People angry, anarchic levels of violence possible after vote – Chris Hedges

The end to the dirtiest presidential race in American history is just around the corner. Candidates marred by scandals and allegations of corruption are running neck and neck. The nation is divided and tensions are running high, as both Trump and Hillary head into the vote with historically low approval ratings. With both candidates loathed by the public, who is going to be the real loser in this race? And with the price tag for the campaign set to exceed a record $6.6 billion dollars, why does the cost of the American elections amount to the budget of a small country? We ask American journalist, Pulitzer prize-winning author – Chris Hedges.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Chris Hedges, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, welcome to the show once again, great to have you back. Hillary was seemingly cruising to victory just after the debates - some polls gave her a 10 point lead - and now there’s virtually nothing separating the candidates. Today, if you had a million bucks who’d you bet it on - Clinton or Trump? 

Chris Hedges: It’s impossible to tell you, because it really will depend on the mood, on the emotions of the voters on election day. That's all these campaigns are about, because they both essentially are neo-liberal candidates who will do nothing to impede imperial expansion and corporate power. The whole campaign has descended to, you know, not surprisingly, to the level of a reality TV show, with presidential debates featuring women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault being brought in by Donald Trump; videos - I'll go back to the primaries - of the size of people's genitals. I mean, it's just appalling, but all of that is emblematic of a political system in deep decay and one that no longer revolves around fundamental issues. We know from the Wikileaks emails, the John Podesta emails that were leaked from Hillary Clinton, that there was a calculated effort on a part of a Clinton campaign to promote these fringe candidates - like Trump, and they particularly wanted Trump, because the difference between Hillary Clinton and a more mainstream Republican candidate, like Jeb Bush, is so marginal. So if you had to ask me, I don't think Trump will win, but I don't rule out the possibility that he will win - we have to look at the Brexit polls in Britain...

SS: Right.

CH: ...And same kind of anger is underway here.

SS: The FBI is extending its investigation into the Clinton email case - after obtaining a warrant to search the laptop of Clinton’s closest aide Huma Abedin. The Clinton campaign says the move is political - is the FBI guilty of swaying the vote, like Hillary suggests?

CH: To be fair to FBI, they were put in a very difficult position - there are tens of thousands, they say 660,000 emails, we don't really know how many of those, but if the FBI made this discovery and did not make it public, they would be accused, of course, of aiding Clinton campaign. I don't know the motives, but I think we do have to recognise that the FBI, I think, felt correctly, that given the volatility of the campaign and the fact that they had, after the investigation of the Clinton email - she had used a private server - while they certainly felt that it was inappropriate to exonerate her of criminal activity that they felt kind of a responsibility to be transparent.

SS: Another FBI investigation showed that the bureau didn’t find any evidence that Trump is tied to the Kremlin, like the Clinton campaign implied - has Hillary’s attempt to play the Russian card failed?

CH: I don't know that it's failed, because the media has been quite obsequious in terms of parroting back this narrative, and one of the frustrations of the Wikileaks email dumps, the John Podesta emails, he is her campaign manager, runs her campaign - is that the contents were often overlooked to essentially ask the question: "Is Russia trying to influence the elections?", and as a former investigative reporter for the New York times, this is just not a legitimate question. I spent many-many years, 15 years with the Times, I was elated all sorts of information by all sorts of governments, from the French Intelligence agency to the Israeli Secret Service, the Mossad, to the U.S. government - and these people were not leaking it because they cared about democracy or an open society, they were leaking this information because it was in their interest to do so, and my job, as a reporter, was to determine whether this leaked information was true or untrue - and that's really the only thing the reporter should do with the leaked information on the Podesta emails. But one of the things that as a reporter, as a former investigative reporter, that has  disturbed me is that they have - I'm talking about the press, especially about the electronic, commercial corporate press - they have effectively ignored much of what is in the emails to carry up this speculation. Meanwhile, of course, nobody has offered us any evidence that the Trump campaign is linked in any way to Russia or that Russia is responsible for the email dump.

SS: We’re used to the fact that ordinary Americans don’t really care about foreign policy, but this campaign has focused a lot on foreign issues and Russia in particular. Are candidates trying to unite the nation by creating the image of a foreign threat? 

CH: Yeah. It's very disturbing on many levels, the kind of neo-conservative foreign policy cabal led by Robert Kagan and others that is around Clinton. The very people who gave the disastrous Iraq war, are now proposing policies to bait Russia. You know, it makes absolutely no sense to those of us who spend as many, as I did, two decades abroad as a foreign correspondent, except that it plays well politically into this very stunted, peculiar, neocon vision of the world, and that is that everybody out there only understands one language, and that's force. That's how you see these 15 years now of war, the longest war in U.S. history. It's been an utter disaster, utter failure, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course, Syria, and Libya - and yet, what's the response? More bombs, more bombs, more bombs, which created the problems in the first place.

SS:Yeah, and do Americans like being scared by a foreign adversary?

CH: No, I don't think they "like" it, but it's a very effective form of control. Fear works, and Americans are hardly the only people to use it. Terrorism, the specter of Russia...whatever it is! Fear is a form of social control, and when you have essentially two political parties that are doing corporate bidding that serves the interests of corporate global elites, at the expense of the citizens - they need fear, they need to manufacture fear, and I think that's what we're seeing.

SS: Trump has said things along the lines of ‘this election is rigged’ and he’s hinted that he may contend the results, which is kind of like admitting he’ll be defeated. Is this talk backfiring and scaring away voters? Why would people head to the ballots if they think their voice doesn’t count anyway?

CH: The Trump's base, primarily white lower-working class, which has been dispossessed through de-industrialisation, is going to head to the polls. They are attempting to work within the system. If the race is close and Trump loses, I think, everything we have seen, given the volatility of Trump, suggests that he will charge that the elections were rigged. We certainly have seen evidence now, from in particular the leaked emails, of the rigging of the primaries on the part of the Democratic National Committee, on behalf of the Clintons. It's pretty clear that Nevada Caucus was stolen, they blocked independents from voting in many of the primaries, in many of the states, and independents were Bernie Sanders' primary base. We just saw a few days ago, a day or two ago, that Clinton was actually leaked questions that would be given to her at a staged... I mean, they call them "Townhalls", they're totally Potemkin-like reality shows, totally scripted - so, it’s enough to look into the inner workings to suggest that these people, the Clinton machine, the Democratic party do not play fair. So, yeah, I think that that is the danger and the danger becomes then, when enraged Trump supporters believe that the system is rigged, the system is broken, it doesn't function fairly - and that becomes dangerous, because these people will resort to kind of anarchic levels of violence.

SS: Filmmaker Michael Moore, who you can’t call a Republican-friendly figure exactly, called Trump “a human Molotov cocktail” which desperate poor voters can throw at the system that stole their lives from them. How come a Republican candidate is the candidate of the dispossessed, shouldn’t Hillary be the one taking care of them?

CH: Yeah. That is the whole idea, that a billionaire developer is somehow the voice of the dispossessed, but he has tapped into this right-wing populism. This is coupled with a kind of xenophobia, kind of exalted nationalism, and a statement - which is true, of course - that the elites have betrayed the ordinary citizenry. So, when Donald Trump goes to Michigan and stands before the executives from car manufacturers, who are moving their plants over the border, courtesy of NAFTA, to Mexico, and says that if you try to make cars in Mexico, I'll put a 35% tariff on it - this is something that no candidate, in either party, has been saying, and there are many-many really struggling... I mean, half of this country now lives in poverty, people who have been waiting a long time for somebody to stand up and defy these corporate executives and CEOs who have destroyed their lives, the lives of their communities, destroyed the lives of their families. So, in that sense, Trump is not a traditional Republican which is why the Republican establishment itself has united with the Democratic establishment to try and destroy the Trump presidency - much as in 1972, the left-wing insurgent candidate George McGovern saw the establishment of the Democratic party unite with the establishment of the Republican party to elect Richard Nixon.

SS: The election is estimated to have cost 6.6 billion dollars so far -that’s including the House and Senate campaign spending, and is likely to end up being even more pricey than that. That’s the whole budget of Bahrain. Elections in India have four times as many voters and cost one billion less. Is this price tag cutting off any truly independent candidate, like Bernie Sanders?

CH: You can't compete, unless you can raise that kind of money, unless you can get into debates. Bernie Sanders actually raised significant sums, he didn't do it through corporations, his average campaign contribution was $27 - but yeah, you can't play in this game of political theater, unless you're bankrolled to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. That is the part of the way they lock out third-party candidates, like the Green party candidate Jill Stein.

SS:The Democratic party managed to fend off an anti-system challenger - Sanders - how come the Republicans couldn’t find anyone who could defeat Trump?

CH: Because the establishment itself is so deeply hated, so when the Republican establishment finally did - they didn't take him seriously in the beginning, and when they did turn on him, they trotted out the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to attack him, and people just laughed. It's the Romneys, the Bushes, the Clintons, the Obamas, it's that establishment that people are turning against - which is why Hillary Clinton is having such a difficult time competing against such an imbecilic, undisciplined and impulsive and, frankly, ignorant candidate.

SS: I'm just wondering - why is the media, even the right-leaning media, which created Trump’s phenomenon - turning on him in this campaign?

CH: Two reasons. One - he is attacking the trade agreements, which is how the elites make their money, and secondly, he's a public relations disaster for the U.S. I think those are the two reasons. Maybe, the third reason is that they don't know what they're getting with Trump - nobody knows what they're getting with Trump. Trump doesn't know what he's getting with Trump, and they know that Clinton will maintain both the imperial overreach and the design of the corporate state. So, Clinton’s a sure bet and Trump is just too volatile a candidate, and that's why the establishment has turned on him.

SS: PresidentObama has hit the campaign trail to endorse Hillary Clinton - he’s warning that ‘all the progress will go out the window if we don’t make the right choice’. Do you think everything Obama achieved will really go out the window if Trump gets elected?

CH: I don't think Obama has achieved very much. His healthcare program which is essentially forcing citizens to buy defective corporate products and we're watching now massive increases, on an average of 22%, and people that have the bronze plan, different levels of plans cannot even afford the kinds of premiums and copayments... - I mean, the whole system is a disaster. His assault on civil liberties has been worse than under Bush, he has expanded imperial wars, in places like Libya, create more failed states. I don't think Obama has much of a legacy. He'll walk out and get rich and will start his own Foundation like the Clintons - there's almost a complete continuity between Bush and Obama.

SS: A recent CNN ORC poll says Obama’s approval rating is higher than at any time during his presidency - why is he doing so great now that he’s leaving? Is that his Hillary campaigning paying off?

CH: You know, these people run very skilled public relations operations which revolve not around policy but around creating manufactured personalities, and that has been very difficult for Clinton - and that's why Clinton has the second-highest disapproval rating of any Presidential candidate as far as we know in American history, with the exception, of course, of the person she's competing against - Donald Trump. We have to look at what American politics is - it's really about creating feelings, emotions, getting voters to confuse how they are made to feel with knowledge.  It is not about actual policies, and both Michelle Obama who has a very high kind of favourability rating and Barack Obama have been skilled in doing that. It's much more difficult, that's part of the problem, for the Clinton campaign.

SS: Looking back at the beginning of Obama's presidency, the  Nobel committee handed Obama the peace prize in 2009 - not for his accomplishments, but  for his intentions. But the promised peace didn’t come to Afghanistan, didn’t come to Iraq, we’re seeing the unravelling of other Middle Eastern states - did Obama’s peace vision not only fail but make things worse?

CH: Oh yeah, of course, look at Libya, look at Syria, look at Somalia, look at Iraq, look at Afghanistan, look at Pakistan. No, it's a complete catastrophe. I've spent seven years in the Middle East, I was the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, and what we've done is, I would argue, the greatest strategic blunder in American history, and it's one that Obama aided and abetted. The whole idea of him as a peace candidate is... I mean, I kind of gave up on the Nobel Prize Committee, I have no idea why this was done. As you correctly pointed out, he hadn't even done anything.

SS: Was it a genuine inability to make things better, were his hands tied?

CH: No. He was an establishment candidate, he was selected, anointed and promoted by the Democratic Chicago political machine, which is one of the dirtiest in the country, he got more money in 2008 from Wall St. than the Republican candidate who was against him - McCain. No, he's very cynical...bright, talented, unlike George Bush, but deeply cynical candidate. He brought in the old establishment, including the old Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who had been the Secretary of Defence under Bush, he brought in old these figures like Larry Summers and Geithner who are Wall St. marionettes. No, Obama knew very well what he was doing from the very beginning and effectively... Look, he won Advertising Age's top annual award which was "Marketer of the Year". His campaign did, because the professionals knew just what he done - he functioned as a brand for the corporate state, a very powerful and a very effective one.

SS: On the other hand America has restored relations with Cuba and reached a nuclear deal with Iran - both seemed unachievable just a couple of years ago. Do you count those as a Obama's foreign policy successes?

CH: Yeah, they are foreign policy successes, but we have to understand that the Pentagon had long fought the neocons call for war with Iran, even under the Bush administration they put a stop to it. So, there was no appetite within the American military establishment for war with Iran anyway. So that wasn't really an option, despite Israeli pressure. In terms of Cuba, it just got to the point of absurdity - the boycott of Cuba, and we must also remember that the second generation of Cuban Americans did not have that kind of hatred towards Fidel Castro and towards the Cuban regime, and so it was politically safer for the Democratic party because the new generation, just like the new second and third generation of Jewish Americans don't have that loyalty to Israel - it wasn't as politically volatile a decision.

SS:Obama made ‘global zero’ a strategic objective - however he failed to get America to ban nuclear tests by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, while the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to ‘three minutes to midnight’ - that is to a nuclear war. Why did Obama’s promise to ‘reduce the role of nuclear weapons in American foreign policy’ backfire?

CH: Because the military-industrial establishment is so powerful in the United States that politicians serve its interests. They don't dictate what the interests of that industry is - officialy, it swallows about 53% of our discretionary budget, but that, of course, masks huge other expenditures, including for our nuclear weapon systems, which isn't counted for Veteran's affairs, which is huge for, if you want to count, the security and surveillance state, which is officially hidden, but probably at least a hundred billion dollars... We're starving the rest of society to do that, and you can't fight these wars. Indeed, if you were watching the Bernie Sander's campaign, Sanders did not take on imperial adventurism or the military establishment - because you can't, within the American political system - and Obama, I think, is an example of that.

SS: Police shootings of unarmed black men have sparked massive protests and the Black lives matter movement - does Obama being the first black president actually mean little for race troubles in the U.S.?

CH: It means nothing, because you have de-industrialised urban centres, i.e. places that once had factories and jobs, which are now in ruins - you walk through them and it's boarded up factories and pothole streets and crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional schools, and there are no jobs. So you have created mini police states in these marginal communities, where police can serve, as we see, as Judge, Jury and Executioner - three in one. Americans, almost all poor people of colour, are shot by police in this country every day, and it's a form of social control, along, of course, with mass incarceration. We have 25% of the world's prison population and 4% of the world's population - most of those imprisoned are poor people of colour. So, when you've taken away the possibility for jobs and with it the possibilities for hope, for advancement, for inclusion within both the economic and political system - then you need these very harsh forms of controls in order to keep people, essentially, fenced in. That's why these killings don't stop, it doesn't matter how many protests are carried out, and Obama has quite sadly betrayed, if we go back especially to 2008 and even to 2012, his primary base - African-Americans voted in staggering numbers for Obama, I think, 90% or something. Almost that high, and yet life for African-Americans, I would argue, after 8 years of Obama, is worse than when he took power.

SS: We've been talking to Chris Hedges, author, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, talking about the ups and downs of 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign, and the end of the Obama era as the Americans are gearing up to choose their next President tomorrow. We'll of course be watching the vote closely. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.