The Myth of American Democracy

The destruction of credible political discourse started long before President Trump

Donald trump staring intently during rally
Gage Skidmore

At the higher elevations of informed American opinion these days, the voices of reason stand united in their fear and loathing of Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul, reality-TV star, forty-fifth president of the United States. Their viewing with alarm is bipartisan and heartfelt, but the dumbfounded question, “How can such things be?” is well behind the times. Trump is undoubtedly a menace, but he isn’t a surprise. His smug and self-satisfied face is the face of the way things are and have been in Washington and Wall Street for the last quarter of a century.

Trump staked his claim to the White House on the proposition that he was “really rich,” embodiment of the divine right of money and therefore free to say and do whatever it took to make America great again. A deus ex machina descending an escalator into the atrium of his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in June 2015, Trump was there to say, and say it plainly, that money is power, and power, ladies and gentlemen, is not self-sacrificing or democratic. The big money cares for nothing other than itself, always has and always will. Name of the game, nature of the beast.

Not the exact words in Trump’s loud and thoughtless mouth, but the gist of the message that over the next seventeen months he shouted to fairground crowd and camera in red states and blue. A fair enough share of his fellow citizens screamed, stamped, and voted in agreement because what he was saying they knew to be true, knew it not as precept borrowed from the collected works of V. I. Lenin or Ralph Lauren but from their own downwardly mobile experience on the losing side of a class war waged over the past forty years by America’s increasingly frightened and selfish rich against its increasingly angry and debt-burdened poor.

Trump didn’t need briefing papers to refine the message. He presented it live and in person, an unscripted and overweight canary flown from its gilded cage, telling it like it is when seen from the perch of the haves looking down on the birdseed of the have-nots. Had he time or patience for looking into books instead of mirrors, he could have sourced his wisdom to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who, in 1933, presented the case for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Not that it would have occurred to Trump to want both, but he might have been glad to know the Supreme Court had excused him from further study under the heading of politics. In the world according to Trump—as it was in the worlds according to Ronald Reagan, George Bush père et fils, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—the concentration of wealth is the good, the true, and the beautiful. Democracy is for losers.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with an attitude and agenda similar to Trump’s—to restore America to its rightful place where “someone can always get rich.” His administration arrived in Washington firm in its resolve to uproot the democratic style of feeling and thought that underwrote FDR’s New Deal. What was billed as the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of a New Morning in America recruited various parties of the dissatisfied right (conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, reactionary, and evangelical) under one flag of abiding and transcendent truth—money ennobles rich people, making them healthy, wealthy, and wise; money corrupts poor people, making them ignorant, lazy, and sick.

Rebranded as neoliberalism in the 1990s, the doctrine of enlightened selfishness has served as the wisdom in political and cultural office ever since Reagan stepped onto the White House stage promising a happy return to an imaginary American past—to the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne, an America once again cowboy hatted and standing tall, risen from the ashes of defeat in Vietnam, cleansed of its Watergate impurities, releasing the free market from the prison of government regulation, going long on the private good, selling short the public good, outspending the Russians on weapons of mass destruction.

For forty years, under administrations Republican and Democrat, the concentrations of wealth and power have systematically shuffled the public land and light and air into a private purse, extended the reach of corporate monopoly, shifted the bulk of the nation’s income to its top-tier fatted calves, let fall into disrepair nearly all the infrastructure—roads, water systems, schools, bridges, hospitals, and power plants—that provides a democratic commonwealth with the ways and means of its mutual enterprise.

The few optimistic voices in the midst of the American commentariat like to think of Trump as a blessing in disguise, one that places the society in sufficiently dire straits to prompt the finding of a phoenix in the ashes, the best chance in two generations to resurrect America’s democratic life force. I like to think the same thought, but I rate the odds of rescue at 6–1 against.

Trump is product of the junk entertainment industry but also product of what Marshall McLuhan recognized nearly half a century ago as an “acoustic world” in which there is “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis…an information environment of which humanity has never had any experience whatever.” McLuhan’s Understanding Media appeared in 1964 with the proposition that new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” We become what we behold, and “the medium is the message.” Shift the means of communication from printed page to enchanted screen, and they establish new rules for what counts as knowledge. The visual order of print sustains a sequence of cause and effect, tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The speed of light spreads stories that run around in circles, eliminate the dimensions of space and time, construct a world in which nothing follows from anything else. Sequence becomes additive instead of causative, “Graphic Man” replaces “Typographic Man,” and images of government become a government of images signifying nothing other than their own transient magnificence. Like the moon acting upon the movement of the tides, the idols of divine celebrity (Ronald Reagan and Madonna, Lady Gaga and Donald Trump) call forth collective surges of emotion that rise and fall with as little inherent meaning as the surf breaking on the beach at Malibu.

The sound bites come and go on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries. What was said last week certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now. The ritual returns as surely as the sun, demanding of the constant viewer little else except devout observance. Pattern recognition becomes applied knowledge; the making of as many as 12,000 connections in the course of a day’s googling and shopping (Miller beer is wet, Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Rolex is not a golf ball), adds to the sum of all ye know or need to know on the yellow brick road to truth and beauty.

Among people who worship the objects of their own invention, technology is the knack of so arranging the world that one need not experience it. Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, Facebook page, designer dress, or politician), the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the naming of things rather than the making of things.

McLuhan regarded the medium of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression of a thought. The constant viewer’s participation in the ever-present promise of paradise regained underwrites what McLuhan described as “the huge educational enterprise we call advertising.” Not the teaching of man’s humanity to man; the processing of exploitable social data by “Madison Avenue’s frogmen of the mind” intent upon retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and desire, ignorance and fear. Madison Avenue’s frogmen have morphed over the past thirty years into Silicon Valley data-mining dwarves equipped with more efficient tools to dig for gold.

Advertising is the voice of money talking to money, a dialect characterized by Toni Morrison in her 1993 Nobel Prize speech as “language that drinks blood…dumb, predatory, and sentimental,” prioritized to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege.” Which is the language in which we do our shopping and our politics. Typographic Man wrote the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address; Graphic Man elects the president of the United States. The media on the campaign trail with Donald Trump weren’t following a train of thought. Like flies to death and honey, they were drawn to the splendour and flash of money, to the romance of crime and the sweet decaying smell of overripe celebrity.

The camera sees but doesn’t think, makes no invidious distinction between a bubble bath in Las Vegas staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath in Palmyra staffed by headless corpses. The return on investment in both instances is the flow of bankable emotion drawn from the anonymous dark pools of human wish and dream. It didn’t matter what Trump said or didn’t say, whether he was cute and pink or headless. He was maybe short on sense and sensibility, but he was long on market share. The prosperous fool sold newspapers, boosted television ratings.

The media pitched Trump’s campaign on the storyline the movie-going American electorate loves beyond all others—knight errant up against the system and the odds, rough justice in the trail-weary saddle riding into town to gun down the corrupt sheriff and rescue the God-fearing settlers, set the crooked straight, distribute a fair share of the loot to the shepherd, the schoolteacher, and the storekeep. The casting of Trump as underdog outlaw hoisted him to the top of the leaderboard with robber barons Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, gunslingers Eastwood and Stallone, Mafia dons Corleone and Soprano. The comic-book hero won the comic-book election.

The camera doesn’t do democracy. Democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard not because they are rich, or beautiful, or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens and therefore worth the knowing what they say and do. The camera isn’t interested in fellow citizens in mud-stained shoes; it prefers polished boots on horseback.

In office as president of the United States, Trump presents himself as signature endorsement of concentrated wealth, a camera-ready product placement promoting money as the hero with a thousand faces, all of them the face of Trump. Trump at the top of every hour on the networks and cable channels, on page one in every morning’s newspaper. Trump overruling the rule of law, under investigation for obstructing justice, withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, firing FBI director James Comey, ordering fifty-seven cruise missiles into Syria, dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan, signing executive orders lifting regulation of the oil, gas, coal, and banking industries, insulting his Canadian and European allies, doing whatever it takes to discredit democratic self-government—to nullify it in theory and dispose of it in practice.

The self-glorifying opposition to Trump is as foolish as the man himself. The “Resistance” composed of outraged sensibilities unable or unwilling to believe that Trump is president of the United States (Hillary Clinton voters and crowd-sourced pussy hats, sit-down protesters and stand-up comics) devotes its efforts to the project of Trump’s impeachment. Impeachment sought on whatever yet-to-be-discovered grounds that can be cultivated to yield political scandal and tabloid entertainment.

Meanwhile, in the White House gilded cage, the unscripted and overweight canary sings his ferocious songs of sixpence, and on all sides of every story, the voices of objection and dissent rise to near hysteria. Trump accuses former president Barack Obama of tapping his telephones, denounces the news media as “the enemy of the people”; the news media accuse Trump of treason, liken him to Mussolini, hear in his furious tweets the sound of Nazi boots marching into Poland.

The consequence is the destruction of a credible political discourse without which democracy cannot exist. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, made the point in his 1838 political essay “The American Democrat.” The vitality of America’s democracy, said Cooper, is the capacity of its citizens to tell the truth, speak, and think without cant.

By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled for expositions of truth; but a sentiment that proves a conviction of the necessity of speaking the truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality…the institutions are converted into stupendous fraud.

The television camera is the world’s leading manufacturer of designed evasions. Under its protection and jurisdiction, democratic self-government becomes representative in the theatrical, not the constitutional, sense of the word. The business at hand is show business, and no performance in recent memory better than the one that elected Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. For eight years, he was near perfect in his lines, sure of hitting his marks on the beaches of Omaha and Malibu, snapping a sunny salute to a Girl Scout cookie or a nuclear submarine. Facts didn’t matter because, as he was apt to say, “facts are stupid things.” What mattered was the Gipper’s golden album of red, white, and blue sentiment instilling consumer confidence in the virtuous virtual reality of an America that wasn’t there. The cameras loved him; so did the voters.

The cameras also loved Bill Clinton, who conducted his presidency as a television talk show starring himself as both big-hearted celebrity host and shamefaced celebrity guest. He was admired not only for the ease with which he told smiling and welcome lies but also for his capacity to bear insult and humiliation with the imperturbable calm of a piñata spilling forth presidential largesse as corporate subsidy and tabloid scandal. For Clinton as for Reagan, the difference between what is and what is not was simply a matter of what was in or out of the camera shot. They were elected, as were the presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, to hearten and amuse the country, not to govern it. To show that Justice Brandeis had it wrong, that the true meaning of American exceptionalism is the not having to choose between democracy and concentrated wealth.

America’s democracy was founded on the meaning and value of words. Like the television camera and the big money, the internet has no use for the meaning and value of words. It is blessed with many undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Convinced that technology is the salvation of the human race, increasingly over the last fifty years, we’ve learned to live in a world in which it is the thing that thinks and the human being who is reduced to the state of a thing.

We have machines to scan the flesh and track the heart, cue the GPS and ATM, arrange the trades for Goldman Sachs and Tinder, manufacture the content of our news and social media. The machines collect and store the dots but connect them to nobody but themselves. Technology neither knows nor cares to know who or what or where is the human race. Why or if it is something to be deleted, sodomized, or saved. Siri and Watson can access libraries of Harvard, Yale, and Congress, but not knowing what the words mean, the bots don’t read the books, can’t hack in to the vast store of human consciousness—history, art, literature, religion, philosophy, poetry, and myth that is the making of ourselves as once and future human beings.

The strength of language doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out; “word work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm in 1993, “is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality—”So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Our technologies produce wonder-working weapons and information systems, but they don’t know at whom or at what they point the digital enhancements. Unless we find words with which to place machines in the protective custody of languages that hold a common store of human energy and mind, we surely will succeed in murdering ourselves with our shiny, new windup toys.

From Lewis Lapham’s keynote address at The Walrus LIVE, Thursday, June 14, 2018.

Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham is the founder and editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s Magazine.