In a widely read conversation here at Salon during the first few weeks of the national pandemic lockdown and the implosion of America's economy, journalist and bestselling author Chris Hedges warned that, compared to what may lie ahead, "these were the good times."
This was before the coronavirus pandemic continued its deadly march where today more than 136,000 people are dead. Hedges' warnings were also made before we saw the full horror of Trump's willful incompetence, cruelty and sabotage, or his willingness to sacrifice millions of Americans — including, potentially, children — for "the economy," capitalism and, of course, his own re-election. Hedges also issued his warning about "the good times" before Trump's threats of martial law and using military forces against the George Floyd protests and people's uprising. It was also before Donald Trump declared war on Independence Day weekend against any and all Americans who dare to oppose him.
I reached out to Hedges again and asked him, "Are these still the good times?"
Yes, he said, they are.
In our latest conversation, Hedges explains why this perilous moment in America will be looked back upon fondly, compared to what the future holds. He sees little hope in Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, which he believes have no substantive solutions for the social inequality and other institutional problems that spawned Donald Trump and his white neofascist movement. Hedges is also concerned that America is spiraling down into the type of ethno-political violence he personally witnessed in Yugoslavia during that country's civil war in the 1990s.
But Hedges also sees hope for saving the United States from imminent tyranny. Where? In the George Floyd protests and the possibility of revolutionary change.
You can also listen to my conversation with Chris Hedges on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.
As is customary, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Under Donald Trump's reign, America is a country run by a crime family. Trump and his Republicans have no moral authority. They are removing any oversight by firing inspectors general within the federal government, which has allowed Trump and his allies to loot coronavirus relief funds for billions of dollars. Trump and his cronies rage about "law and order" and locking up people who were looting during the George Floyd uprising — when in reality the plutocrats are looting an entire country and have been doing so for decades.
It's a mafia state. There's no control. There's no regulation. The system is full of legalized bribery. The electoral process is corrupt as well. The courts are stacked with right-wing ideologues. The press has been bought off and corporatized. Many of our constitutional rights as Americans have been revoked by judicial fiat, including the right to privacy. Corporate money floods political campaigns in the name of "free speech." The United States is a failed democracy and a mafia state, the natural result of what happens when capitalism is deregulated.
Trump, Mitch McConnell, the other Republicans and their gangster capitalist allies are telling the public that $1,200 in coronavirus relief money is adequate. But the billionaires and millionaires are the ones who received the majority of the "relief" funds. America's billionaires are now $500 billion richer because of the coronavirus disaster. The average American is closer to homelessness. Neoliberal capitalism amounts to socialism for the rich and "free markets" for everyone else.
Mitch McConnell and the other elites really have not figured out what is happening in this moment of great crisis and upheaval. What we are seeing now in America is about so much more than people just being sick of the police murdering innocent people. It is a generational and class revolt. Yes, COVID certainly exacerbated it. But all of the kindling was already there. Chronic underemployment, massive consumer and student debt, being priced out of the for-profit health care system and the expansion of militarized police and the prison system.
This movement is multiracial. It is led by people of color, but certainly, there are a lot of young white people out there too, and my sense is that they are no longer buying into being gaslit by the elites anymore.
The empire always strikes back. What will that look like?
We have to acknowledge that the empire is tottering towards its collapse. So what is empire? Empire is the expression of white supremacy beyond our borders. The whole nature of empire is to go into the Middle East — previously into Vietnam, Latin America, the Philippines and elsewhere — and steal natural resources and exploit cheap labor in the name of white supremacy. And of course, we have an American society built on chattel slavery and genocide against indigenous peoples. What empires traditionally do at the end is they engage in what historians call "micro-militarism".
At the end, as they slip into an irrevocable decline, empires engage in military adventurism in a desperate bid to bring back lost power, lost wealth and lost glory. America has done this in the Middle East. The result is that America has been hollowed out from the inside.
At the end stage, the elites need the tools that the empire perfected on people of color abroad. That is why we see the drones and militarized police and heavy weapons such as armored personnel carriers being used here in America against the country's own citizens.
White supremacy hurts white folks. There are so many examples of this, from the way that federal and state resources are spent putting Black and brown people in prison in disproportionate numbers to how white racism hurts the overall economy. The police in Buffalo intentionally knocking down that older white man, who lay there bleeding from the head while the police walked over him like he was human garbage, was such a profound metaphor for how racism hurts white people. With the George Floyd protests and people's uprising, white folks are seeing, again, that what Black and brown folks have been saying about police thuggery is true. Now the police are brutalizing white people.
People of color always, throughout American history, suffer first. They are the first to suffer — and they suffer disproportionately. But de-industrialization has now hit the white working class. The tools of control are now being used against them. Overall, I don't so much fault the white racists. They are what they are. I fault the white liberals who really did not pay attention to what was happening to primarily poor people of color in urban areas.
Everything that is now enraging white progressives is not new — it goes back decades. But it was never really covered by the mainstream American news media. The liberal elites busied themselves with the boutique activism of "diversity" and "tolerance," "multiculturalism" and the like. Sure, that is well and good, but not when such approaches are divorced from economic justice.
When you look at these multiracial, intergenerational protests, what do you see?
There has been mass economic disenfranchisement. There is a leadership crisis too among the Democrats and the so-called liberals.
For example, look at what the Congressional Black Caucus is doing. They are repeating the same kind of tired clichés about police reform we have heard for years. Most people participating in the George Floyd protests know that such reforms are useless. Empty symbolism. The mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, paints "Black Lives Matter" in 35-foot-tall letters on a street near the White House. But at the same time, she's pushing for a $45 million increase in the police budget and the construction of a $500 million new jail. I don't think people are buying such a performance. I also don't believe that people are buying Pelosi's little kente-cloth, "take a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter" trick either.
In part, such actions have no credibility because younger white people no longer buy into the policies of the oligarchs which produced all of this extreme social inequality in the first place. People of color have long known this truth. Now younger white people are being forced into a new type of awareness and consciousness. That is a good thing.
I worry that the Democrats are setting themselves up for great failure and a crushing defeat with all this celebration of how Biden is leading Trump in these early polls. Polls are a snapshot in time. They are not predictive of the outcome on Election Day. Hillary Clinton and Mike Dukakis had double digit leads at various times, and they both lost to Republicans.
As embarrassing and awful as Trump is, he serves corporate power just like Joe Biden. The big corporate Democratic Party donors made it clear that if Bernie Sanders became the presidential nominee, they would support Trump. The donor class has created a system where they cannot fail. If it's Trump or Biden, Goldman Sachs doesn't lose, ExxonMobil doesn't lose, Raytheon doesn't lose, Citibank doesn't lose. There is no way that they can lose. They have rigged the system so that their interests are always served.
Donald Trump tried to order the United States military to attack the American people several weeks ago because they dared to participate in massive protests against police brutality and social inequality. These protests continue and social movement scholars are now saying that the George Floyd protests may be the largest such mobilizations in American history. Trump tried to order martial law and the senior leaders of the United States military basically told him no. On one hand I am glad the military defied Trump. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about such power in a democracy being normalized. Either way, America is not a healthy democracy.
The military does not want to be deployed in the streets. At present they are the most respected social and political institution in the country. The military gets even more money than they ask for from the Democrats and the Republicans. The military, quite correctly, saw that it would be disastrous for them to follow Trump's commands to crack down and enact martial law.
As a practical matter, the military does not need to intervene against the George Floyd protesters and others who have taken to the streets because the American police are so highly militarized. In America there are SWAT teams who don't look much different than Army Rangers knocking down doors in Afghanistan.
In many ways, the most potent anti-democratic force in the United States is the military. They are untouchable. The U.S. military cannot even be audited. Such power and influence are a classic symptom of the end of an empire. The Praetorian Guard can no longer be controlled by the supposed political leaders.
There have been incidents across the country in which white mobs attack Black Lives Matter protesters, anti-fascists and other Americans of conscience. These thugs are yelling Trump slogans, wearing his regalia and attacking with baseball bats and other weapons. The Trump street enforcers also have guns. Where do we go from here?
The more beleaguered Donald Trump becomes, the more he and the other racists and nativists will incite violence. America right now reminds me of Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
Donald Trump's supporters are willing to kill and die for him. This is just the beginning of what is going to happen as Election Day approaches. You have been in war zones and countries torn apart by ethnic cleansing and genocide. What is the model for how a people turn on each other?
It begins with economic dysfunction, which is what happened in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia went into de facto bankruptcy. The huge state factories closed, just like they did here in the United States. There was massive unemployment, the social bonds in the country were ruptured. There were bread lines. People lost everything, including a sense of identity. As a result, they retreated into these mythical narratives about themselves as Serbs, Croats and Muslims. In such a moment shared public discourse is impossible. These other identities and their myths have now superseded verifiable historical fact. That's what happened in Yugoslavia, and that is very much part of what is happening in the United States.
Then there is the rise of demagogues who demonize a segment of the population and target them as the Other. Then the eliminationist rhetoric and violent rhetoric begins. After four years, people started shooting each other in Yugoslavia. The United States is approaching that point.
We spoke with each other several months ago during the first few weeks of the national coronavirus lockdown and economic collapse. You told me that as horrible as things were then, it was in fact "the good times." Several months have gone by. Is the United States still experiencing "good times" as compared to what will happen in the future?
Yes, as compared to what is coming. The elites are not responding rationally to the coronavirus pandemic, the economic devastation and the myriad of other problems facing the United States right now. America's ruling class is doing just what they did in 2008, which is to line their own pockets at the public's expense and to cast the rest of the country — the working poor and the working class — aside as if they were human refuse. That is all very shortsighted, of course, because of the blowback. The ramifications are catastrophic. One would think that America's elites would respond in a smarter way, if even for their own self-preservation. If elected president, Joe Biden certainly isn't going to respond properly.
The George Floyd protests are more accurately described as a generational class revolt. I hope that the protesters and their allies win, because if we do not take power back from this American mafia state then there will be a very ugly type of tyranny in the country.
As Aristotle said, once you have oligarchic rule, there are only two choices. It is revolution or tyranny, and that's it. I'm not naive enough to tell you the revolution is going to win, but I'm going to tell you that if it doesn't win then there will be a very ugly corporate tyranny in the United States.
The American elites, the ruling class, has already rewritten all the laws.They already have the prison cells. They've already militarized the forces of internal security. They've already legitimized the revoking of basic rights like habeas corpus and due process. Americans are already the most watched, monitored, surveilled, photographed population in human history. The forces of tyranny are ready to go.
I'm more optimistic because I see the resistance in the streets, which wasn't there a few weeks and months ago. That's where hope lies. It lies in the streets. And I have got to acknowledge these people. They're mostly young, incredibly courageous, they are out there braving economic misery, arrests, indiscriminate, brutal and often lethal police violence and COVID-19, and they're fighting against injustice and the elites anyway. They're all heroes in my book.