By Michael Rowan
You may not like what’s coming because you’re not thinking about it. History is way less a chronicle of visionary searches for alternative futures than it is a blind search for lost or imaginary pasts. As Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, so it goes.
In the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, a narrow majority of British voters opted out of a Common Market which has produced phenomenal economic growth for the continent and prevented war for 70 years. This is not a small accomplishment in a region that had continuous wars for a thousand years beforehand -- culminating in World Wars One and Two. If France or Germany also honor the absurdity of ignoring the Common Market, the default setting of Europe may soon be far less pleasant and predictable than it has been since the Nazis were defeated.
Brits voting to leave the EU felt that Brussels – the capital of the EU – was exerting too much control over British sovereignty, a trivial matter when factually compared to continental growth and security. Voters also were unhappy with globalization and its ill winds – terrorism, refugees and a global competition for jobs in an increasingly knowledge economy where the undereducated or unprepared worker goes redundant pretty fast.
The Brexit campaign was populist, irrational and powerful. Its numbers did not add up but that didn’t matter especially to its leader Boris Johnson. The feeling of resentment was impervious to words and numbers, being more of a nostalgic feeling for a lost past in England than a reasonable plan for its future. The market agreed. The day after the vote, $2 trillion in losses were chalked up in global markets. So it goes.
In the U.S., a similar desire for change is sweeping the TV screen. There, a prejudiced self-promoting billionaire has trumpeted, blustered and insulted his way into a dead heat race for the presidency. He believes that the U.S. – 4% of the global population and 25% of its GDP since World War II -- is an abject economic failure (and surprisingly few are courageous enough to set him straight on the facts).
Trump believes that the established political leaders of the past are stupid, corrupt and weak. He believes that the U.S. needs a strongman, a bully, a leader who can solve complex problems with simple tweets. He’s anti-trade, a xenophobe, a racist, a sexist, and admittedly (even proudly) corrupt, a know-nothing TV showman, a snake oil salesman, who is clearly unqualified for the presidency, but who dispatched 16 Republicans to get the nomination and is now astonishingly competitive with Hillary Clinton – the most qualified person ever to run for the presidency, according to Barack Obama – in the race to the White House.
Sober brains from global think tanks are wondering why half of America wants any change more than electing the first woman to the highest office in the land. The U.S. economy and security are factually not that problematic. But in politics, reality is perception which is largely shaped by talk radio and unsourced conspiracy theories of the Internet spread worldwide by TV media whose First Commandment has long been, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Buffoons are everywhere opposing everything with no facts.
Keen observers of U.S. political campaigns have known since TV got turned on that politics is more about performances not facts but in the past a speck of reality used to checkmate gross lies and distortions by TV performers. Not today. Americans who hate Washington are loving the lies. The campaign for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth is playing this out on the showman’s turf – a sensational reality TV show where there are no consequences to whatever you say or do. The presidential campaign has adopted the dramatic tensions of The Apprentice, where Trump the showman often ends the show with his favorite line: “You’re fired.” So it goes.
And then there’s Venezuela, the harbinger of disaster for free democracy and markets in the 21st century.
Here’s the thumbnail tale. In 1998, Venezuela’s establishment was appalled by the campaign, no less the election, of a know-nothing military paratrooper who was willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to change Venezuela to his liking.
Political, business and academic leaders believed Hugo Chavez would last only days or weeks in office but were sullenly surprised when his rule went not just beyond his term of office but beyond his death a few years ago and even to this present day under the thumb of his sycophant, a former bus driver.
Today the institutional checks and balances against dictatorship have all been disemboweled. The first democracy and advanced economy of Latin America has been flushed down the toilet of history. Venezuela, which possesses more oil than Saudi Arabia, is now importing oil from the U.S. – the Evil Empire itself -- and is effectively bankrupt. Hyperinflation is in the triple digits. Diseases long ago conquered are at epidemic levels. Babies are starving. Medicines, eggs and toilet paper are impossible to find. The whole population is trying to escape from thousands of military goons who own and control everything in sight. So it goes.
What’s common in the Brexit vote, the U.S. presidential campaign, and Venezuela’s collapse are: one, a fierce desire to recapture the glories of a nonexistent past; two, a TV showman who popularizes buffoonery as if he’s God’s gift to humanity; and three, a mediated culture which denies the reality increasingly impinging on its five senses even as its withering brain’s alarm bells for neurosis ring furiously, only to be ignored.
Britain is not about to recapture the glory of its dominant past, which wasn’t such pleasant going, some may remember. The U.S. is not about to recapture what it falsely recalls of suburbanization in the 1950s or the Norman Rockwell imagery of lily white life in Disneyland America. Likewise, Venezuela’s “revolution” has not recaptured the time of Bolivar except for the blood running like a river in the streets – they got that right.
Why don’t the English know about England – it’s an island based upon trade, that’s what made it great. Why don’t the Americans know about America – it’s a nation of immigrants made great by them. Why do Venezuelans know so little about Bolivar?
In a larger sense, why does the brain make a nostalgic movie about things past which entices people to believe it’s always greener over the hill – of yesterday? God knows, but one thing we do know – we who are alive and wondering about it – is that it doesn’t matter if you’re driving an English, American or Venezuelan car on a twisting mountain: if you always look at the rearview mirror and never look through the windshield, gravity is not going to be your pal.
As the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote: “This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming.’” Brits, Americans, Venezuelans: listen up.Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.