The Contemporary Condition

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Trump-Shock, Resonant Violence and The New Fascism

Romand Coles (left), Professor at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University & Lia Haro (right), Research Fellow in Sociocultural Anthropology at Australian Catholic University.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones
Since the U.S. election, daily surges of Trump-shock – awful disorienting blasts – have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life. Something is happening here, indeed. But, each unpredictable wave throws our paradigms into disarray. We are perpetually swept into the wake of an event that scrambles the measures of consistency and inconsistency we desperately try to employ. Trusted weapons of analysis and resistance cannot find their aim fast enough to keep up with the whirlwind.
While the new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism--rapid intensifications of white supremacist nationalism, dismissive attacks on reason, autocratic leadership, deepening entwinements of state and capital, disenfranchisement, the attack on liberal and representative democratic institutions, and the increasingly open right-wing populist violence – this new fascism relies on distinctive dynamics that must be illuminated to move toward understanding – and ultimately transforming – our current condition. To this end, we offer the following theses as a modest, preliminary contribution to a theory of the emerging fascism:

1. Beyond the substantive elements of what is shocking about Trump himself, he is a hyper-intensification of shock politics as such.  Neoliberal shock politics, as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, functions by creating and capitalizing on crises that send shockwaves throughout the polity that disorganize, dismantle and subsequently reorganize lifeways, institutions, and spatio-temporal regularities. While previous shocks have typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character – financial meltdowns, fiscal crises, terrorist threats, natural disasters – Trump-shock manifests more in the very character of the waviness itself, the chaotic aggressively disjointed temporality, of 140 letter pulses, refusing accountability, disavowing predictability, with a serial blast-like character that disorients all who are geared toward ordinary political reasoning and conduct. 
The chaos of Trump-shock sends waves of distracting, disorganizing, and dispersing energy through the polity in ways that defract and overload the circuits of critical response to the emergence of an extreme right-wing political regime that will consistently enhance capitalist circulation and vilify difference beyond all bounds. As the regime moves steadily toward the extreme right (a climate change denier takes charge of the EPA, Goldman Sachs steps in to head the Treasury, a multi-billionaire moves to privatize education, and a rabid purveyor of white supremacist hate assumes control of strategy ‘to see what sticks’), minute by minute twitter flares and ‘protocol smashing’ phone calls repeatedly draw away energy and attention. By incessantly provoking frenetic scrambles to react to each appalling new event, Trump-shock disables proactive movement and oppositional initiative.

2. Most fundamentally, Trump unleashes an extreme sovereignty of perpetual disruption, confusion, and contradiction, rather than embodying a power that imposes and is bound to a single order or a coherent, consistent ideology (though his regime surely orders and ideologizes).
 We can understand this as a nominalist mode of shock sovereignty that operates through radically disordered ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. While efficient and formal causalities of state and leader are still highly operative, technologically intensified and diffused modes of resonant causality assume transfigure the fascist machine. 
Trump-shock admits of no otherness, not even of himself an eyeblink prior to the present. In that way, Trump exemplifies power as instantaneous event with no stable form. This perpetual hyperspeed exceptioning makes Agamben’s State of Exception seem quaintly stable. Trump-shock is like the sovereignty of William of Ockham’s God, manifested in the fact that he can be bound by no law he had made, even to the point of totally changing the past willy nilly.
    In the extremity of Hobbes’ explication, such sovereignty is epitomized in the fact that there can be no law prior to nor uttered by the sovereign to which the sovereign can be held accountable, because law can be none other than the sovereign’s interpretive event at each instant. Hobbes writes: “To him therefore there cannot be any knot in the law insoluble, either by finding out the ends to undo it by, or else by making what ends he will (as Alexander did with his sword in the Gordian knot) by the legislative power; which no other interpreter can do.” (Lev., XXVI) Trump displays this power in an endless series of chaotic tweets, spinning out myriad unpredictable, ephemeral, and contradictory stances. 
   Analysts and opponents, missing the performativity of this power and the power of this perfomativity, often scurry to measure the veracity of his missives according to traditional frameworks (law, ideologies, empirical facts) - or even their consistency with his own past statements. Thus, for example, when Trump claimed to The New York Times that “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” pundits jumped to reference U.S. Code, presidential tradition and constitutional law to assess the correctness of the claim. We suggest that the substance of his claim adheres to the nominalist event - the energized sword that Hobbes describes. The affective energies and powers of this event, however, are not missed by those hungering to unleash themselves from all restraints of democratic norms and accountability.

3. The power of nominalist shock functions through a modulation of resonant violence that is ubiquitous and also unaccountable. 

The affective energies of this movement of will to power animate significant portions of the polity – particularly on the neo-fascist right. As Trump’s Twitter shocks surge directly into the pockets of over 17,000,000 followers, many are propelled into barrages of raging threats against those he vilifies--directly or indirectly. In this way, the violence of shock-sovereignty exceeds the formal channels of the state (themselves horrifying). For example, when Trump tweets condemnation of a union organizer in Indiana or a woman at a rally, hundreds of threatening communications (including murderous violence) to the targeted follow almost instantaneously. 
Picture by Johnny Silvercloud
Just as Trump-shocks come anytime and all the time – these expressions of resonant violence can emerge explosively from anywhere and everywhere. This unpredictable ubiquity is amplified by the intimate relationship between the Trump regime and neo-fascist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News, which spontaneously launch their own call and response shock waves that vilify, threaten, and enact violence. Rather than being met with condemnation from the president-elect, they resonate with and are amplified by previous and coming 3 a.m. kindred tweets from Trump Tower. In turn, these frequently drive mainstream news cycles that perpetuate the resonance in more subtle and insidious ways. 
Operating according to resonant probabilities, these shock waves have a Teflon-like quality in relation to calls for accountability that follow logics of formal and efficient causality, for they come less from a single location and more from resonances among nominalist shocks that move too quickly in and out of being to be caught at rest.

4. This form of power both draws on and transforms what we conceive of as a neoliberal smart political energy grid that has been taking shape in recent decades. 

A smart energy grid is one that employs a variety of modes of (political) energy production, transmission, consumption, and blackout in highly flexible and responsive ways to maximize power. No longer relying on a few central nodes of power generation, they work with increasingly interactive forms of energy production to create even and usable flows of power across a wide area. Elemental to the neoliberal grid are mutually amplifying currents between overwhelming episodic energies of political economic shock, on the one hand, and myriad quotidian energies associated with radically inegalitarian circulations of goods, finance, capital, bodies, and media resonances. 
Each shock wave simultaneously summons new flows and resonances that maximize capitalist power and profit, energize vitriol, and enhance capacities for future shocks while shutting down impediments to capitalist metastasization. These amplificatory currents are immanently connected with affective currents of fear and rage that both energize and are energized by capitalist intensities - particularly in manifestations of xenophobia, white supremacy, and fundamentalisms that are hostile to reasoning and science. Trump draws on and proliferates these existing flows of power as well as intensities of shock. 
As shock politics moves from being episodic to becoming itself quotidian and accompanied by dispersed resonant violence, the neoliberal dynamics are at once amplified and rendered more unstable in ways that may ultimately short-circuit the grid itself with intensities and counter-energies it cannot handle. 


Efforts to parse truths, reveal contradictions, or selectively negotiate and collaborate with this mode of power are both 

blind to and disguise what it fundamentally is - a new fascism that exercises and enhances nominalist sovereignty 
through disordering ordering and hyper-prerogative power

The Italian term fascismo referred to the fascio littori--a bundle of rods attached to a battle ax symbolizing strength through unity and the bolstered authority of the Roman civic magistrate. In the Twenty-First Century, the ax becomes the chaotically moving nominalist cyber-sword of shock plugged into the neoliberal power grid of circulations and affective resonances, such that even within government all that is solid melts in the air. In the first
weeks of the Trump administration, the nominalist cyber-sword has been quickly turned on the agencies and processes of American government. In this process, chaos is not only a means of dissolving the recalcitrance of other branches of government and agencies but also a principle of governance itself.
Consider the example of the so-called Muslim ban executive order, the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” order issued January 27, 2017.
Preceding the release of the order, different members of the regime leaked multiple, contradictory versions—sowing seeds of speculation and confusion. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway even claimed it may never be released. In rolling out the order, Trump did not consult department heads including the very relevant State Department nor did he vet the order with the Office of Legal Counsel. The Department of Homeland Security saw the text of the order only shortly before it was released. In the midst of all this interpretive confusion, the execution of the Order was left largely to the judgement of officers of Customs and Border Protection. What all this begins to show is the extent to which the Trump regime enables, deploys and tolerates a high degree of chaos and unpredictability as a mode of reinventing government. While such mayhem in an earlier moment would be an indication of weakness and disarray, the new fascism operates through disordering-ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Nominalist sovereignty seeks to liquify government to the ever-changeable will of the sovereign. In the ceaseless exercise of prerogative power and its chaotic effects, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception almost seems quaint. Prerogative power doesn’t quite capture this phenomenon. Rather, it is a kind of hyper-prerogative power in which each communicative and ordering action intensifies and proliferates a whirlwind of contradictory and confusing qualities that endlessly call forth new exercises of prerogative. 
   Clearly, radical democratic politics must target the classical manifestations of fascism we noted at the outset. As we do so, a monumental challenge will be imagining how to resist and contest the unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, security, and militarized policing whose potentials have been constructed since 9-11, but whose uses are likely to take countless new and horrifying forms. 
    Yet, we believe all of this will hinge upon our capacities to counter the shock politics and resonant violence characteristic of the new fascism. This will require engaging in a double politics. On the one hand, we must escalate sustained modes of direct action carefully-targeted to short-circuit the worst aspects of the regime. On the other hand, we must develop a radical democratic politics that shocks in a different way, that overwhelms the unaccountable vitriol of Trump-shock with dramatic engagements and magnetic enactments of receptive solidarity. This will take great creativity among those who oppose Trump and neo-fascism. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trump, Putin and the Big Lie Scenario

William E. Connolly, author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming  (Duke, 2017)

Donald Trump is a practitioner of the Big Lie. It started with the Birther lie, when he insisted loudly for several years with no evidence that the first democratically elected African American President in the history of the U.S was not born in this country, was Muslim, and was an illegitimate President. That Lie, never actively corrected by other Republicans, helped to weaken Obama and to energize the radical right. Other Big Lies were soon to follow: the charge that Islam in general is laced with terrorist imperatives; the refusal to release his taxes, claiming falsely that an IRS audit makes it impossible to do so; the statement that climate change is a Chinese hoax, in the face of massive scientific evidence to the contrary; the campaign assertion that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, soon to be charged for her treasonous use of a private server and favoritism she gave supporters of the Clinton Foundation as Secretary of State; constant repetition on the campaign trail that the election was “rigged” by a combination of illegal votes in large cities and media bias against him, even though overwhelming evidence speaks against voter fraud and his campaign events received more direct media coverage than Clinton's; the assertion that Mexico and China are stealing American jobs, when in fact those real losses are surpassed by capitalist technological changes that dissolve many decent paying jobs; the repeated assertion that the homicide rate is soaring, when in fact it has been in decline for several years; the very tardy withdrawal of the Birther charge after activating the base around it for years, followed immediately by the assertion that the Clinton campaign in 2008 had initiated the story; the repeated insistence in a “thank you” tour that he had won the election by a "landslide" when it was in fact relatively close in the electoral college and he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; and post campaign repetitions at rallies and on tweets that he would have won the popular vote if the election had not been polluted by “millions and millions of illegal votes,” again with no evidence and in the face of numerous studies to the contrary. These are merely some of his Big Lies. They also omit numerous false promises he has made for the future, including the promise to replace Obamacare with something “terrific”after repealing it. 

The Lies, repeated on campaign stops in front of a screaming audience of ardent supporters, are designed to further outrage a base that energizes him as he brings it to a boil. The base is prepped to receive these lies, partly because the lives of many in its lower reaches are filled with real grievances that the mainstream media and the Center of the Democratic Party downplayed or ignored at their peril. The lies provide many with scapegoats to blame for real difficulties and fears, making it possible to hope that a billionaire president, billionaire Cabinet, and Republican Congress could resolve them by a series of simple acts that also preserve the powers and privileges of the 1%. The lies allow the base to express its grievances, hatreds and hope for radical change without the need of a more radical economic transformation. Of course, Hillary Clinton was not helpful in this regard because her actual campaign (more than her platform) failed to challenge profoundly neoliberal policies. It emphasized the grievances of multiple minorities in need of attention without also speaking closely to those of another large minority: the white working class in a de-industrialized America.

Some Big Lies are believed by Trump supporters; but others are not really believed. They, rather, serve as pegs upon which the beleaguered can project their grievances against Trumpian targets: liberals, the media, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and the liberal arts professoriate.When one Big Lie is dropped because it has become inconvenient, others are wheeled out. The new ones perform the same functions as the old.

The media are key here. At campaign rallies Trump would point to the media assembled in one spot, gesturing angrily as he yelled and prodded the crowd to express its contempt. At his invitation, many in the crowd would turn and gesture violently at the crew. They are “liars”, “scavengers” and “scum”, Trump would say. This tactic allowed him to dismiss corrections of Big Lies made by the media, to energize the hatred of the crowd against a constellation that in fact had too often treated their regions as fly over zones, and to initiate a strategy of media intimidation that will escalate during his term in office. Trump and his entourage do not express concern about the potential violences such a strategy invites. You don’t need to show restraint or respect for “scum”, a term that recalls Hitler’s characterization of Jews, Romani, homosexuals and social democrats during the nineteen thirties.

All this is clear enough. Two critical dimensions must be added, however, to capture the full dynamic of the Big Lie Scenario. First, some Lies provide cover for activities in which Trump himself engages. The shocking intervention of FBI Director James Comey in the election that weakened Clinton and allowed Trump to escalate his charges of criminality occurred shortly after Rudolph Giuliani had announced on Fox News that there would soon be a welcome "surprise" from the FBI. Trump's own previous charge of an election rigged against him thus allows him to neutralize the evidence-based charge by his opponent of unjust interference. Now Trump supporters and sycophantic voices on the media can say that “both sides” have made the same charge, disarming the evidence-based charge in relation to the evidence-free charge. Carriers of the Big Lie often accuse their opponents of what they themselves do. Indeed, President Obama has now conceded that he delayed publicizing the most serious evidence about Putin’s intervention against Clinton because it would have appeared to be too “partisan” in this electoral context. And after the Putin intervention was exposed Trump recited another Big Lie: There is no evidence to support that claim, he says, though all the intelligence agencies say otherwise. The objective of the evidence-free campaigner is to reduce this to another “he said, she said” situation.

The second, even more sinister, upshot is this. It is no coincidence that Trump expresses admiration for Putin and nominated a Secretary of State who will defang investigating Russian intervention in the American election. Rex Tillerson, the chief of Exxon, has made huge oil deals with the Russians, and he has been awarded the Russian Medal of Honor. His selection reveals amply how Trumpites give priority to corporate profits over democratic sovereignty, even though they regularly accuse democrats of the latter sin.

The most basic tie between Putin and Trump, however, is this. Putin is a practitioner of Big Lies who enforces them by murdering, poisoning, imprisoning or smearing those who seek to expose the falsehoods. The former KGB Head controls the media that assess his performance. His hacking efforts within Russia are designed to marginalize those who criticize him. And many analysts contend he also practices kompromat, implanting evidence on computers to destroy the reputations of opponents. The practice is common enough to have earned its own name. The evidence that tainted images of child pornography has been found on the computer of one internal Russian critic is bone chilling. And it is meant to be bone chilling. 

Donald Trump admires Putin because Putin can spread and enforce Big Lies with impunity. Putin is a “strong leader” because he overwhelms democratic accountability to enhance autocratic rule. Practitioners of the Big Lie undermine democracy to protect Big Lies: they deliver Big Lies to enforce autocratic rule. You don't need everybody to believe the Big Lie if you can silence or demean critics of it: you merely need the counter-assertions to be neutralized.

There are many reasons to be worried about the future during a Trump Presidency, including that of a nuclear winter, attacks on vulnerable minorities, and the disastrous effects of unattended climate change. But vilification of the media, hacking critics, further politicization of the FBI and CIA, attacks on the professoriate, and new limits on minority voting rights in Republican controlled states are high among them. For these latter practices inhibit publicity about the other Trumpian practices. Big lies enact smear campaigns against proponents of democratic accountability. You can see that in operation again through recent right wing neutralization of worries about fake news by claiming that most news that does not toe their line is fake. The same scenario. 

What can be done to respond to such dangers and threats?

First, each time a Big Lie is initiated or repeated join factual correction of it to an account of how the Big Lie Scenario works. Factual correction alone is not enough. You must show how the Scenario over time undermines democratic accountability.

Second, match the strategy of endless repetition practiced by Trump — his term in office is apt to become a perpetual electoral campaign — with a counter-strategy of repetition, to further loosen the hold of these Lies. When so many Big Lies appear and recede it is otherwise too easy to forget how those recently left behind continue to do their work on the lower registers of cultural life. It is very important to negate those effects. Why? Many who voted for Trump were a little shaky in doing so. While they will resist exposes in the early going, new events and future Trump failures may make more ready to allow now suppressed doubts to re-emerge. If the logic of the Scenario becomes an object of recurrent critique. Such delayed responses did occur during the Nixon years with respect to Watergate (few would listen to the available evidence until after the election) and during the tenure of George W. Bush with respect to Iraq. 

Third, the white working class now sits on the razor's edge of time. A huge cadre supported Trump in this election, but that support contains a large reserve of citizens who could turn against Trump if and when they see how he has conned them. This will be so, however, only if more critical voices outside the working class speak forcefully to the real grievances and suffering of that class while simultaneously supporting other minorities in precarious positions. The task is to contest expanding the military and fossil fuel infrastructure with support for dynamic programs that would increase the number of good paying jobs for high school graduates. Bernie Sanders started to pursue such a noble combination, with great success. He spoke to the higher angels of the working class, as Trump pounded away at its worst tendencies. Cornel West and Elizabeth Warren pursue similar strategies to Sanders. Moreover, several voices on The Contemporary Condition have been calling for such an approach for several years now. The Rust Belt must no longer be treated as a fly over zone; the ugliness finding ample expression today in sections of the white working class must not be deployed as an excuse to ignore its real grievances and suffering. The idea is to criticize expressions of racism and misogyny when you encounter them, as you simultaneously support positive responses to real working class grievances. Hopefully, it has finally become clear how necessary it is to draw working class and other minorities closer together. Hopefully, too, that clarity has not arrived too late to counter the grip Trump has now gained on the first constituency. The Hillary Clinton campaign, again, missed the boat in this respect, even if the Democratic platform she was supposed to represent did make modest gestures in this direction.

Fourth, the democratic Left needs to identify more young leaders who are charismatic in noble ways and who can inspire large constituencies as they counter the ugly appeal of Trumpian charisma. For Trump is a charismatic adversary whose critics have not adequately appreciated his rhetorical effectiveness. Apparent wanderings in his speeches—as it seemed to many academics and journalists who ridiculed those speeches in the early going--actually gather together a medley of grievances as they crystallize collective targets of white working class resentment. Each element in the medley becomes fused with the others into a resonance machine. Satires and dissections of the Big Lie Scenario itself are far better than either academic dismissals or factual corrections alone. Formation of a counter-resonance machine with charismatic circuits of its own is better yet.

Fifth, while the privately incorporated media often deserve intense criticism, the democratic Left must also expose and attack Trumpian intimidation of it. It was unwise, for instance, to re-enforce Trump and Putin denials of the Putin intervention with Left wing statements that came close to saying the same thing. The media and professoriate are going to be vicious targets of Trump’s attacks for the next four years as he deflects attention from the failure of his policies to lift the working class and from the dangers he promotes on several other fronts. It is possible for critics to chew gum and walk at the same time, in this case to hold the media accountable as you also defend it against Trumpian assaults. Indeed, the protection of democratic institutions makes it essential to pursue such a combination.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Illegitimate Legitimacy

Steven Johnston

Author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

While democracy is no stranger to violence, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have escalated and exacerbated democracy’s violence problems. Among other things, violence has achieved a new level of viciousness, bordering on murderous. This change could be seen during Trump’s campaign when the candidate himself called on his supporters to attack fellow citizens in his audiences who were there to voice their political disagreement and disapproval. It could be seen when Trump, on more than one occasion, effectively solicited his followers to assassinate his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump also threatened to unleash the forces of the state on Clinton after the campaign (lock her up) if he won. Violence is also inherent in Trump’s (and the GOP’s) domestic and foreign policies—from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the elimination of women’s reproductive rights, from an embrace of the fossil fuel industry and the denial of climate change to torturing and bombing America’s enemies in the so-called War on Terror. The material harm these policies portend range from serious injury to death. This reactionary agenda constitutes Trump’s impotent vision of American greatness. It is a vision shared by Republican America and its fellow travelers.

The GOP’s, not just Trump’s, resort to violence poses an existential threat to American democracy, especially in combination with another age-old political debility: illegitimacy. Trump’s November 8 victory reeks. He defeated Clinton in the Electoral College, which gave him the formal win, but he lost the popular vote by over 2.6 million ballots cast. This translates to a 2% defeat. Given the undemocratic character of the Electoral College, Trump, at best, enjoys an illegitimate legitimacy. From a democratic perspective, Hillary Clinton deserves to be president of the United States. American democracy earned a Clinton victory. If the principle of electoral equality (one person, one vote) means anything, the Electoral College cannot be defended as a democratic political institution or practice. It enables, even invites illegitimacy. Trump’s presidency is the illegitimate offspring of this antiquated institution. Wyoming voters, for example, exercise nearly four times the voting power as California voters. This is not just unacceptable but intolerable. When American citizens claim that Trump is not their president, this is more than a rhetorical ploy. It is a valid, even compelling democratic political argument. (Tom Dumm’s December 5 post brilliantly recounts and dissects the Electoral College’s fatal defects.)

Candidate Trump also received illegitimate assistance from another source, one not as well-known for its distortions in American politics as the Electoral College. There is convincing evidence, Donald’s refusal to believe notwithstanding, that Russia tampered with the American election in an effort to secure Trump’s victory. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell refused to publicly denounce the interference when they had the chance prior to November 8 and when it might have made a difference. They preferred to effectively collude with a foreign dictatorship rather than protect the integrity of American elections, as long as their candidate potentially benefited. The Trump Administration will assume power indebted to Vladimir Putin and tainted by the specter of treason. Someday, and that day may never come, he’ll call on Trump to do a service for him. What payment will Putin demand in return for his assistance? Is a Secretary of State enough? Trump’s white nationalist regime can now claim Russian ancestry.

These are not the only problems with Trump’s ascension. For years the GOP has been engaged in deliberate voter suppression efforts to deny the franchise to people they deem political enemies (people of color, the poor, the elderly, college students, etc.) and prevail in elections they assume they would otherwise lose. Many of these legislative efforts successfully took place in battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin. No one can say with exactitude what kind of effect they had on turnout and thus the election’s outcome, but the fact that a decisive influence cannot be categorically ruled out in a tight contest is damning. The Republican Party invented the problems of voter fraud in order to commit voter fraud. Donald Trump, resentful of Hillary Clinton’s decisive numerical triumph, has perpetrated new lies about illegal voting, part of new efforts to further suppress voting. Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign and the GOP oppose recount efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, even though it is a standard aspect of the political process, and even though it is unlikely to alter the election’s result. Since Republicans have secured total power at the federal level, it does not matter to them that they won by hook or by crook. Only the outcome matters since they understand themselves to be the only party entitled to rule America. For them democracy and (permanent) one-party rule (theirs) are tailor-made for each other.

Mass political deceit is not a phenomenon limited to presidential politics. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have gerrymandered congressional districts to guarantee themselves a national superiority unwarranted by the total number of votes they receive in each election. Republicans have thus legislated their way into a nonrepresentative—and therefore illegitimate—position of power. With the election of Trump, Paul Ryan’s House will be able to introduce and impose ideologically-driven legislation that should never see the light of day, thus making American citizens subjects rather than authors of the laws that govern them. This is a traditional definition of domination. The Republicans Party is the ugly embodiment of authoritarian minority rule in 21st century America. The pushback on many fronts thus far has been minimal, though on November 21 the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 reconfiguration of State Assembly districts to ensure Republican Party control violated the 1st and 14th amendment rights of its Democratic voters.
Republicans at the state level have recently expanded their power ambitions. In North Carolina, following the defeat of incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Republicans called a last-minute special session to pass legislation to cripple the governor’s office and limit its power, perhaps especially including ways that will make it difficult to reverse successful Republican voter suppression efforts, now that a Democrat has been elected to it. Republicans will do anything to prevent Democrats from winning electoral office. Failing that, they will sabotage any office they do not control—until they hold that office again. Republicans seek a form of democratic totalitarianism where they—and they alone—can rule. They have not yet acquired a monopoly on power nationwide, but this is what they are after. It is a kind of political psychosis with them and there is no effective response to it other than raw power in one form or another.

GOP subversion of democracy is not restricted to electoral domains. The Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell, for example, refused to consider, let alone approve Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice following the death of Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts stood by and said nothing on behalf of the judicial branch as the Republican Party converted the court into an instrument of its conservative ambition. This constitutional coup delegitimizes the court itself, especially any 5-4 decision issued if and when Trump’s appointee rules with the majority. The GOP cannot simply arrogate to itself a monopoly on Supreme Court appointments and thus control of the final decision-making power of the court regarding the law of the land.

"Teens Throwing Rocks At Overgrown, Long-Vacant Supreme Court Seat"
Each one of these democratic assaults is corrupt. Taken together they undermine the credentials of the very system that enacts them. This, of course, is the point. Republicans do not pursue these measures ignorant of or indifferent to their consequences for American democracy. They implement them precisely because of the political consequences they generate. Just as Republicans did not think Bill Clinton or Barack Obama legitimate office holders and did everything they could to obstruct and destroy their presidencies, they do not think those who would vote Democratic (or anywhere on the political “left”) are anything other than voices to be suppressed or silenced, however possible. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they cannot (and do not want to) share a democratic polity with anyone unlike themselves, which makes it impossible for others to live with them as democratic equals. This is a recipe for not just resistance but upheaval.

The United States is always quick to condemn any violence that the state does not authorize and impose itself. The story the country tells itself is that violence is unjust insofar as political institutions exist where differences and disagreements can be resolved peacefully because all parties accept the inevitability of winning and losing, where political office and power are open to genuine contestation and results reflect the democratic will of the people, and where opposing voices are not only listened to and respected but also protected from the exercise of arbitrary power by majority coalitions or minority tyranny.

Yet the Republican Party has systematically subverted these institutions and understandings, which means that American citizens have been deprived of their most basic political right, the right to self-determination. If anything, American citizens today have greater cause for complaint than British colonists, who took up arms in opposition, did in the 18th century. American citizens have been disenfranchised in a system where there is no longer agreement on and loyalty to its fundamental terms. Republicans use democracy to game the system and destroy it just enough to empower themselves and retain a democratic veneer. It could thus be argued that the Republican Party has effectively forced the question of violence back onto the American political agenda. In this kind of hegemonic context, do the people have a right to resist those who successfully manipulate, mutilate, and render meaningless the democratic process to control and dominate their perceived enemies? If so, what forms might resistance take, especially when the state is likely to attack those who oppose, protest, and disrupt illegitimate minority rule?

Ironically, democratic citizens under violent assault from an illegitimate Republican regime might take a lesson from the testosterone-driven, gun-toting antics of the Bundy family, a gang of welfare-system deadbeats determined to open public lands to private exploitation and extraction, and its followers. They invoke the cause of freedom, but this rhetoric is mere cover for their know-nothing anti-statist libertarianism. At the same time, they embody a defiant, oppositional disposition uncowed by the state that democratic actors with actual grievances would do well to channel productively.

Republican subversion of American democracy is nothing new. Much of the country, however, has fooled itself regarding Republican identity and intentions. America regularly tells itself reassuring stories to maintain and stabilize the order in the face of incursions against it. After the Rehnquist Court shamelessly installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2000, for example, Vice President Al Gore came to the rescue with a stoic concession speech that honored the allegedly final decision of an institution that had just delegitimized itself by its blatant ideological intervention in and usurpation of the electoral process. The Court stole an election, but the country preferred to congratulate itself about and revel in the peaceful transition of power. In similar fashion, mainstream acquiescence to the Trump regime-to-be is now under way.

According to American political lore, what happens when government tyrannizes its people and denies them the possibility of effective participation in the political process where the collective future is decided? American citizens from the Revolution in the 18th century to the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in the 20th century have, when necessary, turned to the possibilities of democratic violence to counter state and state-sponsored domination to exercise and take (back) their rights. The GOP envisions something other than benevolent, white nationalist, free market despotism. The program it plans to implement is beset by violence. The state does not need to resort to guns, truncheons, gas, and water cannons (though we are likely to witness an upsurge in the use of force by police at all levels under Trump) to perpetrate violence against citizens. Flint, Michigan, is one example. People there have been poisoned by a Republican-controlled political machine that deemed political ideology more important than the health and well-being of those in its charge. Paul Ryan’s plans to privatize and thus gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, to cite but one post-election example, would also constitute violent assaults on human well-being.

As the (now Trump-led) Republicans make social, economic, environmental, and political war against American democracy and many of its people, what are they supposed to do? Sit and take it? As Rousseau, hardly an advocate of violence, wrote in pre-revolutionary Europe: “I would say that as long as a people is constrained to obey and does so, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke and does so, it does even better.” What might shake off the yoke mean here and now? It’s not just a question of the indispensability of everyday resistance that is called for. The Republican Party needs to be put on notice: the United States of America is a political fiction the continued existence of which is unnecessary. Perhaps it’s time to deconstruct it, as some anti-Federalists imagined in the 18th century, for the people of the United States no longer share a commitment to, let alone practice, a democratic way of life. A United States split into two (or more) separate and distinct political entities would not only trigger a new birth of freedom on the North American continent; it would also be a boon to peace across the planet.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Standing Rock, and Ecological Risk, After Trump

Alexander Keller Hirsch is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He can be reached at

Having evaluated an early development plan that would have routed the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) across the Missouri River north of Bismarck, and close to the municipal water supply, the US Army Corps of Engineers determined that the “high consequences” of the plan rendered it too dangerous to pursue. In September of 2014, however, the Corps approved a permit for an alternative plan that re-routed the pipeline south, through Sioux country. In a statement reported in the Bismarck Tribune, the Corps wrote, “Given the engineering design, proposed installation methodology, quality of material selected, operations measures and response plans the risk of an inadvertent release in, or reaching, Lake Oahe is extremely low.” 

On December 4, the Corps finally announced that it would not allow the new DAPL course; a decision that is the net result of months of intense public pressure after Standing Rock became a global flash point for indigenous and environmental activism. Water protectors, who plan to remain encamped throughout the winter, are celebrating cautiously. Given the recent election, it is unclear how durable the government’s decision will be. The Army Corps of Engineers falls under the Department of the Army, which serves at the pleasure of the president. Just what will replace Obama’s precarious lame duck administration remains, ominously, an open question.

For the moment it appears the protestors have won a significant victory, and this clears more breathing room for reflection: Why were the Sioux being forced, literally at gunpoint, to accept the same ecological risks that the white residents of Bismarck were not expected to assume? 

In part, understanding the answer to this question means confronting the longue duree of sovereign struggle in the greater Black Hills region, and the ways the Standing Rock opposition to the DAPL attends to, but also expands upon, this legacy. 

This is where the Fort Laramie Treaty was originally signed in 1851, which defined the federally recognized boundaries of Sioux, Crow, and Cheyenne territory. The treaty was broken, time and again, after the “bloody” Bozeman Trail, which shot through that territory, was fashioned to support the rush to unearth gold in Montana and Wyoming, north and west of the reservation. This is where, subsequently, Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota) led an insurrection against the Fort Rice and Fort Buford entrenchments along the upper Missouri river, staging points for protecting reservation trespassers. In 1878, Sitting Bull, along with his Hunkpapa followers, killed 210 of Lieutenant Colonel General George Armstrong’s soldiers after they invaded Greasy Grass, a Sioux village settled along what the Army called the Little Big Horn River. This is where, by the late 1880s, the region’s buffalo were nearly hunted out of existence by European settlers, threatening the traditional Sioux way of life; and where pandemics of measles, influenza, and whooping cough killed thousands. The Ghost Dance, a nonviolent messianic movement that swept the region in the wake of the buffalo’s disappearance, presaged the end of settler expansion, and foreshadowed indigenous renewal. In 1890, a detachment of the the US 7th Calvary Regiment escorted hundreds of Miniconjou Lakota and Hunkpapa Lakota to the Wounded Knee Creek, where they were executed. Eighty-three years later, at the height of the American Indian Movement (AIM), 200 Lakota seized and staged an armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days, demanding new treaty negotiations. 

From this historical perspective, the present contestation over the DAPL can be viewed as the continuation of a longer survivance story of self-determination for an embattled people who have been defying the forces of colonization for generations. The police have trained high pressure hoses on the protestors, who have already been subject to violent encounters with DAPL security attack dogs, and other measures of brutality amid the siege.

But understanding the answer to the question of why the previous pipeline plan would traverse Lake Oahe, a sacred cultural site and the main source of drinking water for Standing Rock, is also a matter of coming to terms with who is expected to adopt risk, when others are not. 

How ought risk to be distributed? Who should shoulder the burden of vulnerability, and become exposed to the perils of ecological danger? And who ought to be shielded from the liabilities that attend such danger?

Charges of environmental racism have been rejected by the Dakota Access company, which claims that, “The most significant route revisions occurred primarily due to attempts to avoid tribal and federally owned lands, minimize environmental impacts, avoid environmentally sensitive areas, and maximize collocation.”

It is true that accidents are less probable with pipelines than other modes of oil shipping. But we face here the classic issue in probability theory that the book, The Black Swan, should have resolved years ago: though less frequent, pipeline disasters are far more serious in their effects. According to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, since 1986, there have been 8,000 “serious incidents” (roughly 300 per year), which have cost the lives of over 500 people (in addition to 2,300 injuries), and incurred $7 billion in damage. Since that time, pipeline accidents have spilled an average of 76,000 barrels per year, or more than 3 million gallons of oil (the equivalent of 200 barrels every day). 

Progress on the DAPL project are currently stalled. But one question remains insufficiently resolved: What does the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States portend for Standing Rock? 

During their presidential campaigns, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump adopted official positions on the controversy surrounding Standing Rock. Hours after it was announced that Trump had won the election, however, the share price for Energy Transfer Equity, operator of the DAPL, skyrocketed. In part, the stock jump indexes confidence that President-elect Trump will curate a cabinet conducive to the pipeline’s successful completion. Along with corporate oil executives Harold Hamm and Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin -- of “Drill, Baby, Drill” fame -- are presently on the short list for positions as US Energy Secretary and Secretary of the Interior. The stock surge may also indicate market faith that Trump, who has disclosed his personal investment (between $500,000 and $1 million, according to the Wall Street Journal) in Energy Transfer Equity, will incentivize resuming DAPL construction. What is more, in a recent statement, President-elect Trump issued explicit support for finishing the pipeline.

In an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC, Rudy Giuliani compared Trump’s electoral college triumph to Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1827. As with Jackson, Giuliani argued, “The people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional.” Given the legacy of Jackson’s notorious Indian removal policy, the analogy bears the ill-omened mark of a dark Indigenous future under the auspices of a Trump presidency. 

In his excellent book on Jackson, Michael Rogin underscores what Hannah Arendt once argued, that the meeting of European settler and Indian on the American continent formed an important factor in the origins of totalitarianism: “Consider as central to the American-Indian experience: the collapse of conceptions of human rights in the face of culturally distant peoples, with resulting civilized atrocities defended as responses to savage atrocities; easy to talk about, and occasional practice of, tribal extermination; the perceived impossibility of cultural coexistence, and a growing acceptance of ‘inevitable’ Indian extinction; total war, with all-or-nothing conflicts over living space, and minimal combatant-noncombatant distinctions; and the inability of the savage people to retire behind a stable frontier, provoking whites’ confidence in their ability to conquer, subdue, and advance over all obstacles in their environment.” 

Of course, Trump’s presidency has already been accused of consolidating totalitarian impulses. The question for Standing Rock, as for us all, is how his election will influence who will be expected to adopt risks, when others are not. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Election of Trump and the Constitution’s Original Sin

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

The immediate post-election normalization of the fascist white-nationalist klepto-capitalist president-elect Donald Trump has caused quite a bit of head-spinning among attentive observers of corporate news media over the past month. Progressive websites especially have noted repeatedly and with increasing distress that the meaning of this unexpected turn of events is that it signals a new form of an old tendency in American politics. The “new” part is an open embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism by the incoming administration. But there has been no focus on the incipient fascism at work here. Indeed, from the day after the election, commentators such as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” have declared that the term “fascism” should be retired, as it isn’t productive. The idea seems to be that if he is elected president, by definition he can’t be a fascist.

Joe Scarborough is productive.
Readers of the Contemporary Condition have been treated to Bonnie Honig’s brilliant reading of this normalization process in her “Trump’s Upside Down” on November 14th. (Indeed, as I have been writing this post, I heard yet another reporter on MSNBC refer to “the white nationalist community.”) And there is no doubt that other contributors to CC have been prescient in reading Trump and the fascism he practices from early on in his campaign. (See my “Degraded Fascism, Nihilism, and Donald Trump” and “The End of Boehner” from the fall of 2015, and Bill Connolly and Steve Johnston’s numerous posts over the stretch of this election, dating from 2015.) I have greedily read numerous essays on such blog sites as The Huffington Post and Salon seeking confirmation of the fascism underlying what I have been reading, watching and listening to since the election, trying to fight the gas-lighting of cable news networks, which keep insisting that there is nothing to see here.

There is something else that has been normalized in this post-election period, largely because of a relative silence concerning it, that deserves deeper attention than it has so far received. That is the fact that in almost any representative democracy’s electoral system, Trump would have lost, and the Republican Party’s Congressional and Senate majorities would have been won by the Democratic Party. It has been noted repeatedly that Hillary Clinton received over two million more votes than did Donald Trump (as of this writing, 2.53 million more votes). Less widely noted is that, for the fourth consecutive election, more voters chose Democratic candidates for Congress and Senate than they did Republicans. In the past, such an outcome, in itself, even without the disastrous candidate who benefited from it, would have been treated as the most important part of the electoral story. But it hasn’t this time.

What’s going on? We all realize that the permanent and unchanging structure of the US Senate guarantees equal representation for all states in the senior body of Congress (the only provision in the Constitution that is not changeable is the guarantee of the permanent existence of the Senate – see Article V) and the gerrymandering of House districts has made the climb for Democrats to electoral success extraordinarily steep. But throughout the campaign, one of the false narratives in the national political media – hello Chuck Todd -- was that the Democrats enjoyed an Electoral College “lock.” Unnoticed, or unnoted, was that there was a systematic voter suppression campaign going on that focused on precisely the key states that eventually went to Trump. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan all had in place effective voter registration laws restricting minority voting. This suppression was enabled by the Supreme Court, which because of continued unequal representation in elections, has been chosen predominately by Republican presidents over recent decades. In other words, the very structure of political representation in the United States is quasi-apartheid in character. But we aren’t supposed to say such rude things.

This is the fifth time in American history that the winner of the popular vote has been denied the Electoral College win. In those five elections, it was the generally the Right that won. The conservative but reform-minded Democratic governor of New York Samuel Tilden’s loss in the notorious election of 1876 was a pyrrhic victory for the Republicans, as it resulted in the devil’s bargain that ended Reconstruction, a huge win for the Right. And the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump can be seen as twin triumphs of right-wing minorities. In the election of 1824, John Quincy Adams defeated the populist Andrew Jackson, though he lost the popular vote by what still is the largest percentage in American history, thus leading to the founding of the modern Democratic party. The election of William Henry Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888 could be interpreted as the right winning over the left, though the issues in that election didn’t line up in a sense we would recognize contemporarily.

What does this brief excursus through electoral history suggest for us? In two of the past five elections -- though if one squints closely at the returns from Ohio in 2004, one might conclude that John Kerry was robbed of the electoral votes of that state, and could have become a minority Democratic president had electoral college justice prevailed – right-wing minorities have taken power against the wishes of those who cast the most votes, and did so against them. (Relevant details.) 

Most commentators, when criticizing the Electoral College, note two things – first, that by the Constitution’s use of the formula “number of representatives based on population plus two Senators in each state” there is a distortive effect which results in small states attaining inordinate power, compared to larger states (for example). Others note that since almost all states have adopted the winner-take-all formula, resulting in every electoral college vote going to the person who gets the most votes, large majorities in states such as New York and California, on the Democratic side, and Texas, for instance, on the Republican side, don’t have the same representative power that tiny majorities in swing states have.
"This map shows each state re-sized in proportion to the relative influence of the individual voters who live there. The numbers indicate the total delegates to the Electoral College from each state, and how many eligible voters a single delegate from each state represents." (source)
But for all of the discussion of the distortive effects of the Electoral College, none of our talking heads or even “responsible journalists,” go back to the origins of its existence, or if they do so, they deflect, that is, they don’t go into the sordid roots of the compromise that led to this system of representation. For instance, in the November 21, 2016 issue of the NY Times, “The Upshot” notes “the rural vote’s disproportionate slice of power,” that is a consequence of the Electoral College, but goes on to discuss Thomas Jefferson’s (highly romanticized) vision of yeoman farmers.

While commentators seem compelled to revert to the most innocuous narrative of what was an often savagely fought debate, the heart of the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise of 1787 as it came to be called, which led to the establishment of the Senate and the Electoral College, had to do far less with the elevation of yeoman farmers and much more to do with the brute political influence of the slaveholding delegations of the Southern states at the constitutional convention. Contemporary discussions of the question of this compromise largely focus on the difference between large states and small states and their suspicions of each other – and since Virginia was a large state, and North and South Carolina, for instance, while smaller states, were predicted at the time to be likely to grow to be large – the decision to create a Senate has been seen as a way of protecting small states’ sovereignty from being overwhelmed by the populations of the larger states.

But there were two sorts of large states in play. One sort was slave-holding, the other was not. Simply put, without the Connecticut Compromise, the southern states were planning to walk away from the convention, which would have led to the dissolution of the United States. The major part of the Connecticut Compromise, aside from the creation of the Senate, was the notorious 3/5ths compromise concerning how slaves were to be counted, which was to determine the population of states for purposes of representation using the “all other persons” clause. Hence the Constitution actually was making those Southern slaveholding states large for purposes of the census, expanding the power of whites on the very bodies of black slaves. Eventually, once cotton took hold as a major crop, this compromise would result in states like Mississippi and Louisiana practically doubling their representation on the basis of their slave population.

This electoral system once more has served the right -- as it (almost) always has, given its systemic bias -- and just when we democrats think we may have overcome its most pernicious effects, it comes back and bites us in the ass. Following his election even the ignoramus Trump suggested on Twitter that some sort of reform of the Electoral College to reflect the will of the majority might be in order. Of course, he advocated this until someone – Kelly Anne Conway? -- must have whispered in his ear that he won precisely because the Electoral College doesn’t reflect that will. So he reversed course, on Twitter again praising the genius of what he had called throughout the campaign a “rigged system.” It is no accident that “post-truth” was recently designated the word of the year for 2016.
This is the sordid compromise that has permanently haunted the Constitution of the United States, and the undemocratic system of representation that “we, the people” have been subjected to for over two centuries. It is rooted in the explicit and then the tacit acceptance of the hideous system of chattel slavery, and it has never succeeded in overcoming that original sin, operating as a drag on all attempts to attain simple justice. That is because the Constitution is, by design, unequal in its representational system. All of the Constitutional lawyers in the world can’t wash their hands of the stain of it. This constitution, effusively praised by its promoters, worshipped by so many as our secular religion, and apologized for by generations of lawyers over the course of two hundred some years, needs, more desperately than ever, to be scrapped.

Interestingly enough, the fact that the Republicans now control 33 states at this point puts them one state short of being able to call for a Constitutional convention. Perhaps they will, but it is not likely, given how well the current system suits their purposes. But this is the traditional blackmail of the Constitution. Those who dominate always get to threaten something worse. (The only time their bluff was called, there was a Civil War, and even a Civil War was a two steps forward, one step back sort of deal.) Accept this constitution, they seem to say, or we will replace it with something even worse. Accept this Constitution, or we will shoot this dog.