Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
In January 1919, months after an armistice that ended the horrors of the Great War in Europe, W.B. Yeats started work on a haunting little poem of the Apocalypse. The Second Coming begins with these memorable lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This “first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence,” says Nick Tabor in a 2015 article about the poem. “Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.”
Yeats goes on to prophesy further horrors, suggesting, in Tabor’s analysis, that “something like the Christian notion of a ‘second coming’ is about to occur, but rather than earthly peace, it will bring terror”:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
And then there is the “slouching beast” of the final stanza, which Tabor says is best understood not as “a particular political regime, or even fascism itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the ideological, and the political.” 1
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Despite Tabor’s complaints about the “widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions” that popular culture is making to the poem, I will venture to toss in my own: The words Yeats left us from nearly a century ago offer a stark picture of what is happening to the ailing democracy of the United States today.
There is a rough beast out there right now, slouching towards Washington. It is a Frankenstein monster formed from an angry electorate’s troubled mix of ugly prejudice, religious zeal, and legitimate grievance–partly about having served as useful idiots for a moneyed class that pandered to their social conservatism while bleeding them dry. What the billionaire political manipulators originally tinkered into existence as a servant for carrying out their specific and selfish goals has gone out of their control.
Now the “darkness drops again” and the monster is plodding into the night, ignoring the commands of those who spent millions trying to be its masters. This is a spectacle both terrifying and exhilarating to watch.
The Koch Brothers and their ilk liked what they saw in Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and invested heavily.2 But, alas for them, it really does seem that money can’t buy everything. By January, Poor Charles Koch was expressing disappointment “with the line-up of Republican candidates in the 2016 cycle,” and surprise at “the lack of influence he and his brother have wielded so far.” 3
Things started going south for the billionaire Brothers Grim in September of 2015 with the departure of Scott Walker, a nasty dead-eyed governor who seemed like their perfect messenger boy.4 Abysmal polling numbers in the presidential race sent him back to work swinging the Libertarian wrecking ball at Wisconsin’s state government. And Jeb! finally dropped out in February 2016 after an embarrassing return on investment for all the millions blown by his campaign and (ahem, independent) SuperPAC–the total price per vote obtained was about $2800 in Iowa and $1150 in New Hampshire.5
Now the last best hope for a presidential pawn of the oligarchs, Marco Rubio, is flailing about with just a single state to his name and 15% of the viable delegates allocated thus far. He faces impossible odds, at least if the votes of the lumpenproletariat are what it really takes to win a nomination this year. Rubio would need to win 75% of the 1435 delegates still up for grabs in order to get the 1237 he needs for a non-brokered nomination.6 Good luck with that: A March 9 poll has him behind in his home state of Florida by double digits.7 It isn’t going to happen, and even he has to realize that.
But there is still the tantalizing possibility of a brokered convention, and that might make it still worth his while for Rubio to keep slugging away. The same goes for John Kasich, governor of Ohio and unofficial Adult in the Room. He’s counting on a home-state win in the winner-take-all primary on the weekend of March 12-13 to keep him in the game. He has been quite candid about liking the idea of a nomination fight at the convention.8
Assuming primary voters actually get to decide this thing, there are two realistic contenders now left standing for nominee of the Greedy Oligarchy Party–Donald J. Trump and Raphael Edward (“Ted”) Cruz. The oligarchs, however, don’t seem to much like either one of them.
Trump can’t be bought, for the simple reason that he doesn’t need anybody else’s money to support his chest-thumping vanity presidency project. “Not a single contribution to Trump’s campaign could be found in the donation records of the 190 attendees of Koch donor conferences.” Hilariously, one billionaire political-money hobbyist complained that Trump’s self-funding “scares the hell out of” him. “That’s like a dictator,” Stanley Hubbard whined. “I think that any politician should have to answer to their constituents.” Mr. Hubbard does not “think it’s healthy to have somebody who doesn’t answer to anybody.” 9 Apparently, having them answer to a few fabulously wealthy recipients of inherited wealth like himself is more like it–God bless America.
Cruz, for his part, has at least tried to win favor of Those Who Matter. He did some hobnobbing at a Koch Konference in 2013, shortly after winning his Senate seat.10 At another gathering, during the record-hot summer of 2015, he surely scored some points with the Brothers Grim by bluntly denying that global warming was real and implying that Obama was lying by warning of “hotter summers, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events.” 11 (These things are all actually happening now, apparently invisible if your head is stuck up some rich donor’s ass.)
But the fact is that very few people who actually know Ted Cruz–besides some angry, religion-crazed voters–seem to like him much at all, no matter what he says.12 This is apparently nothing new; his college roommate describes him, then and now, as “pedantic, smarmy, creepy, arrogant, nasty, inauthentic and unfunny as hell.” 13 Molly Ball wrote a few months ago in The Atlantic that, in “the three years since he arrived in the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz has become easily the most hated man in Washington.” He pissed off Mike Lee (Tea Party-UT), possibly his only friend in the Senate, by going all lip-curling angel-of-death about Lee’s criminal justice reform bill. “In my conversations with Republican policy types and Senate aides about Cruz,” Ball writes, Cruz’s “lack of regard for his colleagues, and for the niceties that have traditionally governed the upper chamber, was a common theme. As Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, told me last week, referring to the time Cruz called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor: ‘You just don’t do that. Are we not still gentlemen, and respectful of each other?’” 14
Currently holding onto the lead between those two is Trump, the man described by Peter Wehner, longtime Republican voter, administration staffer, and think-tanker, as an “erratic, inconsistent and unprincipled” narcissist, whose “virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe.” 15
Yes, well, so could allowing the oligarchs to have their way. With one of those “mainstream” GOP candidates they’d like to have in place as an investment vehicle, we could all look forward to the loss of public lands throughout the American West, the gutting of environmental and labor protections, and a rollback of social security safety net programs, for starters. They would unleash the entire chamber of horrors imagined by the current Republican-controlled Congress, which until now has only been kept restrained by the veto threat of a Democratic President.
Besides, Mr. Wehner, this is your monster you are watching lumber into the lightning flashes of the night. Columnist Maureen Dowd shares my delight in seeing “the encrusted political king-making class utter a primal scream as Trump smashes their golden apple cart.” For years, she says, the Republican establishment “has fanned, stoked and exploited the worst angels among the nativists, racists, Pharisees and angry white men, concurring in anti-immigrant measures, restricting minority voting, whipping up anti-Planned Parenthood hysteria and enabling gun nuts.” 16
Scary as it may be, there is a certain logic to the decision of so many everyday people to cast their vote for a narcissistic, bullying huckster and reality-show host whose vocabulary and grasp of the issues make George W. Bush look like Winston Churchill. “These folks have lost a lot with the hollowing out the middle and working class,” said Jim Sidanius, Harvard professor of sociology, back in January when Trump was just getting rolling. “If you combine that with floating xenophobia, you get this kind of reaction.” 17
Perhaps Republican voters are finally realizing how much they have been played by their political elites and have decided to do some tweaking of their own, in the only way they can. Meanwhile, the rest of us look on shaking our heads at the food-fight debates and insults and ugly outbreaks at rallies, and wait for November to finally put a pitchfork into the beast.
We will probably be left only with Hillary Clinton by then to stop its slouch toward Washington. But even a bent and rusted tool will serve to kill the beast and end the nightmare, at least for a few years until the oligarchs start tinkering in their workshop again.
Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig, “Koch network spreads the wealth,” The Hill (October 21, 2015). (“The most popular presidential candidates among the Koch brothers’ conservative donor network are Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who each received contributions from more than 12 percent of 190 donors and their families in records analyzed by The Hill.”) ↩
“Back in April , David Koch reportedly gave his personal endorsement to Walker during a closed-door fundraiser” (Matt Wilstein, “Scott Walker Accidentally Poses with Giant Check from ‘Koch Brothers’,” Mediaite.com (August 3, 2015); “Walker’s Punked Phone Call” (ScottWalkerWatch.com). ↩
The counts of delegates won by Rubio (151), needed (1237), and available (1435) are from Google, sourcing the AP, from a March 10, 2016 search for “marco rubio delegates.” ↩
Swan and Neidig. ↩
I wonder if evangelical Cruz voters have the same kind of mental relationship with him as they do their God: Maybe he’s a bit distasteful when you look too closely, but he’s on their side when it comes to gay marriage. ↩
Molly Ball, “Why D.C. Hates Ted Cruz,” The Atlantic (January 26, 2016). Uh, Trent, have you been listening to how those genteel folk in your party’s upper echelons are treating the sitting President of the United States, twice elected by popular and electoral majorities? The smelling salts are next to the fainting couch over there, Senator. ↩