Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Requiem for the Republic

A hungry people neither listens to reason nor is mollified by fair treatment or swayed by any appeals.
—Seneca (c. 5 BC–65 AD), On the Shortness of Life.1
Dark Clouds Ahead.

The clock relentlessly marked out its hours, circling round from each day’s jarring dawn to the slow darkness of another evening, then to the hours of unconscious respite and fitful dreaming amid this long bleak nightmare. For about a month after I crawled into bed at 8:00 PM on November 8 and finally got up in shock late the next morning, the dark hand was pressing down, more days than not.

It wasn’t made much easier for knowing how many others share my despair about the unfolding collapse of our country. Certainly not for realizing that millions of others are cheering on each manipulative and bullying tweet, each outrageous Cabinet pick, each new degradation of the Office of President already being inflicted by the malignant egotist2 and con man they elected to it.

Do many of his supporters even realize how much they’ve been played? “So far,” observes Susan Page at USA Today, “Trump’s choices–including top jobs for a trio of veterans of Goldman Sachs, a firm he blasted at campaign rallies–haven’t reflected the populist impulses that fueled his appeal to some white working-class voters or his vow to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington of donors and other insiders.”3 Imagine that. You’d almost think the man who lied about never settling out of court and then settled the fraud cases against his scam “university” for $25 million shortly after the election might not be 100% sincere.4

His new Cabinet swims around in a brand new swamp–the best swamp, a terrific swamp–of record-breaking personal wealth, with a total net worth just shy of $14.5 billion.5 His recent pick for Secretary of State, despite pulling down double-digit millions as Exxon CEO since 2012, is a small fish having a mere $150 million to his name.6 One can see why Trump excused the poor guy’s relative poverty: With “some of the most deep and long-standing ties to the Russian political and business elite of any American,”7 Tillerson will be amply prepared to cozy up to the ex-KGB thug who awarded him the “Order of Friendship” in 2013 and just helped his boss get elected President.8

The proposed Secretary of Labor (Would you like fries with that?) has touted the benefits of automation over humans who take vacations, show up late, slip and fall, and sue for discrimination, and opposes a raise in the federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25 per hour.9 He wrote a piece in Forbes this May opining that most fast-food store managers making more than $23,660 per year “recognize that in exchange for the opportunity, prestige and financial benefits that come with a salaried position and a performance-based bonus, they’re expected to have an increased sense of ownership and stay until the job gets done, to run the business like they own it.”10 Inspiring stuff for the former $30/hr factory workers hooting it up at Trump rallies in Cleveland and Grand Rapids. Men, go get yourselves some of that opportunity and prestige overseeing the fry vat until closing–with no overtime, mind you–down at the local Carl’s Jr.!

The “narcissist abuses people,” writes the self-confessed narcissist Sam Vaknin. “He misleads them into believing that they mean something to him, that they are special and dear to him, and that he cares about them. When they discover that it was all a sham and a charade, they are devastated.”11


There is some consolation about this mess, oddly enough, in contemplating the long arc of history. We’ve been here before, many times. Contrary to Lincoln’s lofty words at Gettysburg, government “of the people, by the people, for the people” never seems to last.12 What a left-wing set of pissed-off populists giveth to the people in righteous anger, a right-wing set of pissed-off populists eventually taketh away with some new strongman who will provide leadership and set everything straight. We just can’t seem to have nice things like democracy and equality for long. Homo sapiens has been dividing itself “into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy” ever since agriculture allowed the accumulation and hoarding of wealth around 10,000 years ago, with the upper levels enjoying “privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression.”13

That was certainly true around 2700 years ago, when the Prophet Amos berated the elites of Israel (considering his voice to be that of God, naturally) who imposed “heavy rent on the poor” and exacted “a tribute of grain from them.” They were rich absentee owners of “houses of well-hewn stone” and vineyards whose wine they didn’t bother to drink themselves. I know the score, God (i.e., Amos) warned these good-for-nothing scumbags who “distress the righteous and accept bribes,” and “turn aside the poor” (Amos 5:11-12, NASB). It’s doubtful anything ever came of such divine threats. And when it came to government by the people, forget it; other than an occasional rebuke and punishment, e.g., David for the Bathsheba incident, the history of the ancient Israelites is littered with kings doing pretty much whatever they wanted, usually in God’s name.

Some six hundred years later and about a thousand miles to the west, Lucretius recalled the populist uprising that overthrew the last Roman king in 509 BC and began the Roman Republic:14

Therefore the kings were killed, and in the dust

The ancient majesty of thrones and sceptres proud

Lay overthrown. The sovereign head’s great crown

Bloodstained beneath the rabble’s trampling feet,

All honour lost, bewailed its high estate.

For men do eagerly tread underfoot

What they have feared too much in former time.15

Lucretius recalled this bit of history with some critique of the aforementioned rabble, saying that things then “fell back to utter dregs and turmoil / As every man sought power for himself.” But law and order won out; “some men taught them to appoint magistrates / With rights established and the rule of law.”16

Alas, he wrote these lines in the final decades of the Republic’s 482-year lifespan. It had been a good long run; except during limited periods of military emergency, ordinary citizens did have some say in who was chosen to run their government.17 The elites and those who ingratiated themselves to them managed to get much more of a say, of course. Yet even such corrupt and occasionally interrupted democracies are exceptions to history’s rule of dictators and despots.

The revered and ancient Republic that began with men who had “eagerly tread underfoot” the crown of Tarquin the Proud finally ended with some of their descendants in the Senate granting Octavian the title of Augustus, “the illustrious one.” This title “symbolized a stamp of authority over humanity–and in fact nature–that went beyond any constitutional definition of his status.”18 Octavian was Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son and the “Caesar Augustus” mentioned in Luke 2:1. Neither he nor the Emperors who followed answered to voters or even really senators. And during the next 500 years that the Empire continued–longer for the Eastern half that would eventually split off–Rome gradually diminished and lost even the limited, mostly illusory pseudo-democracy that remained in the Senate.

Around 50-60 AD, a century or so after Lucretius, the Roman philosopher Seneca lamented how rare simplicity and innocence were as human qualities. This after having tutored Augustus’ fourth successor Nero–a decidedly unsavory populist authoritarian. It was hypocritical, since he’d made “himself the teacher of a tyrant,”19 and profited from Nero’s crimes.20 But Seneca’s observations and sorrow about humanity are still worth recalling. You “scarcely ever find loyalty except when it is expedient,” he wrote, yet there is an abundance of “successful crimes” and “all the things equally hateful that men gain and lose through lust.” Ambition, he observed, sets no “limits to itself.” When you consider all this, it “drives the mind into a darkness whose shadows overwhelm it, as though those virtues were overturned which it is not possible to hope for and not useful to possess.”21 I’ve come to know those shadows well these past several weeks.

“Magdalenian Woman,” buried around 15,000 years ago in what is now Dordogne, France22

A particularly nasty populist takeover of democracy that hits closer to home for me is the transition from the Weimar Republic to the “Thousand-Year Reich.” Following a thirteen-year struggle for power, Hitler’s Nazi Germany wound up lasting just twelve years, a brief but incredibly destructive time. This one is personal. My mother’s half-brother was shot by the Nazis for refusing to serve in their army.23 My father saw the living skeletons of their victims and the smoke of their crematoria when he made a detour into a concentration camp during his escape from the Stalag IIb POW camp.24

It’s still a bit early to entirely equate our new President-Elect to Hitler. I’m not sure Trump is even a racist, and I actually find him quite sensible when it comes to the threat of Islam.25 Though he seems to like the strong-arm style of the hollow-eyed assassin in the Kremlin and the way Rodrigo Duterte is gunning down his fellow Filipinos,26 he hasn’t yet had anyone killed. But he is a thin-skinned narcissistic demagogue who lies constantly and dangerously, holding himself out as the one leader for the challenge of our times, and that’s bad enough.

The really clear and disturbing parallels are between the current political climate vs. the Weimar Republic in which Hitler began his long quest for power, and the fist-pumping “Lock her up!” crowds in their stupid red baseball caps vs. das Volk cheering at Hitler’s rallies. “We share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations,” observes Timothy Snyder in his book recounting “The Holocaust as History and Warning,” as its subtitle goes. We “have changed less than we think. We like our living space, we fantasize about destroying governments, we denigrate science, we dream of catastrophe.”27

It’s important to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality here, one that I will expand on in an upcoming essay. As 77,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania made abundantly clear last month, life is not going well for millions of angry fellow citizens, despite our government’s warmed-over official stats touting an “economic recovery” that’s every bit as fake as the news Trump supporters have been passing around on Facebook. “Today we live in a world of predatory bankers, predatory educators, even predatory health care providers, all of them out for themselves.”28

The Democrats are complicit in this. The husband of the woman those Rust Belt voters so shockingly rejected is the one who

deregulated derivatives, deregulated telecom, and put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave. He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him.29

The next Democrat in the Oval Office followed this up with bailouts of the big banks, a hands-off policy for white-collar criminals at those banks, the TPP (yet another odious trade deal), a near-freeze of anti-trust enforcement, greatly expanded Orwellian mass surveillance, and an insanely complex healthcare law “with its exchanges, its individual and employer mandates, its Cadillac tax, its subsidies to individuals and to the insurance industry, and its thousands of other moving parts, sluicing funding this way and that.”30 I must confess that I nearly burned my ballot in 2012 rather than cast a vote to re-elect Barack Obama.

The problem is that–for abundant reasons I will explain in that next essay with all the usual footnotes–there are no ready solutions to the predicament so many of our countrymen find themselves in. And when that happens, so long as people have a vote and even more so after they finally acquiesce in giving it up, the likely outcomes are grim.

The “aging, increasingly brittle, effectively bankrupt, but still immensely powerful global empire of the United States of America” is leaving a lot of its citizens behind.31 Most of them have little interest in transgender bathrooms, the immense privilege they enjoy over, say, disabled lesbians of color, and the virtues of those peace-loving Muslims they are lectured about every time some guy with a beard slaughters people while shouting Allahu Akbar.

There is plenty of “cheerleading from government officials,” plenty of “reassurances from dignified and clueless economists” and “reams of doctored statistics gobbled down whole by the watchdogs-turned-lapdogs of the media and spewed forth undigested onto the evening news.”32 But people pay more attention to the monthly $1300 insurance premiums for their shitty high-deductible health plan and the poverty and degradation of working for eight bucks an hour at a fast food joint after getting laid off at the now-shuttered factory.

No amount of official propaganda can convince them the the economy is recovering, because for them, it’s not. Except for “a few privileged sectors, times are hard and getting harder; here in the US, more and more people are slipping into the bleak category of the long-term unemployed, and a great many of those who can still find employment work at part-time positions for sweatshop wages with no benefits at all.”33

Abandoned house in Stevens County, WA

In 1920, Germany was experiencing an “explosive mixture of economic misery, social instability and collective trauma” that a black-haired populist demagogue could use as well as a yellow-haired one can in much the same environment today. He did so, better “than any of his rivals on the nationalist far right,” to rise up out of anonymity.34 “Hardly a week passed” during that year “without a meeting or a rally,” with audience sizes reaching 3,000 by the end of the year.35 He (still referring to the black-haired guy) was skilled at working the crowd, a master of the

“language of the post-war little guy,” peppering his speeches not only with the coarse phrases of a former military man, but also with irony and sarcasm. He was good at responding to hecklers so he mostly kept the laughter on his side. Moreover, Hitler’s speeches clearly touched a nerve. Like no one else, he was able to express what his audience thought and felt: he exploited their fears, prejudices and resentments, but also their hopes and desires.36

Sound familiar? Make Germany Great Again! would not be an unreasonable translation of his campaign message. Hitler’s “speeches typically began with a look back at ‘wonderful, flourishing Germany before the war,’ in which ‘orderliness, cleanliness and precision’ had ruled” (Law and order!) and “civil servants had gone about their work ‘honestly and dutifully’” (Drain the swamp!).37

Here was “‘someone seduced by himself,’ someone who was so inseparable from his words ‘that a measure of authenticity flowed over the audience even when he was telling obvious lies.’”38 Believe me, folks . . . In a 1927 speech, after a couple of low-key years following the Beer Hall Putsch and his nine months spent in Landsberg Prison for it,

Hitler used vulgar comparisons, tailor-made to the intellectual capacities of his listeners, and he did not shy away from even the cheapest allusions . . . His words and opinions were simply hurled out with dictatorial certainty as if they were unquestionable principles and facts. All this manifests itself in his language as well, which is like something merely expulsed.39

There were a few good years in the 1920s, but Germany’s economy started really heading downhill with the Great Depression in 1929. Hitler finally had the unemployment and popular anger he needed. Many German “farmers were ‘extraordinarily bitter and prepared to commit all sorts of violent acts,’” noted a police observer to a March 1929 rally, “adding that some saw the National Socialists as their ‘rescuers.’”40

On October 28, 1929, the U.S. stock market dropped almost twelve percent. The next day, it went down nearly another twelve percent. Within a few years, in Germany, an

apocalyptic mood of hopelessness began to take hold, even among those segments of the populace that were not primarily affected by the Depression. Faith in democratic institutions and democratic political parties dissolved, and anti-parliamentary sentiment, already rife in the Weimar Republic, was given a huge boost. Those in power appeared to have no solutions to the crisis, and the more helpless they seemed to be, the greater the demand became for a “strong man,” a political messiah who would lead Germany out of economic misery and point the way towards renewed national greatness.

“More than any other German politician,” the black-haired populist “presented himself as the answer to these hopes for salvation.”41 The yellow-haired one has said, “I alone can fix it.”

The narcissist, writes Vaknin, “needs and requires an audience to applaud, approve, affirm, recoil, admire, adore, fear, or even detest him.”42 Next stop on Trump’s post-election “Thank You Tour” is tomorrow in Hershey, PA.

Photo tweeted Dec. 9 by the President-Elect. Somebody please tell him he won the damn election.


  1. In On the Shortness of Life, trans. C.D.N. Costa. (Penguin Publishing Group). 

  2. “Having been exposed for what he is–a deceitful, treacherous, malignant egotist–the narcissist’s old tricks now fail him. People are on their guard, their gullibility reduced. The narcissist being the rigid, precariously balanced, and fragile structure that he is can’t change. He reverts to old forms, re-adopts hoary habits, and succumbs to erstwhile temptations. He is made a mockery by his accentuated denial of reality, by his obdurate refusal to grow up, remaining an eternal, malformed child in the sagging body of a decaying man” (Sam Vaknin, Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited, Narcissus Publications, 2015, p. 267).

    See my recent essay The Trump Tragedy for a discussion of Trump’s narcissism and the important caveat that this is a layman’s opinion based on some pretty obvious character flaws and creepiness exhibited almost daily by Donald Trump and not any kind of psychological diagnosis. 

  3. “Trump’s Cabinet dubbed ‘Goldman, generals, and gazillionaires,” Dec. 12, 2016 

  4. Rosalind S. Helderman, “Trump agrees to $25 million settlement in Trump University fraud cases,” Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2016

  5. E.J. Dionne Jr., “Trump can’t wait to sell out his base,” Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2016

  6. Wikipedia, Rex Tillerson. At least, unlike Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Tillerson doesn’t deny climate change: “At ExxonMobil, we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action. Addressing these risks requires broad-based, practical solutions around the world. Importantly, as a result of the Paris agreement, both developed and developing countries are now working together to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, while recognizing differing national responsibilities, capacities and circumstances. In our industry, the best hope for the future is to enable and encourage long-term investments in both proven and new technologies, while supporting effective policies” (Speech given October 19, 2016). 

  7. Josh Rogin, “Inside Rex Tillerson’s long romance with Russia,” Washington Post, Dec. 13, 2016

  8. Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House,” Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2016. The Russian involvement became pretty obvious even before the election–especially when a Wikileaks dump from the Podesta emails got released after an announcement about the dump appeared on the Russian propaganda news site RT

  9. Kate Taylor, “Fast-food CEO says he’s investing in machines because the government is making it difficult to afford employees,” Business Insider, Mar. 16, 2016

  10. Andy Puzder, “The Harsh Reality of Regulating Overtime Pay,” Forbes, May 18, 2016

  11. Vaknin at p. 69. 

  12. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins, 2015), p. 133. 

  13. The Gettysburg Address, delivered by Abraham Lincoln Nov. 19, 1863, following a period of division in America that is starting to seem comparable to what we’re experiencing now. 

  14. Wikipedia, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

  15. On the Nature of the Universe, Ronald Melville, trans. (Oxford University Press), Book V, lines 1135-40. 

  16. Book V, lines 1141-44. 

  17. Naturally, “citizens” excluded women (at least when it came to voting and holding office) and slaves. Except for the past century, and in much of the world still, half the population has been arbitrarily excluded from full citizenship. I’ll grudgingly acknowledge this about Trump: He doesn’t seem to be much concerned about whether his cabinet appointees have penises or not. 

  18. Wikipedia, Augustus

  19. Cassius Dio, Book LXI 33.9, quoted in Wikipedia, Seneca the Younger

  20. “The art critic Robert Hughes labelled Seneca ‘a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world’” (Elizabeth Kolbert, “Such a Stoic: How Seneca became Ancient Rome’s philosopher-fixer,” New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2015). 

  21. “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in On the Shortness of Life, trans. C.D.N. Costa. (Penguin Publishing Group). At the beginning of the work, Seneca admitted, “I am not really free of the vices which I feared and hated.” 

  22. “Magdalenian Woman” is the earliest known Homo sapiens skeleton. Photo taken with my iPhone at the Field Museum, Chicago. According to the display label, the “skeleton and the rock shelter in France where she was found to indicate burial. A grave was created and the body was positioned.” 

  23. In Memoriam: Kurt Stein

  24. The Germans had orders to shoot POW escapees on sight, so my father pretended to be bringing his companions into the concentration camp and then escaped from it as well. 

  25. See Why I am an Islamophobe, my most widely read essay. 

  26. Felipe Villamor, “Rodrigo Duterte Says Donald Trump Endorses His Violent Antidrug Campaign,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2016 

  27. Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Crown/​Archetype 2015), Kindle loc. 6044. 

  28. Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Henry Holt and Co., March 2016), p. 13. 

  29. Frank at p. 70. 

  30. Frank at p. 146. 

  31. John Michael Greer, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (New Society Publishers, 2014), p. 76. 

  32. John Michael Greer, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead (New Society Publishers, July 2016), loc. 3325. 

  33. Greer, Dark Age America, p. 3327. 

  34. Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf Doubleday, 2016), Kindle loc. 2196. 

  35. Ullrich at loc. 2239. 

  36. Ullrich at loc. 2283. 

  37. Ullrich at loc. 2329. 

  38. Ullrich at loc. 2298. 

  39. Police observer of March 9, 192 speech at Munich. Quoted in Ullrich at loc. 4663. 

  40. Ullrich at loc. 5082. 

  41. Ullrich at 5172. 

  42. Vaknin at p. 90.