Pulitzer winner Chris Hedges: Donald Trump "is the product of a failed democracy"

Acclaimed progressive journalist on Trump's mastery of political theater, and the downfall of American democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 23, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Chris Hedges (AP/Salon)
Donald Trump; Chris Hedges (AP/Salon)

The United States, by many measures, appears to be a sick society. It has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality in the world. Despite being one of the richest countries on the planet it has some of the highest rates of infant mortality. Poverty among the elderly is also increasing. As a whole, the country's health care system is inadequate; life expectancy is declining. The United States has the highest rate of mass murder by gun in the world and the highest rate of incarceration.

American infrastructure is failing. There is a deep crisis of faith in the country's political and social institutions. The environment is being despoiled by large corporations who increasingly act with impunity. Loneliness and suicide are at epidemic levels. Consumerism has supplanted democracy and meaningful engaged citizenship. White hate groups and other right-wing domestic terrorist organizations have killed and injured hundreds of people during the last few decades. America's elites are wholly out of touch with the people and largely indifferent to their demands.

Donald Trump is the president of a broken country, but he did not create this cultural sickness and pathology. While Donald Trump embodies almost all of America's problems in human form, in reality he is a symptom of our illness, not the cause.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges spent several years embedding himself in different communities across the United States investigating our social and cultural disease. In his new "America: The Farewell Tour," Hedges explores what went so wrong with American society over the last few decades that an authoritarian like Trump would be voted into office by tens of millions of the country's citizens.

Can America be salvaged? Is the American experiment in democracy over? How did an unholy union of Christian fascism and unchecked corporate power combine to destroy the American dream and gut the commons? Are the American people fighting back to reclaim democracy and a healthier society?

In addition to his new book, Hedges is the author of numerous award winning and bestselling works including "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," "Death of a Liberal Class," "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt."

Hedges has also written for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is currently a contributing writer for the political commentary and news analysis website Truthdig.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version can be heard on my podcast.

Donald Trump has been president for almost two years. At this point are things better or worse or as expected?

The situation is worse. Donald Trump was always a pretty frightening and repugnant figure. But even I wouldn't have predicted that he was this bad. He and this situation are completely unhinged. By virtue of every benchmark of a functioning democracy -- including the debasing of the political discourse in the United States -- Donald Trump has really accelerated the decay. This includes things such as the tax cut for the rich, deregulating the coal and the fossil fuel industry, opening up public lands for exploitation, the assault against public education, dismantling the EPA and stacking the courts with ideologues from the Federalist Society. As a whole the situation with Trump is pretty grim.

The emergence of Donald Trump and the forces he represents should not be a surprise. This crisis was decades in the making. Yet the American corporate news media still keeps treating Trumpism as some type of surprise. Most in the news media are still unwilling to tell the truth about Trump and the Republican Party represent.

It is many decades in the making. I think the problem with the press is that they're driven by the same motive that drives Trump which is to make money. And Trump is part of the sick entertainment which has replaced the news. Consider all of the stuff about Stormy Daniels or her lawyer for example. It isn't news. It's court gossip. It is entertainment. It feeds corporate coffers.

So CNN made more money last year than they've ever made. A billion dollars. It is good for profits. It is good for ratings. But it's not journalism. And it's really a mask for self-interest. Look at the types of people who are brought on these cable news programs. It is a veneration of the elite. It's the established politicians. It is the generals or the ex-generals who now work for Raytheon or other defense multinational corporations. It's the intelligence chiefs. The former head of the CIA, John Brennan, is now a paid contributor on MSNBC. These approved voices are the established apologists who carried out the corporate coup d'état in America who are still chattering away. What happened with Trump is a surprise to them because they don't actually live in the United States. They live in a country which a writer for the New Yorker called "Richistan." These elites are completely unplugged from the effects of what they have done to the country and world through neoliberalism and the resulting deindustrialization.

They don't understand the attendant rage that this dislocation within the economy and broader American society has caused, especially within the working class.

You have a Democratic Party running around talking about James Comey or the Podesta emails or WikiLeaks or Russia without addressing the core issue, which is the orchestration of incredible social inequality -- which the Democrats were part of and thus don't address. The longer the Democrats follow this track of believing that Trump will implode and attempting to blame his election on Russian interference, the more dangerous the situation becomes. The Democrats are demonizing outside forces such as Russia without addressing the core issue which has created this largest transference of wealth upwards in American history and a corporate oligarchic elite which at this point is worse than even the Gilded Age.

What role does entertainment and spectacle play in all this?

Political elections became forms of entertainment. Political figures became celebrities with their own manufactured personalities. Politics was then all about how we are made to feel about a particular candidate -- and we confuse how we are made to feel with political knowledge.

This was done long before Trump. So you have NBC, through the TV show "The Apprentice," creating the fictional persona of Trump. He wants to present himself as a billionaire real estate developer in New York but he's really a product of TV.

Donald Trump sees reality through the lens of the TV screen. And in that way he is in touch with the zeitgeist of the American public. He knows how to speak their language. Donald Trump is a president who by most estimates is spending four to five hours a day tweeting in front of a TV set. So, yes, Trump is the symptom, not the disease. He is the product of a failed democracy. Political theorist and philosopher Sheldon Wolin explained this in his book "Democracy Incorporated."

Wolin showed how there are no institutions left in America that are authentically democratic. What exists is the leaching of entertainment into politics. It is the manipulation through the public relations industry as well as a system that's calcified the lockout of third parties or insurgent candidates. Substantive social and political issues are marginalized. Manufacturing consent by the news media and popular culture at large is the norm. Donald Trump knows how to manipulate emotion and to operate in that sphere of mediated reality.

Donald Trump is a master of lifestyle branding and marketing. This allowed him to develop a clear and coherent message. Hillary Clinton had no coherent message. Her narrative and messaging about technocratic, responsible government stewardship was boring. It could not compete with the entertainment spectacle that was Trump and his campaign. Why were the Democrats unable to see this?

Hillary Clinton has a history which makes her hard to brand.  She's the one who along with her husband Bill Clinton "dog-whistled" the rhetoric of the Democratic Party and decided to take the "law and order" issue away from Republicans. The Clintons dismantled whatever diversity the Democratic Party had achieved under Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The power of Obama is that he was kind of an unknown and therefore an empty slate that you could write "hope and change" on. That is a lot harder to do with Hillary Clinton. I would also argue that her campaign was devoid of meaningful policy proposals.

Obama was running around holding rallies saying that the 2016 election was so Hillary "can finish the job." The Democrats branded her as a woman.  This was all so empty. It was junk politics. This is the type of political theater and discourse which created an opening for Donald Trump.

Since the 1990s the Republican Party has also become increasingly authoritarian, right-wing and dangerous. Yet the Democrats kept chasing the Republicans to the right in some misguided effort to capture right-leaning independents. The Democrats ended up in a position where they could not outflank the Republicans.

What happened was that the Democratic Party, courtesy of Bill Clinton, became the Republican Party and this pushed the Republican Party so far to the right they became insane. It wasn't just Trump.

I keep hoping that there will be a reckoning in America and some accountability for the forces that installed Trump and the Republicans in office. But as a student of history I don't see it really happening.

I'd like to think there will be a reckoning. But reality has proven otherwise. As somebody who spoke out against the Iraq war, all of us who were correct got pushed out of the political mainstream. All the people who cheered on that war -- Bush's useful idiots like Thomas Friedman -- they're still there. In a way it doesn't matter that they were wrong because they did precisely what they're supposed to do -- discredit their leftist critics.  I'm kind of stunned at how it doesn't matter how many times these people are wrong. The next day they are still there in your face.

What do you think of this whole controversy about the "deep state," which has come to the forefront in the age of Trump and the Russia Scandal. There is clearly a continuity of policy across administrations, but that's not the same as the conspiracy that Trump and his defenders have claimed.

There's just complete continuity on all of the major issues from one administration to the next. The expansion of imperial wars, the assault on civil liberties, the bailing out and coddling of Wall Street, mass incarceration, unemployment as well as underemployment.  The difference between the Democrats and Republicans is that Democratic elites don't want to be identified as racists. But on the core economic, political and imperial issues there is no difference. Do not forget that there were also high-profile establishment Republicans such as the Bushes who voted for Clinton too. This is all an example of what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences" between the Democrats and Republicans.

Another dimension to this crisis is that Donald Trump does not exist. He's a caricature, a projection. He's quite literally a signifier. Why were so many millions of Americans compelled to him? Are they not equipped to understand this part of celebrity culture? Is this postmodernism run amok, where people think that reality TV is real?

You are exactly right. Trump does not exist. These are fictional creations and personas. And yet because these fictional creations are so convincing and disseminated nonstop through electronic devices, in many ways they're more real to us than the people who live next door. We build our emotional relationships with these fictional personas, and this leaks into the news because it thrives on celebrity gossip. News has become a mini-drama with a star and a villain and a supporting cast.

With Trump, for example, even though you have these figures who are flesh-and-blood human beings they are cartoons in how they present themselves. Unfortunately, this is a cultural problem that we see with how people create narratives around fictionalized versions of their own lives on Facebook and other social media too.

Trump has spawned a whole subgenre of writing about the denizens of "Trumplandia" as I describe them. It is easy to write stories about white rubes in rural areas who were somehow duped into voting for Trump. Where are the stories about rich white folks in Chicago, Greenwich and New York who voted for Trump? Your book attempts to disrupt the dominant narrative about Donald Trump and this moment. What did you learn?

The mainstream corporate news media looks at Trump voters like they are zoological specimens. My new book looks at the pathologies that arise in a decayed culture which led to this moment.

What we are seeing now in America is how a diseased culture behaves. In my new book I look at examples such as gambling, BDSM groups in San Francisco, "preppers" and survivalists and white hate groups. The latter are important because hate groups are always a product of a diseased society. I also went to deindustrialized parts of the country. I was in Anderson, Indiana, with all of these old UAW workers.

Bill Clinton passes NAFTA and by 2006, the GM plants in Anderson have all been leveled. Literally there are empty spaces because the factories have moved to Monterrey, Mexico, where they're paying workers $3 an hour without benefits. So these union jobs where you could make $25 or $30 an hour with a pension plan, where you could buy a house and live on a single income and send your kids to college, have all but vanished. This loss has created economic hardship and all the community social problems which come with it.

And these former workers in Anderson? Most of them voted for Bernie Sanders. But when the general election came around they voted for Trump. There was just too much tying Hillary Clinton to decisions such as NAFTA which destroyed their lives. I think that writing off Trump's supporters as irredeemable racists -- although some, maybe even many of them are -- is counterproductive. This is a class issue. If you walk in any Walmart and say, we're here to organize for $15 or $20 an hour you will have people of various political persuasions sign up for it. We have to get back to an understanding of class, oligarchy and class warfare.

It is important to also emphasize that we should never countenance or support any kind of xenophobia, racism, homophobia or anything else. But the dividing line has to be class. It can't be centered on these particular cultural issues, because that, in essence, keeps the economic underclass pitted against each other, which is just what the oligarchs want.

We need to develop a more sophisticated way of talking about the connections between race and class in America.

Race and class are intimately connected. In America it has traditionally been African-Americans who were always on the lowest level of the class hierarchy.  So if you go back and look at the auto plants in Detroit, black Americans were the last hired, first fired, and they always got the worst jobs, the most dangerous jobs, the most poorly paid jobs.

But we've dropped the whole language of class and one of my frustrations with "identity politics" is that there is a Democratic Party that speaks in terms of inclusivity and multiculturalism, with Obama for example, but he was a black face managing the empire. It was not about empowering poor African-Americans. This plays into the hands of the right wing and the people around Trump because they know the Democrats pretend to be watching out for people of color and women when of course they're not. Since 2008,, the segment of the American population that's been hardest hit financially is African-Americans not white workers or anyone else.

For three-quarters of African-Americans in this country life is worse than when King marched in Selma. The black elite got co-opted. What John Lewis did during the Civil Rights Movement is heroic and important. But John Lewis is a very different figure today out there stomping around for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment.

What is the role of loneliness in this decaying American society?

Loneliness is central to this American sickness. Social atomization is by design in a consumer society. A lack of self-worth is how you sell people brands and experiences.

Infinite loneliness can never be satisfied. You have to always consume. Capitalism and consumerism are based on futility. A person can never satisfy their needs for new products and experiences.

If you don't have community and if you are lonely you are far more susceptible to being preyed upon by these corporate forces. One of the problems we get with the internet generation is that people spend so much time in front of screens, but in the end they're alone. And that's just where the corporate state wants you to be. We're only going to rebuild resistance movements by forging authentic relationships and that's face to face, person in person. That is the only way real relationships can be forged.

What would a project of democratic renewal look like in America?

It would look a lot like Standing Rock. There you had a local indigenous leadership which had a spiritual element. I think that's important. They were grounded. They knew who they were. They were in touch with where they came from. And they carried out sustained acts of nonviolent civil disobedience together. And of course we saw the state -- and remember this was under Obama -- react with almost unprecedented ferocity: Seven hundred arrests, using attack dogs to go after the crowd, water cannons laced with pepper spray, beatings, constant infiltration and surveillance.

When there is that kind of reaction, you know the resistance and protests are effective. You can determine how effective you are by how the state responds. They don't care about the Women's March. It doesn't threaten them. It’s things like Occupy. The heroic resistance that took place in Ferguson [Missouri]. That is where we have to go. We're never going to win if we're not connected with those around us. If we are just individuals they pick us off one by one. We need collective movements.

America is a superficial democracy where elites are largely unresponsive to the wishes and desires of the people. Traditional protests such as the Women's March, for example, are not going to impact policy. America's ruling elites see that type of political activity as a safety valve of sorts, empty symbolism.

We've got to make them afraid. And that's what Standing Rock did because they blocked the pipeline. As you point out, America's elites, elected officials too, are almost wholly unresponsive to what the mass of the American people want. We're utterly irrelevant. They don't care what we want. They don't even care what we do unless we find ways to threaten them. And that's what we have to do. We have to find ways like what we saw with the non-cooperation tactics against the apartheid regime in South Africa. We have to find ways to disrupt the mechanisms of corporate power. I was in Washington with the Women's March. It was like a day off from school. What kind of tipped it for me was finding out that [former Democratic Party head] Debbie Wasserman Schultz was speaking there.

What are you most hopeful for this moment? What are you most afraid of?

I’m most afraid of climate change. The clock is ticking. We have very little time left. Once we go over two degrees Celsius increase in global temperature we could very well go into a kind of feedback loop where it doesn't matter what we do, it's over. Climate scientists would agree. And of course, a system breakdown like that will  spur on the ultimate imposition of a dystopian corporate totalitarian system that's already set to go.

What I'm most hopeful about is that more people are not buying into this ridiculous neoliberal ideology. It is an ideology used to justify corporate and oligarchic greed.

The elites have no internal or external constraints. So they will continue to extract one more pound of flesh. But eventually they're going to get blowback, and I just hope it comes sooner rather than later.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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.

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