The devices employed in US election cycles and its national politics, in general, are akin to the dramatic conventions of children’s theatre. Every two to four years, voters are instructed to clap their hands and believe in Tinker Bell. “Children, you have to believe — you really, really have to believe in Tinker Bell.” But behind the stagecraft is oligarchy. President Obama took millions from Goldman Sachs, et al. If there is a Captain Hook in this show, it is those Wall Street pirates who threw the global economy to the crocodiles for their ill-gotten gains.
Of course, this is a tired, old show, riddled with shopworn devices, performed by a rotating cast of hacks. Ronald Reagan set the fool’s gold standard of a president playacting the role of populist, matinee hero — Clinton, Bush, and Obama all learned from him — as, all the while, he, in reality, went about the business of protecting and enhancing the holdings of the moneyed elite.
In Reagan’s case, this con game was both an act of inspired career advancement and banal casuistry. Reagan, B-grade actor that he was, was never deep enough to harbor any belief he wasn’t paid to evince. By professional necessity, he convinced himself he believed those bright and shining lies and polished platitudes he pitched to a public of credulous marks; for this is the mode of mind of effective salesmen and good showmen … having the ability to conflate shallow self interest with the good of all.
Such self-deception — played out as public legerdemain and state stagecraft — is now the modus operandi of media age presidencies. The effect of this transformation, from executive gravitas to virtual playacting, has been somewhat less than salubrious for the health of the republic. When, for example, an American city drowns in floodwater and Americans are drowning in economic woes, US presidents know how to act like a president — but not act as president. The soundbites make the man; not the man makes the soundbites.
Thus far, Obama’s role has been to front the status quo. Whose interest do you think he had in mind when he picked Larry Summers and Tim Geithner as his top economic advisors? Hint: not those who clutch a subway strap nor sit stranded in freeway traffic, in bank-financed motor vehicles, on their daily commute to and from work.
Presidents, as is the case with all people, internalize the social and cultural architecture of their times. Reagan, the actor, had to find a way to believe what movie industry scriptwriters and film directors wanted from him insofar as the creation of character — and, during the Cold War and McCarthy-era witchhunts, when G.E. and other defense industry giants started writing his checks (after his movie career died a lackluster death) he performed his role as resolute cold warrior as requested. And he, as has every president since, became a shill and enabler of the national security state.
Barack Obama’s transformation from progressive hope-monger to status quo water-carrier should not come as a shock. It would be nearly impossible for the US populace, chief executives included, not to have internalized the tenets of the corporate capitalist / consumer empire. This corporate structure is as pervasive internally as it is extant. It exists as both outer architecture and inner psychological imprinting. Therefore, corporatism is as real to us as the deep forests and its woodland gods were to European pagans and The Church and its dogma was to the peasants of the Dark and Middle Ages.
The circumstances of the present era, like the ancient belief in the acts of self-involved gods whose doings were heedless to the fate of mere mortals, are larger than us and will not cede to our demands to behave with compassion or even sanity. To name but one example: The earth’s oceans are suffering, many oceanographers say dying, due to the death cult calculus of runaway capitalism. In essence, we are confronted by a situation in which we experience abject powerlessness. An aura of unease and anomie prevails.
This unease contributes to a desperate fantasy of the presidency as deus ex machina. The right’s deification of Reagan cast the fantasy into the realm of bughouse raving: The dead president as savior zombie. The belief that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union with 1940’s era movie jibes and bromides is such a preposterous fantasy … that it evokes one of my own: Ronald Reagan, endlessly imprisoned in a soundbite loop in Hell, throwing back his shoulders, doing that portrayal of manly resolve he wore out during his time in office … then bandying into the indifference of eternity, this variation of his patented platitude, “Mr. Devil, tear down this wall of fire.”
What is the emotional toil taken by the reality that in life, unlike theatre, there will be no sudden plot reversal brought about by a device of deus ex machina? In these desperate imaginings, we demand our president both lay on hands to heal the wounds inflicted by capitalism and smite our perceived enemies abroad. We insist he be not only a steely eyed warrior-king but our collective killer Christ.
Democratic presidents, and their handlers and advisers, become possessed of this errant archetype as well. Hence, according to the fantasy, to be viable as commander-in-chief, they are driven to prove their toughness, preferably, in some he-man display of resolute stupidity. They must prove they have a pair of killer/redeemer god balls — which might be termed, Christesticles — by bombing somebody — anybody. At present, it appears this fraternity of hubris-blinded killer clowns has Iran in their cross hairs.
The act of imagining enemies serves as distraction from the angst arising from the vast economic inequities of life in the contemporary US. This is the good versus evil, dramatic conventions of the children’s theatre of our politics: We boo the villains — and are instructed to clap our hands to bring about an intervention by supernatural forces … In this case, in the form of an action hero / magical being to do our killing: a deity — who is part Tinker Bell, part Predator drone.
But our situation is closer to that of the flawed protagonists in Waiting For Godot — Samuel Becket’s brilliant take on the self-deception at work within the alienated hearts of those who believe their suffering will be assuaged by the arrival of a god-like being. The last lines and final stage instructions of the play are emblematic of the Obama presidency:
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.
(Stage direction: They do not move.)
Obama and the Democrats do not move. They do not act. They do not govern. They do not serve their constituents.
Although, in reality, they do serve their true constituents … the corporate elite — the forces behind the rising level of authoritarian control over the lives of the people of the nation, both of ordinary citizens and the political class.
In situations of veiled coercion, where unspoken threats to one’s economic security and social standing are the primary motivating factors determining an individual’s response to an exploitative system, there is no need to threaten potential dissenters with crude, old-school totalitarian methods of repression such as forced deportment to labor and reeducation camps. In the class-stratified, debt-shackled US work force, where the personal consequences of financial upheaval are devastating, the implicit threat of being cast into the nation’s urban gulag archipelago of homelessness coerces most into compliance with the dictates of the corporate oligarchs.
The effects are insidious. In such an environment, there is no call for the Sturm und Drang of mass spectacle, replete with blazing torches and blown banners hoisted by serried ranks of jut jawed, jack-booted ubermensch: corporatism establishes an authoritarian order by way of a series of overt bribes and tacit threats. This social and cultural criteria causes an individual to become cautious. A Triumph of the Bland reigns. Obama’s bland, non-threatening charm was cultivated in this hybrid, corporate soil.
As is the case with Obama, corporatism demands that employees (and Obama is first among us underlings) render themselves fecklessly pleasant. This is the mandatory mode of being demanded of corporate hires — self-annihilation by habitual amiability. And Barack Obama has perfected the form.
In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama stated that he learned early: Never scare old, white people. That is a good description of how he has dealt with BP and the banksters, and all the other old white men in their perches of privilege and power.
Obama, as was the case with Bill Clinton, will not challenge the corporate oligarchs. Both he and Clinton are gifted, intelligent men, but are products of their time. They are men of, what was once termed, “modest birth” who — out necessity to rise past the circumstances of their origins — studied, internalized, and made allegiance to the corporate structure. Why? Because, in the age of corporate oligarchy, they knew the only way to rise to power would be to serve its interests. In contrast, FDR came from the ruling class; he knew their ways … wasn’t tempted by the rewards and adulation that come with privilege. He was born into it, could never lose its advantages, and it held no novelty for him.
I’m not positing Clinton was simply a shallow narcissist, as was a fashionable invective aimed at his hulking frame and over-sized persona during his tenure as POTUS … such palaver was so much shadow projection on the part of the vampiric careerists of the Washington-New York nexus of blood-sucking media undead. Rather, Clinton was a big talent. He was Byronic in his expansive nature. And like Byron he could claim, in all honesty, he could love a thousand women (and not only women, but varieties of constituents) in a thousand different ways, all at once. He was a romantic at heart in an age of crackpot realists. He was a large presence in a small-minded time. And this is how his trouble in the 1990s, and ours, in the present time, began.
When the Cold War ended, and the arrogant fantasies of neoliberal capitalism were ascendant, virtuoso of the zeitgeist that Clinton was, his prodigious wings caught those heady updrafts and he took the nation on an Icarian flight of Reaganesque economic deregulation, that would, later, contribute to the spiraling fall — known, at present, as “the economic downturn.”
Clinton could have used some saturnine apprehension regarding the dark side of capitalism, rather than the intoxication gained from the provisional, mutually serving alliances he made with his Wall Street bubble salesmen buddies, Rubin, Summers and Geithner. Clinton’s periodic, erotic contretemps were not the problem; it was his and his advisors’ flights of economic fancy that had real consequences for those of us who live at ground level among the debris and ash resultant from the inevitable fiery crash of their vanity and cupidity.
Enter Obama when the bubble burst. The stage is set for sweeping reform. Instead, we have received faux populist bromides, as all the while, behind the scenes, he has gone about the business of accommodation, capitulation, and general lickspittle boot-buffing of the corporate class.
If you listen closely, you might hear, all the way from the realm of the damned below, Ronald Reagan cackling in glee over it with his lower order demon companions from within their eternal prison of flames.