In 2011, I began writing The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States, which was published by Routledge in 2017, just after the Trump administration succeeded that of Obama, and now appears in this PaperBoat Press edition. The book is an historical view going back to the 17th century of how we got to Trump, whom we should not forget “we, the people” elected. So, to start with, let’s agree that Trump is not the problem, not the cause of what I understand as our currently collapsed democracy, but a particularly virulent symptom of its collapse.
The rise of Trump has produced some strong nostalgia for his predecessor, Barack Obama. But we should remember that Obama and those before him, going most immediately back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, set the table for Trump’s gluttony. In The Disinformation Age I go back much farther to suggest a reason for the collapse of U.S. democracy from the Constitution forward, but for now, because in the mainstream press the contrast between Obama and Trump appears as stark as that between antagonists in a medieval morality play, representing the two poles of U.S. democracy, I want to look only at the two to suggest the ways the contrast blurs on close inspection. This is a result not of any similarities between the two men—they couldn’t be more different in style and temperament—but of what they represent: neoliberal capitalism.
The rise of Trump has produced some strong nostalgia for his predecessor, Barack Obama. But we should remember that Obama and those before him, going most immediately back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, set the table for Trump’s gluttony.
Obama’s economic advisers Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin and company were the very same people who engineered the Great Recession of 2008. After the Recession, with their advice, Obama invested largely in the big banks (Rubin and Geithner were two of the biggest bankers) that caused the economic collapse, not, by and large, in the millions of people who lost their homes and jobs because of it. Income inequality increased during the Obama administration as it continues to do under Trump, whose tax policy siphons tax dollars to the rich and corporations—not that they weren’t already getting an abundance under the Democrats.
Under Obama, in 2015, the U.S. military budget was $598.5 billion, 54% of federal discretionary spending. Trump has added to that budget while Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly for the increase, passing a $716 billion military budget in 2018. Obama proposed a trillion dollars over thirty years to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Trump supports this increase and more and has increased the danger of nuclear proliferation with his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. Obama signed a memorandum of understanding with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to increase by eight billion dollars over a ten-year period our military support for the apartheid regime in Israel, bringing the total to $38 billion dollars. Trump supports this increase and has doubled down on U.S. support for Israel with his approval of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Obama increased drone warfare initiated by the Bush administration. Trump has expanded the use of drones in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
However, Obama began to open relations with Cuba, while Trump is intent on closing them.
Obama deported close to three million immigrants. At the same time, he instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), giving qualified relief from deportation to some of the children of undocumented immigrants. Trump, who is making war on immigrants from Latin American and the Middle East, began the phase-out of DACA in 2017. That phase-out is now in limbo due to court intervention. The Republican Congress failed to enact any version of the Dream Act, which would give these children, many now adults, who were brought here without agency of their own, a path to permanent residency. As of November 2018, the Democrats control the House; the Republicans remain in control of the Senate. And Trump remains in the White House so the possibilities for a stalemate on immigration are endless.
As for the Affordable Care Act, The Disinformation Age looks at how unaffordable this law has been for millions of people who live between expanded Medicaid (in the states where it exists) and Medicare. The Republicans want to eliminate the Act, so what seemed at best a half measure (instead of Medicare-For-All) at least protecting people with preexisting conditions, seems a full measure now, obscuring the need for universal, single-payer, affordable health care. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats made health care the number one issue. But the party can’t agree on what kind of health care there should be with the exception that preexisting conditions should be protected.
While Trump demonizes the press—his unsuccessful attempt to remove the press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta resonates—the Obama administration prosecuted whistleblowers, including sending the very visible Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who sought to inform Americans of autocracy-creep in the federal government, to prison and exile. Following the April 2019, arrest of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, Paul Waldman notes in his online April 11, 2019, opinion column in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration, while critical of Assange, decided that the First Amendment implications of charging him with a crime were too troubling, so they declined to do so." Following suit in a way, the Trump administration at first charged Assange, if the British ever succeed in extraditing him, not with publishing documents obtained illegally, which would constitute a violation of press freedom, but with aiding Chelsea Manning in obtaining those documents by hacking U.S. government computers, even though the specific attempt charged was unsuccessful. But as of the end of May, 2019, the administration has changed those charges to espionage, thus threatening the basis of the First Amendment.
Under Trump, we now talk about “fascism” in the U.S.; but the militarized, corporate, surveillance state was already being put in place when Trump took office and added the singularly fascist component of scapegoating—demonizing difference from the white, male, Protestant, heterosexual model.
While the Democrats are relatively strong in a generally conservative U.S. matrix on social issues of race and gender, and want to protect, by and large, Social Security and Medicare, the Republicans and Trump hate difference (demonized as “deviance”) from the white, male, Protestant, heterosexual model—hence their war on Muslim and Latinx immigrants. If we imagine a strong, government-supported network of basic social institutions in the areas of health, education, and welfare, think of the Republicans as the neoliberal wrecking crew without a plan for reconstruction except privatization to which the Democrats offer relatively little resistance (in comparison with the social programs of other Western European democracies): the economic condition of African Americans and other minorities deteriorated during the Obama administration as the entire U.S. middle-class continued to disappear. In his 2013 budget proposal Obama himself proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare in order to compromise with the Republicans and reduce the deficit, something that the Congressional Republicans as of 2018 were proposing, while simultaneously increasing the deficit with Trump tax cuts.
Obama, who was certainly rhetorically strong on the environment, implemented some modest measures in that area along the lines of reducing coal and carbon emissions and at the end of his administration in 2016 instituted a substantial ban on drilling offshore in the Atlantic and Arctic, which Trump may be able to overturn. As Marianne Lavelle notes: “By relying on executive orders and regulations after his legislative majority disappeared, President Obama leaves his climate policies at risk under Donald Trump.” For it was only in his second term, as Lavelle documents, long after his Congressional majority disappeared, that Obama began to get serious about the environment, having concentrated in his first term on rebuilding the collapsed corporate economy, including increasing fossil fuel production. After waffling in his first term on implementation of the Keystone XL pipeline with its deadly load of tar sands oil, Obama rejected it in his second. Before leaving office Obama also put a check on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), set to run under the Missouri river at a place immediately threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. As expected, Trump has issued executive orders approving both pipelines. Both orders are being contested in the courts. But while the legal process has so far stopped the implementation of the Keystone XL, oil is flowing through the DAPL.
Obama signed the Paris Climate Accords, while Trump understands the environment only as a commodity to be traded for profit and signaled as much by planning to withdraw from the Accords. But many advocates of environmental justice have noted that the Accords, voluntary in the first place, are too little too late. This is no reason to shred but a reason to strengthen them and certainly not Trump’s reason for opting out—he is in denial about climate collapse—but only to note that the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report tells us that if we do not reduce global warming by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040 we are facing a catastrophic situation. The report “describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.” In many ways, the catastrophes the IPCC describes resemble the world we are living in right now.
Overall, in a catastrophically unbalanced world, the Democrats are marginally preferable to the Republicans. But as The Disinformation Age argues, neither party, under the control of militarized, neoliberalist capitalism, has a demonstrable agenda to bring the world into economic, social, political, and environmental balance, which is a necessity if the human race is to survive. The world has already ended for millions of people and ends every year for millions more due to poverty, which is intensified by climate change. In the last chapter of The Disinformation Age, I ask us to think about how to achieve balance from an Indigenous perspective.
Although Barack Obama figures prominently in The Disinformation Age, the book is not about him—he mattered and yet matters little in the catastrophic global scheme of endless war and climate collapse. The same could be said for Trump, for that matter, or for any single leader. The book is, rather, an analysis of a destructive system, capitalism, for which Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party provided the principal, charming, hopeful mask at the time I was writing. Other presidents have worn the same mask. However unintentionally, Trump has ripped the mask off. The Disinformation Age focuses on the mask and what is beneath it, not the man.
Obama talked progressive and walked regressive, maintaining the neoliberal agenda (hegemony of privatization) at home and the neocon agenda (military expansion) at home and abroad. Trump marks the line where neoliberalism and neoconservatism begin to shade into fascism. On the level of style, Trump is the anti-Obama. He operates without Obama’s charm or cosmopolitan intelligence and with a vicious political cunning that plays to the racism and misogyny of his base in contrast to the “Hope” Obama proffered but inevitably failed to realize because it can’t be realized within the current system.
This failure, or more specifically, the failure of the Democratic Party as exemplified in the disastrous Hillary Clinton campaign offering more of the same, gave Trump his opening.
Eric Cheyfitz is the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University, where he has served as director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, the faculty coordinator of the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, and the director of the Mellon Post-doctoral Diversity Seminar.