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An Order of Chaos, Please

November 5, 2016



According to polls and innumerable published interviews and anecdotes, Americans of all political persuasions just can’t wait for the nightmare of the current presidential election to end. It’s too ugly and demeaning. Wake us when it’s over!

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. George Packer explains why in an article in the current New Yorker,Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt”; Terry Gross interviewed Packer on the November 3 edition of “Fresh Air,” and the podcast is worth listening to. To summarize just a little of Packer’s article and interview: Our current scorched-earth politics have historical roots, some of which have to do with economic and demographic trends, some with the personalities and tactics of significant players, of whom Packer singles out three sowers of discord on the political right: Newt Gingrich, Andrew Breitbart, and Donald Trump.

Gingrich (who will forever be remembered as having led the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton for lying about an extramarital affair, while he himself was having an affair about which he lied repeatedly) introduced take-no-prisoners tactics to Congress, twice shutting down the government and raising partisan demonization to a dark art form. Breitbart upended traditional journalism with his eponymous alt-right website, helping create a political discourse in which facts and arguments no longer matter. Trump has more recently built on these dubious achievements, capitalizing on the disappointments and resentments of white wage-class Americans who were on the losing end of Washington’s and Wall Street’s giddy flings with globalization and financialization. Gingrich and Breitbart birthed a politics of destruction; now Trump stands Samson-like between the pillars of the temple.

The Trump phenomenon couldn’t have taken off if it weren’t for the fact that millions of Americans are already living a nightmare—at least, compared to how life was for them and their parents a few decades ago. Packer wrote revealingly of the declining prospects of wage-class Americans in his 2013 book The Unwinding, describing through observation, interview, and analysis the experiences of people caught up in cultural and economic decay. Starting in the 1980s, the Democratic Party—which previously represented the interests of labor unions and the wage-earning class—deserted that constituency in favor of urban professionals and various identity groups (African Americans, Latinos, liberated women, and gays). Meanwhile the Republican Party adopted a southern strategy, playing on white resentments lingering since the Civil War, cultivating the support of evangelical Christians, and making inroads among the languishing working class.

Packer doesn’t mention that American civilization was destined to unravel anyway. To understand why, we need an education in history and archaeology (read Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies), an understanding of the implications of fossil fuel depletion (my own book The Party’s Over is not a bad place to start), and a little background in boom-bust economic cycles (try Turchin and Nefedov’s Secular Cycles, or David Graeber’s Debt). A small library of books has been written since the turn of the millennium describing the inevitability of civilizational decline or collapse due both to social pressures from unsustainable debt levels, increasing inequality, and rampant corruption; and to deeper infrastructural issues having to do with resource depletion, pollution (in the form of climate change), and the essential unsustainability of economic growth. Several authors, myself among them, have been warning that America risks coming apart. The current election cycle enables, or forces, us to watch the spectacle as it unfolds.

Of course, events will transpire differently depending on who wins. If Hillary Clinton is the victor, then we can anticipate a crisis of legitimacy, along with various manifestations of simmering rebellion. If Democrats fail to take the Senate, Washington will enter a (probably short) era of continual and complete gridlock, with full-time hearings and investigations. Republicans have already promised to block Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees, and Trump has warned  of a constitutional crisis if Clinton is elected. In the best-case scenario (from the standpoint of maintaining the status quo), the Democrats do take the Senate, in which case there is at least the possibility of two more years of some increasingly bizarre and dysfunctional version of business-as-usual, until the mid-term election—when the Senate could very well flip back to Republican hands, particularly if there’s an economic recession (there will be an unusually large number of Democratic senate seats up for grabs then). If that happens, gridlock and witch-hunting would begin in earnest.

If Donald Trump wins, America won’t be great again—not by a long shot. Instead we will be treated to a different crisis of legitimacy: over half the country (including powerful members of the Republican party) will continue to regard the new leader with utter contempt, as they already do, and he will be nagged and hobbled by the Trump University fraud lawsuit and possibly other, more devastating legal challenges. It would be a non-stop train wreck with horrifying casualties, but the TV ratings would be fabulous. Trump has demonstrated a tendency to mow his critics aside and grab attention and power in any way possible; if he becomes president we’ll see how those tendencies play out on the world stage.

The government of the United States of America has developed increasing numbers of tics, limps, and embarrassing cognitive lapses during the past ten or 15 years, but it has managed to go on with the show. Yet as dysfunction snowballs, a maintenance crisis becomes inevitable at some point. When the crunch comes (most likely as a result of the next cyclical economic downturn, which is already overdue and could be much worse than that of 2008), we will reap the fruits of a system that is simply no longer capable of acting cooperatively to solve problems. The trials of legitimacy that both Clinton and Trump face mean that—regardless which is elected—the country will be less able to address existing threats (e.g., climate change) let alone new ones that may arise, such as a serious recession or a major natural disaster. Crisis will demand action, but how can action be mobilized with the country so politically polarized and the government itself in paralysis? The details of what emerges from here on will depend on all sorts of current unknowables. But those who think life in America can’t get any worse may have a few surprises in store. And we probably won’t have long to wait before that chain of surprises begins unreeling.

The nightmare of the election itself will end soon. But we may not like what we wake up to. Increasingly, it’s up to communities to build resilience—not just to climate change, but to the whole cascading chain of social, economic, and political impacts from the bursting of the fossil-fueled growth bubble.

Image credit: bastetamon/Shutterstock.com.