To those who believe the removal of Trump will send America back to normal, know that the damage was already done; it all started with the torture program I was part of.
15 years ago, standing alone, freezing, and staring at a forlorn moonscape at one of the CIA’s black sites, I wrestled against the almost irresistible power of tribal beliefs. My institution – the CIA – was engaged in the “Enhanced Interrogation Program” and I was part of it. In two words, Americans tortured. No matter what I or many principled colleagues did to bring sense to our actions, to act honorably, the program traduced the principles we claimed to defend – and truth and our institutions dissolved in the atavistic impulses behind the Enhanced Interrogation Program. I knew that lies and fear often were stronger than truth. I knew the torture program would have consequences far beyond what we were doing out of sight and in the dark. I saw us becoming a coarser nation and I feared for my country’s democracy.
Yet, my fears have grown worse. American institutions have become progressively dysfunctional, we have descended from arguments about torture, truth, and the law to bald denials of verifiable facts by leaders and led, from parrying imagined immediate dangers to defining entire groups of people as the other; and now, through Donald Trump’s totalitarian, divisive, and vulgar voice, large swaths of American society (about 40%) seem to prefer an America of raw power, blood, and soil to the America of the ever-more-inclusive social and institutional norms that has been the dream for 250 years.
Not only have many Americans’ fears and insecurities surged, and attitudes to torture and to what is right changed, for many Americans, so have attitudes towards how Americans should be led.
Torture was an atavistic choice born of the combination of fear – terrorism had hit home on 9/11 and Americans were afraid – fears fanned by overwrought, simplistic, and often deluded leaders who spoke of the need to duct-tape our homes, to act on the dark side of mushroom clouds, and of terrorism’s existential threat to our way of life. Our leaders exaggerated the threats facing us, sometimes cynically, sometimes sincerely; worse, though, they have changed our beliefs of who we are. These statements affected almost all of us, even those of us with privileged information, like my colleagues in the CIA; and these statements – this invented “reality” – changed the views of right, wrong, and proper social comportment of even those of us who opposed these incendiary simplifications. The atmosphere in which people live and perceive the world affects the perceptions of even those who oppose the dominant paradigm of perception and conventional views. There is no complete escape from the environment in which one lives.
Beyond the few facts or issues which each of us may know from firsthand experience, all of us take what we know or think from conventional wisdom, from the general impressions of the group around us. People also are instinctively inclined to accept the views of their leader, especially in a time of fear. People tend to base their views on these tribal reactions more than on dispassionate reason and people progressively believe what they hear, true or not. This is particularly true when convictions enter one’s unconscious through the general culture, and through the virtually all-powerful popular media, such as the execrable TV drama 24 in which torture works and the hero breaks the rules and the law for his own view of the greater good. We also all know the tough guy expression of strength: “You gotta do what you gotta do.” Most people react to this explanation viscerally, as a truism: “Well, of course ….” Once stated, though, this framework shapes the perspective even of those who find it puerile. Fifteen years of such atavistic response and thought have changed American society and what many Americans expect their government to be.
Fifteen years ago, almost no American supported torture. Today, a majority of Americans under 35 do. Each of the last two Republican candidates for the presidency has explicitly advocated a return to torture as necessary for national security.
But not only have many Americans’ fears and insecurities surged, and attitudes to torture and to what is right changed, for many Americans, so have attitudes towards how Americans should be led. Social attitudes towards power have reverted towards more instinctive, fear-based tribal views about power and who is or is not one of “us.” In times of fear, one routinely seeks purity of the group and to exclude the other. The trend towards social liberalism – finding strength and good in diversity, championing minority rights and not just majority rule as integral to the American experiment – for many is now viewed as having allowed the world’s ever-present dangers to come amongst us. Diversity becomes dilution of strength. For many, fear and anger have come to define political views. These fears have come also as society has felt the stress of rapid social change from globalization and a rise of individual rights at the expense of the traditionally dominant group’s rights (meaning middle- and working-class whites.) Leaders, most notably Donald Trump, have exploited these emotions for advantage. Politics, domestic or foreign, economic or social, progressively have been defined as zero-sum games rather than as debates on how to achieve the common good. The psychological shift in attitudes, and thereby in the dysfunction of society and politics, has been striking.
These terrible changes to American culture, norms, and government, even if Americans correct them, will be lasting.
Fifteen years ago, it was scandalous for a leader to bypass the checks and balances of our institutions. Now, the man in the Oval Office routinely denies facts, dehumanizes and demonizes those who oppose him on any point whatsoever, and derides the checks and balances of government, the very institutions designed to guarantee American freedoms. Trump and his supporters consider that those who challenge them are un-American. The Attorney General himself has denigrated a legal challenge about an immigration restriction because it comes from “an island in the Pacific,” when the challenge, in fact, comes from the government of the State of Hawaii. Strength, whatever that means beyond simple-minded violence, is prized, simple solutions are considered strong, and nuance is viewed as weakness. Our political culture is coarser and crypto-fascist theorizers, such as Steve Bannon, define our institutions in terms of the Deep State – a totalitarian formulation meaning that the organs of government and often the law itself are obstructions to the will of the people as interpreted through the wishes of the “Leader.” This crude bypassing of the institutions of democracy, the exaltation of the Leader as tribune of the aggrieved people and their will, is the worldview of Fascism, defines the nation by blood, and exalts violence as an act of purification. The antithesis of what the United States and democracy represent.
Fear catalyzed a tribal response to a perceived (and exaggerated) threat to the American way of life. Torture and an impulse to blame the “other” came quickly. Longer-term trends toward political polarization continued. These first began in earnest in response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, they take increasing strength from decades of accelerating social change and a sense that the former haves have been progressively losing out to rising minority social groups and are exploited or ignored by the political system which is supposed to represent them. Since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent War on Terror normalized an atavistic, tribal response to imagined danger. Many Americans have become susceptible to the calls of a Leader who promises to protect the people from the outsiders and from an unresponsive system.
All-too-predictably, an unprincipled charlatan – the classic demagogue promising salvation and fanning fears and hopes – has arisen. The prospect of tyranny and the progressive erosion of America’s system of democratic checks and balances – the arbitrary exercise of power – is no longer merely a topic of school-boy debate.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The terror response – The danger in safety
- All opposed: The hypocrisy of those who fight Trump
- Trump more popular than p*rn, sex sells limp election
- Preparing for a post-Trump world
Most Americans still view the Trump phenomenon as an aberration that will pass or believe that American democratic institutions are robust and “are working” (e.g., the opposition in the courts to Trump’s ban on Muslim visits to America as embodied by the suit from the “island in the Pacific”). But even if these relatively hopeful assessments prove correct, I know that America has become a coarser, less democratic society now defined, more than at any time during these past 100 years, by tribal views of who is one of us and of how we should be led. We are much closer to a government of men than before and our government of laws is progressively considered by many an obstruction to the “will” of the people as embodied in the “Leader.” Many thousands of Trump’s supporters refer to him as “god emperor.”
These terrible changes to American culture, norms, and government, even if Americans correct them, will be lasting. Only ill has come from the fears and atavistic response that engendered the Enhanced Interrogation Program, from our progressive political striation in response to rapid social and economic changes, and from the visceral response to a demagogic “Leader” who has risen to exploit these fears in a mad effort to satiate an infinitely insecure and demanding ego.
America is coarser and less democratic than the country I took my oath to preserve and protect 35 years ago than the America I feared for as I stood alone at the interrogation site 15 years ago.