The increasingly surreal US political scene has made me think things over. It's hard even to think sensibly about anything if the language is so corrupted that meaningful words and their definitions are unavailable - a point Orwell made in O'Brien's essay on the purpose and effect of Newspeak. Grab a copy of "1984" in the library and study it; it will do you good.
"Progressive" is one of those wonderfully flexible Newspeak words - a great thing to be or a horrible thing, depending on who is using it and why, and generally devoid of actual meaning. So I'll propose a meaning - it's being in favor of progress.
Well, then, I want to know what progress, and in what direction. I like progress in the gaining of wisdom or skill, or in virtues, but I don't like the progress an egg makes if it sits in the sun in the window for a week.
Today in US politics, progress is motion in the direction we've been going in, is it not? So before we can figure out whether we want to be progressive, don't we need to determine whether we like the direction we're going in?
Mostly, I don't like the direction we're going in. In fact, I think we're progressing toward calamity in many ways - social disintegration, the sort of environmental collapse that has wrecked plenty of civilizations before ours, and increasing acceptance of brutality and injustice as Paul in 2 Timothy 3 said to expect especially in "Christian" churches. We see that now, just as he expected, especially in "Christian" churches; "Christians" are most inclined to approve of torture, violent aggression against others, and the sort of bigotry against Muslims and others that led to the Nazi Judeocide - all arising out of the cowardice engendered by their conformity to the fears that the world teaches, and heartily adopted by them.
I don't like any of this progress, so I'm not a progressive.
Another of these wonderful Newspeak words is "Conservative," used with equal vehemence as insult or high praise - but, again, with no clear meaning.
Here the confusion seems to arise from there being at least a couple of valid ways to be conservative. Conservative can mean being concerned to conserve good things that we're in danger of losing, being afraid to break good things inadvertently or recklessly. As the letter to the church in Sardis in the Revelation puts it, "Strengthen the things that remain, that are about to die." This impulse is seen in the desire to preserve the natural environment, constitutional civil liberties, and such like.
A closely related impulse was described by G. K. Chesterton as not wanting to knock down a wall before you know why someone put it up. NASA engineers say accurately that change is bad. Engineers, programmers, and other such people learn how easily we break things, how easily we get unintended consequences - and mostly bad ones.
Having been a programmer for a long time, I have learned upon my hide to be this kind of conservative.
But the conservative temperament can easily lead to a look-alike corruption - the desire to keep things as they are to our own advantage. As John Kenneth Galbraith accurately said: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in
moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification
for selfishness." In 1948, George Kennan stated this reality about the goal of US foreign policy:
"Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population.
This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In
this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.
Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of
relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of
without positive detriment to our national security."
This kind of conservatism ends up being quite reckless, since clinging to a privileged position founded on injustice requires the steady application of more injustice, and its price is unending fearfulness, the usually low-level but constant dread of the oppressor that if he lifts his boot from the neck of the oppressed his victim will leap up and avenge himself.
That is very obvious in the rage against black people, immigrants, Muslims, and others that we see in lots of white people these days - who are certainly being ripped off, but not by those that they are hating and kicking down on.
For instance, there is an immigration problem, but the problem is not immigrants, who are actually performing such services as keeping Social Security solvent and preventing the demographic collapse happening in such places as Japan. The problem is that the owners and rulers of this country, operating both through the Republican and Democratic parties, have made legal immigration difficult and illegal immigration easy - for the obvious purpose of ensuring a large pool of vulnerable workers, easily ripped off, who also give leverage to those rulers and owners to rip off white US workers. The immigrant-hating of these workers is not helping them, just as it never has. It didn't work in the 1890s for white people being ripped off in the same way through the use of black scabs to break their strikes. Most of these white folks were played for suckers and enticed to hate those more oppressed than they were; a few, like the United Mineworkers, instead sometimes chose to consider them fellow sufferers and organized them.
Finally, there is the term "Reactionary," hardly ever used except as an insult, because we're all supposed to believe in the myth of progress as steady improvement. But I think there is a lot of merit to the reactionary position, when you're progressing in the wrong direction, as we surely are. Should we not want to restore worthwhile things that we have lost?
But I see two problems.
One is that reactionaries are commonly trying to unscramble an egg, but that can hardly ever be done. Accordingly, you can hardly ever fix problems by returning things to what they were, because what happened really did happen and cannot unhappen. Thus it was a mistake for the people to demand a king, as Samuel the prophet warned them in 1 Samuel 8, but when things went badly with Saul, there was no going back to when the judges ruled. The kingdom was here, and a new king was needed - David.
Reactionaries always want to get back to the garden, as expressed in Joni Mitchell's song, Woostock. Listen carefully; it is the reactionary dream:
The trouble is that there is no getting back to the garden, only to the city of God, even though the city was Cain's invention.
A related problem with the reactionary position is that the reactionary is usually trying to get back to a past that never was. For instance, there never was a golden age of godliness in the United States for us to get back to. Read Matthew 5-7 and read any honest account of US history, and you won't find 24 hours in that time where anyone except a few like John Woolman had the slightest interest in what Jesus set forth there.
Whether Tea Partiers in their funny hats, hippies, or dominionist "Christians," reactionaries pursuing a past that never was are doomed to disappointment. Truly it is rightly said in Ecclesiastes, "Do not ask why the former days were better than these, because it is not from wisdom that you ask about this."
No, Donald Trump will not, and cannot, Make America Great Again.
So then where are the various presidential candidates, and especially Donald Trump?
I think we have to say that Bernie Sanders is a cautious reactionary. He would like to take us back to the 1950s, when the average American wage earner could expect a decent life, where there were some decent social protections, and where a 90% top tax rate in Eisenhower's days kept the extremely rich from getting it all - without, let it be said, keeping them from working hard to get it, because that remaining 10% was still a pretty nice pile. But leaving out the white supremacy and some other things. A timidly reforming reactionary. I don't think that's nearly enough, but if you don't like him, let's consider the alternatives.
Hillary Clinton is, of course, the conservative in the race, in the degraded, timid, and grasping way that conservatism can go bad and mostly has. She guarantees that what we have - total domination by the Goldman Sachs crowd, unending stupid wars, and minor tweaks that ensure no inconvenience to her owners and friends, and no change except through decay - is what we're going to get world without end if she prevails. But since it is not sustainable, it will not work, if she ever gets in office. Her record of venality and bad judgment, never learning and never forgetting, ensures calamity in the event of real crisis - and impending crisis is baked into the cake.
The Republican clown car, excluding Trump, promises what we have and more of it, with some vague reactionary dreaming that Clinton does not offer. Their problem is that what we have has been ruining the lives of their base for decades and is promising to make it even worse and quickly, and the suckers are showing signs that they can't and won't stand it anymore. Thus the South Carolina primary today polished off Jeb Bush. Eduardo Rafael Cruz, in a state that's about as good for him as it gets, also got walloped. It didn't hurt Trump at all that he blurted out the truth about Iraq; a higher percentage of veterans voted for him than other categories of voters.
So what about Trump?
First, he scoffs at rationality - disturbing common ground with fascist movements of 80 years ago, and earlier similar movements like the Black Hundreds in Czarist Russia. He presents himself as a romantic reactionary, promising to Make America Great Again. It's all nonsense. The problem is that it's no more nonsensical than the shuck and jive of his opponents, especially the utterly robotic Rubio and Clinton.
Trump gushes nonsense - outrageous lies like having witnessed Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey, or hallucinations like the Mexican government being induced to fund a wall for the United States. He lies far more audaciously than the others - all accomplished liars themselves.
But unlike them, he also blurts out some truth now and then. In the first Republican debate, he spent a couple of minutes explaining how the US political system and its denizens work - "present company excepted," said he with a smirk to the clown car with him on stage. He explained why Hillary Clinton found it necessary to attend his wedding in 2005, thereby also accurately telling us what to expect of her if she reaches the presidency. Yes, she will obey all her other funders as compliantly as she has honored Trump - when having given her money, he crooked his finger, and she came running.
In South Carolina, he was as clear as any candidate with the possible exception of Sanders about the Iraq War, and what Bush did in that caper. The debate audience booed him, but the voters backed him and put Jeb Bush out of the race.
At this point, he looks most likely to either win the Republican nomination or be impudently cheated out of it by the party bosses. That will be ugly if it happens. And if he faces Clinton, the poster girl for the system that is screwing the average American, I think he is likely either to win or to be obviously defrauded, and that won't be pretty either.