Most Societies Don’t Come Back from the Brink of Collapse. Can America?
Trump Standing on the balcony of the white house
Source: Win McNamee
The more desperate that Trump gets, the more egregious his transgressions become. The latest, as he plummets in the polls, is to call for his opponents to be prosecuted and indicted.
That’s straight out of the authoritarian’s playbook. And it should be a clear sign of what is to come. Are these to be the last 25 days of American democracy?
Trump has long understood that he is unlikely to win the election outright. That the majority of Americans don’t back him — they didn’t the first time around, remember. That’s no mere coincidence: it is the culmination of a trend. The same happened with George W Bush, and it was an ominous sign of things to come. America’s ranked as a flawed democracy precisely because it’s obscure “electoral college” system at this point, a remnant of slavery and segregation, designed to empower wealthy landowners, stands against the wishes of the majority — who want a society more like Canada or Europe than the failed state of Texas.
And so what has developed over the last few months — and the over the last several decades, with the GOP— is what looks like a sophisticated, complex strategy to thwart democracy itself, and steal the election. That’s no overstatement or hyperbole. As I’ve written in the recent past, the elements of this are in plain view — for those who care to look.
Before I discuss this strategy, and how its evolving, though, I want to point something out. Americans don’t quite seem to understand that they are living in a pre-authoritarian society now, and have been for quite some time. When the Supreme Court handed the win to Bush, that was a major, major development in pre-authoritarianism. When Obama — as good a person as he is, he made several major mistakes — bailed out the banks, but not Main St, that too was pre-authoritarianism, propping up failed predatory institutions. When warnings of Trump’s abuses of power to come were dismissed in 2016, that too was pre-authoritarianism, as it was when Hillary got attacked for “but her emails!!” while Trump was busy scapegoating immigrants, refugees, Jews, Muslims, and everyone else who wasn’t a “real” American.
Pre-authoritarianism isn’t just a political phenomenon, though. It’s also a kind of cultural and social current sweeping through a nation. And America’s long been pre-authoritarian in those ways, too. Americans are legendary the world over for their cruelty, indifference, and brutality — all of which are severe blinking-red indicators of pre-authoritarianism. Kids shooting each other up at schools — something which happens nowhere else in the world with such regularity? People having to beg strangers online to pay for basic medicine? Generations crippled by unpayable debt, beginning with “lunch debt,” becoming “student debt,” then turning into “credit card” and “medical debt” — a society of neo-serfs, in other words?
All these things are severe indicators of pre-authoritarianism, and yet they have also become normalised in America to the extent that many Americans don’t understand that living this way, among such severe cruelty and brutality, is deeply, deeply abnormal. An example I often raise is that of Pakistan, a place where you can buy AK-47s at gun markets — but nobody is shooting up schools. America’s problems are cultural and social.
It’s no overstatement to say that America is a nation in profound social and cultural crisis, with cultural and social problems — like school shootings, medical bankruptcy, skyrocketing despair and suicide, mass distrust, a level of vitriol and indifference that’s truly shocking — that exist almost nowhere else in the world. And all those problems are the ones of pre-authoritarian societies: they are what tend to happen just before societies collapse full on into authoritarianism.
So what is their genesis? What made America fall apart socially and culturally — by which I mean become a society in which no one much trusts anyone else, where indifference, despair, and rage are normalized? Like I said: it’s deeply abnormal for a society to feel this way, act this way, think this way, be this way.
America imploded into social and cultural crisis not out of the blue, but for a very simple reason, which predicted just such implosion. Economic collapse. The Soviet Union stagnated for thirty years — and that was enough to cause it to fracture into little nations, many of which are failing authoritarian states today. America’s stagnated for fifty. That’s almost twice as long, half a century where average incomes haven’t really risen.
Meanwhile, the prices of basics have spiralled completely out of control, becoming flatly unaffordable. Education will cost you as much as a house, and so will falling ill. Food and water and utilities cost far, far more than they do in rich or poor societies. Retirement is an impossibility for three generations and counting right about now. These basics have become things that nobody much can afford in America.
The result of this dislocation — incomes stagnating, while prices rose and rose to amounts that the entire rest of the world finds startling and unbelievable, like $50K for childbirth — was that the American middle class finally collapsed. It took about two decades for the middle class to eat through its savings and assets, and finally, for the first time, around 2010, the middle class finally became a minority.
Today, the average American dies in $62,000 of debt. That’s a figure, an idea, that Americans have normalized — isn’t this how everyone lives? — but it is so profoundly abnormal and perverse that to an economist like me it’s like having a patient who can’t breathe and is about to go into cardiac arrest. There is nothing — and I mean nothing — more alarming in the world of social statistics and economic figures than a nation dying in mass debt.
What happens to societies where people die in mass debt? Debts they have never been able to repay? When entire generations fall prey to that failure? They implode into authoritarianism and/or fascism.
That is precisely the story of Weimar Germany, after all. It’s also the story of post-Soviet Russia. And the story of the Islamic world.
Why? What is the connection between a collapsing economy and an imploding society? Trust is. If you can’t make ends meet, no matter how hard you try, you live a life of panic, despair, fatalism, nihilism. You are perpetually angry, a human pistol with a hair trigger, ready to lash out. You have been denied the basics, and with them go peace of mind. And with all that goes trust. You being to grow suspicious of your neighbours, who were once friends. Now everyone is just a rival in a bitter, desperate battle for survival. Tribe turns on tribe, group on group. Atop it all stride elites, grinning, satisfied, because now the masses are too weak to even act for themselves. The bonds between them have been severed — and so no collective action is possible.
A society dies, this way: an economy collapses, and takes trust with it, which produces a political implosion, by way of social disintegration.
That is exactly what happened in America. As the economy collapsed, from 1970 onwards, steadily, slowly, then fast, and finally all at once, collective action stopped being possible at all. Americans by the 2000s distrusted one another so much that they refused to give one another healthcare, retirement, education, and so on. Do you see the irony? That deficit was of the very basics that produced the vicious cycle of implosion, and yet because trust had gone missing from society, collective action to simply give one another the basics was no longer possible.
And that created the opening for a demagogue. Sooner or later, someone was going to come along who blamed already hated minorities for all this. Who scapegoated Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, refugees, immigrants, for the problems of “real” Americans.
And that is exactly what transpired. Trump led a neo-fascist movement to power, and soon kids were in camps, being ripped away from their families, minorities being hunted down in the streets, people being beaten and gassed, women forcibly sterilised in the camps. And there Trump is today, calling for his opponents to be prosecuted and indicted — a classic and predictable authoritarian move, to finalise the seizure of power.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to really understand American collapse, so that you really understand what America is up against in this election. Let me put it bluntly.
For Trump to lose this election — really lose it, not just fail to win a majority but still retain power — America is going to have to commit its first act of collective action in a very, very long time. Its first positive act. Not just a negative one, as in denying everyone else healthcare, education, retirement, and so on — but an affirmative one, as in, we still want to be a democracy.
If that makes you shudder a little bit, then I’ve been successful — because you understand how big the stakes really are.
America isn’t just up against Trump. It is up against history. A toxic political party, a failed set of paradigms, a catastrophic set of ways of thinking about the world. That selfishness and cruelty and brutality — politely disguised as “self-interest” and “self-reliance” and “standing on your own two feet” and even “freedom” — can ever lead a society upwards, towards higher living standards.
Instead, those ideologies, toxic remnants of slavery and segregation, which had never really gone away, led to the following sequence: economic collapse, even for the “real” American, which led to social disintegration, as social bonds were severed, and trust died, which led to predictable and inevitable political implosion, into fascism and demagoguery.
That is all what it means when I say “America was a pre-authoritarian society.” It goes deep, deep into the heart of America’s interlinked crises, economic, social, political, cultural, and is the central thread weaving them together, by way of indifference, despair, and enmity.
This election is America’s last chance. It is a pre-authoritarian society. If Trump wins — and remember, I don’t just mean that he loses the majority, but stays in power, thanks to legal challenges, the Supreme Court, voter intimidation and suppression — if he wins, whatever way he wins, America is finished. The transformation to an authoritarian society, which has been on the cards for decades now, will be complete.
That is why people like me — survivors and scholars of authoritarianism — have been trying to warn you about all these links. Sarah Kendzior has written about the despair in “flyover country,” Peter Daou warned how civil wars erupt, Jason Stanley discussed the evolution of fascism. America’s pundits — the ones you hear, on CNN and in the NYT and whatnot? They have no idea about this. They have been wrong from day one because they have never lived this, experienced it, understood it in a visceral, firsthand way. We have.
Take the warnings seriously.
These could very well be the last 25 days of American democracy. America is up against all its mistakes, who have culminated in one man, Trump, and his movement of fascists, theocrats, flunkies, sycophants, idiots, and militias. It has never taken a majority to topple a democracy — only a fanatical enough minority.
But do you know what it takes to save one?
A majority, who is capable of doing what is has not, for too long. Finally coming together, to resolve to stand up for decency, goodness, humility, truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, grace.
That is what needs to happen in the next 25 days. America needs to grow more in these last three and a half weeks than it has in the last three and a half decades.