Member Essay: Trials and Tribe-ulations: The Dangerous Degeneracy of Trump’s Amerika03-04-2020
by Phil Burpee
My people on my father’s side first came on record on this continent in the person of one Thomas Burkby who was put in the stocks in Boston in 1632 for ‘taking of strong waters whilst on watch duty’. Thomas seemingly sobered up enough to go on to have five sons from whom was spawned the misspelled diaspora that was to become Burpees. During the Revolution of 1776 the Burpee clan, as with many other families, split along political lines, some remaining in New England to fight the British, and some decamping to New Brunswick as United Empire Loyalists. It is from the latter that I am descended. And yet the tethers of place were never entirely severed, and the broader colonial experiment anyway proceeded regardless of the new fabricated border, which out here in Alberta and Montana the Blackfoot and Sioux call the Medicine Line – aka the 49th parallel.
Now, I have to say, and to the best of my ability to ascertain, that were I to have been alive at the time I would have opted for shooting Redcoats and falling in with Tom Paine and Ben Franklin. For it was much of the Enlightenment and the individuation and sanctification of persons that generated the fires of outrage and rebellion so graphically manifested in the harbour waters of that same Boston town to which I owe my patrimony. It remains a cruel irony that the battle cry of ‘No taxation without representation’ might just as well be shouted out today – for, if anything, the governance mechanisms by which the will of The People is seen to be done have deteriorated almost beyond recognition in the 1% world in which we find ourselves, a scant two and a half centuries after the fury and trials of the very revolution that was meant to establish that order in perpetuity. As recently as 1963 Martin Luther King was to share his dream that ‘one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ But then, George Orwell had already eviscerated the communist fantasy of egalitarianism in Animal Farm with the grim allowance – ‘Some animals are more equal than others’. This is, as it turns out, also the underlying mantra of modern capitalism, within whose choking grip we all now toil, even as the billionaires consolidate their power and control.
And so I look upon the Great Republic today from up here on the windswept Alberta prairie and feel a deep and abiding unease about the big, roiling neighbour to the south. And I don’t mean this in a sanctimonious or tut-tutting way – my country of Canada has many woes of its own. But it just doesn’t occupy anything like the same existential space as the U.S.A., whose tacit mandate is, perforce, to exemplify the best hope of the liberal democratic order – both in its innate dynamism, and too in its unparalleled ability to project that dynamism economically, politically, culturally and militarily. And this it can often do in astonishingly compelling and effective ways. Yet something also of the worst of America, or shall we say Amerika, is now seen to bully its way forward – Uncle Sam is alarmingly devolving into an ugly and bloated Harvey Weinstein-like caricature of entitlement, moral vacuity, lies, and deceit. Old Tom Paine himself noted in Common Sense that: ‘….the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.’ Indeed. Those to whom we relinquish power as people all too often choose to conflate service with the right to rule – the perennial curse of government. This has never been more apparent than under the deviant and miscreant Trump presidency.
We humans quite naturally fall into tribes. It belies our roots as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It works. There was no other way to survive back in the day when it was ‘us’ against ‘absolutely everything and everybody else’ out there in a big, limitless, dangerous world ‘red in tooth and claw’. We still make it work for us to great effect in modern team sports – ‘Go Bruins Go!’ Likewise in a really good rock n’ roll show in a big arena – my best tribal times ever were back in the sixties and seventies in a crowd of ten or twenty thousand wild kids all wired to the same big beat. Good medicine. And our Native sisters and brothers today still secure themselves in a violent and indifferent colonizer world through the bonds of the tribe – yep, that works too, and broadly analogous to the necessitated cohesion of the Jewish people over time – The Tribe. But………and it’s a big but……..
Tribalism was never designed for the sort of work it is increasingly being put to in the modern nation state. Nor does it lead to good outcomes when deployed as a set of ethnic parameters. Consider the Klan in Mississippi, or the Hutu ‘genocidères’ in Rwanda, or the Taliban with their overlay of theocratic ruthlessness. But surely no better example exists in modern history of the maleficent usage of extreme tribalism than the great fascist experiment called National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s – what we now know as Nazism. For it was here in the febrile, toxic mash-up of philosophy, ambition and grievance that the utter and absolute abnegation of everything that is understood to recognize and represent the sanctity of the human individual was swept away and replaced with racial absolutism and a mass culture of targeted de-humanization – both of the doer and the done-to. For it is a well-established axiom that in order for average folk to countenance the slaughter of innocent ‘others’, those ‘others’ must first be rendered less than human, and therefore justifiably subject to the fate of the beasts of the field. And those average folk – ‘das Volk’ – must themselves be rendered into a debased, amoral, and mindless mass which has otherwise abrogated all pretence to individual critical thought, let alone the foundation-stone of the ancient and vital Golden Rule itself, which becomes bastardized into the malignant mantra - ‘Do unto others before they do unto you’. It is the despot’s work to define the ‘others’.
Well, how does this remarkable condition of things come about? It is instructive perhaps to look at the work of Joseph Goebbels, who was the highly successful architect of Adolph Hitler’s regimen of mass propaganda. Goebbels articulated three essential elements of successful propaganda in the ‘modern’ world of the 1930s: -
1. Repeat a handful of simple themes (or now memes, tropes) over and over again.
2. Target a scapegoat(s) onto whom to affix the frustrations and grievances of the intended audience.
3. Ignore, vilify and bypass the intelligentsia and conventional media and appeal directly to the masses (then – rallies and radio, now – rallies and Twitter).
Does any of this sound familiar? Sure it does. There’s nothing here that Donald Trump doesn’t do every day of the week – or, more importantly, there’s nothing else he actually does do beyond these three gross guidelines – lie, blast and spew endlessly. That’s the program – bada bing, bada boom. It won’t change – only now increase in decibels as he tosses off the last of the shredded reins of restraint and proceeds to accelerate the gutting and bending of the apparatuses of state to his will. He has already hollowed out and/or prostituted the Departments of State, Justice, Education, Environment and Immigration, and is well on his way to besmirching and bludgeoning security and policing agencies sufficient to keep them off the trail of his persisting and extravagant malfeasance. Securing these trends will be the work of an increasingly compromised Supreme Court. We have already seen the poodling of Chief Justice Roberts in the impeachment charade. Trump’s calculus is this – let the people see the debasement and implied ridicule of the ineffectual Judiciary and Congress. There is only one authority – or how did the Sun King put it? – “L’état, c’est moi.”
Ipso fatso, as Archie Bunker would have had it.
A Trump rally is a dandy piece of social anthropology. The faces of idolaters have not changed down through the ages. On the low side, it’s mouths slack-jawed and agape, eyes glazed – on the high side, it’s mouths twisted into roars and idiot grins, eyes wide and ablaze with the fever. And always there’s the shouting and the arms upthrust and the riveted focus on the Leader. This is political Pentecostalism writ large. Enter into the ecstasy offered up by the Big Man and think no more – Salvation is at hand.
Yes, there it is right on TV – the tribal cohort in full howl. Whipping it up is the single technique in President Trump’s arsenal of persuasion. As is said – to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It’s a one-button world in the mind of Donald Trump – a man seemingly devoid of native intelligence, but fantastically well-equipped with guile and seamless venality. I certainly wouldn’t squander the term ‘fascist’ to describe the man, preferring to save that most loaded of words for when it is really needed – when more than just a smattering of brownshirts are in the streets. Yet the tools he blithely deploys are the self-same tools used to good effect in many places and at many times by fascist movements. It seems clear enough that all he really craves is power and adulation, and if mass hysteria is the vehicle to that end, then so be it. Yet because he is amoral at root, I have certain abiding, and deeply troubling, suspicions.
Let me posit this. How tempting might it one day be for such a callow, grasping and otherwise hollow demagogue to replace his stock target groups like ‘fake news/enemy of the people’ or ‘radical leftists’ or ‘elites’ or ‘enviro-fascists’ or ‘Mexican rapists’ or ‘man-hating feminists’ or ‘socialist job-killers’ or ‘Muslim extremists’ at some fevered, drooling rally with that most durable and reliable catch-all ignition term from down through the ages – ‘Jews’? How tempting indeed? Oh, how the howling White Tribe would love it. “Finally! – we always knew it! - and now we get to say it and it’s okay because the President says so! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
And don’t be fooled into complacency by his pasty-faced son-in-law just because he espouses Jewish faith. Trump would drop this dweeb pronto if it would serve his advantage. His real dynastic focus is anyway on Ivanka – Don Jr. and Eric being too hapless and creepy to hold the torch.
Hyperbole, you may say. Maybe so. Maybe not. The point is that the populist despot gauges his advantage on an ongoing basis, and responds to any possible flagging of devotional fervour with renewed targeting of some suitable and ‘expendable’ segment of society. Trump has already hit on a full roster of useful targets – fat people, handicapped people, poor people, menstruating women, Frenchmen, Germans, Africans, immigrants, young Black men, environmentalists, human rights defenders, Californians, anti-gun lobbyists, Kurds, trade unionists, teachers, judges, public servants, single Moms – you name the group that does not constitute his rabid base and he’s dumped on them, most often with a snarling viciousness.
Condoning or propagating targeted anger/outrage towards some person or group has sometimes very real effect, of course. How many times over the years has a well-placed dog-whistle about homosexuals by some prominent public figure resulted in a rash of gay-bashing? – plenty. And how long will it be till somebody starts shooting reporters? Trump toys with this dangerous beast on a casual basis – seemingly in a dull-witted fashion, but more likely fully realized. In fact there’s pretty much only one button left to push on this list of expendables – the nuclear option – the perennial scapegoat down through the ages of western civilization – yes, the perfidious Jew. For let not the reactionary fondness for the state of Israel amongst right-wingers and Evangelical Christians be confused for any fondness for the Jewish people themselves – quite the opposite. The enduring accusation of deicide against all Jewish people for the killing of Christ was, after all, only finally removed from official Church doctrine at the Second Vatican Council of 1964 – and then perhaps somewhat begrudgingly. The Book of Revelation makes quite clear that the only worthwhile Jews come Judgment Day will be those who finally come to accept Jesus as Messiah – and all the rest will be so much fodder - cast down into a consuming hellfire.
If abortion should ever seem insufficient to carry the Christian Right for Trump, and so far the issue is working very nicely, then there is only one place left to go. Yep. Resuscitate the old blood libel tropes and turn the dogs loose. I have a Jewish colleague who is an academic and historian who suggests that Jews are now too broadly imbedded in western society and that such danger has passed. I beg a certain scepticism.
So, the man Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine warned against, and the very reason for the complex system of checks and balances in the Constitution and its Amendments, has now arrived in the White House – and he has no intention of leaving. It is a remarkable moment in history. Anticipating the Presidential election of 2020 leaves me with a certain acute unease I don’t think I’ve felt since the Cuban missile crisis, although somewhat less catastrophically urgent perhaps. I was twelve at the time, living in Ottawa – a ground zero city. They’d been testing air-raid sirens on and off for a while – ooh, that sound. Before my brother and I went off on our bicycles to school the morning of the day when it all seemed to be hanging by a thread, my Mom collared us and told us that if the sirens went off that day we weren’t to listen to the teacher or the principal or anybody, but just to bolt and ride home right away. Flight time then for an ICBM was about twenty-five minutes and we could make it home in fifteen – ten if we scooted. My Dad worked across town and wouldn’t make it in time. She just wanted us to be with her for the flash. When the gods conspire, there are no guarantees.
Incidentally, one of the catalyzing factors behind the American Revolution was the now-recognized reality that King George III was, in fact, bat-shit crazy. It happens – mad men accede to power.
So, I’m sending you all the good vibration down there across the Medicine Line. The U.S, is a big part of our worldview up here – well, everywhere really. You’ve got a lot on your plate. I literally cannot think of a more deeply ugly or awful or disingenuous or profoundly dangerous person than the one who is currently your President. You pretty much just have to shake your head in astonishment at the spectacle of it all. It’s like – wow. You’d almost have to laugh if it weren’t all so serious. Yeah. The bull is definitely loose in the china shop now – and I gotta wonder just where is the cowboy who can rope that thing down? Maybe Bernie? – I dunno.
Yippee-i-oh, my friends – yippee-i-yay.
“All of you cowboys, fight for your land.” – Woody Guthrie
Pincher Creek, Alberta
Phil Burpee is an H.A.C. member and a semi-retired carpenter who raises cattle and keeps bees with his wife Esther on their place in southern Alberta - from which roost under the big sky he observes a churning world.