During the American Civil War, when fathers fought against sons, brothers against brothers, and families against families, a profound psychic divide in US society was first concretized. By ‘psychic divide’ I mean a pronounced mental proclivity to seek out fundamental social divisions. Of course, the rich-poor division exists in all societies. But it is innate in them, an inequity that can be addressed without necessarily tearing the social fabric. In the US these divisions always threaten social strife, sometimes apocalyptically – and I use the word in its original sense of ‘a revealing’. Perhaps the earliest division was between the Puritan Fathers and a settlement of avowed hedonists who lived along the shore from them and practised free love, as well as, one assumes, free speech. Naturally, these sybarites were termed ‘demonic’ by the purist Christians. The next major division was between white European settlers and the indigenous tribes, where countless fabricated tales were told of Indian atrocities to make the white population amenable to their extermination – which, after all, was the project. There is a reason indigenous peoples are not mentioned in the republic’s foundational documents, where all men are born free and independent. The African slaves aren’t mentioned there either, and they would go on to constitute another great divide which, lamentably, still exists – black-white. Nowhere are the rancid politics of division more apparent than in the US, in Washington, where partisan rhetoric is bitter and hateful, and, although there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of policies, one party is always the Devil, the other the Lord. In Canada, and in most western democracies, there is always a race between opposing parties – and there are usually more than two of them – yet when the race is run peaceful co-existence reigns. Not so in America, where shout-shows on far-right media even skirmish with the other media that are, at best, centre-right. And perceptions always trump issues in these so-called public debates.
One of the great unsolved riddles of American social history is the issue of why the working-class invariably votes against its own best interests by casting a ballot for the Republicans. Theoretically at least, the Democrats are more concerned with workers and the middle-class, and certainly don’t advocate tax cuts for corporations or the super-rich – although the party behaves differently when in power. As Noam Chomsky has observed, it is not difficult to win a US election: you simply promise what everyone wants – subsidized education and health-care. The working-class majority, however, votes emotionally along carefully delineated lines of division, including black-white, Christian-or not, salt of the earth-toff, pro-or-anti-immigrant, gay-straight, liberal-conservative, and, ironically, rich-poor. Sadly, it usually counts for more that a candidate seems like ‘the kinda guy you can have a beer with’ than he does the kinda guy who can intelligently run a country. And, although you could probably have a beer with Donald Trump – not necessarily an enjoyable one – you actually couldn’t have had one with George W. Bush, unless it was de-alcoholised. Again, the perception not the reality rules. Why? It is tempting to conclude that the lumpen proletariat is stupid, easily led by the nose. Yet why can’t a left-wing candidate lead them? It is, I think, the us-and-them divide, where ‘us’ means good old-time religion, traditional values, no blacks, no Jews, no immigrants, and ‘them’ means the opposite, a psychic break-up of the Union by the advocacy of change. It is no wonder that politicians are increasingly exploiting this polarised view of society. ‘Change’ has often been an appealing slogan, yet change is not really what 100 million citizens seem to want. What they do want is a politician who’s not a politician.
The politics of division do not stop at home either. US Foreign Policy deals only in angels and demons. Starting with the Axis Powers, and moving on through communism, the Axis of Evil, Islamic extremism, drug lords, and now Isis and terrorism in general, the attitude is not rational and certainly not open to diplomacy or debate. They’re always the Devil, we’re always the Lord. It is often said in war that you become like your enemy, and America has come to bear an eerie resemblance to totalitarian states, to a drug lord, and to international terrorism of the state-sponsored variety. For example, we now find that the CIA was responsible for the arrest of Nelson Mandela in South Africa – because he was a suspected communist. The us-and-them divide controls and directs such erroneous thinking. There is now a foreign minister in Israel who has threatened to blow up Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and to ‘flatten Gaza like a soccer-field’. We are outraged, no? Yet we are scarcely bothered by infinitely worse US aggression and mayhem in countless other countries – why? Because almost all western media play along with the American version of divide and conquer: we can do no harm, they can do no good. It is insidious, and only the few independent media, like the BBC and CBC, stand between us and the deluge of warped thinking.
Of course, nowhere has the Great American Divide been more apparent than in the current and catastrophic race to the next White House. There have been some pretty repulsive presidential candidates, but I can think of none so flamboyantly revolting than Donald Trump – but I don’t like Hilary much either. At best, she’d be dirty business as usual. They’re both up against an avowed socialist who, I fear, knows little about economics. Indeed, they’re all big on denunciatory rhetoric, and fanciful promises, or threats, but almost invisibly small on policies. When Trump says he’s going to make America great again, does he mean greater than it is with him in it? When, in fact, was America ‘great’? Hiroshima? Civil Rights? The Cold War? Korea? Vietnam? South and Central America? The useless War on Drugs? Iran? Afghanistan? Iraq? And now the Syrian vacillation? Forgive me, but I don’t perceive much greatness. I do, however, see divisive politics opening up a chasm amounting to a Cold, possibly Hot, Civil War. One is forced to wonder if there’s a way out of this dilemma. You can lead a cowboy’s horse to water but you can’t make the rider think. It’s not as if the Internet isn’t choc-a-bloc with insightful articles revealing the real issues at stake.
When I was in Iraq, writing for Harper’s magazine, I witnessed new levels of cunning in military intelligence. I wasn’t embedded, and you had to get permission from the army authorities to travel here or there. I was never refused, but the BBC and many national newspapers had a dreadful time. I realised that the Pentagon didn’t care what a few hundred thousand Harper’s-reading intellectuals got to think about the war, but they cared tremendously what millions of BBC-watchers or New York Times-readers got to think – and this they monitored carefully. It does not augur well for the health of a society that nearly half of its members base their voting decisions on slogans and not the intricacy of issues. Trump supporters have said that there is nothing he could do to change their minds about voting for him. Nothing? Well, the good news is that he won’t win, and the bad news is that Hilary will. Where will this leave America? It will leave a gaping wound in which the divide between have-brains and don’t-care-to- think has never been more apparent, and will not easily be healed. It is not even really a question of education. No society has been able to deal effectively with those elements which simply don’t wish to participate in the advantages a democratic government offers them. In Canada we have the Hell’s Angels; in America you’ve got 100 million Trump supporters. Welcome to the Grand Canyon…
Paul William Roberts