Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges’s latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, is no rallying cry. There is no call for a march on Washington or for “the resistance” to redouble its efforts to rid the White House of a growing threat to democracy. America: The Farewell Tour is a diagnosis and lamentation. A tear shed for a country that once inspired, and for its citizens who have become the collateral damage of one small faction’s insatiable thirst for wealth.
Hedges does not blame U.S. president Donald Trump for America’s decay.
“Trump is not the disease, he is a symptom,” Hedges tells the Straight by phone, ahead of a Wednesday (October 10) event in North Vancouver.
“Demagogues have a kind of appeal among an enraged, betrayed population, because despite whatever vulgarity and imbecility they exhibit, they nevertheless ridicule the established elites, the way Trump does,” Hedges explains. “And to a population that has been manipulated, lied to, and used by these elites, that is kind of cathartic. But it’s dangerous, because it takes very weakened structures and debilitates them further. That is what we are witnessing right now.”
Hedges has reported on this phenomenon before, as a foreign correspondent in El Salvador and during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, for example. He has witnessed the appeal of an individual willing to embrace fascism and the powers they can wield over a population so discontented it is ready to embrace violence.
In America: The Farewell Tour, Hedges notes this pattern in examples that go back as far as humans have organized themselves into larger societies. The Egyptians, the Romans, the Mayans, the people of the Indus Valley civilization… Hedges lists them off.
“They elevated, during acute distress, inept and corrupt leaders who channeled anger, fear, and dwindling resources into self-defeating wars and vast building projects,” he writes in the book. “These ruling elites, consumed by greed and hedonism, retreated into privileged compounds—the Forbidden City, Versailles. They hoarded wealth as their populations endured mounting misery, hunger, and poverty. The worse it got, the more people lied to themselves and the more they wanted to be lied to.
“Societies in acute distress often form what anthropologists call ‘crisis cults’,” Hedges continues, “which promise to recover grandeur and empowerment during times of collapse, anxiety, and disempowerment. A mythologized past will magically return. America will be great again.”
In 2018, Hedges looks around America and sees the opioid epidemic, increasing suicide rates, and the election of a crude misogynist who enthusiastically preys on people’s anxieties and manipulates their fears.
“When you break social bonds, when people live with a kind of hopelessness and despair, they seek various forms of self-annihilation,” he states. “These diseases of despair—gambling, sexual sadism, opioids, suicide—this is what happens in degenerated societies.”
Hedges identifies these societal ills as symptoms of inequality, and inequality as a result of the onset of late-stage capitalism and western society’s blind faith in neoliberal economic theory (a lie without evidence and mere “ideology to justify rule and greed”, he asserts).
“All the signs of late capitalism, as identified by [Karl] Marx, are evident around us,” Hedges says. “The predatory nature of corporations in terms of cannibalizing the very governmental and institutional structures that make a democratic, capitalist society possible. The inability to carry out piecemeal or incremental reform, both in terms of economic and political policy. The complete domination of both the economy and the political system by a cabal—in this case, a corporate cabal—that redirects all of the institutions and mechanisms towards its further consolidation of power and its enrichment.”
There is no saviour in the Republican party.
“Unfortunately, it is not just Trump,” Hedges emphasizes. “It is the Republican party that is aiding and abetting this dismantling because, in terms of policy—i.e., federalist judges, tax cuts, and the structure of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]—Trump is giving the corporate elites who manage the Republican party what they want.”
Nor is there any salvation in the Democratic party, or any chance of it reclaiming the role of a check on power in this November’s U.S. midterm election.
“The Democratic party under Clinton, in essence, became the Republican party, and the Republican party was pushed so far to the right it became insane,” Hedges says. “But on all of the substantial issues—in terms of empire, in terms of globalization, in terms of the assault on civil liberties—there is no difference. And with the rejection of the established elites in both parties, Trump is increasingly able to transform the Republican party into a kind of personality cult.”
A cult that enough people appear ready to follow, Hedges adds. “We are witnessing the possible extinction of the very forms of democracy,” he says, “including a respect for the rule of law, civil discourse.”
Chris Hedges discusses America: The Farewell Tour at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday (October 10).