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Chris Hedges: Democrats may well lose to Trump again, and Bernie Sanders is "naive"

Veteran lefty journalist: The Democratic Party's no better than Trump, but AOC and Ilhan Omar offer real hope


Chauncey DeVega
March 14, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

America is a country beset by junk politics. This is one of the main reasons Donald Trump is president. Junk politics is many things. It is an obsession with the "horse race" of campaigns and elections, rather than  a substantive discussion of the real issues that affect the lives of the average American and the country as a whole. Junk politics is a form heavily defined by spectacle, distraction, superficiality and novelty. It is not a space for serious, sustained, and in depth discussion of serious matters of public concern. Junk politics is personality-driven and its preferred mode of communication is short slogans and sound bites.

Twitter offers a pre-eminent example of how literacy has been gutted by that platform's arbitrary limit of 280 characters or less. Junk politics is lived through and enabled by the fact that many Americans lack basic civil literacy and have lost faith in the state's ability to protect their basic rights and ensure opportunities for upward economic mobility -- or even basic economic stability. If the American Dream is dead, junk politics struck one of the lethal blows.

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Economic precariousness, societal instability and personal loneliness are byproducts of an American society where junk politics rule. They are also preconditions for how junk politics has thrived in the Age of Trump.

In this wide-ranging conversation, I spoke with Chris Hedges about America's junk politics. He is the author of numerous award winning and bestselling books 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. His newest book is "America: The Farewell Tour."

In our conversation Hedges offered his insights on Michael Cohen's hearing before the House Oversight Committee, and also on the ways the Democratic Party has been compromised by the same moneyed interests as the Republican Party. He also discussed Donald Trump's political cult and whether Trump will leave voluntarily if he is removed from office. We also discussed the role of the Christian right in Trump and the plutocrats' assault on American democracy, the distinctive status of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and whether Bernie Sanders can overcome his "race problem"

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

What was your reaction to Michael Cohen's testimony before Congress and what he revealed about Donald Trump? Did you believe Cohen?

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There is something very interesting about all of these people who go after Trump. Once they're tossed from his orbit they are as morally impoverished as he is. They all come from the same moral swamp that Trump inhabits. They are not trustworthy figures. The people who circle around Trump do so because they have no moral core. Was Cohen telling the truth? Probably. How remorseful was he? I don't really trust any of these people. I do not believe that anyone gets close to Trump if they have any moral consistency. This in turn makes everything they say suspect.

Beyond Cohen's testimony that Trump behaves like a sociopath and is likely a criminal, I found the whole hearing to be an example of how America's "elites" are a corrupt class. They are shameless about rigging the system to their own advantage. The casual disregard Trump, Cohen and the Republican Party have for the rule of law is obvious.

I would say that is also true of the Democrats as well. The difference is that Trump and his administration are just a naked kleptocracy. The Democrats did it with more finesse. The Clintons are con artists and crooks too -- they are just classier versions of it with Ivy League pedigrees.

I think this is the great failing on the part of the Democratic Party. The Democrats do not grasp the very legitimate rage in this country. When you examine the statistics about what happened to the white working class and, of course, African-Americans by the end of the Obama administration, matters were very dire economically. If you are a black person or a brown person you have nowhere else to go in terms of mainstream politics except for the Democratic Party. Donald Trump is mainstreaming the Ku Klux Klan. Nonwhites are trapped in terms of their political options.

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The whole system is a con. It's just not as naked and as crude as it is under the Trump administration. The Democratic Party has not come to terms with the fact that most people have figured this reality out. Trump's power is that he speaks, of course, with great vulgarity. But Trump is also ridiculing the elites that sold working men and women out in this country. I wrote a column a while ago arguing that you have to look at Trump as a cult leader, not as a political figure. So, what you want from a cult leader is very different from what you want from a political leader.

I saw this in the megachurches that I covered when I wrote my book on the Christian right. I spent two years on the book, and the stories of personal despair and dislocation, bankruptcies, struggle with addictions, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and the like were heartbreaking. These unfortunate people were suckered into an evil  and dangerous system. These megachurch pastors function as cult leaders.

The followers want the cult leader to be omnipotent. You want them to be able to break all the rules, because you identify with them to such an extent that their increase in power is an increase of your own power. You believe that that fealty to the cult leader means that you are protected.

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That's what Trump has going for him. I don't think people have quite figured it out. It doesn't really matter how many lists of lies the Washington Post publishes. We cannot look at Donald Trump as though he is a political leader. Trump is a demagogue. Those are different rules. Demagogues have to be fought differently. I am not sure the Democratic Party gets it.

The Democrats cannot defeat Donald Trump unless they accept the fact that he is a cultural force. The Democrats are also wasting time and energy worrying about winning over Trump's voters. These people are members of a political cult. As such, the more the Democrats go after Trump the more Trump's cult members are going to support him.  I am very worried about the type of national mental breakdown or violence that will occur when and if Trump is forced from power. 

Well, Trump's supporters all have weapons. Trump has already incited violence. The financial system is very fragile. We live in a period of relative economic stability, however dispossessed most of the American working class and working poor actually are.

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If the United States falls into another economic meltdown like we did in 2007 and 2008, then there will be a kind of incoherent rage on the part of the white, dispossessed working class. They're all armed, and there will be a rhetorical green-lighting of violence against those people who are made into scapegoats for the decline of the United States.

The homophobia and Islamophobia, overt racism and other vile behavior will become much more pronounced. All cults are personality cults. All cults are really extensions of whoever the cult leader is. So, whatever the prejudices, the worldview and the ideas of the cult leader are they will be chanted back at him by the crowd. Until massive social and economic inequality as well as the betrayal of the country by the elite are confronted and remedied, this yearning for a cult leader will not go away. Desperate people are looking for somebody to save them.

I could have never guessed that Trump would be embraced by the Christian right. This fact exposes the Christian Right for what they primarily are, which is heretics. The Christian Right is also a  political movement that tries to make itself sacred by claiming to be "Christian." But it actually shares the cultish quality that is now being channeled writ large by the Trump administration.

Do the white Christian evangelicals -- the leaders, not the rank-and-file members who have drunk the Kool Aid -- actually believe that Trump is a vessel of God's will? Even by the standards of fundamentalist religion it is all very absurd.

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The belief system of the Christian right is utterly heretical. Jesus didn't come to make us rich. Jesus wouldn't bless the American empire, and the dropping of iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East. Jesus did not exalt the white race above other races. In fact, of course, Jesus was a person of color. The whole thing is heretical, and the failure on the part of the liberal church in the name of tolerance to call these people out has essentially given them a religious legitimacy that I find very frightening. The people who are embraced by this belief system have retreated into magical thinking. It is not rational. Even the Christian right's fine points of doctrine and argument are not rational.

They are selective literalists. They know that one little Biblical passage that they've been fed to buttress or support their ideological worldview, but the Bible itself, they don't know. The problem is that, once you fall into this world of Magical Jesus, then not only rational thought, but science is discredited. Verifiable fact is discredited, and this movement really set the stage or laid the groundwork for Trump.

This belief system all predated Trump. It's been peddled by "Christian" schools, "Christian" broadcasting, "Christian" universities. Patrick Henry Law School, Liberty University, etc. Trump is not the instigator. He clung on to a very dangerous social phenomenon that has been building up over the last three decades. These Christian right-wing fascists have been organizing to take power.

And they now have power with Trump. They are rapidly filling the ideological vacuum created by Trump -- a man who has no real ideology of his own. The Christian right is filling that vacuum. Kavanaugh is the perfect example. The whole reason Kavanaugh was put on the Supreme Court is because they know he would overturn Roe v Wade. Other senior people in Trump's White House such as Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson and others all come out of the Christian right.

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A little-discussed part of the Christian right's war on American democracy is a belief in "prayer warfare." These "prayer warriors" are committed to influencing public policy and American life in general by lying, dissembling, deceiving and otherwise manipulating nonbelievers. They believe that secular laws do not apply to them. This type of radical right-wing Christian fundamentalism now has a beachhead in the American presidency.

That is a very important point. You see Sarah Huckabee Sanders do this every day. Part of this Christian totalitarian mindset is that secular humanists are deemed to be incapable of understanding the "Kingdom of God." Therefore those right-wing Christians who believe this doctrine have convinced themselves that they are permitted to lie to nonbelievers and others in order to do God's work. These members of the Christian right, like Sarah Sanders, are certainly aware that they're lying, but they believe they're morally justified in terms of that lie. By comparison, Donald Trump is just a pathological liar. The hierarchy of the Christian right is calculated in their lying.

America is a "pathocracy." The very rich and other members of the elite -- there is much social psychology and other research which shows this to be true -- are more likely to lie, break the rules, and do other things to rig the system in their interests. They also feel justified in doing so because of social dominance behavior and because the subculture they inhabit normalizes the behavior.

There are gradations, of course, to the rich. But they are bred with a sense of entitlement, they believe that they are above the law. They're devoid of empathy. They're utterly self-absorbed, narcissistic. The wealth among the super-rich, as you point out, encourages behaviors that are pathological -- and now they have uncontested power. They are reconfiguring the society using their power, privilege and wealth to amass more power and to accrue even more wealth.

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The fraternity of the super-rich do not understand the norms of society. There's no restraint. They don't understand limits. And because they're so unplugged from reality, they live in artificial bubbles. This class of people will push and push and push until society collapses -- which is what they're doing. They have to be replaced if we're going to reclaim control over our own lives, and ultimately over how we deal with the environment so that our children can survive.

Why is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez such a reviled and hated figure among conservatives and the right wing -- and many "centrist" Democrats as well? it seems as if the white right has an existential fear of her.

Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is speaking a self-evident truth about our reality. These same people hated Bernie Sanders too. Remember that until Bernie Sanders ran in the primary, nobody spoke about the fundamental causes of massive income and social inequality in the United States. It was just never discussed. Politicians within the Democratic and Republican parties never even mentioned the word "poor." All they ever did was talk about the mythical middle class. So the reason they hate AOC is because the public is not buying the ruling ideology of neoliberalism, an ideology which was always a con anyway.

That ideology really has been shredded across the political spectrum. Nobody's buying it and the elites do not have a counterargument. Ultimately, it is not a matter of AOC being on the left. It is that she is speaking about a reality that the plutocrats and other ruling elites have orchestrated. They don't have anything to say. That's why they hate her so much.

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And what about Ilhan Omar? She is facing a huge amount of vile bigotry and racism. Is her real sin that she deviated outside the narrow limits of approved public discourse about the influence of Israel in America's domestic and foreign policy?

I would say the same thing. I like Rep. Ilhan Omar a lot. Every time she says something, she's amazing. What she says is frank, honest and correct. And, of course, the Democratic Party went after her. I mean, we talk about interference in American elections. Let's talk about Israel. There's no country -- Russia, China or anything else -- that comes close to Israel's interference in the American electoral process. But you can't say it. And she said it. I know about the Israel lobby and I've been a victim of it. But even I was stunned by the evidence we have seen of their power. And of course those people who are attacking Rep. Omar love the fact that she's Muslim and a woman and a person of color because it makes it easier to demonize her.

Why is Bernie Sanders running for president again? Do you think he actually has a chance of winning?

First of all, it is really early. We don't really have politics in America; we have reality TV.  How many candidates are there, 16 or something? Sanders thinks he can win because he did Chuck Schumer's bidding and went around the country telling people to vote for Hillary Clinton. Sanders built a relationship with the Democratic Party and this time around he thinks the party elites won't steal the nomination from him, which they did last time.

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I think that Bernie is mistaken. I think he's very naive. There's no way the Democratic Party will allow him to be the nominee because the Democratic Party is funded by the same retrograde corporate interests that fund the Republican Party.

People like Pelosi and Schumer hold power because they are the conduit of that money to the anointed Democratic candidates. And every once in a while we'll see Ocasio-Cortez or others rise up as insurgents. I don't think that Bernie Sanders is corrupt like most of the other potential candidates. I look at Beto O'Rourke with a great deal of skepticism.

I believe that Bernie Sanders' heart is in the right place. But when he tries to talk about race -- see for example his recent comments about reparations for the enslavement of black Americans -- he has these blinders on where he seems incapable of talking about racial injustice and white racism in a substantive and correct way. 

He's a white liberal. White liberals feel uncomfortable around people of color, especially black people. I would also guess that Bernie probably doesn't have very many close relationships, if any, with African-Americans who didn't go to Harvard Law School. I just think he's completely tone-deaf. I think we saw that early on in his campaign.

Reparations, I would argue, are at their core not really about money. Reparations are about a country coming to terms with and owning its past. I'm talking about the white majority. James Baldwin writes about this. We feed off of a mythology of whiteness and white supremacy, a mythology that is completely mendacious and entails vast historical distortion and historical amnesia. That is very dangerous for any country.

The act of paying reparations is not just about the justice that is owed to African-Americans. Maybe more important, it's about the ability of the United States and its white majority to face who they are, where they came from and what they did. That inability to face that, as Baldwin points out, has allowed them to confuse willful ignorance with innocence, and turn them into monsters. The face of that is Donald Trump.

I look at Bernie and I see the classic white liberal. I live in Princeton, they're all around, but they don't have real relationships with people of color. They might employ them in their homes or do their lawns or they might have a black colleague who has a Ph.D. from Yale. That's why they were so happy with Barack Obama.

I predicted quite early on that Donald Trump would win the White House in 2016. People thought I was crazy. Unfortunately, I was proven correct. A new prediction. Donald Trump is a symptom of a cultural sickness. The Democrats will not defeat Trump because they do not understand the true nature of their enemies. I predict that Donald Trump wins again in 2020, and wins the presidential election by a comfortable margin. Please convince me otherwise.

That is my fear as well. The Democrats' strategy is to play to the margins and by doing so slice away enough of the Trump vote to win. But again, the Democratic Party does not want to sever itself from Wall Street and all that corporate money, because the party hierarchy is the creation of that money and they wouldn't hold power without it. I think that's an extremely dangerous strategy. I think it misreads the angst in American society which has created a figure like Donald Trump.

When he says, "They're out to get me," and, "It's a witch hunt," that resonates with the white working class. Because, remember, the white working class, and again this goes back to the great James Baldwin, actually believe in the American Dream. But black people? they always knew there were two sets of rules, "One for them and one for us." As Baldwin said, "Black men don't have a midlife crisis the way white men do."

White men wake up at 40 and realize, "I'm screwed." And I think that's why most Trump supporters are white and male. I think that's why mass shooters are white and male. I think that the people in these armed hate groups, that's why they're white and male. These are more examples of why Trumpism  has more characteristics of a cult than a political movement.

The only way to break the back of Trumpism, this yearning for fascism -- or a form of Christian fascism -- is to reintegrate these people back into the society by fixing the country's broken economy.


Chauncey DeVega

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.

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