[Publisher's Note] The Former Regime, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher's Note]

The Former Regime

“The sordid self-interest that warps the public sphere in the United States didn’t begin with Trump in the White House.”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 7, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

For a better understanding of the lunatic politics currently going on in the United States, it’s instructive to go back to 11:20 pm on November 3, when Fox News, usually staunch in its support of Donald Trump, had the cheek to declare Joe Biden the winner in the state of Arizona, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 90,000 votes in 2016. This turn of events was extraordinarily ironic, given that Fox and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, have profited enormously from the Trump phenomenon; such a setback in an erstwhile Republican stronghold abruptly swept away the hope that the president, contrary to what all the polls indicated, could pull off a victory.

Apparently outraged, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, telephoned Murdoch to contest the broadcasting of bad news by the president’s putative allies. We don’t know how Murdoch responded, but he clearly didn’t back off; after midnight, in spite of the accusations of error launched against Fox by Trump’s supporters on Twitter, Arnon Mishkin, the network’s elections analyst, appeared in the TV studio and pounded in the final nail: “I’m sorry, but the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes,” Mishkin said, adding, “We’re not wrong in this particular case.”

And that’s the way a celebrity collapses in the superficial media-based culture of contemporary America. A creature of television, Twitter, and before that the New York gossip columns, Trump was given the gate by the most influential chief executive in the English-speaking world, as if he were in an episode of a TV reality show. It did Trump no good to yell, in effect, “The media is me!” Capitalist reality proved that the opposite was the case. Like the aging movie star played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Trump kept on admiring himself in the mirror without noticing that his makeup concealed a timeworn face and a diminishing audience. On the evening of the election, Murdoch assumed the character of the director Cecil B. DeMille, who (playing himself in the film) allows Swanson’s character, the actress Norma Desmond, to visit him on a movie set without the slightest intention of offering her a new role.

I acknowledge that politics is more than spectacle and that Trump was beaten by an opposition as furious as his partisans. There was plenty to loathe about certain members of the band of criminals who surrounded our hoodlum-in-chief. Murdoch, for his part, is a proud publisher who would never let himself be intimidated by the son-in-law of a mere president. I imagine he laughed under his breath, listening to the Kushner’s desperate pleas while he, the last genuine press baron, was reveling in his scoop on the vote in Arizona. In reality, it’s Murdoch and News Corporation that function as an active part of the “permanent government,” and they are more powerful than the “Deep State” scarecrows that the president incessantly evokes.

It remains to be seen whether the more than 74 million Americans who voted for Trump represent a movement or a passing surge. A great actor, a cult leader, or the new head of the Republican Party, Trump has certainly poisoned the political spirit in America. On the other hand, the popular rejection of the president for his grotesque behavior (in Arizona, it seems, for his repulsive and insulting attacks on John McCain) could be interpreted as the dawn of a Democratic renewal. But I doubt it.

The sordid self-interest that warps the public sphere in the United States didn’t begin with Trump in the White House; he is the symptom, not the cause, which goes back to the simplistic, anti-civic attitude of Ronald Reagan (himself a professional actor and a great admirer of that arch-individualist Margaret Thatcher) and to the extreme narcissism of Bill Clinton, who chased skirts and campaign donations with almost equal enthusiasm. We’ve come a long way from Jimmy Carter, the last president who made a real effort to put the country’s interests beyond money, political parties, and the American ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” vouchsafed by God to our “exceptional” country. All his declarations on the theme of “America First!” notwithstanding, Trump gave special priority to his family and his pals. His gratuitous assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was squarely in the Bush-Obama-Biden tradition and shows how little Trump cared about the common soldiers who suffered (with serious brain concussions) the effects of Tehran’s response. American military forces remain scattered across the whole world, and Biden won’t find the global order much changed from what it was when he left office in 2017. Trump’s voters, seduced by their hero’s fake populism, are still governed by the oligarchy that preceded him, including Wall Street, the Pentagon, the corporate media, the heads of the two political parties, and—soon—the second coming of the Obama government.

Interviewed in Le Monde last year, the left-wing French nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement insightfully described the challenge for France yoked by the authority of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, and some of what he said goes for the United States too: “What counts above all is the restoration of civic spirit; we have to rebuild a nation of citizens.” To accomplish this, he said, we must recognize that “public distrust of policy-makers also comes from the fact that there has been a refusal to see the enormous transfer of authority to unelected officials who are accountable to no one.” The restoration of the former regime is not what’s going to bring us back our lost self-determination.

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