Truth and Power
“Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.” Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
It seems as if the mainstream corporate media have concluded that the return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2024 is not just likely, but inevitable. Fevered reporting about Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers and the Democrats’ ongoing intramural squabbles over Biden’s legislative agenda make it appear that the administration is toast after only ten months in office. Without a single vote being cast, the Democrats are portrayed as having already lost the 2022 midterms and control of Congress.
Is it time for a reality check? I know I can use one. America staggered out of the Trump years like a heavyweight boxer dazed by a flurry of uppercuts and wicked body shots. While I voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, my expectations of them were modest, boiling down to little more than slowing our slide into dysfunction and authoritarian rule. With slim majorities in Congress it was always going to be an uphill slog for Biden. We should remember that more than 70 million people voted for Trump, and that the GOP fared fairly well in congressional and senate races in 2020. Georgia was a notable exception, but the margins of victory in the senate races was razor thin. When I begin to feel frustrated about the lack of progress in Washington I have to remind myself of these facts.
This doesn’t mean I’m not alarmed by what Trump and his Republican allies and enablers are doing; the damage is real, like a termite infestation in an old wooden house. The endless braying and barking from Trump for audits of election results, even in states where he won, steadily erode public confidence in our elections, setting the stage for chaos in 2022 and beyond. Equally destructive is the rewriting of history by Trump and his congressional minions about the January 6 riots and Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of voters by corrupting the Department of Justice. The rioters are being rebranded as patriots, as if their actions are not responsible for the death of capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, and the injuries sustained by hundreds of his colleagues. What about them, don’t they matter? To put it crudely: this is serious shit. As thinker Yuval Noah Harari makes clear, the stories we tell matter. Donald J. Trump may be an amoral and incompetent man in almost every respect, but he’s a master storyteller. His stories are full of outright lies, fantasy, and malicious bullshit, but they are effective with a swath of the American people.
Midterm elections usually go against the party in control. This is an established pattern in American politics. If it happens in 2022, Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, much of which would benefit working-class Americans and national efforts to slow the effects of climate change, will run smack into Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy’s cement wall. That corrupt duo will spend two years painting Biden as Herbert Hoover, which could set the stage for Trump to return as America’s “savior.” If that’s not a nightmare scenario, I don’t know what is.
After following American politics for nearly twenty years, I’m not under any illusions about the health of American democracy. The system is riddled with problems caused by our 18th century foundational documents. Here I’m speaking primarily of the undemocratic Electoral College. The Senate is also ridiculously undemocratic, as evidenced by the power two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both nominally Democrats, have to undermine the agenda of a president of their own party. Gerrymandering is another problem, as is the disproportionate power wielded by sparsely populated states like North and South Dakota. And, of course, our political system is rendered deaf, dumb, and blind to the needs of citizens by wealthy individuals and corporations who pour millions of dollars into lobbying, advertising, and the coffers of legislators. The idea, sanctioned by the US Supreme Court in one of its more shameful decisions, that money equals speech, has warped the playing field.
Yes, there are many things for citizens to worry about, and some of us do. But the fact is that most don’t know or care to pay attention. The American attention span is short and selective, and our collective knowledge of our own history is poor. The portents are ominous. We may be nearing a fork in the road from which there is no return.