The Democratic Party is engaged in a dangerous and failed electoral strategy. Rather than appealing to the majority working-class, non-Republican electorate, the party is courting right-wing politicians like Liz Cheney while funding far-right Republican candidates in this year’s primary elections. This approach resembles the disastrous Hillary Clinton campaign’s “Pied Piper” ploy of promoting the supposedly “more beatable” Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. Why is the Democratic Party lavishly funding Trump stooges such as John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who claimed that Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory was “mathematically impossible?” Why do they see the stoking of fascist fire as an effective campaign strategy? Even The New York Times has called the tactic of funding far-right pro-Trump candidates a “Cynical Low for the Democratic Party.” Historian Paul Street joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss what is taking place on our bizarre political landscape as we head towards the midterm elections.
Paul Street has taught at numerous Chicago-area universities and is the author of This Happened Here: Neoliberals, Amerikaners, and the Trumping of America (New York: Routledge, 2021). He also writes regularly for Counterpunch.
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Chris Hedges: What are we to make of a Democratic Party that embraces an election strategy that includes demobilizing the majority working-class, non-Republican electorate? Legitimizing right-wing agendas and narratives? Seeks bipartisan cooperation with right-wing politicians such as Liz Chaney? Refuses to attack archaic minority rule institutions, including the electoral college and the Senate filibuster? Repeatedly backs down from hauling Donald Trump into court, and funds far right Republican candidates in this year’s primary elections, repeating the disastrous Hillary Clinton campaign’s Pied Piper ploy of promoting the supposedly more beatable Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
Why is the Democratic Party lavishly funding Trump Stooges, such as John Gibbs? A former Trump administration official who claimed that Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory was “mathematically impossible”. By giving his campaign $425,000, investing more money in one pro-Gibbs television ad than Gibbs raised for his entire campaign. Why do they see the stoking of fascist fire as an effective campaign strategy? Even The New York Times has called the tactic of funding far-right, pro-Trump candidates a “cynical low” for the Democratic Party.
Joining me to discuss what is taking place in our bizarre political landscape as we head towards the midterm elections, elections that the cultist Trump Republican Party looks set to win, is the historian Paul Street. Paul has taught at numerous Chicago area universities and is the author of This Happened Here: Neoliberals, Amerikaners, and the Trumping of America. He also writes regularly for CounterPunch.
So Paul, in one of your columns you tick off, I think, a kind of laundry list of all of the egregious failures on the part of the Democratic Party that you argue, I think, correctly has resulted in the rise of a figure like Trump. And I want to begin by going through them. “A capitalist system whose underlying tendency towards the ever-increasing concentration of wealth and hence power repeatedly humiliates, delegitimizes, and discredits democracy in the eyes of the masses, helping open the door to authoritarian ‘solutions’.” Can you talk about that process?
Paul Street: Well, there’s a longstanding toxic relationship between economic inequality, socioeconomic inequality, and democracy. Wealth concentration is also power concentration, and wealth concentration translates, not just under capitalism but in any social formation, translates into disproportionate authoritarian influence over the making of government decisions. And that wealth concentration is inherent in the very nature and the workings in the operations and contradictions of capitalism as a system. And it’s just an ongoing tension in Western history, it’s an ongoing tension in American history.
And when you repeatedly violate and undermine and humiliate the majority of public opinion on one issue after another – There’s a huge empirical social and political science research on how technically irrelevant public opinion has become in the contemporary American, neoliberal plutocracy. It’s just extraordinary, take your issue. Recently, abortion rights, gun rights, climate action, healthcare as a human right, union organizing rights.
You can just go through this list of one thing after another that is supported by relatively progressive policy. Sometimes more than just relatively progressive policy, that’s supported by a majority of the population. Student debt forgiveness, for example. And it’s canceled, it’s called capitalist cancel culture, I guess. It’s canceled by corporate and financial power, by concentrated wealth translating concentrated power.
But when this happens and accumulates again and again and again and nothing over decades, ultimately the notion of democracy and popular self-rule, I think, becomes exposed as bankrupt, as useless, as irrelevant and people don’t take it particularly seriously. And particularly when the party that claims to be the party of the working people, that claims to be the party of the working class, the party of the poor, is egregiously in bed with corporate and financial power, it’s going to be unable to reliably, consistently bring to the polls the voters that need to defeat the other party – Which by the way, just happens to have gone essentially fascistic, really, since Obama, if not before.
And yet that very system that’s undermining democracy is also constantly generating crises. Ecological crises, health crises, zoonotic viruses that are endemic under this system. Mass poverty, mass homelessness, rampant alienation, a spiritual meaningless to a life under rule of a class that’s imposed. And Marx and Engels wrote about this in [inaudible] passages in the mid 19th century that drowns everything in the icy waters of egotistical calculation and subordinates everything, the profit [inaudible]. They’re constantly generating economic crises and social crises and spiritual crises.
And of probably the greatest significance right now in this time that we have left on earth, it’s unbelievable fast moving ecological crises, and on. Which, the ecological crises then in turn feed into and help generate more social and political crises. And you have crises that need solutions, but democracy is no longer credible or viewed as legitimate because its authenticity has been undermined by the underlying class of dictatorship with capital.
People are going to turn to authoritarianism more explicitly. We already have an authoritarian, a capitalist society is an authoritarian society, it’s a de facto class dictatorship. But nonetheless there has been previously, for most of American history, this bourgeois democratic, constitutional, electoral rule of law form where, at the end of the day, you honor the outcomes of elections. Now we have one of the two major capitalist parties ready to, and is in fact, rejecting that, and is ready to even strip the last embers, the last shreds, the last remnants of what’s left of democracy. And crossing over into this authoritarian space. And Mussolini [and Hitler] made the trains run on time, and Trump comes in 2016, and says I alone can fix the solutions. And you have this very alienated populace that’s prone to magical thinking because of the insanity of the corporate culture that they live in. And they look for solutions in great leaders no matter how comic and ridiculous and pathetic and malignantly narcissistic those leaders may be.
They can capture a certain essence. There’s a certain brilliance to people like Bolsonaro and Orbán and Trump and other modern day neo-fascist authoritarians who are going to fix things for the people, and dig into some very revanchist and reactionary cultural strains as they do that.
The Democrats have created a context for that, they’ve participated quite richly in that. And not only indirectly creating the context for it, but now they have this cynical Pied Piper electoral calculation whereby they’re directly contributing to the rise of the most right-wing fanatic Republican candidates on the cynical theory that those are the most beatable candidates in the 2022 midterms. And they’re really playing with fire, they’re really playing with fire. Maybe we can talk a little bit more about why that’s not likely to work, actually. It seems like a doom, suicidal, kind of a suicide pact way of going forward. I guess they think they’re being daring and cool and it’s a great gamble that’s going to pay off, but I don’t think it is, and maybe we can say a thing or two more about why it won’t.
Chris Hedges: Well, let’s talk about it, because you write about it. You, I think, correctly point out that the Republicans probably are going to win, and these fringe far-right figures will be swept into office with that landslide. And you also write, I thought, quite presently about abortion. Because the Democrats are banking so much of their electoral strategy on the fact that they will protect the right of a woman to control her own body. They use the referendum that was passed in Kansas. But you really, I think, quite astutely explain why that isn’t going to work. So why don’t we do that now?
Paul Street: Yeah. Well, the midterms that are coming up are stuck in a historical pattern. It’s almost a law that the party, particularly during its first term in White House power, loses significant numbers of members in a House of Representatives in the first midterm election. The only exceptions are 1932 because of the Great Depression and [inaudible] Roosevelt, and 2002 because of 9/11 and the Bush party was able to keep [inaudible]. They always lose. Why that is is an interesting matter we don’t have time to discuss. Now there’s this problem with inflation, which is just devastating for the Democrats. There’s Biden’s incredibly low popularity numbers, which are just cratering, they’re in the high 30s at best. And the percentage of people in the country that say the country is on the wrong track is a big indicator, and that number is just huge.
So it really, really looks bad. Now, this notion that the abortion issue is going to be some sort of magic bullet, it’s going to provide the solution for the Democrats and allow them to keep the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2022, in November, is really, really problematic.
And there’s a cynicism about that. And it goes back to this whole last about seven, eight months.
I heard numerous Democrats in Iowa tell me this was part of the advanced surrender to the abolition of Roe v. Wade, to the reversal of women’s right to an abortion. I actually heard Democrats say to me, it’s okay. First of all, they totally underestimated how devastating this decision would be and is already showing itself to be for women in half the states in the country right now. But they said it would be okay, because it’s going to work to our electoral advantage in November, which, among other things, is just incredibly cynical. And it’s a remarkable statement of moral, political, and policy bankruptcy, that your strategy going forward is a horrific decision coming out of the Supreme Court and the horrific fascistic nature of the other party. That’s your campaign strategy? So they say they’re going to win on abortion, and they cite this Kansas referendum.
And they cite it quite deceptively, as proof that this is the way we’re going to keep the House of Representatives. This is the way we’re going to keep Congress. And the problem with that is, yes, there was a policy-specific referendum in Kansas recently, and consistent with longstanding majority, 50-year majority public opinion in support of a woman’s Constitutional right to an abortion. Even in Kansas, in a right-wing state like Kansas, more than two thirds of the people – Or was it two thirds? – Supported keeping the right to an abortion [inaudible] Constitution. Great, that’s cool.
But that was an election that’s about a specific policy issue, that’s not what our savagely time staggered, partisan, corporate crafted, big media, biennial and quad [inaudible] election extravaganzas are about. They’re not policy referendums, they’re not even particularly about policy. People vote about the most ridiculous things imaginable, which candidate they want to go out and have a beer with.
But nowadays in this hyper partisan polarized environment, they vote a lot on the basis purely of party now. We’re at a high watermark of partisan polarization, and the abortion issue in November is going to be folded into any number of various issues. There’s all kinds of things that people will be thinking about, even insofar as they’re thinking about policy and all and not just thinking about the candidates they like the most and the party that they like the most.
And where abortion is going to rank in that policy [inaudible] compare it to, for example, the price of gas, or the price of food, or issues people have about grievances they have about what’s going on in schools with their kids, or COVID policy. There’s a mish mash of issues, all of which get thrown together in a smorgasbord and subordinated to campaign. Finance the campaign, contributions to media buys, to media ads, into partisan logics. And so, it’s not even remotely clear that the abortion…
There does appear to be a bit of an abortion rights backlash, which may help the Democrats contain some of their damage in the midterm elections. But it’s not at all clear that it’s going to be anything remotely close to what they say it’s going to be, to save their majority position in the House and in the Senate.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the media, which you write about. You argue that the media, which is controlled by about a half dozen corporations, its role is to orchestrate “…Mass consent to class rule, empire, and intimately related hierarchies of race, gender, nationality. In its entertainment wing even more than it… Which is more powerfully right than its news formats, this dominant media sells sadistic, sexist, racist, and nationalist violence while propagating hyper-atomized individualism, consumerist one-dimensionality, anti-intellectualism, and narrow identity politics.”
Well, you nailed it. But it’s important because the power of this media landscape to orchestrate, and not just shape opinions, but to prevent people from even asking the right questions, I think, is quite frightening, and you’ve addressed this, but talk about it.
Paul Street: It’s interesting you mention that passage. I met Noam Chomsky and actually sat down with Noam for a beer or two in, I think, Bloomington, Illinois, in 2003. And the first thing I said to him was, I learned a great amount from your book Manufacturing Consent about the role of the mass media, in particular with [inaudible 00:17:01], and The New York Times and The Washington Post and CBS and all that. I said, the entertainment is probably even more significant, it’s a much bigger deal. It also sells hyper [inaudible] and individual, it portrays everybody… It portrays this incredibly revanchist, violent, Hobbesian view of human nature, of individuals as nothing but one-dimensional power seekers and sexual predators and consumerists, and upholds that as either the glorious way that life ought to be or just the reality of how human beings are anyway. Things like solidarity, things like revolutionary concern for all of humanity, things about beautiful, spiritual connection to others and to the planet that we all share, all so treated as cranky, weird, marginal kinds of things. And it is true in the movies.
It’s probably even more powerful in the movies, in the sitcoms, in the series that people stream on Netflix, in the video games, which are just absolutely savage. And one of the ironic things about Hollywood and the entertainment culture is a lot of the moguls and the leading executives in it lean liberal, they lean “left” and tend to be Democrats, and tend to get very huffy about Trump and his base and the Neo-fascists and all of that. Who I hate, too, I hate all those people.
And yet they are the investors and the managers and the deliverers of this incredibly revanchist entertainment, which is intimately linked back to the news media. which filters out anything that doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm of capital and its empire. [inaudible] tick off and defend his one-sided focus on the news media, and immediately he said, that’s absolutely right. He just said, I just can’t bother to look at him [inaudible] he drives me crazy.
He said, the only time he ever looked at it once was, he was laid up in the hospital with something, and he had no choice. He was stuck in the hospital bed and they had the TV up there and the movie [inaudible]. No one was just so intellectual that he would never watch something like Die Hard or whatever that crazy movie was where someone had control of a bus that ran all over the place. But yeah, it’s both wings of that media. And it’s incredibly racist and it’s incredibly sexist, and it portrays a vision of humanity that is absolutely soulless and individualistic, and despicably disengaged from human concern.
Chris Hedges: Well, it pumps out this sickness of purification through violence, that’s a constant theme.
Paul Street: Right.
Chris Hedges: And [inaudible] I empathize with Noam, I don’t watch any of that stuff either. Let’s go right into there, what do you do about the 440 million firearms, including at least 25 million military assault rifles, disproportionately in the hands of right-wing, racist, sexist, nativists and nationalists? This is an important factor, I think, in terms of where we’re headed.
Paul Street: And there’s about 30,000 militia members in the country, and those arms are almost completely owned… Well, I shouldn’t say that. They’re very disproportionately owned by people on the right. So when you talk about militias that are armed, I think the Socialist Rifle Association and Redneck Revolt would be about 0.03% of that. Whereas the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and the rest of the vast canopy of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-fascist groups make up more than 90% of the armed militias.
But the ubiquity of weapons is just unmatched globally and historically. I don’t know any modern industrialized country that’s ever been so permeated by firearms, including what really amounts to wartime weapons of mass destruction, which is what military assault rifles are. One of the key aspects of fascism is political violence and the embrace of political violence. And that doesn’t just mean brown shirts and black shirts and storm trooper boots, armed or not, walking around and beating people up in the streets.
Now we’re in the age of lone wolf violence, where there’s a kind fascistic fear and an impact of right-wing incels who are part of online communities in which they’re encouraging each other and upping the ante psychologically with each other to film live hits against so-called liberal and so-called left targets. And of course, in fascist ideology, everything’s left, everything to the right of Trump, everything to the left of Trump is Marxism and socialism and anarchy. And I know already, I’ve seen survey data, people are already afraid to exercise their right of public assembly and free speech in some occasions out of fear that they’ll get shot. And people have been shot. And there was a hidden story during the George Floyd rebellion. I ended up doing a piece about 20 people who ended up being hit by cars, ended up being shot and physically attacked for standing up for civil rights. And this is pretty much all a right-wing phenomenon. It’s a big deal.
Chris Hedges: Well, they use these big monster trucks, which are probably as close as a civilian vehicle can come to a tank, as forms of intimidation. They’re not that far from the technicals we used to see in Somalia with a machine gun mounted on the back.
Paul Street: And one of the things that happened in some red States, Iowa was one of them, after the George Floyd rebellion, is that the number of bills were passed that facilitate and make it easier for these kind of Neo-Serbian, incel, right-wing freaks to plow into people [inaudible] and get away. And it was actual legislation.
Chris Hedges: As a legitimate form of self defense.
Paul Street: Right. Yeah. Because you’re afraid when you’re surrounded by [inaudible] protesting and putting up signs for democracy.
Chris Hedges: Right. A bunch of Quakers in sandals.
So you talk a lot about the educational system in the United States and how that has contributed to the shredding of our democracy. You have this figure, which I didn’t know: More than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74, 54% read below the equivalent of a sixth grade level. And all sorts of theorists, I mean, Dewey and others, would tell you this is a huge, flashing red light.
Paul Street: You know who was always in the, I suppose he’s still writing, in the Vanguard talking about the literacy crisis in the country? Is this wonderful liberal education and writer Jonathan Kozol. He wrote a book about the crisis in American literacy many years ago, probably back in the 1980s. I, as a college instructor, when I went back into the classroom about five years ago after a long absence, was really struck by the decline of language skill, which were never particularly impressive in the institutions that I had taught in before. But I mean real inabilities to put together, to string together whole sentences, epic difficulties reading assigned material, far beyond anything I had seen before.
It’s interesting, because I had been away for, oh, close to 15 years doing other things. I had taught for many years in the 1990s. I had just seen things that I hadn’t seen before, and it had a lot to do, I think, with social media, and the amount of time people are spending looking at highly distracting, decontextualized, quick hit visual images on Instagram and TikTok and Twitter.
Twitter with its character limits of, I can’t remember what the… 264 characters per post. There’s a technologically embedded attention deficit disorder, there’s also a shift in… I guess I’m talking more than I ought to be about college students, maybe because that’s my experience. But it does seem to be an intimate relationship between internet culture and online culture and this problem [crosstalk].
Chris Hedges: I was teaching a 400-level course at the University of Toronto, and I was having my students read Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. And they couldn’t… They were obviously struggling to find the attention span to do the required reading. I mentioned this to the great writer and philosopher John Rolston Saul, about what was happening in the classroom. And he said that, of course, most professors are finding this among students whose attention spans have been destroyed by the need for constant dopamine hits from social media. And he said, it’s not that they’re stupid, because they’re not, they’re quite intelligent. But he said, in some ways, they’re illiterate. And I thought that was a good distinction, that we are essentially moving, even among the educated, to a kind of post-literate society. Which I find, as I’m sure you do, very frightening.
Paul Street: I think you just cited the brain science on it, and I think that’s really the point. There’s a need for a sort of constant dopamine hit. There’s also a loss of time relative to what I recall when I was young and coming up that’s related to sticking on the college issue. Kids are working a lot more than I remember any of us have to in undergraduate [inaudible] university. To go to university, to go to college typically for most of us was supposed to have just a hell of a lot of time to read a lot of stuff. And also a sense of freedom to study topics that may not have an immediate economic payoff.
And one thing I’ve noticed is since the recession of 2007-8, parents were just really getting down on kids and giving them hell for being English majors, and philosophy majors, or history majors. And same with these huge tuition bills and the way the job market is right now, you’re going to college to get a marketing degree or an engineering degree. Something in the realm of business that’s going to pay off and make these tuition dollars pay off.
So there’s also a shortage of time, people are working more, they are under pressure from parents to make their tuition dollars pay in a way they never had before. And it’s just tragic, it’s just leading to a loss of critical thinking skills, along with the dopamine hits of the constant looking at your Facebook and your Instagram and TikTok and Twitter and so on and so forth. And there’s the general stress which eats away at cognitive capacities that’s part of this rat race, hyper capitalism that we’ve created in the last four or five decades in this country.
And it’s disturbing, because democracy depends on a raw material called human beings who are cognitively capable of processing complex material. I did a lot of activism around the abortion issue, unlike the mainstream choice organizations, right after the Supreme Court heard the case and all the way up to and through the Dobbs decision, so the Constitutional right to an abortion.
I was really shocked by how many people, including young women for whom this ought to be a critical matter, actually did not know what Roe was, why it was in danger, and what the Supreme Court was doing and saying about it. Literally it was news to them that their right to control their reproductive lives was being targeted by the Christian fascist right. And of course, say a phrase like the Christian fascist right and you’re in lecture space right there. You’ve got to do a lot of work to even say what that is. And there’s less to work with, more and more.
Chris Hedges: Well that’s by design. And as you point out, it’s worse for the working poor and the working class because they need two or three jobs just to tread water. And essentially what this does is revoke the ability to participate in any kind of popular struggle in terms of their own defense. This is coupled, as you also write, with high consumer and student debt and economic inequality that keeps, essentially – These are your words – The “masses on a seemingly endless treadmill of work, spend, and pay.” I just want to close, I’ve got about a minute left, but I want you to talk about what you call a “pathetic and decrepit ‘left’”.
Paul Street: Well, it’s funny I…
Chris Hedges: In a minute, in a minute.
Paul Street: Yeah. I find myself more and more not using that phrase to describe myself. I just find myself a socialist [inaudible]. The left is becoming increasingly problematic, it seems to almost increasingly refer to an economistic, what’s in it for me, materialism, which seems to reduce socialism, which seems to throw out the notion of a revolution, completely reduce socialism to collective bargaining agreements and electric cars or something. But there’s also this hyper identitarian wokesterism now, which just seems to be about wokeism, which just seems to be about oppression olympics. I’m more oppressed than you based on my identity.
And again, this kinda me, me, me-ness. Me, this is my identity. And so you actually get people when I’ve come out in the streets with rise up for abortion rights, fighting for women. And girls and females yelling at you and saying that your language is exclusive and against them because they’re trans, and losing touch with the fact that the war on abortion specifically targets women.
Of course we support trans rights, but it all becomes, it’s about me and my identity, and I’m currently in transition and therefore I’m more oppressed than women. Half of humanity who are currently in the targets of the neo-fascist, Christian right. And more and more of what’s called the left just seems to be in a ghetto of these types of very narrow pursuits and identities and activism. And it’s sad to see.
Chris Hedges: Well, campaigns for moral purity are a way to compensate for an utter lack of political power or, frankly, the interest in creating the organizations that might give them political power, isn’t it?
Paul Street: Yeah. And there’s this sense that knowledge grows completely out of one’s identity and who one is, as opposed to doing any work. Actually digging into some history and reading up on just exactly what the Roe v. Wade decision was and what the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was. It’s just like, it’s all about who you are instead of what you know, and this is part of a kind of reductionism down to almost nothing. It’s disastrous.
Chris Hedges: The disease of the cult of the self.
I want to thank The Real News Network, its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.