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The End of The American Experiment, the Trump Dictatorship, and What We Suck At

The End of The American Experiment, the Trump Dictatorship, and What We Suck At

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Americans are confident Trump’s plan of [mumbling] will lower prices (WaPo)
  2. How five crucial elections in 2024 could shape climate action for decades (Nature)
  3. The US supreme court could still swing the election for Trump (Guardian)
  4. Why Are Pants So Big (Again)? (NYT)
  5. Joe Biden’s Last Campaign (New Yorker)
  6. Young, Black, and Done With Biden: The Issues That Could Decide the Election (Rolling Stone)
  7. Stop arguing and cut emissions (Science)

The End of The American Experiment

Are Americans really going to…do it? Are they going to “vote”…for an openly aspiring dictator…who wants to end democracy? What do you even call that? Today, we’re going to discuss all that.

A few years ago, I wrote a little essay called “The End of the American Experiment.” In those times, writing that was…made people’s heads explode and eyes open a little bit. It became a theme I’d discuss. And I’m sure over the years many of you have wondered just why

Why does this guy keep writing about this? In the beginning, a lot of people thought I was just plain wrong. Then Trump was elected, and suddenly, I didn’t seem so wrong. Things went downhill, fast, from economy to society to culture. And maybe my position didn’t look so strange. But the question lingered: why is this guy saying this? Is he getting some kind of kick out of it? Is he happy about it? Gleeful? Just rubbing it in?

I’m going to tell you in a moment why I’m sharing these thoughts with you, but first me finish them. I didn’t write any of that stuff for any of these reasons, and it used to bug me when people would say that. It still does. I wrote it for a very simple reason. It’s what I saw coming. And it’s my job, as a public intellectual, writer, economist, thinker, whatever you want to call it—in America, there’s less of a place for just people who think in society than Europe—to highlight what I see coming. And weirdly, stupidly, I take that job seriously.

I was surprised that more of my peers didn’t discuss it much. To me, the data suggested meltdown, unequivocally. Long run economic stagnation. A collapse in social bonds. Skyrocketing inequality. A life-or-death struggle to exist, survive, subsist. What would say that pointed to? The economist in me understood: fanaticism would explode, and persist. 

Is There Going to Be a Trump…Landslide?

And here we are. Trump is riding a bullet right back to the Presidency. Let me say something even more “controversial,” just as such positions were then, when my peers thought American democracy was eternal, like Everest. 

Right about now? I’d say that Trump isn’t just going to win, but that he might well win in a landslide. Before you throw your coffee at me in horror, let me explain. We talk a lot about trends. And I try to educate you, teach you, how to think in this way. Trends are directions, with momentums and gravity all their own. 

And right now, two trends are converging—micro trends, in this case. Trump’s momentum is building, incredibly sharp and fast. While Biden’s is declining sharply. No, I don’t say that gleefully. I think Biden’s been a pretty good President, even as I swallow my distaste for the way he’s handled Gaza. 

Think about the last few months. If the election were held today, Trump would probably win it handily. He’s ahead by five points in the latest not-so-bad poll. That’s a tremendous margin—especially when you consider the “secret hate vote,” which almost always accompanies demagoguery: people who won’t reveal their preferences to pollsters, but come election day, unleash for the demagogue. In recent history, that extra margin is anywhere between 5-10%, and so Trump’s real margin is likely well higher.

Now think about Biden’s ratings have sunk. Unfortunately, America’s a hyper capitalist society, and brands, marketing, pure guff—it all matters. Americans are impressionable, to put it politely, but the Democrats are utterly terrible at marketing, which they won’t even call marketing, but “messaging.” Biden’s image has become that of a frail, confused, elderly guy—even though Trump’s barely any younger, and hardly the paragon of health himself. How did that happen?

What Our Side Sucks At

This is a grim reality of politics. It’s only gotten worse over time. Marketing, marketing, marketing. I wish, too, that people were rational, and they made sensible, wise decisions. But when has that ever been true? From Rome to Nazi Germany, people have been capable of being gullible idiots. That doesn’t mean people are “sheeple.” But it does mean that in bad times, when people are in despair, wounded, hurt, afraid, the future in flames—they’re at their worst. And when we’re at our worst? That’s when we tend to make bad choices.

In our age, all this has only been amplified by “tech,” and the more or less open secret that the enemies of democracy globally are waging an information war on the West, and radicalizing its poor lost souls. 

Our side sucks at combating this. All this. It should be better at what’s known as “counter-propaganda,” better than the other side is at propaganda—or how else will sanity ever prevail? But the Democrats persist with the hubris that marketing is “messaging,” and building real brands is beneath them.

Do you know what the most successful brand of the 21st century is? It’s not Nike, Google, Apple, or Facebook. It’s Trump. And it’s truer every day, incredibly. Think about it: a man with, what is it now, 91? felony charges is the front-runner for the Presidency, and that’s before we get to “he also led a bloody coup.” The Trump brand is now known in every last corner of the globe, and, groan, I get asked about whether or not he’s going to win from Paris to London to Asia and beyond. All of this is hinges on marketing, the impression that Trump “doesn’t mean what he says,” or he “really cares about us,” and so forth. 

For Trump, this is all about ego, of course. Wouldn’t it be nice to be as famous as…Taylor Swift? Maybe not for you or I, but for a certain kind of person, a narcissist, a malignant one, an egomaniac, someone so deeply insecure they can’t exist without people telling them they’re omnipotent and pure and perfect a thousand times a day…it’s the only reason to exist. And that’s what the brand does for Trump.

Branding, in a weird way, has destroyed democracy, or is about to, anyways. I say that to you as one of the guys who reinvented modern marketing, and helped create modern branding. I don’t tell that story very much, but I created this thing called “Meaningful Brands,” which went on to transform…the entire marketing industry (I’m not kidding, everybody copied it, like here, here, and here.)

Trump has a sort of “meaningful brand.” Just in all the wrong ways, at least when democracy’s at stake. How is it possible, for example, that people trust a convicted fraudster and liar more than…a guy like…Joe Biden? Disagree with Biden all you like, and I do, on many issues, but come on—he’s hardly Madoff meets Hitler. How did that happen? It happened because people found a vacuum of meaning where more should’ve been, which left Trump become the more trustworthy candidate, incredibly. (Don't take it from me if you don't want to, take it from Jon Stewart.) That should teach us a few lessons. But is it?

The Splintering of Coalitions

I have a cousin. She said to me the other day, “Biden’s going to get what he deserves!”

I asked, frowning, “What’s that?”

“Trump’s going to beat him!” she said, with a kind of gleeful schadenfreude.

“So you want Biden to be punished? For Gaza? For leaving young people and minorities feeling abandoned and so on?”

"Of course I do," she responded.

So…you’re a leftist Trumpist, I observed. She laughed. I’m not! Are you crazy, she asked. But you want Trump to win, I pointed out. That doesn’t make me a Trumpist, she replied. I laughed. It was a joke. And I certainly don’t mean that everyone who objects to Biden on the left is a Trumpist.

But perhaps you see my point. Biden won by building a coalition, and it’s the only way that our side, aka democracy, can win. Especially now. Uniting the center, left, and what little’s left of the not-authoritarian right. But Biden’s swift fall from grace shows us, too, just how hard it is to hold such a coalition together.

Why is Biden so obsessed with…not really…acting…like the people of Gaza…are human beings? Why doesn’t he appear to care nearly enough about debt and young people? What message do minorities get from all that, who are in the crosshairs of all those ills? That’s what my cousin would ask. So of course the coalition’s breaking apart, splintering. Those are substantive mistakes, by the way, not just issues of “brands.”

Biden’s team hasn’t focused enough or well on holding the coalition together. He’s been a good President, and his heart, I think, is in the right place—groan, hit me, go ahead. But there’s also the perception that he doesn’t care. Nearly enough. About the issues that hold coalitions together. My cousin thinks of him as a career machine politician. I don’t know if he’s really that—he came out of retirement to prevent Trump taking office again. And yet even I question it when I see Biden…way too…silent. About all these big issues. And that is very much a question of branding, of communication, of making people feel that, yes, even if this guy faces difficult choices, he’s part of us, we’re on the same side.

Are We On the Same Side Anymore? Or, Grand Aspirations

Our side doesn’t know it, but right about now, it’s asking a question. Are we even on the same side anymore? Let’s take Gaza. The center, such as it is, seems to stomach no limit to the death of innocents. How many is enough? 30,000? 50,000? 75,000? How many need to die? The center shrugs, as if to say: they’re barely even people. This drives the left, I guess, into a frenzy. It asks: they are people, they’re innocent, this is a slaughter…so…are we even on the same side anymore?

Meanwhile, the center looks at the left with disdain and contempt, as it always has, more or less. Don’t you see how hard we’ve worked and what we’ve done? All these grand long-terms plans to reinvent the economy? And look, the economy’s roaring! It’s booming. Never mind the fact that it’s for capital, not labour, and people are struggling just to get by, to pay the rent and bills—profits and growth are skyrocketing! Everything’s wonderful. Don’t you get it? Are we even on the same side anymore?

It’s funny how it’s the same question. But it’s also deadly serious. So…are we?

You see, what we’re missing are Grand Aspirations. Think of these things called “macro trends” that I highlight for you—global democracy in tatters, authoritarianism rising, conflict soaring, the majority of people’s living standards falling, inequality skyrocketing, etcetera.

What’s the opposite of a macro trend? A Grand Aspiration. A direction that we want to pull the world in.

The broken, troubled world. It’s up to us, after all, to change it. Yesterday’s Grand Aspirations were…some of the noblest and grandest in human history. We aspired to end war, hunger, disease, conflict, poverty, deprivation.

And then we stopped. We’ve been bickering, ever since, over quotidian issues. Who’s going to back this policy? What should we do about this or that? And while that’s normal, and necessary, we’ve been not just absorbed, by consumed, by the mundane. We’ve forgotten that our job isn’t just to fix the here and now, but to fix the world. With these Grand Aspirations.

What happens if we don’t? Three things do. Number one, in the vacuum, authoritarianism and fascism rise, because now there’s a moral vacuum, and people are all the more easily seduced by the promises of demagogues. Number two, regress begins to set in, because in human affairs, equilibrium’s an illusion: either we move forward, or we crash backward. But number three is a hidden cost: our own coalitions begin to splinter and break.

And we become easy meat for the furthest reaches of fanaticism, extremism, and demagoguery—oppositions who’ve broken themselves in the spirit, their strength shattered, their spirits demoralized, their energy drained.

This isn’t really about “infighting”—I don’t mean at this sort-of-juvenile level at all. I want you to see the dynamics, the effects, of not having Grand Aspirations, which we don’t anymore. 

That, too, is a part of a “brand.” What is the center there for anymore? The left? Can anyone say? But we all know what the far right is there for: hate, spite, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and so on. Our side, though, isn’t for these things anymore, an end to war, hunger, violence, deprivation, illness, etcetera, or at least not enough, certainly not enough together. And without any of that, why should anyone much turn to us? What moral change do we want? What is our telos, our desired state of the world? What are we really offering people? This is how you get to Genocide-Joe-Makes-Me-Roll-My-Eyes. The double standards, after all, are almost painfully clear.

All of this is where we are. Our coalitions need to be refreshed and reformed. Around Grand Aspirations. Grand Aspirations are all we have ever had, really, to propel civilization forward. They are all that unites us, and without them, we fall apart, as we’re doing now.

I don’t know if we’ll remember that fast enough. 

It’s all these years later, and what I discussed then…came true. America’s on the brink. Of the end of it all. A Trump dictatorship, democracy going poof, kiss it all goodbye. Here we are, at this terrible, strange point in history. What are we learning? What will we learn? And what happens…if?

All that brings me back to Trump. Grand Aspirations. America, too, was a nation founded on those—some of history’s noblest. And here it is, about to elect a person like Trump, so poor in character, judgment, a charlatan, a fraud, a liar, not just marginally, but perhaps even in a landslide. See what happens without Grand Aspirations? And how fast? Let it be a lesson to all of us.

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