One of the most destructive aspects of any cult of the personality is what ends up not a part of the daily conversation. There is, after all, only so much space to discuss the political goings on of the day. Talk ad nauseum about a leader’s pronouncements, his bluster or his threats, and inevitably other things get short-changed. Report breathlessly on every presidential tweet, even if it is on a topic, such as which horse legitimately won the Kentucky Derby, which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, and much more important issues get squeezed out.
One of the lessons of history is that part of the dumbing-down of a culture in a moment of charismatic leadership, where the personality of the leader becomes the focus of political discussion, involves a corrosion of the ability to retain a larger focus. Eventually, it involves an inability to remember that things ever were, ever could have been, different.
I can’t remember the last time the Syrian civil war captured more than a fleeting headline. It must be many months ago. I wish that were because the war had, somehow, miraculously ended But I know that that conflict is ongoing, that at a low-level burn Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s victorious regime continues to govern through brutality and terror. In March of last year, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calculated that over half a million Syrians had died in the conflict. In the thirteen months since, those numbers have, of course, climbed even higher. The group estimated, for example, that 900 people were killed in January alone, despite the ramping down of large-scale land-battles.
Those numbers get lot in the miasma of our moment, buried by the latest flurries of White House tweets and the breathy talking head arguments that inevitably follow in their wake. They get buried in a moment when a narcissistic leadership can’t muster even the most basic of moral language to talk about international relations and human rights.
Similarly, I know that the Saudi-led, US-supported, war in Yemen, even if out of the headlines most days in the United States, is taking a huge toll in lives lost and communities shattered. In December, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project produced an estimate that the Yemeni war had, to that point, claimed 60,000 lives. Some observers come up with even higher numbers. Save the Children, and other humanitarian groups, have been tracking the tens of thousands of civilian deaths due to hunger, cholera, and other side-effects of war. Yet ask most Americans about what they know of this awful conflict, and you’ll likely be met with silence.
There are so many critical challenges confronting early twenty-first century humanity, some of them with planetary stakes. Nuclear proliferation and climate change – both of which are gathering steam — threaten the very survival of human civilization. But they’re hardly alone as threats. There are new, emerging, bio-hazards; the wrecking of the oceans as we dump evermore plastic and toxic chemicals into those life-sustaining waters; the wholesale extinction of both land and water species; the re-emergence of virulently nationalist, even genocidal, political movements.
All merit our focus and our moral energies. Yet, the lift that is involved in staying focused, in tuning out the propaganda and the misinformation that rains down from on high, gets ever-heavier the longer we are ensnared in cult of the personality politics, the longer we aid and abet in the dumbing down of our politics and our broader culture.
I spent much of the last week interviewing asylum seekers in Arizona, men, women, and children, who had been detained in utterly inhumane conditions by U.S. enforcement agencies before being released onto the streets of Phoenix and Arizona. Their stories are heartbreaking – the stories of people who have fled home wrecked by poverty, by power vacuums filled with drug gangs and extortion crews, by ecological collapse. The land they have farmed for generations has, quite simply, dried up.
There are no simple solutions to this almost Biblical-scale migration. Our political leadership, wedded as it is simply to demonizing migrants, may not realize it, but the vast human movement north that we are seeing isn’t an aberration; it’s a harbinger of our future, as climate refugees migrate from one locale to the next in search of simply the possibility of life. A sensible discourse would be positing ambitious solutions to tackle the environmental collapse we are now living through; but in a degraded political moment, those who think seriously about Green New Deals and other holistic policy solutions, are simply tweet-bullied and harangued, their complex ideas reduced to clichés in the retelling.
Meanwhile, on a daily basis Trump assaults the constitution, moving the country ever-closer to rule by fiat. He has basically ordered the Executive branch to ignore Congressional subpoenas, betting Congress does not have the muscle to enforce its will. Documents that ought to be in the public eye are instead kept hidden, testimony demanded by Congressional committees is denied.
In a normal time, political leaders of both parties would rally to defend the constitution. In a time defined by cult of the personality rule, hundreds of years of accumulated political wisdom and precedent can be shredded on a dime. There is, simply, no political penalty to be paid by Trump to his base at the moment. To the contrary, that base sees his every outrage not as an assault on democracy but simply as something transgressive, almost as fun, a poke in the eye to vested interests that have had it coming for a long time now.
The cult of the personality is walling in the American psyche, replacing the big picture ambitions and ideas and aspirations of earlier incarnations of American culture with something much smaller, nastier, and more provincial. If Trump’s twisted rule lasts much longer, that, I fear, will be his biggest legacy.
Sasha Abramsky, www.theabramskyreport.com