Mr. Obama became the president-elect of all the Americans last week. No man’s coffee tasted better on Wednesday morning than it did on Tuesday… no woman’s perfume smelled sweeter. But all over the world, people felt better about themselves, as if the human race had achieved something important.
At least a McCain victory would have caused the press to hold its tongue. Instead, commentators drew all the wrong conclusions and made fools of themselves. Some thought it meant America’s redemption from the sin of slave trade. Others saw a historic transformation that they couldn’t put in words and shouldn’t have tried.
“They did it. They really did it,” wrote the Guardian. “… the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change… ”
It’s the “End of the National Nightmare,” said TIME magazine.
Amid the effervescence came the French. Obama’s victory “arouses a wild yet reasonable hope,” claimed Bernard-Henri Levi in the Financial Times. Mr. Obama’s election will affect us in “at least three concrete ways,” he continued… a decisive turning point in dealing with the ‘racial question’ in the US… hope for an America that began doubting its “famous mission”… and with Obama representing the USA, “anti-Americanism… will have a harder time surviving and it will be forced to revisit its sales pitch.”
Nobody knows what America’s “famous mission” is – certainly not the Americans themselves. And if those are his ‘concrete’ ways, we’re glad Mr. Levi is not building bridges. There was nothing concrete about the hopes Mr. Obama’s victory arouse. Just the contrary… they are all in the ether.
They shouldn’t let French philosophers comment on American politics; they take the whole thing far too seriously. Besides, you never know what they are talking about anyway. But Le Monde saw it clearer. Not only was the paper happy to see the United States finally rinse the stain of racism out of the Stars and Stripes, it was glad to see Americans give free market capitalism the flush too.
Obama will be “reviving the role of regulation in the U.S.; [devising] tax policies to smooth out increasingly wide socio-economic divides; planning a health-care system appropriate to the country’s wealth,” said the paper. In other words, he will be putting in a system of state-directed capitalism, just like they have in France.
None of the commentators we read really understood Obama’s triumph. They saw it in a yearning for truth and a stretch for progress. It was nothing of the sort. The last thing voters want is the truth; they will reject it if it is put in front of them. Instead, what they want is diversion from the real world. What they hope to get from their leaders is a kind of entertainment… in short, a fantasy. Something to cheer them up when they are down. Or something to give them a fright when they are up.
You’ll recall from last week, the last period of Great Calamity – 1914-1945, with its wars, epidemics, Dust Bowls, hyperinflation, Great Depression, mass murders, bankruptcy and revolutions. It was in the middle of this period that Americans elected Franklin Roosevelt, who told them they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” It was all in their heads! It was a whopper, but it was the whopper they wanted to hear.
And then, on right side of the Atlantic, Britain chose Winston Churchill as prime minister, in May 1940. Churchill crossed his fingers and put his hand behind his back immediately, claiming that Britain was not fighting to save its overseas empire, but to “save the whole world.” He promptly kicked out any official who was “exercising a disturbing or depressing influence,” that is, any who dared to tell the truth about Britain’s disastrous military situation.
Just weeks later – in France, after suffering the most humiliating defeat in their history, the French recalled an old man to power, Philippe Petain. The hero of Verdun made the French feel that they had just regained their national glory, not just lost it. But at the time, France’s fantasy seemed on more solid ground than Britain’s… which just goes to show how unreliable history can be. Sometime make-believe becomes real; usually, it doesn’t. Britain got the backing of the Roosevelt administration – which had promised voters to keep America out of the war – and beat the huns; Churchill died a hero. Petain died in disgrace.
Today, in the U.S.A., the Bush Administration has worked hard to make people fearful – with its torture chambers and preposterous “threat levels.” But the terrorists wouldn’t cooperate; they failed to blow up even a trash truck. Alas, now the mob sweats – and for good reason. People are afraid of losing their houses, their jobs, and their retirements. Losses in equities worldwide top $25 trillion. In U.S. housing alone, some $4 trillion has disappeared. That’s why Obama won; it has nothing to do with national redemption or Sarah Palin. When the world was safe and plush… the mob wanted to feel the frisson of danger. What the public wants now is safety: a movie with a happy ending, not a horror flick. Obama appeared the calmer, more intelligent, candidate. Voters could imagine him as the “black Roosevelt” giving soothing fireside chats and telling the lies they most wanted to hear.
And so, in the national narrative, one cockamamie bamboozle takes the place of the one that went before. Americans were supposed to be fearful; now they are supposed to be confident. They were supposed to be racists; now they are supposed to colorblind. They were supposed to defend free market capitalism to their last breath; now they turn to the state and beg it to protect their last dime.
For Markets and Money
Editor’s Note: Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of Markets and Money. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of the national best sellers Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis.