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The Quislings of American Collapse

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How Downwardly Mobile Americans are Being Radicalized into Betraying America

Check out the jaw-dropping picture above — which by now you might have seen. Now think about Senators travelling constantly to Moscow for reasons unknown. Then consider a President who’s more loyal to Russian self-interest than he is to any vaguely American ideal.

America today faces a (yet another) crisis that’s as weird and bizarre as it is gruesome. School shootings? Opioid epidemics? Retirees living in their cars and working at Walmart? Insulin which costs ten times what it does in Pakistan or Iran?

Try the quislings of American collapse. Whole groups of Americans — like the fine gentlemen above — seem to be perfectly happy betraying America. By putting Russian oligarchy, repression, and ethnic supremacy, above American democracy, freedom, and civil society. What does it all mean?

What’s happening, to put it bluntly, is that (some) downwardly mobile white American middle class men — at least some of them — are being radicalized. Not by ISIS, by communism. But by a seductive, grandiose kind of authoritarianism. To become something like true believers in the Russian model of society. A patriarchal supremacy. A repressive, ethnically charged patriarchy, in which the state is a mechanism for the pure and strong to dominate the impure and weak, with violence, exclusion, fear, and intimidation. All of which the pure and strong believe vehemently is right, just, noble, and true. But it’s in fact just a tool of oligarchy, to go on enriching itself. Give men in decline someone to hate, it seems, and they’ll let you exploit them to the bone. Who cares if an oligarch owns your energy grid — when you have gays to bash, women to demean, and immigrants to bully?

Doesn’t that sound like where this group of American men are heading today? They’re being radicalized into being true believers in authoritarian supremacy, Russian style. Not quite apartheid, not quite segregation, not quite full on fascism — something more like “strong men arise, and fulfill your destiny, because you are the rightful leaders of a society, and everything in it, whether households, corporations, governments, cities, towns. You have a social license to prey on everyone who is not one of you. Go ahead — the state will look the other way.” Radicalization is what all this is — and we should see it as exactly such a thing.

How did America get here? Indulge me for a moment with a brief history lesson. The word “quisling” refers to Vidkun Quisling. He headed Norway’s puppet government, together with a Nazi “administrator. That government was called the Quisling Regime. Today, we use the word loosely to mean “traitor.” But it has very interesting and weird connotations. Quisling had long craved power, and so today it means something more like a person who sells out their country — and believes in it, too. Quisling didn’t set about protecting Norway — he tried to destroy it as a democracy. So today “quisling” means something like a person who is a kind of traitor in the truest sense, not just for survival, or some morally conflicted notion of right and wrong — but someone who, like Quisling, buys deeply into a hostile ideology, to advance their own naked pursuit of power. Betrayal not for self-preservation, but for self-aggrandizement.

Do you know when someone’s way too friendly? When they flatter, charm, compliment, and praise you, endlessly? Doesn’t that sound exactly like this weird phenomenon at work in America today — the bizarre new relationship with Russia that’s emerged, as America collapses? Friendly is one thing. But this strange mixture of adoration, veneration, reverence and license is quite another.

Hence, there are two classes of American quislings today. One we’ve discussed a little bit — downwardly mobile white men. But then there are elites. The elites seem to be less motivated by ideology than by money and power. That’s ironic, because it’s an effect of predatory capitalism — which America’s long championed. Russia’s oligarchs have the money to, it seems, buy American democracy lock, stock, and barrel. They’ve accomplished in just a few years what the missiles and bombs of the Cold War couldn’t for decades. Cold, hard cash seems to have lured America’s conservative establishment to become something like, in one of the greatest ironies of modern history, Russia’s representatives. America’s leaders aren’t being radicalized as much as they’re selling America out, in a grand irony of capitalism come back to haunt a collapsing society.

But America’s leaders grinning at their gains do legitimize the act of venerating Russia for the rest — the everyday men in decline, who are getting radicalized. (No, “not all men.”) On Facebook, on Twitter, in weird internet forums. This act of radicalization is happening faster, harder, and deeper than I think history’s ever seen before, because these things are like weapons of mass destruction for human minds. Have you ever seen a society develop an epidemic of quislingism spreading like wildfire through a whole social class — in less than a decade? Isn’t it striking? Strange? Dangerous?

So let’s come back to the American quislings who are everyday people. This group of middle class white men isn’t educated or cultured or literate enough to be in the elite. They don’t have the right pedigrees or backgrounds to propel them into riches. They are just thoroughly average men, managers, accountants, plumbers. Who feel cheated, wronged, and thwarted. Wasn’t everything supposed to be theirs? So vehemently, perhaps even violently, they believe that they are the rightful and sole inheritors of society. Hence, they seem to suddenly cherish Russia as a kind of ideal nation — just like American Nazis once admired and revered Hitler’s Germany — because that is exactly what Russia promises uneducated middle class white men, too. They are the rightful inheritors of everything — women, property, money, safety, society itself. Only it’s a con game.

(So it’s obvious to say they prize Russia’s “whiteness”, but I think there’s more to it than that. They seem to adore Russia’s cruelty — it’s contempt of minorities, gays, women, immigrants, Jews, Muslims. They seem to value Russia as a kind of outstanding exemplar of hypermasculine patriarchy. Strong men uber alles. Chest-thumping macho men, leading households with an archaic division of labour, the wife as a baby-rearing machine, marching down the streets, proclaiming their moral purity and strength, bashing gays, beating up anyone that’s a threat to their own massed power. The values they prize cut much deeper than casual racism. It is something more like violent, institutionalized, patriarchal supremacy. “Everything on this land belongs to us!! And we will take it by force, if we have to!”)

In these men, we see the rebirth of an ancient impulse. The one can threaten the most violence controls everyone else. That is what they hope to achieve, at any rate. Will they be successful? They were in Russia. So I think it’s important for Americans to see the endgame. Even if it’s unconscious, championing values of repression, hate, spite, and subjugation is a precursor to a society building institutions which then formalize those values into rituals, collective actions, and even obligations.

Yet this also tells us something that I think matters. People don’t betray their own tribes or families or countries unless, usually, they feel betrayed themselves. And so I think that these men feel deeply betrayed. Not just because they are “becoming a minority” and so on. But because they are the most downwardly mobile of all. White men in this group are the ones in society who have the biggest gap between the life they expected — and the life they live. They expected to live like their fathers — comfortable, stable lives where they sat atop old systems of racism, greed, oppression, and misogyny. But those systems have cracked apart, too, as America has collapsed. Everybody’s life is falling apart, more or less, unless you’re Jeff Bezos. So American collapse has left the very people who felt they were its true inheritors without the Dream — mediocre, downwardly mobile, middle class white men — and so they are betraying America, just as America betrayed them.

Who promises them that old, broken Dream — largely unaccomplished, uneducated men of a certain ethnicity, sitting atop a society, as its rightful inheritors, over which they exert a kind of repressive dominance, control through violence, intimidation, cruelty, the state wink-wink looking the other way, when they keep everyone else in line? Russia does, of course. But — and it’s a crucial but — as a kind of instrument that oligarchs use to keep the masses themselves under their thumbs. That old story: give men in decline someone to hate, and they’ll give you everything they have.

(That isn’t to say that you must “have empathy” for them. If you want to, be my guest, if you don’t, don’t. We’re just trying to understand the phenomenon of quislingism as a kind of social epidemic.)

What does a country do about that, anyways? Can a democracy survive whole classes of people being radicalized to the point that they become quislings? Let’s think about that, too. Russia’s hardly the only patriarchal supremacy in human history. In fact, America’s long been a patriarchal supremacy, too, hasn’t it? It only stopped being one formally in 1971, when segregation ended — and it never passed the Equal Rights Amendment. So America made it easy for Americans to get radicalized by Russia. Russia didn’t have to sell Americans new values to believe in. It just had to resurrect ones that were as American as apple pie.

And yet, for the last few decades, it seemed, America was winning the fight against patriarchal supremacy. Have the tables turned now? I don’t know. No one does, really. I think what we should see, though, is the irony. Both of these nations fought one another for decades. And yet, beneath the surface of economic ideology, they were much the same. Nations with deep, enduring values of patriarchal supremacy, both cherishing strong men, cruelty, violence, fear, and conformity. And in that way, the quislings of American collapse are no surprise at all.

Umair
August 2018

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