The recent events in Washington, D.C. didn’t surprise me, but I’ve been struggling to understand what brought them on. I wrote this essay to help organise scattered thoughts, from my perspective*.
If the Capitol's storming represented only a small minority of domestic extremists' views, this event could be neutralised. But, assuming the polls can be trusted, how do you take forward the nearly three-quarters of Republican voters and 35% of Americans overall who don’t accept the presidential election outcome? Or the 45% of Republican voters who support the Capitol rioters, which we now know included ex-military and law enforcement members? The millions-strong force behind Trump should not be understated, and my main concern is what happens after Trump is no longer president.
How did we get here?
Politics, Social Media and Media in General
Is it the Republican Party, filled with self-interested people who enabled Trump to get this far protecting their political position, prospects and fundraising targets? Almost two-thirds of House Republicans and several senators (see the full list here) voted to overturn the election results after the insurrection on January 6th (and after multiple courts threw out all of Trump’s legal challenges), and only 10 House Republicans voted to impeach him for incitement of insurrection. In a vicious cycle, Republican lawmakers pander to their voter base giving legitimacy to the lies it perpetuates. And, as we find out more detail about the insurrection, questions are also raised about Republican government officials actually coordinating operationally with the rioters (see here and here).
Is it Trump? His main blame is that he is a charismatic leader who was able to read, harness and fire up the feelings of so many by spreading baseless claims and outright lies. His popularity, in turn, emboldened him to go further and further. He unleashed the white supremacist monster — a legacy of slavery and structural racism — which has been hidden under the veneer of a stable liberal democracy and inflamed by fear of diminished white influence. He incited violence that cost at least five lives. He pushed many Republican politicians and lawmakers from gaming the system to breaking it in the name of holding onto power.
Trump destroyed trust in the media, or what he and his allies call “fake news.” He obliterated the idea of objective truth with his contradictory and delusional rhetoric. This attack on media and facts, along with social media echo chambers and online chaos, has enormously damaged our shared understanding of facts and reality. It created fertile ground for the virus of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, spread also by Trump himself. (However, let’s not ignore the fact that multiple conspiracy theories turned out to be true and that ‘perception management’ — which is in part responsible for our fake reality and loss of trust in government, media, etc. — originated within the U.S. Military.)
Is it social media? Is it their misinformation and hate-spreading algorithms that maximise online engagement to line the tech barons' pockets, often at the expense of truth, social cohesion, real-life relationships and a sense of what's real? Facebook and other data-stealing, truth-blind platforms have contributed, through their powerful microtargeting tools and automated recommendations, to organising and radicalising of the Trump mob. They’ve dragged people down the rabbit holes of QAnon and other conspiracies — well done to the profit-driven algorithms, shame they have no morals!
Social media platforms are so powerful that a single company, or rather a single man — Jack Dorsey — was in a position to silence the sitting president of the United States. It should have never come to a situation where a company is making such important decisions, forced to choose between bad outcomes. A listed company’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders, and therefore, Twitter’s decisions will always be commercial. It is the role of law and regulations to provide a clear framework for making these decisions and to resolve if public office holders should be allowed to communicate through social media in the first place.
Trump’s suspension at this point, resulting from an arbitrary process without transparency, only adds fuel to the fire at a highly precarious moment. It plays directly into Trump’s and his supporters’ hands, who can now say that there’s no free speech and that they’ve been silenced because of their views... But let’s not lose sight of the real problem here — surveillance capitalism — and the grave threat of epistemic chaos it brings to democracy.
But doesn’t it go further back? Before social media? The Internet democratised access to information (good and bad) and gave voice to the people. Suddenly, our information environment became magnitudes more complex. Maybe what social media exposed at scale is just how bad we are at thinking critically, how easily addicted and manipulated?
Trump is a brand. He was created by the media. By television. He is a showman and a businessman with extensive interests that made his public office position compromised from the very beginning. Why is someone in this position allowed to become a president? Why are political debates evaluated in terms of who wins and who loses, like enemies in a battle? It seems that politics and the way a lot of media covers it are more about spectacle than real issues, policies, and solutions. It’s spectacle over truth, especially in the US with its array of talk shows.
Why? Is it because this approach generates more revenue? Or because it distracts our attention from what really matters? Actually, they go hand in hand. Media educators point to the elimination, by the US media regulator, of the fairness doctrine in 1987 as the start of the ‘news as entertainment’ approach. Indeed, watching FOX News and CNN or MSNBC feels like an endless mindfuck by talking heads arguing opposite sides of an issue as opposed to presenting news. But, even the British BBC World Service has been captivated by Trump over the past four years, often starting its news service with “President Trump…”. Why did they all give him so much airtime when that’s precisely what his narcissistic personality thrives on and seeks with every outrageous move, statement and tweet? What follows from this is that aspiring politicians should be less concerned about policy than about their popularity as stars of the ‘reality politics’ show.
Truth, Religion, Spirituality and Wild Conspiracies
As a child, I wanted to have a ‘truth machine’ that would always give me true answers. I imagined it as a navy colour slot machine shaped box, with yellow writing on a dark computer screen. Truth meant a lot back then—being correct carried weight. But today, truth seems to have no value at all. It’s as if reason and truth have been replaced with whatever looks, sounds and sells best, or whatever someone chooses to believe. If they believe it, it is true (to them). So, we can all have our separate versions of truth and reality, constantly enforced by online echo chambers. Why do so many Trump supporters still believe the election was rigged even after all of the legal challenges were thrown out by the courts, including the Supreme Court, of which three out of nine justices were Trump’s appointees? Is it because they already decided what they believe and it won’t change no matter the evidence?
I can’t help but see in this phenomenon a troubling parallel with religion: “I believe, and nothing will change that because my faith is strong.” This analogy is the only way I can explain the lack of rationality from Trump’s supporters and their allegiance to him and him alone. It seems no coincidence that he has a steadfast following amongst America’s White Christians, who make endless and vocal references to God. The natural extension of being religious is having one’s God. Someone who gives hope, direction, identity and meaning, who explains the unexplained and answers all questions. Someone who provides rules for how to live and how to know right from wrong. In this sense, God is generally understood as a positive influence, especially for those who lost their way or are going through a difficult time. But is it all that positive? Or is it rather mass delusion, accepted only because it is so prevalent in society? This view traces back at least to Sigmund Freud and has been recently popularized by the 2006 book The God Delusion.
From a very young age, I was indoctrinated into Catholicism through Sunday masses in church, religion in school and the influence of close family members (thankfully not all!). And, although I always knew there was more ‘God’ in my nearby woods and meadows that in any church building, it took years of questioning to fully liberate my mind from the religious spell and the guilt trip of abandoning it. My native Poland, some very close family and many friends remain religious and I don’t mean to offend anyone — only to share personal experience and observations. Religious faith and God allow for — and perhaps also depend on — intellectual laziness and a certain lack of rigour in a logical argument or the process of deducing a conclusion by critical reasoning. They impose arbitrary moral codes, coerce believers into following them with a threat of eternally burning in Hell and promise Heaven to those who avoid sin— breeding intolerance for other religions, their Gods and their moral codes, and discouraging or downright suppressing one’s own judgement and independent thought.
What stops such thinking — or nonthinking — from spilling over beyond the realm of religious faith? Is it possible that this has something to do with the rapid take-up of conspiracy theories? If one type of delusion (i.e. religious) is accepted because enough people believe it, might a bunch of fantastical fabrications including that Trump is the rightful election winner fighting Satan-worshipping paedophiles also be accepted, simply because enough people — including those in the position of authority — believe it? Indeed, QAnon messages, dressed in Christian-sounding language, spread like wildfire amongst Christian communities across the US, including pastors and church leaders.
Next question is what happens when politics and religion merge, as in the case of White Christian Nationalists who think that Capitol is where God’s will for the nation should be enacted and that faith requires them to retake their country? Judging from the comments on Breitbart‘s Facebook page, it is not terribly far fetched to conclude that many of Trump’s followers see him as a leader sanctioned by God. Is this not the definition of theocracy? This is how religion is weaponized to justify intolerance and discrimination to the point of violence.
Lastly, before you write me off as a spiritually dead nihilist… Religion is often confused with spirituality. For me, these are not only separate but conflicting. Spirituality is gentle and free of dogma. It is the essence of things that manifests in the beauty and complexity of nature, the yet-to-be understood ways her systems balance and communicate, the mystery of the universe and our place in it, the various forms of energy and consciousness. It is found in the complexity of human nature, our collective history, evolution and trajectory as a civilisation, beginning thousands of years ago. Having all the answers provided by one’s God and religion stifles our natural curiosity, and it is antithetic to the quest for understanding. The assumption that humans can’t be trusted to know good from bad and to behave morally without coercion undermines the human species’ capacity for cooperation, and our natural empathy for others, whilst the expectation of a heavenly afterlife dims the magic and our love of life on Earth.
Neoliberal Capitalism — From US to UK and beyond
But there’s another issue. We are trapped in a system that limits our freedom to explore and understand these complexities. Here, I’m speaking predominantly from my experience of living in the US and UK for the last nearly 20years, which I could compare and contrast with an upbringing during Poland’s Communist rule and transition to a democratic system and a free-market economy. The issues I’m describing are much more acute in the US than they are in the UK, which seems to follow in a similar direction. (And today, many of these issues are present, to varying degrees, in Poland too).
We live our lives mostly confined within limited and increasingly virtual bubbles of daily existence built around productivity and consumption. We’re part of a system that turns everything into a for-profit business — the US healthcare being perhaps the most shameful example — sacrificing our health and even lives in the name of profit and limitless growth. It is a system that shackles people with lifelong debt, drives income and wealth inequality to grotesque levels and buys favourable regulations to lobbyists and corporate campaign contributors.
Life in this system leaves little space and time to wonder and wander in the real world — the natural world — looking for answers. We are conditioned from birth to want and consume, aspire to wealth, celebrity status, social media followings, and power. Wealth and fame are the ideas of success, even if they don’t correlate with a fulfilling and happy life. This no longer matters in America because inner happiness is not really in high demand — certainly not as high as the image of happiness that's easily broadcast through a plethora of social media and reflected in other people’s desiring eyes. At the same time, in the US — not yet the UK — not having a certain level of wealth and a job with good health insurance puts one at risk of financial ruin in case of a serious illness, forcing millions to crowdfund for medical bills.
When one of my dear US friends lost her health insurance after she divorced her husband and was cut off of his university-linked plan, she couldn’t get insured for less than several thousand dollars a month in premiums, because of her pre-existing condition — type 1 diabetes she was diagnosed with as a child. My fellow students at the University of Akron, OH considered the quality of employment-based health insurance as one of the main factors in choosing their future jobs. For me, it was a completely alien way of thinking, as was the idea of paying significant amounts of money for higher education (I was lucky enough to have it paid for by scholarship).
The vast majority of Americans who have the option and choose to go to college, graduate owing tens of thousands of dollars, and then add to it by taking on a mortgage for ever more expensive properties, car loans, credit card debt, etc. This pattern is partly driven by marketing, a widely-accepted credit culture, and the idea that owning material goods reflects success and happiness. There’s always a bigger house, a better car, a newer phone or computer to get — why not on credit if everyone else does it? In my early days in Akron, I really struggled to understand and reconcile this with the world I grew up in — with little advertising, simpler aspirations, and a saving culture meaning that if you could not afford something, you didn’t buy it. For example, my parents saved up 13 years to buy our first car when I was 11. So, I’ll never forget how baffled I felt seeing a perfectly functioning modern TV my Akron neighbours threw away on the sidewalk (it found a new home in my room ;).
Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans die in debt, sometimes passing it onto those they leave behind, and the problem is soaring in the UK. The debt trap starts early on, condemning most people to lives spent trying to pay it back while keeping up with current expenses, often stuck in ‘bullshit jobs’ in stress and fear of losing them. Then comes COVID. In addition to its staggering death toll, the pandemic eliminated some 10 million American jobs — along with the health insurance plans they offered — exacerbated existing inequalities and worsened the housing and eviction crisis — some 30 to 40 million people are at risk of losing their homes. But these problems are not new —I saw them in sharp relief and against all of my immigrant expectations a whole 20 years ago. They’ve been there for decades, caused by a steady erosion of regulatory protections and standards, privatisation of public services, shipping of jobs abroad, bailing out of the financial system and corporations instead of the people, etc. As well as the culture of living beyond means and on credit — stretching oneself to the limits, with little savings, no slack and no give anywhere, just like businesses operating just-in-time supply chains to lower overheads for maximum efficiency and profit. That means no resilience to withstand a crisis.
The weakest members of the society — the poor and homeless — are seen as failures and losers. The people I saw riding a bus and walking on sidewalks in Akron: the homeless and people living in derelict houses (but with satellite dishes and the TV always on), mentally ill people talking to themselves, drug addicts, sick people —all trying to hold onto their dignity, desperate for help that never comes. They are almost right next to areas of great wealth, dotted with huge, fenced mansions, strictly driven to and from, their residents never having to make contact with the poor. And if that’s not possible, the poor are made invisible. Like the homeless woman I once saw at a CVS in Manhattan —one of the highest-income places in the US. I tried to make eye contact as I walked towards her, but her gaze was numb and empty —she did not expect even an acknowledgement that she was a human being amongst other human beings. I've not experienced such feeling of completely resigned hopelessness anywhere else, not even walking through some of the most unequal parts of São Paulo, from the affluent Morumbi district to the Paraisópolis favela. And as hard as this reality is for the poorest, it is damaging to everyone else, because, in order to function in it, one needs to accept it as normal and simply ignore. Seeing the poor as losers who have only themselves to blame for their ‘failure’ makes it easier and even justified. Welcome to American individualism.
On the other hand, is it a surprise that people are not that concerned with the plight of others if they receive little help in their own struggle in a cruel and dehumanising reality, which nonetheless teases with the illusionary possibility of living the dream — a distorted and empty illusion itself? Empathy, kindness, openness, collaboration and generosity lose to selfishness, indifference, greed, anger, aversion towards others and aggression. This was particularly visible amongst the Capitol-storming, predominantly white male mob, who also resent and mourn their painful loss of social standing, racial privilege and power over others. They see their “rightful” position of a white Christian male under threat of losing the center stage. Those without a college education have even more reasons for outrage due to declining well-paying blue-collar jobs and mating prospects (note the rise of the incels and links with violence), and they very much see it as a zero-sum game — their loss is because of someone else’s gain. They feel threatened by Black people, Hispanics, Indians, Asians, women, non-binary people, etc. and many are ready to use violence to ‘defend’ their way of life —made possible thanks to decades and centuries of white man’s privilege. . .
These feelings are exploited by crafty, power-hungry politicians such as Trump who find catchy slogans and convenient scapegoats in ‘the others’, who are shunned, feared, discriminated against, and attacked. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon, and not limited to the US. I have also experienced it as an immigrant in Brexit UK and have seen it in “Law and Justice” Poland against LQBTQ+ and women — although the issues are not the same or not of the same intensity.
I can’t prove it, but my view is that decades of a ruthless and pernicious system of unbridled capitalism — perpetuated by both sides of the political spectrum — helped bring about the crisis we’re witnessing in America. It’s a crisis of values and reality that arises through a kind of continuous Faustian bargain, under a manufactured illusion of general prosperity. What follows is a spiritual hollowness that brings out the dark side of human nature in a desperate attempt to fill it. It has driven things to a point where it is unclear how to prevent increasing division, political polarisation, tribalism, information chaos and further violence. Removing Trump is only the beginning; the complex and layered issues remain. But I am hopeful that the Biden-Harris Administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress will come up with thoughtful solutions.
As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.
— Noam Chomsky
Of course, what happens in the US has vast implications for the world. Europe should watch America’s trajectory, for it is not immune to its political madness. We should all pause and make time to try and make sense of what is happening and why. We should resist the compulsion to quickly revert to habits of daily existence and following the noise of the news as if the Capitol insurrection was just another headline. We should read, discuss and consult with history — especially of fascist regimes, America’s racism and economics, and the media — to glimpse the future and possible avenues out of this mess. Schools and universities, in particular, should be engaged on all of these topics. Why is it that my son, who attends a regular local primary school, has to participate in collective worship but doesn’t need to know anything about what a country, nation, government or citizen is? Amongst topics of study in his class is religion but not science. In that context, Covid-19-forced homeschooling — even if facilitated through technology — is an opportunity. Most critically, we need to understand what screens and technology are doing to us and reverse it by spending more time in the real world, with real people, reconnecting with others, with nature and with ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves and the next generations to be reduced to passive bystanders kept too busy, hypnotised or distracted to understand the bigger picture. We must retrieve our humanity and agency before the next Trump comes along, in the US or elsewhere.
* I spent five years in Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s as a student-athlete and have regularly travelled for work to major US cities. I was born and raised in Poland during the Communist rule and transition to a democratic system and a free-market economy. I experienced deep culture shock in the US, and after completing my masters in business, I left the country in 2007 disillusioned with its reality. I’ve resided in the UK since, but remain keenly interested in US events.