by James Howard Kunstler, November 16, 2016
Not to put too fine a point on it, America coughed up Hillary Clinton like a hairball last week — the catch being it then had to swallow the Cheeto-colored bolus called Donald Trump. It was worth it to see the fog of Hillary-smuggery lift across the cable TV networks since the “I’m With Her / It’s Her Turn” fog was a cover for the looting operation that the permanent Washington DC establishment had turned into, including the Clinton Foundation.
Obviously, the nation is reeling from this emetic, struggling to process the meaning of it all. The big “tell” for me came at a moment in last week’s Slate Political Gabfest, a leftish-oriented podcast, when moderator David Plotz asked his sidekicks John Dickerson (of CBS News) and Emily Bazelon (of The NY Times) what the Democratic Party might do to regain legitimacy after this electoral disaster. Dead silence on the air. Nothing came to mind.
Something came to my mind as a long-time disaffected (registered) Democrat: jettison the stupid identity politics and get back to reality. Alas, that may be too much to ask. For now, the party lies in ruins without a single figure of stature to represent a coherent set of ideas other than boosting the self-esteem of its favor-seeking constituent groups. Here’s my idea: how about forming a credible opposition to the so-called Deep State, the matrix of racketeering and empire-building that has drained the life out of this polity. That was impossible with the racketeer-in-chief leading the blue electoral ticket, but now the dynamic stands naked and obvious, answering the question: what to do next?
Another catch, of course, is that opposing the Deep State of Rackets is pretty much what Mr. Trump has promised to do, if “draining the swamp” means anything. He never quite articulated it clearly beyond that metaphor, but you can bet that’s what the DC establishment is so alarmed about. Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail is now being hailed in the media as a kind of genius. To me, it still seems oafish to an extreme, and it remains to be seen how such a blunderer might finesse our escape from the empire of rackets and the racket of empire. He begins to look like a man in a tunnel staring down the harsh light of the onrushing gravy train.
Mr. Trump might not know it yet, but his chief task will be managing contraction. It would appear to be problematic, since his chief promise — “to make America great again” — is based on restarting the epic expansions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Well, things have changed. This is no longer a virgin continent filled with motherlodes, untapped oil bonanzas, and fabulous soils begging to be exploited. In fact, we’re close to being played out where those resources are concerned. And the techno-industrial economy engineered out of those assets is wobbling badly.
There is a Great Wish that this system might be replaced just-in-time with some as-yet-unrealized Green Alt Economy of solar-charged driverless electric cars — but, of course, the unchallenged pathetic idiocy of the assumed car dependence at the center of this fantasy ought to tell you how exactly unreal it is. The contraction we face has mandates of its own, and it doesn’t include the continuation of Happy Motoring on any terms. I’m quite certain that the Trump forces haven’t even imagined it.
I would propose three meta-matters in consideration of how America might survive the disorders of the Long Emergency: the financialization of the economy, the burdens of empire, and the fiasco of our suburban living arrangement.
The financialization of the economy is already playing into its disastrous climax as I write, with bond markets tanking all over the planet. What this means is that the long-ignored chickens of risk associated with debt are coming home to roost. As they do, they are going to shit over everything on the financial landscape. Industrial societies have been borrowing from the future to a grotesque degree for decades, pretending that these debts were assets rather than liabilities. That perception is about to change, and with it an enormous amount of presumed notional wealth is going to disappear. That will manifest in rising bond yields (and falling bond values), cratering currencies, panicked capital flows, banking emergencies, and weird action in markets. If that seems too metaphysical, you can also think of it as contracting economies and the withering of global trade relations. There’s also the chance it will express itself in kinetic conflict, i.e., war.
My sense of things is that this meta-predicament alone could overwhelm the Trump government from the very start. We could have problems with money orders of magnitude worse than anything FDR faced in 1933, with bank closures, the seizing of accounts, and the paralysis of everyday business. That would easily lead to civil disorders, a breakdown in law, and the immiseration of most Americans. It could also lead to previously-unimagined political outcomes, such as a discontinuity of government. This is connected with the second meta-problem, the burdens of empire.
The USA is squandering its vitality trying to maintain a half-assed global empire of supposed interests, economic, ideological, and existential. Lately, this hapless project has only resulted in wars with no end in places we don’t belong. It includes reckless experiments such as the promotion of regime change (Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, Egypt, Syria), and senseless, provocative exercises such as the use of NATO forces to run war games near Russia’s border. The monetary cost of all this is off the hook, of course, redounding to the financial mess. Reigning in these imperial impulses could be on the Trump agenda, but his own gold-plated imperial pretensions suggest that he might actually make the situation worse by conflating a reduction of our empire with a loss of the very “greatness” he wants to reclaim. As it happens, America may be forced by economic circumstances to yield the burdens of empire. The world is about to become a bigger place again as globalism winds down and the larger nations establish more realistic spheres of influence. We better get with the program.
Thirdly comes the question of how Americans inhabit the terrain: the suburban fiasco and all its accessories and furnishings. You can just stick a fork in that. The great project awaiting this country is how we might redistribute our people into re-scaled walkable communities with re-localized economies, including re-scaled agriculture. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. It’s only a matter of how disorderly the process may be. Obviously all the suburban crapola out there also represents a tremendous load of presumed wealth. The vested “value” in suburban houses alone is the underlayment of structured finance. There is almost no conscious political awareness in any party — including the Greens — as to how we might attempt to work this out.
But, for example, and for a start, Mr. Trump might consider the effect that national chain “Big Box” shopping has had on Main Street America. It literally destroyed local commercial economies all over the land, and with it numberless vocational niches and social roles in communities. He can’t sign an edict against the Big Box empire, but his people might start imagining the process of rebuilding local networks of commerce and actively de-incentivizing the Big Box business model. That model has many other ways to fail, incidentally, and already is failing to some degree between the impoverishment of its customers and the growing problems with global supply lines. But anything that might lubricate the transition would be better than the stark collapse of the current arrangement.
The chatter this week has been all about the upcoming “infrastructure” orgy that Trump will undertake. That depends first of all on how badly the financial sector cracks up. I hope we do not squander more of our dwindling capital on the accessories of car dependence, because that addiction is on the way out. One thing Mr. Trump might get behind is restoring the passenger railroads of America so that we can at least get around the continental nation when the Happy Motoring fiesta grinds to a halt. It would put an awful lot of people to work on something with real long-term benefit — it ties into the restoration of Main Street towns and their economies — and it is a do-able project that might give us the needed encouragement to get on with the many other necessary projects awaiting our attention.
In case you were wondering, I was not jumping up and down cheering the Trump victory, amazing as it was. I figured the good news was that Hillary lost and the bad news was that Trump won. Now, we just have to roll with it.
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