“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Think for a moment of the act of placing a first-class letter in a mailbox somewhere in the United States, let’s say, Coleville, New Hampshire. The letter is addressed to a remote village on the island of Maui, Hawaii, a distance of 4,962 miles. It costs 47 cents, approximately 1/10 of 1% of the actual cost of getting the letter there. Why?
The two locations belong to the United States of America, and the people who live in them have the right, by the fact of sharing a nationality, of communicating with each other and of having their communication subsidized by, say, businesses in Manhattan that send out hundreds of pieces of mail to be delivered within a few hundred yards. In fact, the creation of the post office system and of the transportation infrastructure it required was instrumental in the formation of the country and our sense of belonging to it. This process is ably and amply outlined in a wonderful book entitled, How the Post Office Created America, by Winifred Gallagher.
We do not stop to think of the ubiquity of letterboxes or the fact that upon roaming around the 50 states, we are never very far from one. Each of them guarantees a uniform service and links us as citizens through this universal promise. Historically, we have supported it through government spending and through the acceptance of socially desirable subsidies that enable small, isolated communities to participate as fully as possible in the life of the nation. The American flag flies at every post office in the country.
It is this aspect of the Post Office’s symbolic and effective role in binding us together as a society with a national consciousness that makes the entity ripe for destruction by the neoliberal elites. Neoliberalism’s propagandists instruct us that, in Thatcher’s immortal words, “There is no such thing as society.” Thus, there should be no such thing as a national post distorting the market in communications and shipment of goods. Instead of shared public property, they lecture, there must only be markets, and consumers who use their purchasing choices to maximize self-interest and thereby direct economic activity in the optimum fashion (in this, the best of all possible worlds).
It is for this reason that the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., occupying the space of the old Post Office Department on Pennsylvania Avenue, is such an apt symbol of the Trump Era, in which three decades of the gradual transformation of public property into private goods will now accelerate to warp speed. The hotel itself may well generate the first of many scandals as we witness the Trump gang drain the public purse, housing, as it already has, many of the carpetbaggers and rent-seekers who will descend upon the nation’s capital, nostrils enflamed with the intoxicating aroma of money lifting like a dawn mist off the Potomac.
It is fitting that this phenomenon should occur at the very site of our socialized system of communications, a founding enterprise of our disappearing nation. The 263-room, five-star hotel embodies to perfection Trump’s uniquely grotesque expression of the neoliberal creed, i.e., that the state should function as a series of atomized markets. In Trump’s case, these markets will be exploited by the billionaire financiers with whom he has populated his cabinet, thereby making obvious what the Democrats better managed, minimally, to hide.
Thus the tragedy brought about by Ronald Reagan, by whom the idea of government as a collective expression of sovereign will and shared destiny was so skillfully discredited, repeats itself in the person of Trump, but now as farce. Whereas Reagan turned the presidency into a turnstile through which corporate plutocrats could seize ever larger chunks of the nation’s wealth, today Trump himself, as Dealmaker-in-Chief, hosts business partners and foreign dignitaries in his eponymous luxury palace a few doors away. Instead of interest groups subtly imposing their will, the president prepares to dole out vast riches directly, perhaps using his prince regents or the royal Infanta as intermediaries.
The model has operated these last four decades in part due to its opacity. It took an Obama, elegant, cerebral, with a classy wife and seductive syntax, to pretend convincingly that the continued accumulation of wealth at the top was an unintentional and temporary artifact, despite the glaring evidence of the 2009 bank heist and similar, ongoing spectacles of criminality. Trump merely takes the rules long established and plays by them, openly. This will not end well. But the nature and depth of the damage to be borne by us all is impossible to foresee.