You may not know it, but you’re living in a futuristic science-fiction novel. And that’s a fact. If you were to read about our American world in such a novel, you would be amazed by its strangeness. Since you exist right smack in the middle of it, it seems like normal life (Donald Trump and Ben Carson aside). But make no bones about it, so far this has been a bizarre American century.
Let me start with one of the odder moments we’ve lived through and give it the attention it’s always deserved. If you follow my train of thought and the history it leads us into, I guarantee you that you’ll end up back exactly where we are—in the midst of the strangest presidential campaign in our history.
To get a full-frontal sense of what that means, however, let’s return to late September 2001. I’m sure you remember that moment, just over two weeks after those World Trade Center towers came down and part of the Pentagon was destroyed, leaving a jangled secretary of defense instructing his aides, “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
I couldn’t resist sticking in that classic Donald Rumsfeld line, but I leave it to others to deal with Saddam Hussein, those fictional weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq, and everything that’s happened since, including the establishment of a terror “caliphate” by a crew of Islamic extremists brought together in American military prison camps—all of which you wouldn’t believe if it were part of a sci-fi novel. The damn thing would make Planet of the Apes look like outright realism.
Instead, try to recall the screaming headlines that labeled the 9/11 attacks “the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century” or “a new Day of Infamy,” and the attackers “the kamikazes of the 21st century.” Remember the moment when President George W. Bush, bullhorn in hand, stepped onto the rubble at “Ground Zero” in New York, draped his arm around a fireman, and swore payback in the name of the American people, as members of an impromptu crowd shouted out things like “Go get ’em, George!”
“I can hear you! I can hear you!” he responded. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
“USA! USA! USA!” chanted the crowd.
Then, on September 20, addressing Congress, Bush added, “Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941.” By then, he was already talking about “our war on terror.”
Now, hop ahead to that long-forgotten moment when he would finally reveal just how a 21st-century American president should rally and mobilize the American people in the name of the ultimate in collective danger. As CNN put it at the time, “President Bush…urged Americans to travel, spend, and enjoy life.” His actual words were:
“And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry and to tell the traveling public, get on board, do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
So we went to war in Afghanistan and later Iraq to rebuild faith in flying. Though that got little attention at the time, tell me it isn’t a detail out of some sci-fi novel. Or put another way, as far as the Bush administration was then concerned, Rosie the Riveter was moldering in her grave and the model American for mobilizing a democratic nation in time of war was Rosie the Frequent Flyer. It turned out not to be winter in Valley Forge, but eternal summer in Orlando. From then on, as the Bush administration planned its version of revenge cum global domination, the message it sent to the citizenry was: Go about your business and leave the dirty work to us.
Disney World opened in 1971, but for a moment imagine that it had been in existence in 1863 and that, more than seven score years ago, facing a country in the midst of a terrible civil war, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg had said this:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom at Disney World—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish for lack of vacations in Florida.”
Or imagine that, in response to that “day of infamy,” the Pearl Harbor of the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt had gone before Congress and, in an address to the nation, had said:
“Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our airlines, with the unbounding determination of our people to visit Disney World, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
If those are absurdities, then so is 21st-century America. By late September 2001, though no one would have put it that way, the demobilization of the American people had become a crucial aspect of Washington’s way of life. The thought that Americans might be called upon to sacrifice in any way in a time of peril had gone with the wind. Any newly minted version of the classic “don’t tread on me” flag of the revolutionary war era would have had to read: “Don’t bother them.”
The Spectacle of War
The desire to take the American public out of the “of the people, by the people, for the people” business can minimally be traced back to the Vietnam War, to the moment when a citizen’s army began voting with its feet and antiwar sentiment grew to startling proportions not just on the home front, but inside a military in the field. It was then that the high command began to fear the actual disintegration of the US Army.
Not surprisingly, there was a deep desire never to repeat such an experience. (No more Vietnams! No more antiwar movements!) As a result, on January 27, 1973, with a stroke of the pen, President Richard Nixon abolished the draft, and so the citizen’s army. With it went the sense that Americans had an obligation to serve their country in time of war (and peace).
From that moment on, the urge to demobilize the American people and send them to Disney World would only grow. First, they were to be removed from all imaginable aspects of war making. Later, the same principle would be applied to the processes of government and to democracy itself. In this context, for instance, you could write a history of the monstrous growth of secrecy and surveillance as twin deities of the American state: the urge to keep ever more information from the citizenry and to see ever more of what those citizens were doing in their own private time. Both should be considered demobilizing trends.
This twin process certainly has a long history in the US, as any biography of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would indicate. Still, the expansion of secrecy and surveillance in this century has been a stunning development, as ever-larger parts of the national-security state and the military (especially its 70,000-strong Special Operations forces) fell into the shadows. In these years, American “safety” and “security” were redefined in terms of a citizen’s need not to know. Only bathed in ignorance, were we safest from the danger that mattered most (Islamic terrorism—a threat of microscopic proportions in the continental United States).
As the American people were demobilized from war and left, in the post-9/11 era, with the single duty of eternally thanking and praising our “warriors” (or our “wounded warriors”), war itself was being transformed into a new kind of American entertainment spectacle. In the 1980s, in response to the Vietnam experience, the Pentagon began to take responsibility not just for making war but for producing it. Initially, in the invasions of Grenada and Panama, this largely meant sidelining the media, which many US commanders still blamed for defeat in Vietnam.
By the first Gulf War of 1991, however, the Pentagon was prepared to produce a weeks-long televised extravaganza, which would enter the living rooms of increasingly demobilized Americans as a riveting show. It would have its own snazzy graphics, logos, background music, and special effects (including nose-cone shots of targets obliterated). In addition, retired military men were brought in to do Monday Night Football–style play-by-play and color commentary on the fighting in progress. In this new version of war, there were to be no rebellious troops, no body bags, no body counts, no rogue reporters, and above all no antiwar movement. In other words, the Gulf War was to be the anti-Vietnam. And it seemed to work… briefly.
Unfortunately for the first Bush administration, Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad, the carefully staged postwar “victory” parades faded fast, the major networks lost ad money on the Pentagon’s show, and the ratings for war as entertainment sank. More than a decade later, the second Bush administration, again eager not to repeat Vietnam and intent on sidelining the American public while it invaded and occupied Iraq, did it all over again.
This time, the Pentagon sent reporters to “boot camp,” “embedded” them with advancing units, built a quarter-million-dollar movie-style set for planned briefings in Doha, Qatar, and launched its invasion with “decapitation strikes” over Baghdad that lit the televised skies of the Iraqi capital an eerie green on TVs across America. This spectacle of war, American-style, turned out to have a distinctly Disney-esque aura to it. (Typically, however, those strikes produced scores of dead Iraqis, but managed to “decapitate” not a single targeted Iraqi leader from Saddam Hussein on down.) That spectacle, replete with the usual music, logos, special effects, and those retired generals cum commentators—this time even more tightly organized by the Pentagon—turned out again to have a remarkably brief half-life.
The Spectacle of Democracy
War as the first demobilizing spectacle of our era is now largely forgotten because, as entertainment, it was reliant on ratings, and in the end, it lost the battle for viewers. As a result, America’s wars became ever more an activity to be conducted in the shadows beyond the view of most Americans.
If war was the first experimental subject for the demobilizing spectacle, democracy and elections turned out to be remarkably ripe for the plucking as well. As a result, we now have the never-ending presidential campaign season. In the past, elections did not necessarily lack either drama or spectacle. In the 19th century, for instance, there were campaign torchlight parades, but those were always spectacles of mobilization. No longer. Our new 1 percent elections call for something different.
It’s no secret that our presidential campaigns have morphed into a “billionaire’s playground,” even as the right to vote has become more constrained. These days, it could be said that the only group of citizens that automatically mobilizes for such events is “the billionaire class” (as Bernie Sanders calls it). Increasingly, many of the rest of us catch the now year-round spectacle demobilized in our living rooms, watching journalists play… gasp!… journalists on TV and give American democracy that good old Gotcha!
In 2001, George W. Bush wanted to send us all to Disney World (on our own dollar, of course). In 2015, Disney World is increasingly coming directly to us.
After all, at the center of election 2016 is Donald Trump. For a historical equivalent, you would have to imagine P.T. Barnum, who could sell any “curiosity” to the American public, running for president. (In fact, he did serve two terms in the Connecticut legislature and was, improbably enough, the mayor of Bridgeport.) Meanwhile, the TV “debates” that Trump and the rest of the candidates are now taking part in months before the first primary have left the League of Women Voters and the Commission on Presidential Debates in the dust. These are the ratings-driven equivalent of food fights encased in ads, with the “questions” clearly based on what will glue eyeballs.
Here, for instance, was CNN host Jake Tapper’s first question of the second Republican debate: “Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has suggested that your party’s front-runner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as president. He said he wouldn’t want, quote, ‘such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes.’ You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament. You’ve dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”
And the event only went downhill from there as responses ranged from non-answers to (no kidding!) a discussion of the looks of the candidates, and yet the event proved such a ratings smash that its 23 million viewers were compared favorably to viewership of National Football League games.
In sum, a citizen’s duty, whether in time of war or elections, is now, at best, to watch the show, or at worst, to see nothing at all.
This reality has been highlighted by the whistle-blowers of this generation, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and John Kiriakou. Whenever they have revealed something of what our government is doing beyond our sight, they have been prosecuted with a fierceness unique in our history and for a simple enough reason. Those who watch us believe themselves exempt from being watched by us. That’s their definition of “democracy.” When “spies” appear in their midst, even if those whistleblowers are “spies” for us, they are horrified at a visceral level and promptly haul out the World War I–era Espionage Act. They now expect a demobilized response to whatever they do and when anything else is forthcoming, they strike back in outrage.
A Largely Demobilized Land
A report on a demobilized America shouldn’t end without some mention of at least one counter-impulse. All systems assumedly have their opposites lurking somewhere inside them, which brings us to Bernie Sanders. He’s the figure who doesn’t seem to compute in this story so far.
All you had to do was watch the first Democratic debate to sense what an anomaly he is, or you could have noted that, until almost the moment he went on stage that night, few involved in the election 2016 media spectacle had the time of day for him. And stranger yet, that lack of attention in the mainstream proved no impediment to the expansion of his campaign and his supporters, who, via social media and in person in the form of gigantic crowds, seem to exist in some parallel universe.
In this election cycle, Sanders alone uses the words “mobilize” and “mobilization” regularly, while calling for a “political revolution.” (“We need to mobilize tens of millions of people to begin to stand up and fight back and to reclaim the government, which is now owned by big money.”) And there is no question that he has indeed mobilized significant numbers of young people, many of whom are undoubtedly unplugged from the TV set, even if glued to other screens, and so may hardly be noticing the mainstream spectacle at all.
Whether the Sanders phenomenon represents our past or our future, his age or the age of his followers, is impossible to know. We do, of course, have one recent example of a mobilization in an election season. In the 2008 election, the charismatic Barack Obama created a youthful, grassroots movement, a kind of cult of personality that helped sweep him to victory, only to demobilize it as soon as he entered the Oval Office. Sanders himself puts little emphasis on personality or a cult of the same and undoubtedly represents something different, though what exactly remains open to question.
In the meantime, the national-security state’s power is largely uncontested; the airlines still fly; Disney World continues to be a destination of choice; and the United States remains a largely demobilized land.