The United States is sick with income and other forms of social inequality. It suffers from cruelty, loneliness, greed, gangster capitalism, white supremacy, violence, sexism and a culture of ignorance and distraction. Our broken political system does not encourage critical thinking or nurture a capacity for responsible, engaged citizenship.
President Donald Trump is the human embodiment of almost everything wrong with American society. He is both the symptom and the disease.
Trump and the Republican Party’s fascist movement and its news media and supporters are America’s problems given life as social and political chaos and destruction on a massive scale. Even reality and the truth have not been spared this assault.
In this conversation, philosopher, journalist and cultural critic Chris Hedges warns that impeaching Donald Trump will not save American democracy from these problems.
Hedges 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." His new book is "America: The Farewell Tour."
Hedges has also written for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is currently a contributing writer for the site Truthdig.
In this wide-ranging conversation Hedges also explains how Trumpism, right-wing evangelical Christianity and white supremacist groups are the types of death cults that dying empires inevitably produce. Hedges also discusses the impeachment of President Trump and the 2020 campaign, warning that he sees Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a Republican-lite who cannot be trusted to create substantive social and political reform in America because she is beholden to corporations and the rich.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to my full conversation with Chris Hedges through the player embedded below.
With the Ukraine scandal, the Mueller report and Trump's impeachment, we see a story about a corrupt criminal class in America. The superficial narrative focuses in on the facts of what Trump has done but there is little discussion of the broader context. What do those facts reveal about America’s leadership class, the myth of meritocracy and other cultural fables?
In America we make up laws to arrest poor people, whereas people who carry out massive fraud are not punished. This is not just the Republicans who are responsible for this. The Democratic Party is guilty too. Look at the Clintons. They are all dirty. Barack Obama is now running around making bucketloads of cash.
The tax code is a great example of a huge moral hazard wherein elites write the laws to benefit themselves. America’s tax code really is a form of legal theft for the rich and corporations.
The Democrats and the Republicans have fallen all over themselves to give corporations and the oligarchs every tax cut they ever wanted. Fortune 500 companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America paid no taxes. Amazon has actually received tax rebates. The rewriting of the tax code has been designed with the goal of essentially extracting income from the working class while allowing the oligarchical elites to pay minimal or no taxes.
One should not forget that under Eisenhower the highest income earners in terms of corporations and individuals were paying a marginal tax rate of 91% — and Eisenhower was a Republican. These are incredibly important structural issues that are ignored because of a focus on the reality-show spectacle that is the Trump presidency. In America we have personalized all our problems in the figure of Trump. In fact, impeaching Donald Trump without addressing those other issues is just going to make things worse.
I'm not against the impeachment. Donald Trump should have been impeached the first week of his presidency under the emoluments clause. But again, the Democrats have failed for several years now to stand up for the rule of law, never mind the Republican Party’s complicity with Trump. But now the only time the Democrats respond to Trump’s lawlessness and innumerable impeachable offenses is when Trump goes after Joe Biden.
When Trump and his Republican Party go after Biden, the anointed candidate of the donor class, then they respond with impeachment. The Democratic Party’s leaders would not respond before because it wasn't politically expedient. Impeachment is not going to be the panacea that many among the liberal political class thinks it's going to be because the underlying structural decay in American society remains unaddressed.
The mainstream corporate news media, after three years, has finally discovered that Donald Trump is a fascist, a white supremacist, and in general a corrupt authoritarian. Opinion leaders and other members of the commentariat will use that language for a week or so and then they are on to the next controversy of the day or week. They go 10 percent to the truth and then stop.
That is true of climate change as well. The liberal democratic establishment will use the language of “renewable energy” and the “Green New Deal” but they do not do anything substantive. That language is a product of the corporate burlesque. It is all part of the vaudeville act. The liberal democratic establishment is very good at telling people what they want to hear.
How would you explain to the average American the real function being fulfilled by the Democratic presidential primary “debates”?
First of all, these are not debates. They are choreographed events with questions that are chosen by a corporate-controlled media. The candidates are also not given enough time to answer. Watch how the candidates are constantly being interrupted and cut off. How long do the potential Democratic presidential candidates have? Two minutes? It is like a big "Jeopardy" episode about who can have the cleverest soundbites, but there is no substantial discussion of the issues because the structure of these so-called debates never gives time for it. The responses to questions in these Democratic debates are really just amplified Twitter responses.
How do you make sense of the way a guaranteed minimum income and wealth inequality are now being discussed by Democratic candidates, and of course rebutted by Republicans? It seems almost comical to see such discussions on TV networks owned by multinational corporations.
Guaranteed minimum income is another trick because the oligarchs are fully aware that the suppression of wages, and chronic underemployment and unemployment, means that a guaranteed minimum income will probably be necessary. This is especially true for the plutocrats and mega-corporations such as Amazon, which depend on consumer income.
We must be careful of the guaranteed minimum income, especially when it is advocated for by the likes of people such as [Facebook co-founder] Chris Hughes and others. Unless this society addresses the unchecked predatory nature of corporate capitalism, giving somebody $800 or so a month is just going back into the pockets of the very rich.
Who does the corporate oligarchy want? Will the plutocrats and other members of the one percent eventually turn on Donald Trump?
They find Trump highly embarrassing, vulgar, inept, imbecilic and all the other horrible things that he is. The thing about the oligarchic class is that they never have enough, they only know one word, which is “more.” The oligarchs turned on Obama who gave them everything but chided them mildly with rhetoric and they couldn’t even handle that mild criticism.
There was a recent interview with unnamed members of the Democratic Party’s donor class who said that if Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee they will support Donald Trump. Trump has given the oligarchs and the military and national security establishment everything they want, such as slashing taxes, slashing regulations, opening up public lands to fossil fuels, stacking the courts with these ideologues who come out of the Federalist Society.
Those elites go with Trump. Look back at the Weimar Republic and Germany. I'm not saying that Donald Trump is a Nazi. But the big industrialists found the Nazi Party, not surprisingly, as vulgar and embarrassing as the big industrialists and capitalists in the United States find Trump. There was a strong communist and socialist movement in Germany which stood against Hitler. The alternative, which meant regulation or control of rapacious capitalism, led German industrialists and capitalists to build alliances with the Nazi Party.
The capitalist class will do the same in America if they cannot get their preferred candidate, which is Joe Biden or one of the other neoliberal candidates in the Democratic Party.
I am sure you have personally heard or read some version of the following: “I really like Bernie or Warren, but they won't win. I have to support Biden or one of the other more electable candidates to stop Donald Trump.” What is your response?
That analysis is incorrect. Remember that Donald Trump is a con artist. But the only two people who were speaking in 2016 to the realities of what it means to be working class in America were Sanders and Trump.
I believe that Donald Trump can easily beat Joe Biden, because Biden is complicit in Democratic Party policies that sold out the working class. Hillary Clinton is complicit in the same way. I do not accept the claim that Warren or Sanders are somehow not electable. The corporate class and the Democratic Party’s big donors have made it clear that if Warren or Sanders are the candidate, they will do everything they can destroy them. In that sense, the corporate and donor class may succeed because they can control the messaging and subsequent influence of the news media.
The corporate news media such as the New York Times will go to war against Sanders or Warren and by doing so become a kind of de facto ally of Trump.
And for the record, I do not trust Warren completely.
What are your concerns about Elizabeth Warren?
Bernie Sanders has been consistent. Of course, there are issues. Bernie made a pact with the devil in the form of the Democratic Party so that he would get seniority. He has also obstructed third-party movements in Vermont. Sanders has also been tone-deaf on questions of race. Sanders is also pretty bad on Israel and Palestine.
However, Sanders has consistently stood with the working class. Elizabeth Warren has not. Warren started out as a Republican. Warren took lots of corporate money in order to get to the Senate. She then built a war chest of corporate money and then said she wasn't going to take corporate money.
Is Donald Trump’s presidency and what it reveals about America playing out as you expected?
The empire is disintegrating. Nothing surprises me in that regard. The only thing that surprises me is how low Donald Trump can sink. There is also a pretty strong argument to make that Trump is becoming completely unhinged mentally.
Why do Trump’s followers love him so much?
Demagogues give voice to what are dark, unacceptable feelings in most of normal society. Those feelings are directed towards the vulnerable. Demagogues give a kind of license not only to taunt and make fun of the vulnerable but to even go so far as to carry out physical attacks against them. As Donald Trump becomes more and more cornered, this will become more and more common.
My biggest fear is that Trump’s movement will engage in actual, literal political assassinations. I believe that outcome to be inevitable. For example, Trump’s loyalist Cesar Sayoc would have likely killed the entire Democratic Party leadership had those pipe bombs gone off. The more pressure Trump feels, the more he's going to greenlight violence.
Theorists of revolution have pointed out that such outcomes occur when a people feel that its expectations for themselves and for their children have been thwarted. That is exactly what has happened to the white working class. Of course, it is harder to fool black people. James Baldwin had a genius observation about why black people don't have a midlife crisis. Why? Black people never believed in the American Dream, but white people do. White people wake up when they are 40 or 45 years old and realize there is no place for them. That is why suicides are highest among white middle-aged men. That is also why the vast majority of mass shootings are committed by alienated white men.
Donald Trump is a person who is detached from reality. He is creating his own reality; that is why he chronically lies. But Trump is not alone in creating his own reality. America is built on lies and myths. Most Americans — and this would happen to Trump as well — would be emotionally destroyed if their sacred myths were shattered and the truth forced on to them.
The United States is a country built on genocide and violence and racial exclusion. We are a deeply violent culture. When a people lie to themselves — which is what Americans have done collectively — then you don't know who you are. And when you don't know who you are, then you can't respond rationally, and you can't correct the problems.
That inability to face reality means that in a crisis you cannot respond rationally. And this crisis essentially creates a social environment where people do not look for healthy political leaders. They look for cult leaders, and that's what Donald Trump is. Cult leaders always arise from decayed communities and societies where political and social and economic power has been stripped away.
The yearning for the cult leader, the political strongman, is a sign of an infantilized country and people. In that type of society, the people gravitate to the figure who appears omnipotent and promises a return to a mythical golden age. The leader promises to crush these dark forces, which are embodied in demonized groups and individuals. And the more outrageous the cult leader becomes, the more the cult leader flouts conventions and laws, and in turn the more he gains in popularity. In that way cult leaders are different from political leaders. Cult leaders are immune to the norms of society.
And this is what makes a figure like Donald Trump so dangerous. The people who follow Trump do not care how crude he is. Trump’s followers want him to get more power because they look to the cult leader as a way of healing their own sense of powerlessness.
Consider the white working class again. They feel utterly betrayed by the Democratic party and the established elites, and they are not wrong to feel that way. All the frustration and rage and economic stagnation that the working class is now experiencing primed them for a cult leader. Somebody who's going to save them. Somebody who is going to solve their problems. Somebody who is more powerful than the forces that are destroying them.
If Trump is forced from office do you think that his cult members will lash out at other people? Or will they destroy themselves?
My last book was called “America: The Farewell Tour.” What pushes people and groups to carry out acts of self-annihilation? In my book there is a chapter on white hate groups which draws on the findings of sociologist Emile Durkheim and his conclusion that those who fervently seek the annihilation of others are driven, at their core, by a desire to annihilate and destroy themselves. There is a similar dynamic with the Christian right. A cult is really about the death instinct. Cult leaders cannot create anything positive. All they can do is destroy. They then sell that destruction as a form of creativity. That is exactly what Donald Trump does. But ultimately the cult and the cult leader end up destroying themselves.