter what it was.
The fact that these Republican leaders engaged in massive campaigns of complete falsehoods represented a further acceleration of this breakdown of past social norms. Obama wasn’t just a bad President: he was an African, he wasn’t even a citizen. The health care policy reform that Obama managed through Congress didn’t just have some points that conservatives might object to — even though Obama’s plan was actually based on Repubican proposals originally promoted by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under Mitt Romney’s governorship. No, this new policy of Obama’s was suddenly a socialist conspiracy by a dedicated socialist (Obama) who was determined to ruin the American health care system.
With the descent of Donald J. Trump on his gold-plated escalator in June 2015, mouthing open racial prejudice, and spewing a fog of lies and nonsense — that he would insist and insist were actually truth and sense, and which our leading televised media could never manage to seriously question him on — as he announced his formal candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America, we seem to have entered a new era of anarchic, selfish, completely hypocritical and compulsively lying, purposely-confusing behavior by a conservative political class that once prided itself on upholding the values that represented “the best of America.”
During the course of his campaign, Trump “survived” revelations of scandalous thought and behavior that would have ended the careers of any previous “normal” politician: talking openly about groping and assaulting women, refusing to reveal his finances, a long history of shady business practices including a consistent refusal to pay small business suppliers, his inability to speak coherent English for more than 30 seconds at a time, his own long previous campaign of lies against President Obama, his denial of the science of climate change, his clear preference for nearly all authoritarian leaders of foreign nations and his very clear embrace of the leading world dictator of the present times, Vladimir Putin of Russia, among many other faults and shortcomings. He managed this survival essentially by wrapping himself in his lying self-rightousness and refusing to discuss his problems, and by the failure of our major television and print journalists to actually challenge him to his face under any circumstances.
By managing to win the election by a narrow margin in 3 states while losing the overall popular vote by millions, Trump appears poised to bring America into a dangerous social state that nations such as Germany, Italy, Russia, China and too many other have suffered from in the last century: a state in which the “leader” insists on his own “truths,” with the support of the government apparatus and without contradiction from the major forms of media and information available to citizens, despite the evidence of their own eyes and from their own lives that says the “leader” is a lying fool and/or tyrant.
This problem of purposeful lying from the chief executive of the American government is in addition to the more “normal” problems Trump presents, such as constructing the most unqualified cabinet in American history, with an Attorney General who hates civil rights for black people, and Education Secretary who hates public education, a Labor Secretary who hates workers, and so on. That both Trump and his National Security Advisor seem to be very closely linked to what is today’s worst dictatorship in the world (both for its own people, and for all the rest of the world), and that Trump seems to hate both the NATO Alliance and the European Union, promises huge disruptions in major global institutions which have, despite their faults, done much to ensure peace and stability in the more open and advanced nations of the world over the last seventy years.
With Trump in power, America has completely destroyed the social norm that previously existed: our Presidents would be reasonably intelligent persons, capable of actually discussing public policy questions with coherence and an understanding of social/political realities, and they would be persons who generally commanded social respect from other intelligent members of the public.
From January 20 2017, the American government will be led by a person who is a mental midget and a moral monster, and a person who did NOT win a majority of votes in the American Presidential election of 2016.
It is not an accident or a fluke that America is now entering a social condition in which a major party takes on a selfish, power-at-all-costs attitude towards government, with an arsenal of self-serving lies and propaganda. It was six years ago that I tried to talk about the “intellectual pollution” that infects modern society, coming from the “normal” and “reasonable” activities of the advertising industry, trying hard to convince people to use the products of large and small companies. This “intellectual pollution” has progressed to the point where people who were once recognizable as traditional conservatives have evolved into power-hungry philosophical radicals, perfectly willing to tell any lie, promote any rumor, contradict whatever they said last week, and even to claim that “the truth” doesn’t matter, spinning off into the various forms of the argument that “there is no such thing as truth” if they feel really pressed.
This type of behavior from former conservatives is not an accident. It is entirely consistent with the information/propaganda work of dictatorial regimes such Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and all the greater and lesser examples from the list of modern authoritarian regimes. It is also completely consistent with the work of large American and European corporations (supposedly conservative, and certainly selfish). As scholar Ari Rabin-Havt points out, deliberately trying to create confusion in the public’s minds over “facts” and “evidence” has been a favorite strategy of the American public relations and advertising agencies, when trying to defend tobacco companies against the evidence that their product kills their customers, and now in trying to defend fossil-fuel companies against the evidence that their product is killing the atmosphere that supports our very lives. As Rabin-Havt explains, this pattern has been adopted by a number of industries in recent years, and Trump has hired specific individuals who are experienced in practicing this art of deliberately lying for material and/or political gain. “The propaganda purveyors recognize that the media’s instinct to cover “both sides” of an issue, people’s tendency to believe claims that conveniently fit their ideology, and, more recently, social media’s propensity to spread falsehoods all create a fundamental weakness in our civil society. They (the propagandists) aren’t confused; they don’t misunderstand science or freely accessible truths. They have financial incentives to obscure those realities, and they do not care what they destroy in the process,” Rabin-Havt says.
To re-iterate some basic points, as a historian and as a philosopher, I believe in facts. The matter and energy we find in our global environment are the basis of facts and truth. Human beings are very much subject to the limits set by physical facts – temperature ranges, availability of oxygen to breathe, sustainable food sources. But as humans form societies and civilizations, questions of human behavior and motivation begin to add up to large uncertainties — precisely because people are not nearly as consistent as physical components of our environment. In an event affecting hundreds or thousands of people, there is only one set of actual true facts regarding that event — atoms and energies were in precise states and precise places and changed in only one true way over time. Yet the people over here may think they saw and heard X happening, while the people over there may think they heard and saw Y happening, a few people will be totally confused about what happened but their confused stories may affect other people’s opinions of what did happen, and of course some people may totally lie about what happened for any number of motives. And since different sets of actors may have motives to spread a wide variety of lies and distortions, and to insist that their perspective is the only possible perspective, the intellectual environment of that society may be degraded long into the future in a never-ending controversy over what whether what really happened was more like X or more like Y.
So there is only one true set of facts, but in complicated human questions affecting communities and nations, these actual facts can be very difficult or impossible to find, even by sincere historians with the best of records and motives. Nevertheless, we do not make progress towards solving our problems by deliberately lying about things, or by throwing up our hands and wailing about “all truth is relative, there is no true truth, and we can’t do anything about it.” Specific murderous dictatorial governments and specific selfish corporations and industries are now, in 2017, trying to make you confused about what is actually happening so you will not be able to stop the events that they are trying bring about. And one specific American Republican Party President, Donald J. Trump is following this pattern of trying to confuse you and disorient you to further his own political power, and his chief aide is a man who helped create a “news organization” that is openly dedicated to lies and exaggerations designed to confuse you, so that mean and selfish people may gain even more political power in America.
So please, finding and maintaining credible sources of information is a basic part of our self-defense against anti-democratic, anti-progressive forces in society. Donald Trump is and has been part of the war against the truth perpetrated by the worst people in the world, and he is going to continue to to be, as he would say, “a HUUYYGE” part of the war on the truth that is designed to dispossess honest citizens, of both their material goods and of their political liberties, for the sake of the most selfish and most un-caring power-holders of this modern world, and nothing that he or any of his allies say is to be trusted in any way.
And make no mistake, the access of Donald J. Trump to political power in America most certainly represents a triumph of the ignorant, the lazy and the selfish over those who are well-informed and who are working every day to make the lives of their fellow human beings better in any way.
It is not the ignorant, the lazy and the selfish who have built up our modern world, from scattered groups of hunters and gatherers into an economic miracle of peace and plenty that we call “modern civilization.” No, even if nearly everyone may be working for selfish motives at some level of their psychological structures, it is the people who have tried to see and understand facts, it is the people who have cared about others also doing well, it is the people who have labored selflessly at unrewarding tasks that maintained society, and it is the people who followed “higher” norms of behavior meant to maintain social peace, who have built this modern civilization whose pleasures we in the favored nations enjoy so much.
Yet despite all the promises and hopes for even greater prosperity to come, our modern so-called civilization (which still leaves billions of human being bereft of even its most basic hopes today), is built on two huge unsustainable structures, one in the economic realm, and one in the political realm. In the economic realm, every major industry’s costs and structures have historically and to a large part continuing today, depended on being able to dump their waste products into our air, waters, and lands without significant cost or regulation. And in the realm of politics, about two-thirds of the world’s peoples live under governments based on dictatorial methods — killing and bullying domestic opponents, twisting economic wealth even more tightly into the hands of a few than it would otherwise be, and insisting on a set of self-serving lies to confuse and demoralize anyone who might object.
The economic and political institutions that selfishly benefit from these un-sustainable threats to modern prosperity and peace are the most eager practitioners of the “war on the truth” that Donald J. Trump has enthusiastically brought to the forefront of American life in 2017. This is the huge breaking of norms that threatens to end what we now call world civilization.
To the extent that Donald J Trump is successful in his huge portion of the global “war against truth,” it becomes highly more likely that so-called global civilization will indeed completely break down later in the 21st Century, under the unforeseeable crises of a world warming quickly far beyond the ability of our food and water supplies to adapt, and by the actual wars that may be unleashed as ignorant and misled populations go to battle in the attempt to gain a momentary advantage in the overall global decline. If and when these disastrous future outcomes destroy any hopes of prosperity and liberty for our grandchildren, it will be clear to the last surviving historians that the Presidency of Donald J. Trump in the United States of America, beginning on Jan. 20, 2017 of the Christian calendar, was indeed a key starting point in the Suicide of Civilization.
For myself, I know that I have to be an optimist. I have faced many situations in my life when it seemed (to me, in my ignorance) that nothing was going right, that I would never succeed in what I wanted. And even in the best of times there are always problems, and much work to be done. I can’t get though those tough days without some ray of hope I can cling to. So I have to continue to be an optimist, no matter how much the evidence points towards negative conclusions. I have to believe that we who are not professional liars will be able to organize effectively, that we who are not economic plutocrats will not succumb to selfishness, that we who are not selfish thugs with guns will not allow societies to be ruled by the most barbaric members of that society. I have to believe that our ability to speak and act our truths will keep our democratic structures alive where they are established, and growing where they are now suppressed. I have to hope that somehow, against all the odds, rational progressive civil society will manage to organize to wrest power from the plutocrats and the dictators, and preserve a world worth living in for our grandchildren.
Yet the evidence is clear: the war against truth is an integral part of the unsustainable economic and political selfishness that leads directly towards the downfall of prosperity and liberty. The evidence is also fairly clear that all the short-term advantages now lie with the plutocrats of the more open societies, and the murderous dictators of the more closed societies.
Nice people have nothing, nothing but themselves and their abilities to organize and work selflessly.
And Donald J. Trump is indeed, in the economic and political context of today’s unstable world, an irresponsible and immature actor promoting a war against truth for his own selfish purposes, in a position that requires great responsibility and wise maturity if we are to avoid the Suicide of Civilization. It doesn’t look hopeful, yet I will continue to be an optimist, working for the apparently impossible – a world that is not ruled by selfish, short-sighted political and economic leaders. The rest of us are good enough, smart enough, dedicated enough — and scared enough of the alternatives if we fail — we have to do the work to create a better future for ourselves and our children.