Whenever I contemplate the tragedy and indeed the absurdity of American presidential elections over the past three decades, my mind often turns to the American South, our nation’s most tragic region. Traveling through Dixie in the late 1920s, a journalist once noted: “Down in Dixie they tell you and always with cheerful pride that the South is the new frontier…There is a feel in the air: Big tomorrows seem to be coming around the corner.” Unfortunately for the South, that particular “big tomorrow” turned out to be the Great Depression.
History suggests that the United States has had few honest presidents. Arguably Calvin Coolidge and Jimmy Carter may have been among them. However, Carter was so politically naïve, and surrounded himself with people who were clearly in over their heads, that it was hard to tell. One thing is for sure, our next five presidents were not among them. Without exception they were all world class snake oil salesmen peddling the myth that “big tomorrows were just around the corner.” And a myth it was, for which we have paid dearly.
While trading heavily on the image of America as the “shining city on the hill” and pretending to be a decentralist, Ronald Reagan may have contributed more to the massive concentration of power in Washington than any other president. His multi-trillion-dollar military buildup resulted in one of the largest government bureaucracies in history. He never encountered a high-tech weapon system he did not wish to buy – and the more expensive the better. Some of his large-scale, high-tech ventures included the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, the stealth bomber, the Trident II submarine, and most importantly, the Strategic Missile Defense System. Just as the Egyptian pharaohs had their pyramids and the Turkish sultans their mosques, so too did Reagan have his Star Wars. Whether or not it would ever work didn’t seem to be particularly important.
Reagan was correct when he accused the Soviet Union of being an “evil empire.” What he overlooked was the fact that it was not the only evil empire in the world. Virtually everything he ever accused the Soviets of back in the 1980s we were guilty of in spades.
The cold war ended not because Reagan outspent Gorbachev, as conservatives would like to have us believe, but because the cold war didn’t pay anymore. We had become much more nearly like our old nemesis than most Americans were willing to acknowledge.
One promise which Reagan surely kept was that America would remain a country in which people could still get rich. His decision to fire the PATCO workers in 1981 triggered a race to the bottom in terms of wages, fringe benefits, labor-management relations, and union membership. The rich did indeed get richer, and the poor and middle class got poorer.
Finally, Reagan presided over the scandalous Iran-Contra affair, all the while pretending he knew nothing about it. He did irreparable damage to this country for which we are still paying the price.
The most important thing to remember about George Herbert Walker Bush is that he was the former Director of the CIA. By chance alone he happened to preside over the demise of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. He called for “a new world order,” “a thousand points of light,” and “a kinder, gentler nation,” none of which came to pass.
Expectations were high as to where Bush I might lead the world’s only remaining superpower after the end of the cold war. Unfortunately, these expectations remained unrealized because Bush I had no vision of the future whatsoever beyond the cold war.
Instead he condemned Saddam Hussein for replicating in Kuwait precisely what he had done in Panama a few months earlier; namely invading a tiny country with a huge military force and setting up a puppet government. Within a few days after Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush I convinced most of the non-Islamic world that our former ally, whom he helped create, had become the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler. Ninety-five percent of the American people bought into Bush’s Persian Gulf policy.
As his alleged friend Mikhail S. Gorbachev was going down with the Soviet Union, the American President sat silently on the sidelines. A few months later he was cozying up to Boris Yeltsin, the drunken idiot who had become president of Russia.
Bill Clinton was not just a snake oil salesman, he was a world class pathological liar, as is his wife Hillary. While pretending to be a liberal Democrat, Clinton granted conservative Republicans their every wish – NAFTA, welfare reform, budget surpluses, and deregulation of the banking industry. He was a cheerleader for globalization and the Internet to which he referred as the “new town square.” Any time he needed a blip in the polls, which was often, he would bomb some country. And it always seemed to work for him.
There was a lot of talk during the Clinton years about a so-called “peace dividend” following the end of the cold war which might be used to rebuild infrastructure, improve education and health care, and reduce poverty. But that was not to be.
No quotation better illustrates the con artist which Clinton was then, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed with what is right in America.” But his all-time most preposterous lie was, “The era of big government is over.”
Early in his term of office, without any sense of irony whatsoever, George W. Bush proclaimed, “Free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don’t attack each other. Free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction.”
During his first year in office he unilaterally abandoned a global warming treaty, rejected protocols enforcing a ban on germ warfare, demanded amendments to an accord on illegal sales of small arms, threatened to boycott an international conference on racism, and walked away from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union – the bedrock on which all subsequent arms control treaties with Russia rest.
In response to 9/11, Bush II launched a global war on terror against Islam – a war without end. He also led the nation into illegal wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which were justified on the basis of lies and half truths.
His policy of benign neglect of financial institutions and financial markets precipitated the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
And then there was Barack Obama who promised us all “hope and change,” and delivered business as usual. Intelligent, articulate, and charismatic but wedded to Wall Street, Corporate America, and Israel. Drones, Navy Seals, Delta Force death squads, kill lists and F-35s will be his legacy. Risk aversion, manipulation, a seductive smile, and a complete lack of vision were all part of his persona.
Narcissism, arrogance, and myopia were among the shared values of our most recent five presidents. Without exception they were each promoting some version of the myth that big tomorrows were just around the corner. Yet none of them had a vision as to how to realize these big tomorrows. How then is it possible that so many Americans still believe that by electing the right person president in 2012 that everything will be just fine?
There must be a psychological explanation for such an absurd state of affairs. At the heart of this Pollyanna perspective is nothing less than the human condition itself – separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death. Because we are separated, our lives lack meaning, we are powerless, and we are afraid of dying, we find ourselves drawn to these presidential hustlers in search of connectedness, meaning, power, and security.
According to theologian Paul Tillich we are separated from ourselves, from others, and the ground of our being. Those who are separated from themselves are often lonely, paranoid, and afraid of death. This form of separation can be precipitated by inconsistent parental support, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, religious indoctrination, poverty, homelessness, and an obsession with consumer goods, technology, and the Internet. A second form of separation involves an inability to connect with other people either through personal love relationships or through a genuine sense of community. So-called “reality television” engenders separation by promoting the McDonalidization of personal relationships. A third type of separation results from a lack of depth or grounding in one’s life leading to alienation and detachment from one’s sense of being.
Separation may give rise to spiritual detachment, intellectual alienation, emotional anxiety, and physiological somatization – bodily complaints for which there is no evidence of any physiological illness.
Just as we turn to the Internet, FaceBook, and cell phones in search of community and human connectedness, so too do we turn to the Empire and its political leaders. We have to be connected, no matter what the consequences and how bad they may be for us.
The search for meaning, said novelist Walker Percy, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Meaninglessness can lead to spiritual despair, intellectual nihilism, emotional depression, and even death. It can also lead us to a plethora of illusory sources of meaning including affluenza, technomania, cybermania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism, not to mention the repository of all that is meaningless and absurd, the Empire itself. Is it any wonder that those whose lives are meaningless find themselves seduced by the likes of Reagan and Obama?
That citizens standing at the feet of a government which is too big, too centralized, too undemocratic, too unjust, too powerful, too intrusive, and too unresponsive to the needs of individuals and small communities should feel powerless should come as no surprise whatsoever. The fact that this government is owned, operated, and controlled by Wall Street, Corporate America, and the Pentagon simply reinforces these feelings. Spiritual emptiness, intellectual indolence, emotional trepidation, and physiological lethargy are not uncommon responses to feelings of powerlessness.
When the federal government fosters the illusion that only it can solve all of our problems all of the time, it is hard to resist jumping on the bandwagon and rolling with the flow. The promise of power sharing can be an important inducement to sign on with the Empire.
In his classic book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues convincingly that most people respond to death by either fear or denial. To overcome their fear of death many people seek the protection of an omnipotent intercessor such as a personal god or a priest, a rabbi, a physician, a psychiatrist, a shaman, or a mentor. Still others turn to our political leaders. Reagan and Bush I promised to protect us from the Evil Empire, an alleged threat they had spent years exaggerating. Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II promised to keep us safe from Saddam Hussein. After declaring war on Islam and demonizing all Muslims, Bush II created a gigantic Homeland Security and Defense bureaucracy to protect us from the Islamic menace. Obama has enhanced the mix with drones, death squads, and kill lists.
While many fear death, others behave as though they were invincible and will surely live forever. They pursue money, power, and control. Affluenza, technomania, megalomania, globalization, and imperialism are also responses to the denial of death. Rather than confronting the pain caused by their fear of nothingness, some compulsive people, who are into denying their mortality, pursue careers as athletic superstars, political demagogues, business tycoons, movie stars, rock musicians, and television evangelists. Those into denial of death often experience feelings of spiritual omnipotence, intellectual invincibility, emotional verve, and immortality. They pretend to be bigger than life.
For those of us who are not able to become athletic heroes or rock stars, we can always identify with our national political leaders. Through psychological transference we can live our lives vicariously through them.
Arguably, no American president has ever been able to exploit the denial of death syndrome more effectively than Barack Obama. To millions of Americans on the political left he was thought to represent the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and surely was expected to be able to walk on water. So intense was their psychological transference to Obama as a savior, that they are still unable to see him for what he his – a complete charlatan.
As facilitators of our search for community, meaning, empowerment, and security, our past five presidents represent abysmal failures. If anything, they have actually contributed to our separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death. For them what life is all about is money, power, speed, greed, violence, and the destruction of the planet earth. Tomorrow has already arrived.
It’s hard to find much evidence that Albert Camus didn’t have it right on the money. Life is truly absurd – particularly the American Empire. Therefore, peacefully rebél against the human condition and the Empire, live life to the fullest, and indeed try to die happy. Rebellion provides us with the faith to create meaning out of meaninglessness, the energy to connect with those from whom we are separated, the power to surmount powerlessness, and the courage to confront death.
Thomas H. Naylor
May 30, 2012
Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.