What a strange, weird, and chilling thing the world saw today. An American president meekly, proudly handing over the keys to the house of democracy, to its most historic foe, in a bizarre, global, public spectacle. Wasn’t it humiliating?
I find the word “conquered” as ridiculous and childish as you do. LOL. But what then is this? A coup? A soft revolution? I think reason begins here — this event is something we don’t have a good word for. And that’s because it’s so far off the charts of history. The point of war, beyond the plunder, is to control a state — yet somehow, this was non-war which was lost without a fight, by installing a puppet so servile, so obvious, that the world laughs in shocked bewilderment. Isn’t that odd? How did it happen?
I think Russia didn’t need to fire a bullet because it realized that all it needed to do was help finish what America itself had started. The project of undoing a democracy — using a democracy. I’ll get to that. First, let me set the stage.
My story has three strands, an economic one, a social one, and a cultural one. Together, I think, they produced a nation that was hollow, fragile, empty broken inside — and thus ready to be conquered by a foe, with a mere gentle act of seduction, not even a war, a fight, or a long and bitter struggle.
Let me begin with the economic strand. American incomes, as you probably know, began to stagnate in 1971. Right at the peak of the cold war — at the precise moment segregation ended. Coincidence? Hardly. America relied upon a pool of cheap labour, to discriminate against, and when so when segregation ended, wages flatlined for everyone. Instead of building what its peers were — great public institutions, to provide everyone healthcare, education, finance, transport, media, safety nets, pensions, the only thing that America invested in, really, was war. It saw itself as the West’s heavy — the bouncer at the doors of the free world. But being the bouncer doesn’t mean you join the party inside — and America never did.
Because it didn’t invest in itself, life for American began to fall apart. In the 80s, it became legal to raid pension funds. In the early 90s, to charge students extortionate rates for loans. In the mid 90s, for debt to follow you even after bankruptcy. Wave after wave of attacks on basic human rights — not by Russians, but by America’s very own extremists, in the name, ironically, of “freedom” — reduced American life to something like an exercise in bitter, crushing, ruinous competition. Americans were forced to compete for worse and worse “jobs” — at which they could now be fired on a whim — for all the things Europeans enjoyed as a birthright: access to hospitals, schools, universities, money, transport, credit. The basics of a good life were no longer present. Hollowed out economically, America was about to be shattered socially.
As people’s lives fell apart, into insecurity, insability, precarity, and poverty, they lost trust. In everything. In the system. In themselves. In each other. A ruinous, catastrophic collapse in trust began in America in the 1970s, and proceeds to this day. There isn’t a single institution that Americans still believe in. Nor is there a single social group that is trusted.
Americans, living desperate lives, soon became suspicious, paranoid, bitter, hostile, filled with that legendary cruelty the world is now shocked by. Little kids shooting each other at schools, people dying without insulin — a hostile world. A collapse in trust. Towards whom, though? Towards each other. But most of all, towards government. The deconstruction of government by American extremists therefore accelerated, to the point that by the 2000s, America had no real social contract left to speak of. One wasn’t born in America with any real rights, save to carry a gun. One had to fight bitterly to earn a living, just to live a decent life. No one could be trusted in such a world.
What happens when a society loses trust in itself? In the systems which govern it? In the people which compose it? Well, that brings me to the third strand in my story of how America was conquered — the cultural one. When people lose trust in the basic systems of democracy, they don’t bother much with it, do they? And when those people are overworked and underpaid — who has the time for democracy, anyways? So as a result of the loss of trust, many Americans began to give up on democracy — we’ll come back to specifically whom, because it matters a very great deal. Civic participation cratered. Turnout withered. The basic elements of a republic, a res publica, a “public affair”, in which people played enthusiastic and passionate roles in the governance and administration of their own affairs, decayed and degenerated.
So by the 1990s, the average middle class American was far more likely to be found at a shopping mall, contesting status through consumer goods, than contesting a seat of governance in that very same town he lived in. American democracy, once renowned for its vibrancy — even if scorned for its power to exclude those it defined as subhuman — became something like a zombie, a walking corpse, staggering about with no real direction or goal. It started to be a democracy in name — but not really one in function. People disenagaged from the basic responsibilities of a republic.
Yet that was all compounded, of course, by weaknesses in America’s now-ancient design of and for a democracy. A Senate which, because each state sent two Senators, regardless of population, came to be held hostage by a minority of rural extremists. But what made those rurals extremists in the first place? It was all the above, wasn’t it? They were losing control of their own fates, being abandoned by reckless elites, who didn’t seem to understand that simply trading American jobs for Chinese and Indian jobs wasn’t progress for anyone but their own equations. At a global level, it was a zero-sum game. So extremist movements found a foothold in rural America — and their message was to eviscerate a government that can’t be trusted to do the right thing for you, by you, with you.
Now zombie democracy had a purpose — eat what was left of governance, as fast and hard as possible. So by now America now developed a truly bizarre, perverse, and twisted attitude to being a democracy. It had a democracy, sure — but most people, urbans, city dwellers, especially elites, were tuned out. Those extremists, rural, forgotten, in that mythical heartland, those who were left still tuned in, had a single, ruthless, all-consuming goal — to deconstruct, shatter, limit, and destroy government itself, as completely as possible. Do you see how weird and perverse this became The people who were most tuned in to democracy only wanted to use it to shatter itself — and the masses, who weren’t tuned in at all, didn’t seem to care much
The era of “drowning government in a bathtub”, which had begun in the 80s, and picked up steam by the 90s, was, by the 2010s, not just the dominant force in American politics — it was the only one. Nobody had a vision for a working social contract — institutions that government should provide, like an American NHS or BBC. All that was there was a negative vision, an absence — the shining ideal of a society free from the stifling bonds of government.
But how can a democracy exist at all without government? Isn’t this all bizarre and twisted in on itself? And yet here Americans were. Everyone had lost faith in the system. The urbans dropped out of civic life entirely. The rurals attached themselves to civic life with a vengeance — but only for a perverse purpose — to destroy the very government that had failed them. The purpose of American democracy became, in the end, not to create a working society — but to destroy the very government that might have made such a thing possible. It’s funny, isn’t it? And sad, too. Because something great, vital, and necessary was being lost this fools’ bargain, and no one, it seemed, was wise, intelligent, or decent enough to remember what.
What was being lost was national sovereignty itself. Because when people lose trust in a system so badly that most of them drop out of participating in it, and those that are left only participate in it to destroy it — then what everyone is also implicitly saying is: “we are not a sovereign people anymore. We have no capacity for joint self-governance or self-directedness. All we are capable of is using democracy to undo our very own sovereignty — but not using democracy to expand and empower our destiny as sovereign people, making collective choices to improve everyone’s lives.” Does that make sense? Sovereignty was going up in flames — but Americans didn’t even see that much, because they didn’t really believe in the idea of joint sovereignty anymore.
Now. How could such a nation — in which most dropped out of democracy, and those who were left used it as a tool to destroy governance — end up anywhere other other than be conquered without a fight? When a people have decided that the whole project of democracy is only there to undo any kind of collective action, how then can they act to save their skins? If democracy’s destructive — not constructive — who’s left to fight for it, at the level of its highest institutions, Senate, Congress, judiciary, law, and so on? Do you see the problem? If those very people do not really believe in the project of a democracy as a constructive thing — if they are spending their days undoing democracy, if that is the thrust and goal and purpose of their whole work, careers, jobs, and lives — then who is bothering to save, strengthen, or nourish sovereignty? When its daily work is undoing the sovereignty of the people, hasn’t such a democracy already begun the job of destroying itself — in a very real and lethal way?
So along came Russia. It installed a puppet President so easily that I’d bet it’s shocked to this very day at how smooth the sailing was. Not a wind ruffled the waters. But why would it be anything but smooth sailing? Americans had long ago decided that democracy wasn’t a constructive tool, only a destructive one. All its leaders and representatives were therefore, ironically, already busy doing the work of undoing democracy from the inside. Thus, whomever warned that strange and sinister things were afoot was quickly dismissed. Hey! Why would anyone want to take over a state that we’re busy deconstructing? Psssh. Enough with the conspiracy theories — let us get on with the job of selling this city to the lobbyists!! But see the point: American leaders had a very different job than protecting, expanding, and nurturing democracy — using it as a blunt weapon to destroy itself. When you’re busy doing that, why would you care about saving it?
So Russia installed the cartoon President it chose without so much as having to lift a rifle. Everyone “failed” to see what was happening, didn’t they — sometimes pretty, well, wierdly enthusiastically? From intelligence agencies. To the press. From the media. To academics, thinkers, and pundits. From armed forces to governors. Why was that? Every single institution in the blighted and strange democracy had come to believe in a strange and perverse idea — that it was only there to undo itself. It was so busy doing that, that it didn’t notice that help was on the way, from its worst enemy. Or maybe it did — and so, even more absurdly, many celebrated this brave man who seemed to be capable of finishing the job of using democracy to wreck democracy.
Do you see how everyone’s shared interests in undoing a a democracy, all converged and aligned, to produce a kind of blindess, deafness, ignorance, and folly? The rural extremists — their interest was to use democracy to undo itself. The patrician elites — who stood to gain, because, in turn, the urban middle classes, having lost faith in the system, developed a kind of negligence, and wouldn’t check them. Institution after institution — interested only in undoing democracy, in eroding governance, in stripping away what was left of a republic. Do you see how when you already believe, ideologically, that democracy is a tool to destroy governance with, then you will be quite happy to accept a gentle and kind helping from your worst enemies — while also at the very same time being so foolish that you’d disbelieve that they would be helping you at all?
Ah, how funny. How strange. How sad! This story of American collapse is. Now that I’ve told you the story, let me summarize the moral.
Capitalism ate democracy, and sold it to kleptocracy, which, soon enough replaced it with fascism. “Make Us Great Again!” rose the cry. And while many Americans rolled their eyes, few connected the dots. What was the point of a democracy again? Was there one? Now here America is, living in the aftermath. The broken and strange people of the bizarre and twisted land which sowed the seeds of its own ruin, by believing that democracy was only a tool to undo itself with, to strip away the sovereignty of a people with.
One day, America’s enemies realized that when a people are that foolish, you don’t even need to fire a bullet to conquer them. You only have to do precisely the opposite, which is much easier. Comforting, even.
Help them finish what they started.