Hurricane Trump and America's road to nowhere: How did we get here?

Both the disaster in Houston and the cataclysm in Washington were a long time coming. Look in the mirror, America

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 2, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Alex Brandon/Charlie Riedel)
(AP/Alex Brandon/Charlie Riedel)

“Well we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been,” sang David Byrne in 1985, in one of the Talking Heads frontman’s numerous tributes to the collective bewilderment of the United States of America. That song, which is called “Road to Nowhere,” continues like this:

And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out

I suppose Byrne was thinking about the manufactured nostalgia of the Reagan era or the spread of consumer culture or something like that — but honestly, he had no idea. Over the last week we have seen America’s road to nowhere outlined in especially alarming fashion, with the convergence of Donald Trump’s presidency and a massive storm that inflicted some of the worst flooding in history on our nation’s fourth-largest city and its surroundings. Yet many of us — indeed most of us — continue to behave as though these events had no history, required no explanation and came as a complete surprise. We’re not little children and we know what we want. But we have no idea how to get there from here.

Salon contributor Anis Shivani sent me several emails from Houston during the storm. He was among the lucky ones, he reported: There was two feet of water in his garage, which had ruined thousands of books, but the water never came into the house.

We came this close to turning into a complete Katrina duplicate: The entire city could have been submerged. All of this, unfortunately, is completely preventable. The question is, with this city's complacent middle class, are things going to change?
I fought the good fight against gentrification some years ago ... took on the city bureaucracy, and I don't have to tell you what the end results were. Gentrification is part of the story of why this flood happened, of course. I'd fought over sustainability and a vision for the city beyond the rich core (once again, it's the poor people in the ignored outer sectors who are being bailed out of the roofs of their apartment complexes), over greenery and trees and a good quality of life -- and you can imagine what kind of resistance that fight met from the city. It left me, some years ago, completely hopeless about the future of this city, its ruling elite, who don't give a damn at all. They don't even today, not even after this near-Katrina, because to them this is all just natural, it is the unchangeable course of things.
A day later, the rain finally stopped:
The city is well on its way to "recovery." By Monday of next week, perhaps many people will begin to forget the trauma, return to their "normal" lives. The mayor will be a hero. But if there had been any substantial rain after Sunday night, we would be talking about the greatest disaster in U.S. history, because the dams would have broken. Many thousands dead, perhaps the refineries and petrochemical industries destroyed, downtown unusable. So everything you've been seeing since Sunday is actually the best-case scenario ...

American conservatives, who claim to be hostile to big government (except when their constituents urgently need it) and also claim to be skeptical about manmade climate change and its effects (except when they go to work for big corporations, which must confront the bottom line), find themselves in an especially awkward position after a disaster of this magnitude. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for such bottomless, shameless cynicism, needless to say.

Last week right-wing Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz and the members of the House Freedom Caucus were eager to strip hundreds of millions of dollars from the FEMA budget to make a down payment on Trump’s border wall, quite possibly the biggest and most wasteful government boondoggle of all time. A week of rain, and their opposition to large-scale federal intervention in state or local affairs has melted away. Of course none of those people will acknowledge the scientific consensus that climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent (and perhaps more severe), but at least they are likely to shut up about that issue for a while.

American liberals are not one-tenth as cynical, and pretty much all agree that climate change is a global emergency that requires immediate action — even if they don’t know what that would look like, and keep hoping somebody else will figure it out. But they also fall prey to their own version of “Road to Nowhere” magical thinking, in which the complex history of an event like Hurricane Harvey is massaged or elided, and we stride confidently into the future with only the foggiest sense of how we got here.

It’s a lot easier to say that Harvey was caused or amplified by global warming — which is no doubt partly true — and was therefore the Republicans’ fault, than to talk about the multiple overlapping ways in which the entire American economic system, and the policies of both political parties, brought us to this point. As Shivani mentions, Houston is a vast landscape of unregulated free-market sprawl, made possible by unrestricted development, widespread gentrification and a “pro-business” climate in which zoning and environmental regulations are lax or nonexistent. To employ a buzzword of the moment, it is perhaps the ultimate neoliberal city, and to pretend that Democrats in Houston or Austin or Washington did anything significant to resist that — did not, in fact, encourage it and embrace it — is laughable.

Clearly the problem here is much larger than one city in Texas and one big storm, although if we shift focus too readily we are in danger of deliberately ignoring the lessons they have taught us (or at least should have). There’s an obvious corollary, at least to me, in the continuing anger, shock and bewilderment among the many American liberals who had already popped the corks on the First Female President™ Champagne, long before last November, and now find themselves in this joke of an alternate universe from a second-rate Syfy Channel series. Such responses are understandable: I come to work every day as an editor at Salon and am amazed all over again at our wildly improbable national predicament.

But the thing is, even if the outcome of the 2016 election was in some ways an evil fluke — and yeah, even if Russian spycraft played a role, to some perhaps-never-definable extent — President Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. He has a history, and represents the culmination of trends in American political and cultural life that go back at least half a century. (In a true historical analysis, it’s a lot longer than that.) If Trump’s simultaneously sinister and incompetent presidency has, in practice, become a hair-raising daily game of “Can You Top This?”, the fact that somebody like him — a massively unqualified celebrity demagogue who appeals to America’s worst instincts — was elected president is not all that surprising.

A family friend who is a retired university professor and a highly engaged citizen recently asked me over dinner what I thought the odds were that Trump would be impeached within the next six months. When I replied that the odds of that were zero, he was greatly displeased: What sort of country is this, he suggested, if reasonable people, no matter what their partisan affiliation or political beliefs, can’t agree that this guy is a national disgrace and unfit for the office he holds?

Arguably my friend had gotten to the real question, which David Byrne, poet laureate of mid-late-century confusion, also asked in the ’80s — How did we get here? — by way of the magical-thinking nonsense question. I know it sounds like I’m about to dive one more time into the left-liberal dispute over the nature and meaning of the Russia scandal, which has become a coded version of the BernieBro vs. Hillarybot faction fight for the Democratic Party’s future. It’s an ever-popular topic here at Salon! But seriously, that’s not the point.

I have made clear that I think it’s too simplistic to focus on the Trump campaign’s multiple and mysterious Russian connections, and the alleged Russian hacking of one or both political parties, as the dominant or decisive factor in what happened last November. It feels like a way of denying that Trump’s election really happened or that it means anything: It was inflicted on us from outside by a malicious deus ex machina, and does not reflect an internal political and cultural crisis of enormous dimensions. (Not to mention that it’s pretty rich for Americans to complain about foreign powers subverting democracy.) If congressional Republicans suddenly rediscover their moral and ethical compasses and fling Trump overboard, as my friend would have it, the problem is solved.

But I also believe it’s too simplistic to reduce our understanding of Hurricane Trump (or Hurricane Harvey) to a political or ideological dispute, as seductive and as seemingly crucial as those may be. If we’re being honest, both political parties are in big trouble, and neither one is presenting anything close to a unifying vision of the American future. While the struggle between moderates and leftists in the Democratic Party makes for compelling theater, and the Republican Party’s internal struggle with the last vestiges of its dying soul is more like a Dostoyevsky novel, I can’t imagine either of those entities emerging renewed, vigorous and dominant.

What’s really going on here, I suspect, is something more fundamental than ordinary political warfare, and less easy to grasp: Trump is the natural and perhaps unavoidable consequence of American culture’s steep decline. We are hitting the outer limits of our myth of national greatness, and the unbridled optimism that for so long made us the wonder of the world (which always contained a current of falsehood) has begun to feed on itself. One result is a national culture of assumed innocence and willful ignorance — of moral and intellectual laziness — that leads us all too easily to one-size-fits-all explanations that demand faith rather than evidence.

The storm that swamped America last fall and the storm that swamped southeast Texas last week were overdetermined events, shaped by many different contingent and sometimes incompatible factors. It is no doubt true that Republican climate denialism enabled the disaster in Houston, and it may be true that Vladimir Putin’s scheming helped elect Trump. But neither of those things is a remotely adequate explanation in itself; those are patterns, of greater or lesser importance, woven into a larger tapestry whose full dimensions none of us will be able to see for years.

Again, it isn’t just that those two examples involve American liberals avoiding a hard look in the mirror, although that’s another thread in the tapestry. None of the narratives put forward to explain Trump’s electoral victory can come close to doing so in isolation. It wasn’t about the “economic anxiety” of the white working class or about an unexplained epidemic of racist paranoia; Trump got almost exactly the same number of votes as Mitt Romney did in 2012. It wasn’t about Jill Stein and Gary Johnson; third-party renegades and their voters are nothing new.

What happened cannot entirely be blamed on the compromised Democratic Party and its uninspiring candidate, although those were surely salient factors. After all, by normative global standards Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election easily, but fell afoul yet again of the curse apparently placed on her in childhood. (Recall that she also got more votes than Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries, and lost then too.) To claim that Bernie Sanders would definitely have beaten Trump, based entirely on hypothetical polling scenarios, is every bit as fanciful as blaming the whole fiasco on Putin’s hackers or Jim Comey’s letter or the voter-suppression tactics deployed in Detroit and Milwaukee.

It took all those things working in concert to make President Trump a reality, just as a complicated vortex of atmospheric, oceanic and climatic factors must come together to create a storm like Harvey. It might be true, in some thought-experiment way, that if you could change even one of the aforementioned factors you would end up with a different result. But we can’t, because we don't have a time machine or an alternate-reality engine, and we now live in the country that made Trump possible, and by making him possible made him irresistible. If we can’t confront the reality of that country, and how it got the way it is, with some degree of honesty and humility -- instead of trying to wish it away -- we will never escape the road to nowhere.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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