Imagine you are at the theater but the performance instead of the stage is everything that surrounds you in your everyday real life. Everything is the same but at the same time nothing is. In life, you attend a performance to escape, to succumb to character-driven plots performed by actors who take you for a few hours to another world. As if by magic, you are transported into their world. Now imagine, as suggested, the theater is your everyday life and the performance has lasted for a little over six months, with a nearly three month-long prologue, which itself was preceded by 15 months of commercials.
You might think this is Fellini or performance art or some combination of the two, but instead it is Trumpistan, the new American political reality show. There might be a reboot or an encore or a revival performance of America somewhere some day, perhaps even on this land we still call America; after all, the country is gone only in a metaphorical and psychic sense for now.
This theater came into fashion after months of mind numbing cable TV interviews with a rotating cast of colorful sycophants, one who promised “policies as exciting as the 1930s” (Bannon) and a protagonist who begged an adversary to do battle with his demons (Trump). This political reality theater was itself preceded by years of mind numbing reality television, a trashy family with the surname Kardashians, and an Islamic death cult called ISIS dominating the news until one day, a buffoon with what looks like a dead animal on his head came sauntering down a golden escalator.
Instead of being told, “These are the days of your lives,” instead one population of minorities, namely Mexicans were called rapists. White male voices and those who can pass in this world dominated by them control the media so this slid by, a source of outrage, which fed the eternal news cycle filling hours of otherwise dead air devoted to celebrities or ISIS. The rhetoric escalated and more groups were attacked. Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, Jews, and women until only the white man was standing: the true emblem of Trumpistan. The others were cajoled into acts of theater around the main ring circus.
There was also the theatrics of those for and those opposed. Across the street from where the buffoon with what appeared to be a dead animal on his head came down the escalator, supporters gathered with flags and “ISIS hunting permits” on their vehicles to shout patriotic songs. Women marched with knit caps to echo parts of their unmentionable genitalia that networks still bleep out or find euphemisms to discuss while words like ass, bitch and cunt can fly unchecked. Why not? It helps drive ratings, clicks and likes, all fueled by indeterminate and never finite amounts of outrage.
If this all seems extraordinary to you, it is, and it still should be, although many are becoming numb. Now, what if you were to find out a barrage of similar theatrics ushered into power the adversary that the buffoon with what looks like a dead animal on his head once called upon to battle his own demons? Theatrics were the very path to the rise of Putin, the leader of Russia’s own so-called “managed democracy,” which is no such thing but rather a traditional dictatorship.
In America, it has long been conventional wisdom that in order for democracy to move forward, citizens and political leaders must be able to “let the air out of the system.” In Russia, this was transformed into an art and weaponized. Putin’s strength was he understood people wanted two things: bread and circuses. To help wield the circus he hired as a young ringmaster, Vladislav Surkov, an unusually creative man for such circumstances and tasks. In turn, the Kremlin funded every type of group, those for and against, in an effort to corrupt and control. Surkov’s true talent is an understanding that people love conspiracy theories but they hesitate in the face of genuine conspiracy.
If you tune in to far-right or far-left media in America now, you will see this understanding at work. To beat back the Russian interference, ever more elaborate conspiracies are spun to give voice to pre-existing sets of beliefs. Perhaps most difficult for many on the far-right to grasp is that the war on terror, with its rhetoric of fear and terrorism helped usher in this present moment of constant theater of the apocalyptic absurd. For many on the far-left who are critics of the war on terror and this rhetoric, they struggle with the notion that while our politicians, civilians, the press, business elite, and they themselves slept through the Russian role in 2016, the national security apparatus was very awake to the threat. Neither pre-condition is wholly wrong: Islamic extremism is a real threat, but perhaps not of the scale and grandeur the war on terror made it out to be.
Now to return to Russia, one of the key facets of the fall of the Soviet Union was how quickly that country went from communism to capitalism, with one party led by intelligence officials replacing the communist party as evidenced by the fact that Putin was a former KGB agent. His coterie of loyalists often shares similar pedigrees.
In the U.S. now, we have a similar problem insofar as the two main parties are in a state of nihilistic chaos. The main opposition to authoritarianism is the intelligence services and increasingly, ironically for those on the left, the military. Those we counted on outside the world of intelligence and national security failed, whether the press, which chose to live stream all aspects of the circus to the utmost indifference of how they were being used, to the political leaders whose judgment failed, to the population and the business community who were sleeping.
In Russia, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of the nineteenth century, Alexander Herzen, said it would take two generations to turn Russia into a normal country. Russia never had that opportunity. In the U.S. as the millennial generation lost so much during the war on terror, from blood to treasure and now sovereignty, one cannot help but wonder if it will take two generations to undo a great nation and make it the opposite of normal.