Pulitzer winner Chris Hedges: These “are the good times — compared to what’s coming next”
Author of “America: The Farewell Tour”: We’re heading for a steep decline; Biden and the Democrats have no answers
APRIL 28, 2020
Empires fall a little bit at a time and then all at once. Over the last two decades, America has proven itself to be well along on that journey. The coronavirus pandemic has simply pushed our nation further along that downward spiral.
Ultimately, the pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated — for those still somehow in denial about the decades-long reality of America as a decaying empire — deep political, social, economic, cultural and other societal problems.
The country’s infrastructure is rotting. Trump presides over a plutocratic, corrupt, cruel, authoritarian, pathological kakistocracy. The commons is being reduced to rubble while the ultra-rich extract ever more wealth and other resources from the American people. Excessive military spending has left the United States incapable of attending to the basic needs of its people. A culture of distraction and spectacle has rendered many Americans incapable of being responsible engaged citizens. Our public educational system does not teach critical thinking skills. Radical right-wing Christians, white terrorist organizations and other neo-fascist paramilitaries and extremists are engaging in a campaign of thuggery, intimidation and violence against multiracial American democracy.
Writing at the Atlantic, George Packer described this woeful state of affairs:
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus — like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly — not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.
If anything good emerges out of this period, it might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our body politic. We were not as healthy as we thought we were. The biological virus afflicting individuals is also a social virus. Its symptoms — inequality, callousness, selfishness and a profit motive that undervalues human life and overvalues commodities — were for too long masked by the hearty good cheer of American exceptionalism, the ruddiness of someone a few steps away from a heart attack.
Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-winning journalist, author, and philosopher, is not surprised by America’s decline. In places such as the former Yugoslavia, he has personally witnessed what happens when societies fall apart. In his most recent book, “America: The Farewell Tour,” Hedges both details the country’s many cultural and political crises and what could potentially happen next. The coronavirus crisis has shown his analysis to be eerily prescient.
In this conversation, Hedges warns that the tumult and pain of Trump’s coronavirus crisis is but a preview of far worse things in America’s future, as social inequality and political failure combine to create a full collapse of the country’s already declining standard of living, as well as its ailing democracy.
Hedges also explains how the Democratic Party and its presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden, will likely not be able to respond to the Age of Trump and the economic and social destruction created by gangster capitalism, in combination with the coronavirus pandemic. Why? Because the Democrats are also part of the plutocratic establishment that has failed the American people.
You can also listen to my conversation with Chris Hedges on my podcast “The Truth Report” or through the player embedded below.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What has the sudden shock of the coronavirus pandemic revealed about America? If you were to take a snapshot of this moment, what does it reveal about the country?
These days are the good times, as compared to what is coming next.
How does a society change so fast?
A society can change so quickly because the underlying structures are rotten. There is the patina or the veneer of a functioning system, but the foundations of it are so decayed that they can’t take the stress. That was true in the Weimar Republic in Germany, before the Nazis took full control. That was true in Yugoslavia before the civil war and ethnic violence. It is true here in the United States too. This country cannot withstand the stress of the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond the obviousness of what the Republicans are doing, the Democratic Party’s response to this crisis exemplifies the problems America is facing as a whole.
Twelve hundred dollars to individuals suffering during this crisis is not sufficient. The Democrats were only really trying to block the equivalent of a $500 billion slush fund that is going into Mnuchin’s hands, a man who acts like a criminal. That $1,200 is going to get vacuumed right up by the credit card companies and the banks who hold the mortgages.
This is like a repeat of 2008, where Congress is dumping staggering sums of money into the hands of Wall Street thieves. What happened in 2008? The plutocrats and the corporations gave themselves massive stock bonuses and other income and returns. I do not see how the United States is going to avoid another Great Depression, which in turn will lead to a further consolidation of power by an authoritarian, oligarchic elite. Those elites are not really worried about the coronavirus pandemic because they will have their own ventilators and private medical staff and all the other things that they need to survive. The average person will be left to take care of themselves.
The president, his party, the corporate overlords and Trump’s Christian nationalist cult are now telling the American people to go out and risk death from the novel coronavirus as an act of “patriotism” and “love” for the economy.
I would also add that huge numbers of people are going to die unnecessarily. Profit is always the most important thing for the oligarchs, and because of Fox News and other right-wing outlets, a significant portion of the American public will downplay the severity and dangers of the coronavirus. Quite predictably, there is an accompanying spike in racist attacks against Chinese-Americans or any people of Asian descent.
I think the pandemic and the response to it could lead us into virtually uncharted territory within the United States because as things deteriorate, the violence against nonwhites and other groups who are demonized by Trump and the right-wing will increase. The desire for an authoritarian solution will grow more pronounced. I remember speaking to Fritz Stern, the great scholar of fascism, who himself fled Nazi Germany as a teenager. He said that in Germany there was a yearning for fascism before the word “fascism” was invented. We already see that yearning in America. The coronavirus crisis will make that yearning even more pronounced.
What of public memory, especially in the short and the medium term? There are many voices who believe the coronavirus will spur positive social change in the United States. I worry that there will be a type of organized forgetting, where several months from now the coronavirus pandemic and what it exposed about the country’s underlying rot will be forgotten — all of it thrown down the memory hole.
I don’t think we’re going to be able to go back to a time before the coronavirus pandemic. I believe that the coronavirus is going to trigger a decline unlike anything the country has seen since the Great Depression. That is why the business class and other ruling elites are panicking. It is why Trump, the corporate leaders, Republicans and others aligned with them are telling people to go back to work — but to wear masks — which may really not keep them 100% safe.
The pandemic was predictable. And yet, of course, especially under the Trump administration, we dismantled the mechanisms through which the United States could prepare. The needed infrastructure, such as hospital beds and ventilators and other needed equipment, was not there because, like with all decaying empires, the resources go to the defense industry and the military.
The other part of this decay and vulnerability was the assault against public education and the corruption of the media. The fact that Fox News is even considered a news organization is staggering — although I don’t think CNN is much better. In total, that contributes to a yearning for a system or a figure that can promise to tame the demons that have been unleashed.
I am unsure if we have any mechanisms left in the United States by which we can effectively push back against the elites, the oligarchs and other anti-democratic forces. We don’t have any ability to pit power against power. We can beg Pelosi or Mitch McConnell or some other politician all we want for help. We are not going to get it.
Watching Trump stand before the country and speak about the coronavirus pandemic while he is flanked by corporate CEOs — never mind how Trump has filled the government with people from some of the world’s largest corporations — really speaks to how the country is a naked plutocracy. The elites do not even try to hide it anymore.
The oligarchs don’t care about democracy. They don’t care about truth. They are not interested in the consent of the governed. They could care less about social and income inequality. They are not going to rein in the surveillance state. In fact, as things deteriorate, the surveillance state going to expand. The oligarchs do not care about job losses because, as Marx said, unemployment creates greater pools of desperate surplus labor. The oligarchs do not care about the climate. It’s all about the primacy of profit and corporate power — and those values and systems are extinguishing our democracy.
And of course, they are all thrilled that nobody can go out in the streets because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing. Mass mobilization and civil disobedience is what is needed to defeat the oligarchs and take those first steps necessary to win back an American democracy.
America’s current political system is a corporate political duopoly. A person can either vote for nativists and racists and climate deniers and creationists on one end, or a person can vote for people who speak in the language of tolerance and are willing to put gay people or women or people of color into positions of power as long as they serve the system. Of course, that is the role that Barack Obama fulfilled at the expense of the American people.
American society is in crisis, and in decline. As you point out, the coronavirus, in combination with Trump’s authoritarian, neofascist movement are just symptoms of a deep societal rot. Where do we go from here?
Let’s take Biden. What does it mean to vote for Joe Biden? He has this kind of goofy persona which some people find charming. What is Biden’s record? What is a person voting for if they back Biden on Election Day 2020?
The humiliation of courageous women like Anita Hill who confronted her abuser. You vote for the architects of endless war. You vote for the apartheid state in Israel. Biden supports those things. With Biden you are voting for wholesale surveillance by the government, including the abolition of due process and habeas corpus. You vote for austerity programs. You vote for the destruction of welfare. That was Biden. You vote for cuts to Social Security, which he has repeatedly called for cutting, along with Medicaid. You vote for NAFTA, you vote for “free trade” deals. If you vote for Biden, you are voting for a real decline in wages and the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
With Biden you are also voting for the assault on public education and the transfer of federal funds to Christian “charter schools.” With Biden you are voting for more than a doubling of the prison population. With Biden you are voting for the militarized police and against the Green New Deal.
You are also voting to limit a woman’s right to abortion and reproductive rights. You are voting for a segregated public school system. With Biden you are voting for punitive levels of student debt and the inability of people to free themselves of that debt through bankruptcy. A vote for Biden is a vote for deregulating banking and finance. Biden also supports for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.
A vote for Biden is also a vote against the possibility of universal health care. You vote for Biden and you are supporting huge, wasteful and bloated defense budgets. Biden also supports unlimited oligarchic and corporate money to buy the elections.
That’s what you’re voting for.
A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for more of the same. The ruling elites would prefer Joe Biden, just like they preferred Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is vulgar and an embarrassment. But the ruling elites also made it abundantly clear about their interests: Many of these people were quoted by name saying that if Bernie Sanders was the nominee — or even Elizabeth Warren — they would vote for Donald Trump.
One of the dominant narratives in the mainstream news media is that Trump is done. The coronavirus pandemic and his incompetence are dooming his re-election chances; the tide has finally turned.
My response has been that this is too hopeful and borders on the delusional. One, there is no guarantee that there will even be a presidential election in 2020. Trump and the Republican Party are experts at vote-rigging and other ways of cheating to steal elections and subvert democracy. After the coronavirus crisis recedes, I believe that Trump may very well be even more powerful because he leads a cult and will proclaim that he led the country to “victory” over the virus.
Liberal elites offer hope that is not grounded in an understanding of political reality. I do not believe that Joe Biden will necessarily be able to win against Trump. Biden is an extremely weak candidate because he represents the neoliberal gangster capitalist policies that the Democratic Party has embraced and that so many Americans are revolting against.
James Baldwin explained why black people don’t have midlife crises. Why? Because they do not buy into the myths of America. Black people know that the system in America is rigged. Black people know this when they are children. By comparison, white people buy into these illusions of meritocracy and individualism and American exceptionalism and similar beliefs. That is why the highest rates of suicide right now are among middle-aged white men, because they are finally starting to realize that the system does not care about them.
Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.