“It’s ridiculous that we have this kind of money in politics,” actor George Clooney stated after raising $15 million for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in April. “It is an obscene amount of money.” Clooney’s honesty underscores the fact that money is exactly what wins elections in modern America. Graft has warped our government into an increasingly absurd system, akin to the comical armed forces bureaucracy of Joseph Heller’s WWII literary classic, Catch-22 (1961).
What is Catch-22? In basic terms, it is an inescapable paradox, where one premise negates the possibility of another: a paralyzing trap. Scholar Robert M Young further defines Catch-22 as “the requirement that one sells one’s soul to survive”—an “immoral logic” in the words of the chaplain in Heller’s semi-autobiographical story. Under conditions of Catch-22, “the bureaucracy becomes more important than real flesh and blood” and the System trumps humanity and morality. Paradoxically, the bureaucracy engenders life-threatening dangers for the individual, who (in order to survive) must utilize individual and institutional defenses that are extreme and utterly selfish.
Catch-22’s protagonist, Yossarian, is a WWII fighter pilot who gambles his life every time he flies a mission. His commanding officers promise to discharge pilots who fly 45 missions, yet when a pilot approaches that number, the bar is raised to an unachievable new height. The war ends with 80 missions as the target number for discharge. The System constantly creates Catch-22 paradoxes. For example, pilots don’t have to fly any more missions if they are crazy, but they must request a discharge. Yet if they request a discharge, they are obviously not crazy. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian laments.
WWII armed forces bureaucracy spawns many Catch-22s in Heller’s story, a black comedy for anyone who has experienced pathological group systems like government-run institutions or well-established corporate environments. Young notes that Catch-22 flourishes “at the intersection of character and the institutionalized reifications of debased societies and societies at war, internally and with nominally external enemies.”
Contemporary America is such a society. As a result, the election process is flooded with examples of Catch-22. Hillary Clinton needs broader progressive support from Bernie Sanders’ supporters, namely a large and inspired voter turnout, not only to win, but to secure more Senate and House seats to pass future legislation. Clinton’s future power rests with those she consistently alienates with each gaudy fundraiser or paid speech.
Sanders has the moral courage to point out fundamental corruption and suggest concrete legislation to address the problem. Yet older folks, those with a bit of money and minorities terrified of further social upheaval are too timid for real revolution. They are disenchanted by President Obama’s undermined attempt at fundamental reform and now they play it safe, which eliminates an excellent opportunity to end rampant corruption—a real Catch-22.
Donald Trump’s Catch-22 involves mass media and mega-donors. Trump labels politics as corrupt (“Trust me, I will fix it”) which inspires an “outsider” support similar to Sanders. For months, Trump created bonus business for media outlets, large and small, who “trumpeted” the outrageous statements of The Donald. Non-news became “must-see.” Sensational publicity transformed Trump into a solid front-runner for the Republican nomination. Free marketing undermined the advertising power and influence of mega-donors. Now the media is quieting on Trump who, unlike his predecessors, pays relatively little for publicity. Yet Trump needs the media, who profit from Trump less and less. To win, Trump also needs a modicum of support from big donors and the RNC, two vital groups that he slanders daily.
Without the RNC, Trump cannot win, yet the “Party of No” cannot win without Trump supporters. Years of negativity, rejection and being against nearly everything, while proposing few viable solutions for modern problems, has created a huge Catch-22 for the Republican Party. Through intense ideological standards, they reject their viable choices, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, a candidate who polls suggest could beat a Democrat in a national election and who dropped out of the race this week. They have negated themselves. The potential for new heights of dysfunction, corruption and destruction wait at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Like the environment of World War II in Joseph Heller’s classic, modern American politics has devolved toward absurd moral lows due to the influence of money. The System has replaced the People. And here’s the catch: To lead the System, one needs to be part of it, yet addressing the System’s fundamental corruption will never come from within. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 12 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.