A Tyranny Years in the Making

What results when the market obliterates the civic square? Trump.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged conservatismDonald Trump

With a casino developer and omnivorous self-marketer ripping through the political process and the protocols of republican deliberation, you might think that someone would have noted that our polity’s susceptibility to his destructive tactics has something to do with its ubiquitous, casino-like financing and predatory marketing, which have been dissolving civic virtues and sovereignty well before Donald Trump carried them to new extremes.

But no. We’d sooner talk about the interloper’s fraudulence, his vulgarity, his genitals, his imaginings about Mexican rapists or political correctness—anything but name the decades-long, multi-trillion-dollar tide he’s been riding. It has been transforming citizen sovereignty into the mirage of consumer sovereignty by groping us, titillating us, goosing us, insulting us, scaring us, indebting us, monitoring us, stressing us; and, after we’re too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures, presenting us with a rapacious marketer-in-chief who says he can liberate us because his own power proves that “free markets make free men.”

Trump himself may dissolve into that mirage, but even if he disappears, he’s done new and possibly irreversible damage to the democratic ethos and institutions that were already weakened by what capitalism has become.

Try to say this, though, and you run into what may be America’s only remaining taboo. Of course, you can talk about “capitalism,” but if you aren’t careful about what you say, the chattering classes will sideline you to “the fringe” of the marketing mayhem that binds them to one another and channels their chatter. Freedom of speech is even weaker now that the Citizens United ruling has given fiduciaries of corporations’ mostly anonymous shareholders “investment” opportunities in megaphones that shape public decision-making itself, while you and most other citizens get laryngitis from straining to be heard.

If you do manage to say loudly enough that free markets no longer make free men, our marketer-in-chief himself may show you his happy women and call you a loser. Or one of his apologists may call you a socialist—or even, irony of ironies, a “vulgar” Marxist, as democratic leftists who became market-loving neoliberals used to call others who didn’t.

Rats in a maze can’t pause in amazement to assess and even change the incentives that keep them running. But humans can wonder why markets have become the only measures of value in education, scientific research, news reporting, and cultural endeavors, and even love.

The American republic’s founders wondered a lot about whether people could balance wealth-making with truth-seeking and public decision-making about the modes of wealth-making itself. As soon as King George III was gone, they took a hard look at the people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hot off the press in the mid-1770s, they saw that people can lose their freedom not to a violent coup but to a smile and friendly swagger if they’ve tired of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied into servitude—or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough.

“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. Even as Benjamin Franklin voted for the Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Gibbon wrote that “a slow and secret poison” had entered “the vitals of the empire,” sapping from citizens “that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.” In time, “They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army.”

He added pointedly that Augustus, the first emperor, “wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty,” knowing as he did that “the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

Augustus guessed rightly because “the provinces, long oppressed by the ministers of the republic, sighed for the government of a single person, who would be the master, not the accomplice, of those petty tyrants. The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure, the humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus.”

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and my supporters wouldn’t leave me,” our would-be Augustus proclaims. He has already shot new holes in the liberal democratic fabric of dialogue and trust, exciting “militia” members, rogue cops, enthusiasts of “Stand Your Ground” and “Concealed Carry” laws and border walls and mass incarceration, and even mass shooters perversely attuned to a society’s subliminal signals.

Other market-driven stresses and humiliations are erupting in family breakdown, road rage, lethal rampages at store openings on sale days; extreme fighting or cage fighting, the gladitorialization of college and professional sports, drug abuse, and escapist, demoralizing entertainments, including reality TV and Trump’s own “Apprentice” shows, which ran for over a decade.

The more that impulse-buying and escapism become the measures of our well-being, the more we’re like flies trapped in the spider’s web of the 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines with which lenders, insurers, pharmaceutical producers are dissolving our freedoms, not out of malevolence or conspiracy but out of mindless, routinized greed. We resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes, elaborate home-security systems, and vapid spectacles punctuated by mob-like cries for an American Augustus who’ll make our nation great again.

American founders believed that, as the historian Gordon Wood puts it, “It was not force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people… The obsessive term was luxury, both a cause and a symptom of social sickness. This… love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them… unfit and undesiring to serve the state.”

Now a purveyor of illusions of luxury in his palace hotels and casinos has persuaded millions of Americans to serve him as the head of their state. But a liberal capitalist republic needs citizens who voluntarily uphold and impart to one another sturdy public virtues and beliefs such as reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests.

Markets alone can’t nourish or defend that, and “Money appears as a disruptive power for the individual and social bonds. It changes vice into virtue, stupidity into intelligence. He who can purchase bravery is brave, though a coward…. But let us assume man to be man, and his relationship to the world a human one; then…. if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, your love is impotent, and a misfortune.”

One needn’t be a “vulgar Marxist” to say that. Karl Marx wrote that himself. His diagnoses were a lot better than his or his followers’ prescriptions, but Trump, our marketer-in-chief, skips both, offering only political impulse-buying on the way to a nightmarish bottom line.

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Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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