Milosevic, Berlusconi, Trump

I saw this coming, for the past ten years or more. I saw small Trumps, rising and tramping around, first timidly, then bravely, and finally boldly.

I saw the same thing happening in Serbia and in Italy, during the late 20th century. They were not called Donald Trump, but rather Milosevic and Berlusconi, and even though I live in three countries, all three of them had common features.

They were all men, they were all macho, and they were all self-made potentates with heaps of money, media domination, and mountains of bold fraud. The bigger, the faker. That was always their development strategy.

Pundits call our current era a "post truth time" where politicians are immune to facts -- nobody checks to see if rhetoric matches reality, not the media, not the voters, least of all God. Some ruthless pundits even claim that truth deserves to be destroyed -- that our lived experience is so bad that truth merely gets in the way.

I was never a fan of Donald Trump's TV entertainments. I never even knew Trump existed before he became politically ambitious. My daughter, who grew up in Serbia under the laissez faire belligerent regime of Milosevic, does know of him.

Trump was loud on local junk private channels, selling cheap thrills, while other, more factual foreign media were barred for the Serbian population. The US government imposed those sanctions, but now Trump is the US government. First they cage you, forcing you to live in a den, then they sell you the goodies needed for survival, transforming your misery into a source of profit.

That’s how bad guys cash in on your political incorrectness. The international community sanctions might be morally deserved, we Serbs were the bad guys, we ignored wars run by our government in our name. The international community, those imposing the sanctions, have never run the economy.

On the contrary, today these global bodies like the UN, decent NGOs, et cetera, are like shabby aristocrats, there is nothing left to them but genteel chatter and a pretense of moral shock. They can impose the international sanctions for gross misbehavior, but the entrepreneurs sheltered in their own countries will be the very first ones to profit from gaming the rules.

Such is the new economic order, and, thanks to the likes of Milosevic, Berlusconi and Trump, this order has produced its own ruling oligarch class.

War is state power by another name, so it is just an intensification of the peace. Wars can still be profitable, just for a smaller group. Instead of being oligarchs dominating the impoverished majority, war means oligarchs treating the population as collateral damage.

After experiencing the USA personally, I can understand Trump's American authenticity. He is no more alien to the USA than Berlusconi was to Italy or Milosevic to Serbia. Of course many people in these three countries protested the pre-eminence of these arriviste moguls. I saw them do it, but now I can't help but think that the failed response must have been part of the problem.

The response from the opposition was weak. It was conformist, it was too set on imposing cultural norms on a world that wasn't going to behave. It wanted to be law-abiding and truthful, but it was emotionally and intellectually restrictive and rigid, so it had to waste too much of its energy defending itself from charges of hypocrisy.

When its world order, its rule of law, failed to rule, it tried to rely on making the illegal also unthinkable and unspeakable. This has echoes of the Soviet Union, when the letter of the law was obviously rubbish, so that people contented themselves with knowing the sort of thing that would get you into trouble. That kind of sixth sense is second nature for a political party or an artistic avant-garde, but it doesn't work for a population.

Everyday people, who are just persons trying to get by, can't thrive under such a regime. The laws can't make you good, and chiding hints and whispers about how bad you are will only make it worse.

We are suffering a famine of democracy, and we are beset with laws that lack justice and advantage a tiny group of exploiters. Political correctness is an alternative code, a kind of underground attempt at governance, but it doesn't work any better than, say, the software that governs the opaque behavior of Apple iTunes.

There are huge volumes of explanation about political correctness, just like there are huge volumes of shrink-wrap that warn you about being exploited when you use Google or Facebook. It would be great if those actually worked, because they arise from deep and abiding political frustrations, which tip, periodically, into bloody violence against the Other.

These techniques, such as they are, are fraught with failure. The objective situation on the ground is the testimony against them. Not only is the baby in the bathwater; the bathwater is tinged with the blood of delivery and the mother might bleed to death.

Life is not language. Language cannot substitute for governance because it lacks legislative capacity, there are too many widely deviant interest-groups creating language every day. When a gap is created between a rhetoric and the experience of real life, between elite jargons and the vernacular, between the beliefs of the ruled and the laws of the experts, this vacuum becomes a dangerous playground for populists.

With that done, it's one step from the playground to the slaughterhouse. This doesn't happen in some sudden and terrible moral failing, an appalling leap from bad TV shows straight to the Stalinist gulag.

No, it creeps up in small details of everyday lives. My collaborators, family, friends have been too much absorbed in their personal virtual lives. Looking for technical solutions, they anguished over personalised diets, health routines, clicktivist gestures and abstract political correctness, instead of dirtying their hands with the unruly and dangerous world, with the Other.

Meanwhile, on the unseen slopes of the enchanted mountains of these isolated perfectionists, Trumpism rolled like a snowball turned avalanche. What now for these Silicon Valley geniuses who substituted software for the earlier practice of laid back hippies holding hands, chanting, and praying?

Now the world abounds in political oxymorons: racist liberators, sexist freedom, oligarchs as champions of the working people, anti global globalism, international nationalist movements, disruptive prosperities and smart stupidities.

It won't be enough. What will be enough? Honesty will. Be honest with yourself, be active, get out of bed. Look outside the window, look outside the screen, work, walk, study, think, emote...

Americans, are you ready to be the same as your precursors, Italy and Serbia? To escape your virtual worlds of gamings for thrones, with your city on a hill plunged into deep winter… Can you put aside your beloved social-media topics of handgun rights, painkiller dependencies, eating disorders, and emotional dependencies on cats, zombies and vampires?

Outside the western hemisphere of Trumpistan, another deeply troubled and nonbeautiful older world is waiting for you. You can understand it if you make an effort, or failing that, it will come and get you, as it has repeatedly.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, and those who fail to live in truth have to repeat it as ghosts, ghouls, phantoms and lies.

Notable Replies

  1. That's not what I got out of it at all: I read that the serbian people let it happen by playing fair, by playing by the rules, by playing their opponent's game.

    If this sounds familiar, that's because it's happening outside people's windows right now.
    Everybody just...plays along, waiting for the next election cycle. Waving signs around, shouting slogans, writing letters that will never be read.

    What are they gonna do if the next cycle never really comes?

  2. When leftists attack liberals, I get all confused. What do they want? Just to watch the world burn?

  3. Reminds me of this:

  4. I think maybe you should re-read what she wrote, because I don't think that's what she's arguing here. Tesanovic is Serbian (and still lives in Belgrad part time, I think) and lived through the war as a political dissident - which she correctly states was weak during the break up of Yugoslavia - pretty much no one came out on the street to oppose him in any serious way until NATO began bombing, until their own comfort was being disrupted (while not doing too much during the periods when Sarajevo or Pristina was under attack - hence her point about words being weak). I've known at least one person who was involved in negotiations for the peace and came away incredibly frustrated, even though in one aspect, he got what he wanted.

    Plenty of people are able to understand that the Milosevic regime was terrible AND that the postwar set of circumstances guided by NATO and the UN have done little to heal wounds and in fact have only deepened antagonisms (especially between Kosovar Albanian and Serbs).

  5. In one sense, it is incorrect to say that what's been going on is not normal. Before 1946, strongmen leaders, extreme inequality, ultra-nationalism, war, openly bigoted institutions, and government-sanctioned anti-intellectualism were all too normal. The industrialised West enjoyed approx. 60 years of relief from that state of things, but that came to an end somewhere in the first decade of the 21st century.

    All that understood, I don't see any other course for myself and others like me except to hold the line as best we can by acting like liberals and supporting and defending the institutions of liberal democracy, beleaguered though they are. That doesn't equate to denial of the encroaching darkness of right-wing populism and authoritarianism, nor does it equate to not having a contingency plan for the moment when the darkness oozes into our own homes.

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